Pianist plays for KSU students

Nicole Hennessy

A small circle of jade hangs from her neck on a delicate gold chain.

The light of her eyes, which dance as she discusses the performance she will give in five hours, offsets her unexpressive face.

“It’s been a long time,” Tuyen Tonnu says, recalling her lifelong affair with the piano, which began when she was 5 years old. “To me, it’s always been a form of expression; a great comfort. I have a hard time, sometimes, expressing myself in words.”

An assistant piano professor at Illinois State University, Tonnu was this season’s first performer in Kent State’s keyboard series, which began yesterday afternoon at Ludwig Recital Hall in the Music and Speech Center.

A moment before her performance begins, the lights dim, prompting the audience to become silent.

The first piece of the evening, selections from Hans Otte’s “Book of Sounds,” “pulls the listener in and it calms me as a performer – it centers me,” Tonnu says. “(It is) very simple, but beautiful.”

Her long, thin, pale fingers rest on the keys before the first note seeps out of the piano as if awakening from a deep slumber. The piece becomes whimsical and spirited. Her fingers move faster and then, again, slower, alternating between these two states until the mind is swaying somewhere in between.

Her smooth, gold shirtsleeves rattle with the reverberations of the music.

A long pause before the page of Tonnu’s composition book turns precedes a combination of notes intertwining among each other, hauntingly, as if in a dream of a familiar place one has never been to. Progressively becoming more ominous, the melody lightens before losing its subtlety. It elapses slowly back to its resting state as the last hint of acoustic drains from the room.

The second and third pieces of the night, which Tonnu announces simultaneously, are Oliver Knussen’s “Prayer Bell Sketch,” and Olivier Messiaen’s “Noel.”

“It’s all about tempo and balance,” Tonnu says of “Prayer Bell Sketch.” “It is a slow piece, but very introspective.”

Starting quickly and unexpectedly, creating confusion, the melody creates a mood of darkness with beams of light shining through, never revealing the whole.

Her fingers slam down on the keys before allowing them to rest.

The music becomes furious, still, with a hint of lightness, which seems to serve as the backstory of the fury as Tonnu closes her composition book and removes her glasses.

In this piece, “you hear the sounds of the falling stars,” Tonnu says of “Noel.”

Ending the first half of the show, Frederic Chopin’s “Fantasie Op. 49 in F minor,” begins deep and slow, the sound coming from the bowels of the piano.

It quickly becomes hopeful and worry-free; a sound that allows the mind to sway before being grabbed again by the thick undercurrent of the lingering depth.

Tonnu’s whole body, now full with the piece, moves with it when the sound moves and pauses with it when the sound just barely trickles out of the piano before resting, again, in the dark drape of tenor.

Based on Goethe’s book “Faust,” this piece is what Tonnu describes as Faust in music.

“It is so well-written, it’s a 12-minute novel in itself,” she says.

After a short intermission, the lights dim once more and the whispers of the audience settle into the air.

Robert Schumann’s “Kreisleriana Op. 16,” the final piece of the evening, starts out complex, immediately, as if caught off-guard. Then, settling into the atmosphere, it floats carelessly, toward quick intensities, always coming back to a state of simplicity.

The unassuming last note lingers as Tonnu rises to bow twice.

“You become so sensitive, you feel like you become one with the music,” Tonnu says of performing. “You feel like you become one with the audience.”

Contact performing arts reporter Nicole Hennessy at [email protected].