In Kevin Lau’s work, the smallest details are examined with microscopic precision. The Canadian pianist delicately shapes each musical phrase, each moment of harmonic color, while dedicating equal attention to establishing a cohesive sound that ties the piece into a whole.
Sometimes, he remains in his comfort zone. Other times, he relishes exploring something he’s never said before, at least not in his compositions. Most recently, he has done the latter, indulging in a sense of romanticism to capture the fundamental spirit of a known story. This weekend, the Toronto-based virtuoso, 35, will make his debut with Houston’s River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in the final performance of its thirteenth season, “Magical Inspirations,” premiering a new Disney-inspired trio based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale.” The intimate concert at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston also features Béla Bartók’s complex “Contrasts” and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s colorful “Much Ado About Nothing Suite” — a program requiring minimal instrumentation with Lau on the piano alongside clarinetist Nathan Williams and violinist Scott St. John.
“Scott (St. John) is a massive Disney fan. He’s just a child at heart,” Lau said of his Ontario-based colleague and mentor.
With great fondness for Disney’s work, St. John has always wanted to present a program involving its classic soundtracks, Lau said, but the practicalities of obtaining permission to arrange pieces from Disney’s canon of music is difficult. Their brainstorming, however, set Lau’s mind in motion.
‘ROCO Unchambered: Magical Inpsirations’ • When: 5 p.m. Sunday • Where:MATCH, 3400 S. Main • Details: $25; 713-665-2700, roco.org
When he came across Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale — one left untouched in the corporation’s rich history — he thought, “What if I wrote a piece of music to the fairy tale in the same way that Disney has appropriated some of the fairy tales like ‘The Snow Queen’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’ and so forth?’ ”
Set in ancient China, “The Nightingale” is rooted in a culture familiar to Lau, who is originally from Hong Kong. The story was relatable, but it also had a natural inclination toward music, he said. The plot revolves around the enchanting song of a nightingale — a melody that transfixes the emperor of China and a theme that Lau completed first.
“The moment I had the theme, I could navigate through the rest of the structure with a bit more ease,” he said. “It’s like finding the core identity of the piece, and then once you know what that is, the rest of it falls into place.”
Although Lau didn’t assign a specific role to each instrument, there were moments in which he took advantage of their temperaments. For example, when a bejeweled, artificial nightingale appears, the clarinet plays a lovely waltz over strong, percussive sounds of the violin, creating a parody of the original tune and perhaps alluding to the ominous nature of the mechanical bird, which threatens the livelihood of the living one.
Lawrence Elizabeth Knox is a writer in Houston.
Tickets to this Sunday’s performance, Magical Inspirations, could be purchased online via the MATCH website. Or in person at the box office at MATCH.