A mesmerizing Melody: Visiting pianist impress Chatham audiences


Melody S. Quah performs her Recital of Homages on the piano on Friday, Jan. 20 in the Founder’s Room in the Laughlin Music Hall. Photo Credit: Josie Barton

Josie Barton

Known as a “poet with titanium fingers,” pianist Melody S. Quah performed a recital of homages at Chatham University in the Laughlin Music Hall on Friday, Jan. 20 at 4 p.m.

Born in Malaysia and having performed all over the world, Quah is an established pianist and assistant professor of piano at Pennsylvania State University. Quah wanted to visit Chatham for its “beautiful campus” and the “lovely piano recital series.”

Hidden within the Laughlin Music Hall on Chatham’s Shadyside Campus stands the Founder’s Room where music recitals take place. I swallowed my coffee and entered the room at around 3:40 p.m., 20 minutes before the recital was to begin. I took a seat at the back of the venue surrounded by a row of deteriorating encyclopedias. A bald man sat in front of me, his feet pressed together like an excited, impatient child.

A blanket of snow, Quah, and most of the small audience encapsulated my view. Large dripping chandeliers draped over the audience framed by antique wooden walls and a high white ceiling. The air outside was dry and wintry, the venue less stuffy and more cozy than I anticipated.

Somewhat reluctantly, Quah discussed her work with me after the recital. “They had mentioned that it was a very intimate space. Those are actually one of my favorite kinds of spaces to play in because you really get a sense that the audience is right there with you rather than you being so separated like on stage.”

Quah interrupted the hushed buzzing of the audience with Quah’s rendition of “Chaconne in D Minor (after Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2).” Quah’s famous fingers hammered the keys, causing the audience to flinch from the thunderous surprise. As I absorbed the tone, the mysterious harpsichord from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban crept into my mind.

Quah’s eyebrows quivered, knitting together as the pace wavered then slowed. I hesitantly expected to drift off from a piano lullaby, but Quah surprised me with her power. I could feel the music in my bones, the soles of my feet, the arms of my chair.

After a brief two-minute explanation about the music she was about to perform, Quah’s rendition of Adaline Wong’s playful and somewhat unorthodox “Crossings” electrified the audience as her hands fluttered up and down the keys. I felt myself melting with the music, entranced by its ever-changing notes and emotion. The sound seemed to bounce off the hollow wooden walls and bare ceiling.

Quah’s rendition of Tania León’s “Homentage,” a cultural reference and tribute to Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge, enchanted the listeners. My mind raced with the question, “how does she keep up?” I peered through a woman’s large black-rimmed circular glasses at Quah’s eyes lowering to the keys after milliseconds of memorizing the coming notes on the sheet music above. Respectful whispers escaped the listeners’ stunned mouths.

“You can feel more palpably the energy of the audience with you. That can be very inspiring especially when you’re playing something very quiet and intimate,” Quah added.

Fictional character Johannes Kreisler, created by fantasy and gothic horror writer E.T.A. Hoffman is illustrated in his novel and Robert Schumann’s composition “Kreisleriana, Op. 16.” Kreisler was representative of a “misunderstood musician,” his many facets of madness scaling up and down Quah’s piano keys. 

Spanning 30 minutes, the idyllic Kreisleriana entranced my body, seeming to pull me to and fro, swaying to the bass of the music, evoking memories of reading a lengthy thriller novel.

Pianist for 51 years and past performer in one of Chatham’s music department’s recitals Amy Simpson sat beside me. Simpson played Variation on ‘The People United Will Never be Defeated!’ by American composer Frederic Rzewski in 2022 at Chatham

“‘Kreisleriana’ happens to be one of my favorite pieces,” Simpson whispered to me.

Kreisler’s emotional articulations sent Quah climbing up the ladder of keys reaching an alluring shock then weighing into a romantic and velvety resolution.

Chatham’s musical series is holding “An Afternoon of Piano Fantasies” on Feb. 17, “A Musical Prayer” on March 17, and “Music from Costa Rica” on April 14 free to all Chatham students and faculty. All musicals are held at 4 p.m. in the James Laughlin Music Center.

Listen to Simpson’s recital here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBLy-H46vT8&t=6s