Player? Performer? Does it matter?

Gonzalo Rubalcaba

If one looks in a dictionary to discern the difference between the verbs "to play" and "to perform" the distinction is vague to the extent it may be interpreted to not even exist. However, and perhaps this is a peculiar peccadillo of mine, I believe there is one. That is to say that to "play" something is not quite the same thing as it is to "perform" it. Thus, in my own crowded mind, a "player" is not the same thing as a "performer." I journeyed down this mental dead-end somewhat involuntarily as I was watching and listening to Gonzalo Rubalcaba's solo recital at Herbst Theater on Saturday night. Rubalcaba can play- there is no doubt about that. Whether it was much of a performance is a determination largely in the eyes and ears of the beholder I suppose, and from where I was seated the show really wasn't much of one.

This has been a banner year in the Bay Area for seeing top-tier pianists in concert: Keith Jarrett, Yefim Bronfman, Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, Andras Schiff, Leif Ove Andsnes, Jeremy Denk, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Alexander Melnikov and Jean-Yves Thibaudet are just some of the artists who have appeared in recent months. Dr. John and Yuja Wang are coming to town this week. The presence of so many great players has raised the expectations bar pretty high for what constitutes real musical virtuosity and what make for a satisfying performance. Rubalcaba delivered the former, but the latter went missing. Without both, one must wonder about the value of the admission ticket.

Striding onstage of the Herbst Theater on Saturday night in an immaculate white suit looking every bit the suave Cubano, Rubalcaba sat down to the bench and playfully ruffled through some sheet music before beginning to play. He didn't say a word, preferring to acknowledge the audience with a warm smile and slight bow. He remained mute for the entire performance. The first two pieces of the set explored highly lyrical territory with dissonant interjections via a unexpected minor chords wisely placed. A promising beginning, to be sure, but as the set evolved, Rubalcaba moved away from these contrasts into more traditional territory, playing a number of standards without making breaking any new ground with them or offering much insight, though most were played with finesse and a consistent lyric flavor offering no hint of his Cuban heritage and little of his classical training. Perhaps this is his musical metier, but the set failed to gather momentum, and after an hour and a half, with one encore, it was over. I had the odd sensation of leaving the performance without having any musical insight or impression of who this artist is or what he wants to convey to an audience. It was akin to watching a musician (a well-dressed one, certainly) rehearse, ignorant of the presence of an audience in the room, except while that scenario sounds like it may be revelatory, this performance wasn't. After that promising beginning, the set did little more than meander to its conclusion.

Perhaps the oddness was also felt by other members of the audience- I have never seen an SFJazz audience move about so much between numbers and there were a number of walk-outs. There was also an adulatory standing ovation at the show's conclusion, which frankly puzzled me. A set list was not made available.