Classical Smackdown: Debussy versus Prokofiev in New Paltz

Claude Debussy, 1908 (Nadar); and Sergei Prokofiev, 1918 (Library of Congress)

Claude Debussy, 1908 (Nadar); and Sergei Prokofiev, 1918 (Library of Congress)

Pianist Frederic Chiu’s “Classical Smackdown” concerts – Web-enabled, crowd-judged competitions between two composers – would seem to be a somewhat transparent Hail Mary, a gimmicky and placative attempt to de-fust the concert-music culture for the comfort of new audiences, were it not just one small part of Chiu’s career-spanning legacy of crossovers, deviations and friendly negotiations with pop culture, new science and the occult. Chiu is about as decorated a classical pianist as we have; he is sometimes referred to as the “non-winner” of the 1993 Van Cliburn competition because his elimination from the finals caused such an uproar. And yet his iconoclastic impulses and synthetic tendencies, his excursions outside the narrow, guarded kingdom of serious music, have been part of his story since the beginning.

Frederic Chiu (photo by Chris Craymer)

Frederic Chiu (photo by Chris Craymer)

Chiu’s playing and his somewhat revolutionary cultural agenda spring from a diverse set of experiences and interests: his Asian/American/European background, his musical training, a lifelong and ongoing exploration of artificial intelligence and human psychology. He has yo-yoed every bit as much as Yo-Yo outside of the serious music world, bringing new repertoire and new talents back in upon his return. He recently premiered Edgar Meyer’s Concert Piece with Joshua Bell and has worked with many modern composers, including George Crumb, Frederic Rzewsky, Bright Sheng, Gao Ping and David Benoit.


He collaborated with personalities outside the world of music, such as the Shakespearean actor Brian Bedford and psychologist/writer/clown Howard Buten. He worked with the hip-hop artist Socalled in the Messiaen Remix project. He does extensive work with children through concert/lectures for schools, and has brought classical music to places where it is rarely heard. Currently, he is performing with David Gonzalez in the classics Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of the Animals, transcribed for solo piano and narrator. He is also running the multiyear Classical Smackdown project, which, in addition to the Debussy/Prokofiev contest, has also featured a Bach-versus-Philip Glass match.

Spoiler alert: Chiu’s ongoing Prokofiev-versus-Debussy Smackdown is producing what are, to me, surprising results. Just as Coltrane is often cited as a supreme and dominating visionary by people who have never heard of Cannonball Adderley, or as Shakespeare is dutifully accepted as an historical breakout genius by people to whom Ben Jonson is only a disgraced Canadian track star, so is Claude Debussy often regarded as a singularity and a safe zone, a timeless poet of sound, by those who aren’t necessarily interested in understanding his place in the tradition, who haven’t heard much of the proto-Impressionist Gabriel Fauré and to whom Maurice Ravel is little more than one intriguing melody played over and over…and over. And that’s fine; Impressionism’s rock star really is your best pure source of those distinctive, emotionally transportive colors; and it is totally okay to dig Debussy, or just say you do and not worry your head about any of the rest if you like.

But head-to-head, in the hands of this ultra-capable and provocative pianist, Sergei Prokofiev (Peter and the Wolf, the ballet Romeo and Juliet), is dominating, cleaning the floor with Claude. Audiences who might feel an extramusical pressure to prefer the hip fin de siècle Frenchman are siding overwhelmingly with the complicated, Soviet-era Russian whose oeuvre includes some of the most accessible and populist music of his age, as well as some of its most astringently difficult and dissonant, as well as a little formal Music of the State written under the threat of unspeakable fates. It’s a nice example of hipster assumptions getting wiped out in clinical testing.

And that may be Chiu’s point, ultimately. Of course it is a not a real competition between dead white dudes, and of course it pays to understand that without Debussy’s innovations, there would be no Prokofiev as we know him. Chiu uses the ruse of the Smackdown to clear the air – or rather the ears – of a lot of assumptions, including those of reputation and the standard critical line. I am not sure what Chiu thinks of the longtime health of serious concert music and whether he conceives of the Smackdown series as a palatable overture to unlikely new audiences, like Nu Christian death metal or something. But the more I think about it, the more I am quite sure that Chiu’s design – here and throughout his courageous and imperturbable career – is to get a lot of ingrained voices of authority out of our heads so that the actual experience of the music, freed from its centuries of cultural associations, might really get in.

Frederic Chiu brings the Debussy-versus-Prokofiev Classical Smackdown to the McKenna Theatre at SUNY-New Paltz on Tuesday, February 3 at 8 p.m. The price of admission is a decidedly populist $8 general admission, $6 for seniors and New Paltz faculty/staff and $3 for students. For more on Chiu’s project, visit


Classical Smackdown with Frederic Chiu, Tuesday, February 3, 8 p.m., $8/$6/$3, McKenna Theatre, SUNY-New Paltz, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz; www.


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