Festival Chamber Music in Review

Festival Chamber Music in Review
David Oei, Heléne Jeanney, piano, Eriko Sato, violin, Calvin Wiersma, viola, Ruth Sommers, cello/director, Frank Morelli, bassoon
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
May 12, 2011

Festival Chamber Music has been presenting five annual chamber music programs in New York for 18 season; it has become a pillar of the city’s musical life. The rotating members are all top-flight freelance musicians, busy as soloists, orchestra players and teachers; the group has built up a large, loyal following, which always fills the hall to overflowing.

For their final concert of the 2010-2011 season, the players had selected familiar favorites by Mozart and Brahms, and an unfamiliar novelty: a Quartet for Bassoon and Strings by Bernard Garfield, a name well-known only to listeners of “a certain age.”  Born in 1924, he was one of the most famous and esteemed bassoonists of the mid- and late 19-hundreds: founder of the New York Woodwind Quintet in 1946; principal bassoonist of the New York Little Orchestra Society and the New York City Ballet from 1949 to 1957; principal bassoonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1957 to 2000. He has written numerous chamber music works featuring his instrument; the Quartet on this program dated from about 50 years ago and seemed most strongly influenced by Béla Bartók. Naturally written very idiomatically for the bassoon, it is a real bravura piece, vividly illustrating both its serious and its humorous characteristics. The slow middle movement sang in long melodic lines; the two corner movements, “Allegro con spirito” and “Allegro scherzando” were indeed full of spirit and drollery. Frank Morelli played the virtuoso bassoon part brilliantly and with great aplomb, no mean feat with the composer sitting in the first row. At 87, Garfield has the spryness of a man half his age; he had come to New York from Philadelphia, where he still lives, to hear his piece and bask in its enthusiastic reception. During Intermission, he struck up animated conversations with other members of the audience, who, having recognized his name from his years on the stage, were inquiring whether he was really the same person? “Yes,” he answered, grinning,” I’m Bernie.” The string players partnered Morelli splendidly, with obvious admiration for his virtuosity and enjoyment of the music.

The program opened with Mozart’s Sonata in F major K.497 for Piano Four Hands, played with unanimity, elegance and style by Heléne Jeanney on the upper and David Oei on the lower part. It closed with Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, played by Eriko Sato, Calvin Wiersma, Ruth Sommers, and David Oei. They brought out the ardor of the first movement, the wistfulness of the Intermezzo, the warmth of the Andante, and the gypsy abandon of the Rondo alla Zingarese, making it a rousing finale to the concert and the season. The group’s concerts for next season are already set: October 26, December 8, 2011, February 9, March 29, May 12, 2012.

The Winners of the Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition in Review

 The Winners of the Bradshaw & Buono
International Piano Competition
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
May 22, 2011

Katarzyna Musial, Pianist

Founded seven years ago, the Bradshaw & Buono Competition, administered by Cosmo Buono, Artistic Director, and Barry Alexander, Executive Director, is dedicated to discovering a new generation of highly talented classical musicians, and to helping them establish and sustain a career. Auditions are held annually; the contestants come from all over the world. The winners, divided into age groups from Elementary, Middle and High School to College and Adult Amateur, are presented in recital at prestigious concert halls.

It required two concerts to accommodate the 25 first prize winners of the 2011 Competition. Of the eleven who performed at the second one, the youngest was eight years old. Their selections ranged from Beethoven to Scriabin, Liszt and Ginastera, naturally chosen to display primarily their virtuosity and power. This added up to more fast, loud music than one would be likely to hear at a conventional recital program, inducing a sense of gratitude in the listener for every slow, soft, lyrical piece. (The slow movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 111 was a real surprise.)

One of the program’s highlights for contrast was the group presented by Katarzyna Musial. Born in Poland, now living in Canada, Ms. Musial holds degrees from the University of Cracow, the Vancouver Academy of Music, and Montreal’s Concordia University. She has won prizes in the Penderecki International Competition (Cracow), the Kay Meek Competition (Vancouver), the Alban Berg Prize for outstanding merit (Vienna), and the Philip Cohen Award for outstanding performance musicianship (Montreal). At this concert, she performed two Preludes by Olivier Messiaen: “The Dove,” and “A Reflection in the Wind,” the first a gently murmurous, impressionistically shimmering piece, the second a stormy, turbulent one, and three Argentinian Dances, Op. 2, by Alberto Ginastera:”Dance of the Old Herdsman,” “Dance of the Beautiful Maiden,” and “Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy.” As the titles indicate, the first was sturdy and assertive, the second melodious and caressing, and the third wildly virtuosic, with cascading runs, heavy chords, and glissandi all over the keyboard. Ms. Musial met all these challenges head-on. Her technique is brilliant, her tone beautiful, sonorous but never harsh, with a great variety of touch, color and nuance. She had made the idiomatic rhythms and inflections of the Dances completely her own, and projected both fiery temperament and songful lyricism.

Samuel Magill, cellist in Review

Samuel Magill, cellist in Review
Beth Levin, piano
Bruno Walter Auditorium
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
May 7, 2011

Samuel Magill

Samuel Magill is a very fine cellist. His technique is solid and disciplined, his tone warm, sonorous and variable, his expressive projection direct and immediate. Trained at the Peabody Institute and Shepherd School of Music, his teachers included Zara Nelsova, Laurence Lesser and Irving Klein. A longtime member of New York’s great Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Mr. Magill has been Principal Cellist of the New York Symphonic Ensemble, which featured him as soloist in many famous concertos; his Trio, the Elysian, won the 1997 Artist International Award. Mr. Magill has numerous critically acclaimed CDs to his credit, including the first recording of the Cello Concerto by Vernon Duke (Vladimir Dukelsky). His annual recitals at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, begun in 1994, always present a first performance and an unjustly neglected work of the 19th or early 20th centuries.

Mr. Magill’s excellent pianist at this concert was Beth Levin, renowned on stage and disc as recitalist, concerto soloist, chamber musician, and champion of contemporary composers. She made her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra aged twelve and soon afterwards began to study with Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute. Her subsequent teachers include Leonard Shure and Dorothy Taubman.

The program’s novelty was the world premiere of a new Sonata by Andrew Rudin (b.1939). A student of George Rochberg, he is renowned for his works for the stage and also as a pioneer in electronic and synthesizer music. He has taught at the Juilliard Graduate School, and for 37 years at the Philadelphia Music Academy. He retired in 2001, but continues to compose; the cello sonata was written last summer.

The work is very dramatic and seems to project an air of anguish and loss. The titles of its four movements vividly describe their emotional content: “Proclamation” begins with crashing piano chords answered by the cello; in “Rparteé” and “Discourse,” the instruments engage in agitated or conciliatory conversation, and “Consolation” is a mournful, resigned lament. Entering fully into these contrasting moods, the players gave an authoritative, moving performance, which was warmly received by the audience. The composer was present to share the applause.

The program’s rarity was the Cello Sonata in B minor Op. 27 by the French organist and composer Louis Vierne (1870-1937). A student of Charles Widor, he took over his mentor’s post as organist of Notre Dame Cathedral, and is remembered today chiefly for his organ symphonies and orchestral works. He must have possessed remarkable fortitude: born blind, he regained some sight as a child but lost it again in adulthood, and wrote his late compositions in Braille. He died, as he had wished, while playing the organ. The Cello Sonata is in three movements. A stately Introduction leads to an Allegro moderato; the middle movement is slow and expansive, the Finale fast and brilliant. Influenced by Cesar Franck’s style, the work is very lush and romantic; the players luxuriated in the sound, but kept the expressiveness from becoming sentimental.

The program also featured Beethoven’s Sonata in D major, Op. 102, No. 2, and Debussy’s Sonata in D minor. Playing with complete technical command, sensitive give-and take, and an unerring sense of style, the performers brought out the Debussy’s impressionistic color and whimsical humor, and the Beethoven’s classical austerity; even the counterpoint in the thorny Fugue came through clearly.

Texas Tech University School of Music and Manhattan Concert Productions in Review

Texas Tech University School of Music and Manhattan Concert Productions
Present From Lubbock to Carnegie Hall
Featuring the winners
Elizabeth Hott, soprano, Meg Griffith, flute
Bill Waterman, tuba, Ji Yang, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
April 16, 2011

Meg Griffith

If these four young musicians, selected by audition from the 500 music majors of Texas Tech University, are representative of its graduate students, the University can be proud of its Music School and the talent it attracts. Each performer presented a group of contrasting works, and all were daring enough to begin with a dazzling bravura piece.  

Meg Griffith is an excellent flutist, winner of numerous honors and awards for her performances of Baroque and contemporary music, including first prize of the Chicago Flute Club National Chamber Competition and the Concerto Competition at Texas Tech. She is coordinator and assistant program chair of the National Flute Association’s 2011 Convention, and is currently a doctoral student as teaching assistant under Dr. Lisa Garner Santa at Texas Tech; her former teachers include Dr. Mary Karen Clardy, Prof. John Heiss, and Dr. Lee Lattimore. Partnered by pianist Lora Deahl (a faculty member), Ms. Griffith performed three works by composers from different countries and generations, all characteristic of their creators’ styles. The Scherzo for flute and piano by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) was fleet and brilliant; written mostly in Martinu’s favorite stratospheric register, it sparkled with sunlit cheer. Playing at breakneck speed, Ms. Griffith combined  easy facility with total control. Morceau de Concours by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) radiated calm serenity and impressionist colors, giving Ms. Griffith a fine opportunity to exhibit her    beautiful, singing tone. In the Sonata Op. 23 by Lowell Liebermann (b.1961), she captured and brought out the contrasts between the slow, flexible first and the fast, vigorous second movements.  

Elizabeth Hott, with pianist Regina Shea, displayed a powerful coloratura soprano and much charm in a brilliant aria from a Rossini opera, and the “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s “Faust.” They flanked “The Wind,” by Samuel Adler (b. 1928), and two mournful, lyrical Schumann songs on Goethe poems (better known in Schubert’s settings). Ms. Hott sang all these works in the original languages.   

Playing with a pure, mellow tone and astonishing agility, Bill Waterman made a strong case for the tuba as a solo instrument. In Encounters II for solo tuba by William Kraft (b. 1923), the tuba’s lowest and highest registers engaged in a spirited exchange. Pianist Susan Wass joined Mr. Waterman for the bleak, gloomy slow movement of the Tuba Concerto “War and the Rumors of War” by Barbara York (b. 1949), and Walter Hilgers’ arrangement of that popular violin showpiece, Monti’s Czardas.  Ill-suited to the tuba, it inevitably lacked the lightness of the original, despite Mr. Waterman’s virtuosity.  

 Pianist Ji Yang, a teaching assistant at the University, performed Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles Op. 29, and the Toccata Op. 155 by York Bowen (1884-1961). Played to the hilt for bravura and powerful sonorities, they made an enormously  effective ending.  

Today, it is quite customary to play from the score, especially in new music, but performers should be aware that, if they place their music stands directly in front of them, the audience cannot see them and some of their sound is cut off.  

The printed program gave no information about the accompanists, who were excellent and deserved more credit.

2010-2011 Concert Season

Tokyo String Quartet (Martin Beaver, Kikuei Ikeda, violins, Kazuhide Isomura, viola, Clive Greensmith, cello)
92nd Street Y; New York, NY
October 30, 2010
With pianist Juho Pohjonen
January 22, 2011
With pianist Aleksandar Madzar
March 5, 2011
With pianist Robert Levin
Orion String Quartet (Daniel and Todd Phillips, violins, Steven Tenenbom, viola, Timothy Eddy, cello)
February 24, 2011
Mannes College of Music; New York, NY

This season, “late” Beethoven has been a strong presence on New York’s concert scene, and notable performances of his last string quartets were given by two of today’s most acclaimed chamber groups: the Tokyo and Orion String Quartets. Both have lived with these works throughout their careers, and, in these performances, again brought to them the consummate tonal, musical and ensemble perfection born of years of study and world-wide performances. Among the Tokyo’s New York appearances was a six-concert cycle to benefit the AIDS epidemic; the Orion presented a similar series to the City as a free gift to celebrate the new Millennium.

The Tokyo is performing the complete Beethoven cycle over four years at the 92nd Street Y, where it is Ensemble-in-Residence, devoting each season to one “period” of his works; this is the final year. For this series, the players are adding a new element to the programs: they are combining the quartets with important keyboard compositions of the same period to give audiences a wider perspective of Beethoven’s work. Their four guest pianists represent different nationalities, generations and styles, and include two extraordinarily talented young newcomers: Juho Pohjonen from Finland in his 92nd Street Y debut in the first concert, and Aleksndar Madzar from Belgrade in his New York debut in the second. Pohjonen, a multiple international prize-winner, chose an unusual calling card: Beethoven’s final set of Bagatelles, Op. 126. These six perfect miniatures look deceptively simple and are not outwardly effective, but require utmost control, sensitivity and subtlety. With remarkable concentration, flexibility, color and nuance, Pohjonen brought out their contrasting character, from dreamy ambiguity to fiery assertiveness, leaving an impression of superior pianism and communicative power.

Madza’s international career was launched when he won the 1996 Leeds Piano Competition. A fine pianist with a splendid but unobtrusive technique, his unfailingly beautiful, singing tone and distinctive lyrical gifts found full expression in the Sonatas Op. 109 and 110, and he handled the mood and tempo changes admirably.

In the third concert, the renowned American pianist, fortepianist and scholar Robert Levin played the Piano Sonata Op. 101 with his customary clarity and nobility; the Quartet’s cellist, Clive Greensmith, joined him for a lovely, expressive performance of the Cello Sonata Op. 102, No. 1.

The Tokyo performed the Quartet Op. 130 with the original Finale, the thorny, daunting “Great Fugue,” and the Quartets Op. 127, 132, and 135. They will close the series with Op. 131 in the fourth concert on May 7; their guest will be the brilliant young Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein in Beethoven’s last Sonata, Op. 111, and the Bagatelles Op 119.

The Orion Quartet is Ensemble-in-Residence at the Mannes College of Music, where it presents an annual concert series. Its most recent program featured Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 131, and Brahms’ Op. 51 No. 2, to show how Brahms continued Beethoven’s legacy and where he diverged from it. However, these two works revealed a sort of inverse legacy: Beethoven’s free, continuous seven-movement structure seemed far more innovative than Brahms’ traditional four movements.

The performance, as always, was distinguished by its technical and ensemble perfection, its tonal and rhythmic balance, its control, spontaneity, and its deeply felt expressiveness.

Both halls were filled to the rafters and the ovations would not stop.

So-Ock Kim, Violinist in Review

So-Ock Kim, Violinist in Review
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
Presented by the Korea Music Foundaton
March 17, 2011


Any violinist who chooses a program of unaccompanied music for a New York debut must be not only a consummate player and musician, but also possess extraordinary courage and self-confidence. So-Ock Kim has all these qualities in abundance; this recital was one of the most remarkable in recent memory.

Born in Korea in 1982, Ms. Kim moved to London at the age of  three. She became the youngest Gold Medalist of the Shell/LSO Competition at 15, and at 19 was selected for the Young Artists Concert Trust. Her worldwide performances in recital, with major orchestras and at important festivals were often broadcast on radio and television. Keenly interested in contemporary music, Ms. Kim has presented and recorded several world premieres of new works.

Ms. Kim’s program featured some of the most difficult unaccompanied works in the literature: the Chaconne from Bach’s D minor Partita, Bartók’s formidable Sonata, and Nos. 2, 3 and 4 of Ysaÿe’s six sonatas Op. 27, written by the greatest virtuoso of his time and dedicated to his violinist friends. Ms. Kim, a slender, delicate-looking young woman, performed these powerful, dramatic works (all in minor keys) triumphantly and without a hint of fatigue. She even had enough stamina for a brilliant encore: Francisco Tarrega’s “Recuerdo de la Alhambra.”

In the Bartók, she not only handled the instrumental challenges – double stops, chords, jumps, harmonics – with ease and security; she gave each movement its own character and also brought out both the work’s baroque and folk elements with admirable feeling for the Hungarian idiom. The Ysaye Sonatas pay homage to their dedicatees by emulating their own styles: Jacques Thibaud in No.2, Fritz Kreisler in No.3, and Mathieu Crickboom in No 4. They exploit but also expand the technical and tonal resources of the violin, and demand the kind of virtuosity that combines reckless abandon with total control. Ms. Kim took all their hurdles in stride and displayed remarkable stylistic versatility.

No program of unaccompanied violin music would be complete without Bach, but Ms. Kim’s performance of the Chaconne seemed dutiful rather than spontaneous, indicating that the baroque is not her most natural habitat. She tried to recreate the style solely by playing without vibrato; she made little attempt to bring out the voice leading, either in the chords or the melodic lines; she tended to change tempo arbitrarily and overemphasized the phrasing. However, her technical playing was no less excellent than it was throughout the rest of the recital: in perfect command of fingers and bow, flawless in intonation, pure and beautiful in sound.

Dieter Flury, flute and Maria Prinz, piano in Review

Dieter Flury, flute
Maria Prinz, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
February 12, 2011

Dieter Flury and Maria Prinz; Photo Credit: Johannes Ifkovits

In this program, entitled “Viennese Classics for Flute and Piano,” Bulgarian pianist Maria Prinz and Swiss flutist Dieter Flury proved that you do not have to be born in Vienna to love its musical traditions. In her program notes, Ms. Prinz wrote that having lived and worked in the city of musical dreams for 25 years as “foreigners” has given them enough familiarity with, and enough distance from, the style to balance emotional involvement with objectivity.

 Mr. Flur, in addition to appearing with other leading orchestras, has been solo flutist of the Vienna Philharmonic since 1981; Ms. Prinz, besides enjoying a successful solo career, has taught at Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts since 1987. The high expectations raised by these credentials were not disappointed. Both players proved to be complete masters of their instruments; Mr. Flury played on a golden flute whose radiance was matched by its warm, round, shimmering tone; Ms. Prinz was an exemplary collaborator, leading and supporting with equal sensitivity and, with the piano on the small stick, never too loud. The only flaw in their performance was their penchant for exaggerated phrasing and overuse of dynamic contrast, as if they trusted neither the music nor their own expressive playing to speak directly to the audience.

The first hint of these tendencies came in the program’s opening work: Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat major, K. 378, originally for violin and piano. Every repeated figure turned into an echo, and in the first movement, Mr. Flury fell prey to the problem of dealing with the transition from the first to the second theme, making a huge ritardando where a slight hesitation would be more effective;. The Sonata works well on the flute, especially the bright Finale, and Mr. Flury also captured the expressive intensity of the passages in the darker register.

 The concert included two unfamiliar works by Beethoven: a set of Variations, Op. 107 No. 7, and a Sonata in B–flat major without opus number. The variations bear the unusual title “For piano with the accompaniment of a flute,” but in fact the instruments act as equal partners. The Theme is a melancholy Ukranian folksong that was also used by Hummel in his Trio for flute, cello and piano. Doubts have been raised about the authenticity of the Sonata, and, indeed, while some of its themes and their development could well belong to his early period, others seem to point to less distinguished authorship.

Haydn’s Sonata for flute and piano No. 8 in G major is a transcription of a transcription: its original source is Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 77, No. 1; Haydn himself arranged it for violin and piano, omitting the Minuet and Trio. In the flute version, Mr. Flury simply played the violin part, and, since the piece is sunny and high-spirited, the transformation was very successful.

The program closed with that popular staple of the flute repertoire, Schubert’s Introduction and Variations on his own song, “Trock’ne Blumen” from the cycle “Die schoene Muellerin,” D.802.  Written at a time late in his life when he was experimenting with combining intimate chamber music with technical fireworks, it demands a lot of virtuosity from both performers; it concludes with a jaunty March, but, being based on a slow, mournful song in a minor mode, its lyrical, singing element predominates. The highlight is a variation in major whose beauty and simplicity stop the heart. The two players’ deeply expressive performance left no doubt of their love for the music. Though they displayed plenty of brilliance when appropriate, even the bravura variations never became mere showpieces. In response to the sell-out audience’s enthusiasm, they played an encore: Mozart’s lovely C major Andante, announced by Mr. Flury as “Maria’s favorite.”

Festival Chamber Music in Review

 Festival Chamber Music in Review
 Ayako Oshima, clarinet
David Jolley, horn
Yuri Funahashi, piano
Calvin Wiersma, violin
Theodore Arm, violin/viola
Ruth Sommers, cello/director
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
February 2, 2011

 Festival Chamber Music is a rotating group of enterprising top-notch New York musicians. They like to take time out from their busy lives as performers and teachers to present new and unfamiliar works in a variety of instrumental combinations, as well as staples of the standard repertoire. Founded in 1988 by its director, cellist Ruth Sommers, in Dobbs Ferry, the group moved in 1992 to New York City, where it performs an annual series of five concerts to sell-out audiences.

Its most recent program was of particular interest. It featured Beethoven’s popular Piano Quartet, Op. 16 in E-flat major in an excellent performance, and works by two virtually unknown Czech composers: the Quintet for piano, violin, cello , clarinet and horn, Op. 42 by Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900), written in 1893, and the String Trio by Gideon Klein (l9l9-l045), one of the so-called Holocaust composers, written in 1944. Fibich, though born in Prague, did not follow in the footsteps of his compatriots Smetana and Dvorak, the fathers of the Czech nationalist movement; rather, his music–though never openly derivative–is steeped in the Romantic German tradition. In the Quintet, Fibich’s compositional skill shows in his modulations (which use a lot of deceptive cadences), and in his ability to exploit and combine the instruments’ colors and timbres to best effect. The first and last of the Quintet’s four movements are in sonata form; the Scherzo, marked “with wild humor,” foreshadows Shostakovich in its acerbic sarcasm, but this is relieved by two cheerful Trios, a waltz and a polka. A solo piano passage leads back to the da capos. The Quintet’s centerpiece is the slow movement, a truly beautiful, long-breathing melody, stated first by the piano in solid and arpeggiated chords, then repeated with a florid violin obbligato. The work’s most pervasive characteristics are its democratic distribution of the solos, its unabashed romanticism, and its surging, soaring melodies; but the heart-on-sleeve quality of the music is so genuine that sentiment never lapses into sentimentality.

Gideon Klein already had several compositions to his credit when he was sent to Terezin in 1941. At 20, he must have been one of the youngest of the composers who perished in the Nazi death-camps, and, if this String Trio is any indication, also one of the most talented. A brilliant pianist, his ability to use the string instruments’ resources was remarkable. Though naturally still under the influence of contemporary stylistic trends, the Trio displays a personal voice and an astoundingly mature emotional range. Its three movements are all based on Moravian folksongs. The first and last are fast, skittish, jumpy, abrasive, and dissonant, often punctuated with Slavic and Hungarian off-beat rhythms; the last one ends in a Bartokian dance and a crash. The Trio’s core is the much longer, slow, middle movement: a set of variations of contrasting tempos, textures and characters that encompass defiance, grief and despair, leaving the listener shaken and heart-broken. Klein became one of Terezin’s heroes, organizing its musical and cultural activities. The Trio was written nine days before Klein’s deportation to Auschwitz; he died there a year later.

Heard at two rehearsals, the playing of this demanding program was excellent. Pianist Funahashi alternated imperceptibly between leading and supporting, always sensitive, never too loud; hornist Jolley and clarinetist Oshima were outstanding in their prominent roles. The Quintet had an almost orchestral sonority at times. The string players negotiated their often stratospheric parts with aplomb; cellist Sommers provided a firm foundation, violinist Wiersma was a strong leader in the Beethoven and Klein; Arm, doubling on violin and viola, had the courage to play the bigger instrument first, but kept his intonation intact – no mean feat.

These fine, adventuresome musicians deserve our admiration and gratitude for bringing these unjustly neglected works to our attention in such committed, persuasive performances.

Hlif Sigurjonsdottir, Violinist in Review

 Hlif Sigurjonsdottir, Violinist in Review
Merkin Concert Hall, New York NY
January 15, 2011

Hlíf Sigurjóns

Violinist Hlif Sigurjonsdottir was born in Copenhagen and grew up in Iceland, where she began her musical studies at an early age. Going on to work with many eminent musicians in Europe, Canada and the United States, she credits her first teacher, Bjorn Olafsson, concertmaster of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and her last teacher, Gerald Beale of New York, with inspiring her to make a specialty of Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas, and with leaving a strong mark on her approach to them. At this concert, she performed the Sonatas No. 2 and 3 and the Partita No. 1, completing the cycle begun earlier in New York. She has also released a double CD of all six works.

Ms. Sigurjonsdottir’s Bach was a mixture of many styles, part baroque, part contemporary, part oriented to violinistic comfort and effect. Playing on a modern violin by Christophe Landon and with bows by Landon and Isaac Salchow, she produced a very small tone that never varied in color or intensity and only rarely in volume. Her intonation was excellent except in the high positions; her bowing technique was light and flexible, but she broke all chords upward, regardless of where the melody lay. She made no attempt to use the four strings of the violin to bring out Bach’s voice-leading, changing strings and positions for greatest technical convenience rather than contrapuntal clarity. Perhaps the performance’s most serious shortcoming was a lack of variety; there was hardly any difference of character or expression among these three very diverse works or their highly contrasting movements.

Today, the practice of performing from memory is ubiquitous, but, from a music-historical viewpoint, it is comparatively recent. (Toscanini, whose vision was very poor, introduced it to conducting with the dictum “Better to have the score in your head than your head in the score.”) Many soloists claim that not looking at the music is liberating, but it can also have the opposite effect. (Clifford Curzon, the great English pianist, decided to use the score for the Mozart concertos when he realized that many passages were so similar that he sometimes found himself playing the wrong one.) Bach’s works for solo violin are treacherous to memorize, and Ms. Sigurjonsdottir was ill-advised to attempt it. She got lost in the First Partita, but adroitly covered it up by going back to the beginning of the movement; finally, though, she had to have a stand and the music brought to the stage. In the formidable Fugue of the Third Sonata, however, her memory slip caused chaos: two stands were required to accommodate the music, which consisted of many single sheets so mixed up that a volunteer had to come to the stage from the audience to help put them in order and stay to act as page-turner. This added a charming touch of informality to the concert, but disrupted the Sonata. However, the rest of the performance was so much more confident and secure that one wished Ms. Sigurjonsdottir had used the score from the beginning.

The program included the premiere of the Prelude from a five-movement sonata written for her by Merrill Clark, entitled “The Sorceress.” A lively, propulsive piece, it is based on a repetitive figure of a major second using a drone-like open string.  The composer was present to share the applause.

Live from Lincoln Center/New York Philharmonic in Review

Live from Lincoln Center/New York Philharmonic in Review
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Lang Lang, piano
New Year’s Eve Concert; December 31, 2010
Avery Fisher Hall, telecast on PBS

Lang Lang - Photo Credit: Detlef Schneider

Perhaps as a contribution to the ongoing diplomatic efforts at improving American-Russian relations, the New York Philharmonic’s Music Director Alan Gilbert chose an all-Tchaikovsky program for the Orchestra’s traditional New Year’s Eve concert. It featured a selection from three major genres of the composer’s work: the Polonaise from the opera “Eugene Onegin,” the second act of the ballet “The Nutcracker,” and the first Piano Concerto, with the brilliant, young Chinese pianist Lang Lang as soloist.

Seen on television, it was a wonderfully varied, exciting concert, a bonanza of beguiling melodies, exhilarating dances, exuberant orchestra playing, and superlative pianism. The musicians threw themselves into these repertory favorites with a freshness undimmed by familiarity. The Polonaise had a zestful swing; the “Nutcracker” dances were fascinating for their idiomatic, rhythmic and instrumental diversity. “Nutcracker,” the ballet, had been a ubiquitous presence throughout the Holidays, performed not only–as usual–at the State Theatre by the City Ballet, but also at the Brooklyn Academy by Ballet Theatre. Still, hearing that delightful music played by a great orchestra in full view on a concert stage instead of from a pit was grand.

The Tchaikovsky Concerto is one of Lang Lang’s signature pieces; he first performed it as a boy of 13. He himself feels that his interpretation has deepened his ability to listen to and interact with the orchestra grown more acute and spontaneous. At this performance, he certainly maintained a strong contact with the conductor and the orchestral soloists by looks, gestures, and, less visibly but no less perceptibly, by projecting and telegraphing his musical intentions. Indeed, his immersion in the music was so complete that one got the feeling he became one with it, letting it flow from his head and his heart to his fingertips. The most amazing aspect of his playing is not that he can generate incredible speeds without losing clarity, and huge volumes of sound without losing quality, but that all his excesses – physical, rhythmical, and emotional – are never a showman’s indulgences, but an expression of a genuine, spontaneous response to the music. True, his tempo changes are perhaps too frequent and too drastic, but he makes them sound totally natural. Of course, his liberties demand extraordinary cooperation and sensitivity from conductors and orchestras, but the musicians of the Philharmonic were right with him in fact and spirit. From her seat behind him, concertmistress Sheryl Staples watched him with obvious admiration, her face lighting up with a smile at every felicitous turn of phrase or change of expression. At the end, the ovations went on and on.

Lincoln Center’s live telecasts are its best gift to New Yorkers, especially since it’s housebound and infirm, and the Philharmonic broadcasts offer an extra bonus: the opportunity, denied regular concert goers, to get a frontal view of the conductor. Watching Alan Gilbert in action is a delight: swaying with the rhythm, his face wreathed in smiles, his enjoyment of the music and the gorgeous sounds produced by his players sheds a warm glow over both sides of the footlights.