The Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and The Hilton Head International Piano Competition present Chang-Yong Shin in Review

The Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and The Hilton Head International Piano Competition present Chang-Yong Shin in Review

The Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and The Hilton Head International Piano Competition present Chang-Yong Shin
Chang-Yong Shin, piano
2016 Hilton Head International Competition Winner
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 19, 2016

The Hilton Head piano competition presented its latest first prize winner, Chang-Yong Shin, in a well-attended recital at New York’s Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on Saturday afternoon, and what a stimulating afternoon it was. Mr. Shin has that rare ability to generate visceral excitement just by playing his instrument. He alternates between extreme fire and melting sensitivity, each of which gains by contrast to the other. Naturally, he has technique to burn. I found some of his forte dynamics strident in the small confines of Weill, but then I thought if he had tempered them, some other element of his presentation may have suffered. He has what Adele Marcus used to call “the big line”: a clear idea of every piece, every movement, and every phrase within the movement. Once a section begins, it travels on its own stream of energy that never flags; he does not “tear apart” phrases in search of detail, everything is integrated.

He began with Bach’s Toccata in D major, BWV 912. Anyone who has read my work knows that I love Bach on the modern piano. Mr. Shin seized every opportunity to use the “toccata” for its intended message—a) to show off the player’s dexterity and touch variety, and b) display a learned contrapuntal sensibility. These very early keyboard works of Bach are not programmed nearly as often as they deserve, but then one needs a Mr. Shin to bring them to bold, crisp, exciting life.

There followed Busoni’s fiendishly difficult Sonatina No. 6, subtitled Kammer-Fantasie über Bizets ‘Carmen’ (also commonly called Fantasia da Camera super Carmen) . I’m not sure what the “chamber” dimension is in this piece, which is resolutely a piano solo. Mr. Shin revealed (with Busoni’s help of course) the entire tragic unfolding of the opera in just nine minutes. His lyrical playing was absolutely superior, and the mysterious death-haunted ending was perfect. He also brought a genuine sense of playfulness, as though enjoying his own ability negotiate the score.

The first half concluded with Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Op. 101, a test of any pianist’s maturity and depth. Again, Mr. Shin rose to every challenge, but he was particularly affecting in the Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll (Slowly and full of longing) third “movement,” which proceeds directly into the exultant final sonata-fugue, where his energy was exuberant. His phrasing in the strictly canonic central section of the second movement was scrupulous, one doesn’t often hear it; however, I found the outer sections too rambunctious (though convincing).

After intermission, Shin gave the first movement, Los Requiebros (Flirtatious Remarks), from Granados’ piano suite Goyescas. Granados died when the channel ferry ship Sussex was torpedoed in the English Channel by the German submarine UB-29 on March 24, 1916. He had returned to England successfully from conducting his opera (also called Goyescas) at the Metropolitan Opera, but was on the Sussex as it was heading to France. Here Mr. Shin handled the ornate piano writing, never missing where the main melodies were, and clarifying every bit of this daunting piano writing. At the teneramente e calmato section, Mr. Shin managed to create an oceanic oasis of calm at the center of what had been very “busy” writing—it was breathtaking.

He closed with Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, in B-flat major, Op. 83, the middle sonata of the three “war” sonatas (World War II). This is music of almost unbearable anxiety, fear, and violence. Again, the inner fire of Mr. Shin was appropriate to the message of the piece. However, I found his most successful movement to be the central, lyrical one, Andante caloroso (warmly proceeding), that resembles a nostalgic romance one might sing after too many vodkas, and then becomes elevated and ultra-tragic, with alarm bells ringing obsessively, before the “inebriated” song returns, with a final disquieting bell. The outer movements really were exciting, despite the brutality of the sound—I never heard Gilels or Richter make a harsh sound in this work, but they were completely authentic in terms of musical message. (Yes Mr. Shin, you’re being spoken of in the same breath as Gilels and Richter.)

(Aside to all young artists: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, PLEASE provide program notes. If you aren’t comfortable creating them yourselves, hire someone who is. Also, this program didn’t even have sections or movements of works indicated.)

Mr. Shin favored the enthusiastic audience with two well-deserved encores: the Schumann/Liszt Widmung song transcription, played with maturity and lyricism; and the Liszt Transcendental Etude in F minor, which was wild, but again created a visceral thrill such as we don’t often get from typical “competition winners.” Keep studying with the best, Chang-Yong, and nurture that beautiful talent you have.


The Peggy Rockefeller Concerts presents Weiss-Kaplan-Stumpf Trio in Review

The Peggy Rockefeller Concerts presents Weiss-Kaplan-Stumpf Trio in Review

The Peggy Rockefeller Concerts presents Weiss-Kaplan-Stumpf Trio
Yael Weiss, piano; Mark Kaplan, violin; Peter Stumpf, cello
Caspary Auditorium at The Rockefeller University, New York, NY
November 3, 2016

 

One feels either elevated or hopelessly inadequate, intellectually, when stepping into the semi-private enclave that is Rockefeller University on New York’s East Side. Nobel Prize laureates (and future ones) lurk around every corner. The motto of the university is “Science for the benefit of humanity” and the Peggy Rockefeller concert series continues with the “arts for humanity” as well. The audience for this concert was quite elderly, which does not bode well for these types of events in general, and the concerts take place in a strangely shaped, steeply raked lecture hall not designed for music, although on this occasion the sound was beautiful.

Thursday’s November 3rd concert featured the Weiss-Kaplan-Stumpf Trio, and was a wonderfully refined presentation of three of Beethoven’s output for piano trio, one from each style period: early, middle, and late. These three players (Yael Weiss, piano; Mark Kaplan, violin; Peter Stumpf, cello) play with uncanny unity, blend, and never the sense of any one member being “in front.”

First on the program was the all-too-rarely programmed Variations in E-flat major, Op. 44. This work begins with a gauntlet flung at the players by the impish Beethoven: fifteen measures of absolute octave/unison playing (eighth note followed by eighth rest) for all three players, with no smaller note values to indicate the tempo. The three musicians were totally in sync, as they were throughout the evening. Elsewhere in the work, bits of figuration or harmony that recall Op. 79’s finale, the clarinet trio Op. 11, the Eroica theme, and even the “Emperor” piano concerto are found in their infancy, so to speak. The trio brought great sparkle and polish to a neglected work.

There followed the second of Beethoven’s Op. 1 piano trios, the one in G major. The balance was gorgeous, but it led me to think about Beethoven’s notorious “rough edges” as a pianist, and that he would probably not have subordinated himself as much as Ms. Weiss did. Nor would he have rounded every single phrase off with such taper. The piano sounded, in fact, somewhat distant, something I attributed to the Hamburg Steinway D, incapable of making a harsh sound, especially when played with such elegance as Ms. Weiss possesses. The Presto Finale was ebullient, taken at a great clip, with humor abounding.

After intermission, the great Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 97, nicknamed “Archduke,” formed the entire half. Here everything was completely in its place, as had been everything in the concert previously. I did feel that the group lacked a certain spontaneity in the act of creating (I apologize for being so churlish), perhaps they were being careful because the concert was being recorded. Dynamics seemed unexaggerated to me, and everything was very “planned,” which gave a CD quality performance, that was somehow too polished. If the pianist is going to use an iPad, as I am increasingly seeing in concerts great and small, then she should also invest in AirTurn, so that her fingers don’t need to leave the keys to “turn” the electronic page, which is the point anyway. The transition from the rapt slow movement’s theme and variations into the concluding romp of a peasant dance was beautifully rendered.

After three curtain calls (no curtain), they retook the stage to give an encore, and sheepishly realized they didn’t have the music for it. “Next time,” was violinist’s Mark Kaplan’s wry answer.


Pro Musicis presents Francisco Fullana in Review

Pro Musicis presents Francisco Fullana in Review

Pro Musicis presents Francisco Fullana
Francisco Fullana, violin
David Fung, piano; guest artist JP Jofre, bandoneón
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 1, 2016

 

Pro Musicis continued its mission statement “Awaken the human spirit” in fine form last night with the recital of its 2015 award winner, Spanish violinist Francisco Fullana. The program was beautifully conceived, stunningly well-played, and thoughtful connections were drawn between the pieces on each half.

Mr. Fullana has a cherubic face, and he doesn’t scowl or contort it the way so many violinists do. In fact, the predominant emotion he conveyed (though not the only one) was the joy and playfulness in collaboration. He was actively listening to everything around him in his two musical partners. His pianist, David Fung, was superb. Mr. Fullana provided a real novelty in the presence of his frequent collaborator, young Argentine composer JP Jofre, who played the Argentine equivalent of the accordion, the bandoneón.

The program opened with a radiant interpretation of Bach’s Sonata for Violin and Keyboard in E major, BWV 1016. Mr. Fullana’s tone was appropriately scaled down (but never sterile), and he and Mr. Fung did not allow one single opportunity for dialog between the parts to go unexplored or unshaped. The technique and style were impeccable. In the final movement (which is preceded by a sorrowful cantilena), the sense of playfulness and joy of both players was vivid.

The contrast provided by the next piece could not have been more stark. Königliches Thema (1976) for unaccompanied violin, by the Korean composer Isang Yun (also spelled Yun I-sang), was the matter at hand. Yun (1917-1995) had an unimaginably tragic life, which included imprisonments, kidnapping, and torture at the hands of the Japanese and his fellow Koreans. Somehow, amid all this, he managed to study music in western Europe, and to keep his spirit from being broken through his composing. His music was even banned in South Korea until 1994, the year before his death.

The work is based on the famous origin melody for Bach’s next-to-last work, Das Musikalische Opfer. We now know with 99 percent certainty that it was in fact not Frederick the Great who provided the theme, but C.P.E. Bach, Bach’s son (and Frederick’s employee), who understood better than anyone his father’s ability to mine the potential lurking in any theme. Here Mr. Fullana’s tone suddenly became rich and darkened with tragedy, as each variation became more unhinged than the one before it. The technical demands of the work are severe, yet one never worried about his ability to surmount them. The piece ended on three fateful “knocks,” pizzicati perfectly graded so that they disappeared.

Then Mr. Fullana was joined on stage by Mr. Jofre, who partnered him in two of his own works for violin and bandoneón: Como el Agua (“Like water,” based on a Zen-like quote by Bruce Lee), and Tangódromo. It was wonderful to witness these two instruments and their players blending so totally into each other that at times one could not tell which one was playing which notes. Also notable was the extreme subtlety of which the bandoneón is capable, especially in the hands of Mr. Jofre (unlike the typical rush-hour serenading disrupters one encounters in the subways!). The water piece was mournful, and the tango-inspired one had great energy and wit.

After intermission, Mr. Fullana and Mr. Fung resumed their collaboration with one of Mozart’s most experimental sonatas in what was still a relatively new genre: the piano and violin sonata, with his Sonata, K. 303 (293c) in C major. Mozart stealthily gives the impression of two movements for the price of one, with the opening Adagio followed by an Allegro molto, until one realizes that those tempi changes are but the different parts of one sonata-form movement. There follows the true second movement, a Tempo di Menuetto, courtly dances often being considered the only polite way to end a “scholarly” piece like a sonata. In this work, both players recapped the almost supernatural unity they had found in the Bach, with perfect matching of articulation and phrase shape. It was perfection, and I don’t use that word lightly. Too often players either minimize or trivialize these gems.

Then came the sprawling Sonata for Violin and Piano by Richard Strauss (E-flat major, Op. 18), a composer not always thought of for his chamber music. The magic of collaboration continued with superb sensitivity to every harmonic shift (they occur about every two seconds in this work), and great virtuosity from both players. Mr. Fullana’s Stradivarius really got its “lungs expanded” in the big dimensions required by the piece, and Fung never overbalanced, amid the monster piano part. The aggressive moments were handled well, but in the soaring songlike melodies the transfiguration was even better.

After a large ovation, Mr. Fullana and Mr. Fung played two of De Falla’s violin arrangements (from songs): Nana (a lullaby) and El Paño moruno (the Moorish cloth, a metaphor for virginity!) with yearning authenticity.

Bravo to Pro Musicis for its track record, and to these three artists for elevating a room full of listeners seeking beauty.

 


Star Concert Productions presents Carine Gutlerner in Review

Star Concert Productions presents Carine Gutlerner in Review

Star Concert Productions presents Carine Gutlerner
Carine Gutlerner, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 27, 2016

 

A sizeable crowd picked its way through the chilly autumn drizzle, spirits undampened, to hear the recital by Belgian/French pianist Carine Gutlerner. Ms. Gutlerner is multi-talented not only as a pianist, but also as choral conductor, composer, and visual artist (her published book of drawings was on view in the lounge adjacent to the recital hall).

As a pianist, her recital presented many paradoxes. It is always refreshing to hear someone with a distinct, vivid, even controversial point of view, as opposed to someone comfortable in a “musical straitjacket.” However, some of Ms. Gutlerner’s virtues quickly became mannered, even working against her.

The concert opened with Ms. Gutlerner’s own composition: the American premiere of excerpts from her film music for Ann Frank’s Diary (an animated presentation aimed at children primarily). It is always risky to turn tragic events into music, as one risks merely trivializing them. That was not the case here, although the unrelieved gloom of the sections chosen shows more about our post-Holocaust response than it does about the often-optimistic teen spirit of the heroine.

After this, the program turned quite standard, with three large-scale works. The first of these was Brahms’ Third Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5. When Brahms arrived on the Schumanns’ doorstep in 1853, he was a slender, blond twenty-year-old with a satchel full of compositions, and both Schumanns promptly fell in love with him and his music. His celebrated belly and beard came much later. It seemed that Ms. Gutlerner was relating much more to the wild, untamed passionate outpouring of youth that this work can represent. If you like your Brahms autumnal or more sober, this was not the version for you. Fiery and impetuous would be the two adjectives to reach for in characterizing her interpretation. The beautiful Andante with its poetic preface from Sternau was played much too quickly—it didn’t sound like the two hearts were united in love under the moonlight, rather that they were hurrying to catch the last tram down the mountain. The Scherzo lacked the lilting references to the Viennese waltz that underlie its demonic energy (though the Trio section was lovely), and overall it was messy. The unusual fourth movement, titled Rückblick (A Look Back), was too angry for my taste, though a case could be made for one of the former lovers from the second movement having precisely that emotion. The Finale was anything but moderato.

If Ms. Gutlerner could slightly tame her inner “wild animal” perhaps her brain would follow suit, for every work was marred by major memory issues, from which she recovered however. After all, it’s not so much what happens as how one continues. She also needs to find some tie-backs for her ample hair, which had to be continually brushed back with one of her hands. It even got in her mouth. One final complaint: the hands-in-the-air drama at the end of nearly every piece gets old fast—one per recital, please? (If that.)

After intermission, the first work was Chopin’s Second Ballade, Op. 38 in F major (though it ends in A minor). This was a sloppy performance, though the lyrical opening had great potential. Ms. Gutlerner had every reason to be rattled, because yes, a STUPID cellphone went off several times, including during the final pregnant pause before the last two chords. People who are reading this: DISCONNECT while at live performances, and tell your friends to as well. No matter how many announcements are made, it always seems to happen.

Then came the immense challenge of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. I thought that Ms. Gutlerner’s outsized temperament would be an asset in this sprawling and fiercely difficult work, and at times that was the case, but too often her technique was just not up to the demands of the music. Two sections that were absolutely perfect, however, were: the Promenade between Bydlo and the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, and then the Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua (not “Latina,” as the program stated). Otherwise, the left hand was overbearing, even bangy, an issue that threatened the earlier works on the program as well. Loud does not equal Russian authenticity. The Great Gate of Kiev was unduly hurried, lacking the majesty it needs, and her troubles seemed to multiply until she just ended the work with a few perfunctory chords.

She played another mournful section of Anne Frank as an encore.

Ms. Gutlerner could become quite a formidable interpreter if she learns to balance her natural fire with more control, even quietude—it will make the fire stand out that much more.


Pianist Jasper Heymann in Review

Pianist Jasper Heymann in Review

Jasper Heymann, piano
Steinway Hall, New York, NY
October 29, 2016

Underground at the new Steinway emporium on Sixth Avenue and 43rd Street in New York City. is a small performance space, seating only a few more than sixty. Sure, it lacks the charm of the old rotunda on 57th Street, but time marches on. The seats are comfortable but the temperature is very warm. A water cooler located outside the hall looked promising, but no cups were provided.

It was there that an extraordinary full recital was presented by fourteen-year-old Jasper Heymann. I’m going to try my best not to make his age an issue. His pianism would be the envy of anyone two, three, even four times his age. My comments therefore will be just as they would be for any seasoned professional. He needs no apologia.

Mr. Heymann possesses the single most important ingredient (assuming talent, of course) in the musician’s arsenal: a deep, emotional bond with the music and the ability to convey that at the instrument. It can’t be taught. All the technicalities can be taught, and I’m not saying that he’s a “perfect” pianist—that would be hyperbole, but he did melt the sometimes severe heart of this reviewer as the afternoon progressed.

The first half of his program was “structural” and classic: Bach and Beethoven. (Though Beethoven’s Op. 31 No. 2, nicknamed “The Tempest” is quite “dangerously” romantic.) These weren’t his absolute strengths, although he displayed a beautiful ear for big color in the Bach Sinfonia from the second Partita. Hooray for the modern piano in Bach! And the second movement of the Beethoven displayed quite a bit of maturity that perhaps I didn’t think would be there. The outer movements were appropriately “stormy” and the sonata overall was convincing. He should be learning to do repeats in sonata-form movements. Perhaps he was conserving energy for the virtuosic second half. I really don’t wish to pick out details. What one heard was the sense of intense involvement.

After intermission, he favored us with several Schumann works: the delicious Op. 1 “ABEGG” variations, written in “code” fashion on the last name of one of Schumann’s pre-Clara girlfriends. This glittering showpiece was dispatched with clarity and grace, especially in the initial presentation of the theme: charm! (I was puzzled as to why he didn’t do the “funny” presentation of the theme near the end that occurs when the notes are released one by one, rather than sounded.) Then Heymann played the first two of the Op. 12 Fantasiestücke: Des Abends (Evening) and Aufschwung (Soaring). Des Abends possessed a beautiful hush, though it moved at quite a clip. Aufschwung had all the energy of youth. (I did miss the canonic imitation in the major-key contrasting middle theme. See, I can get picky.)

Then Mr. Heymann turned his attention and gifts to two Liszt works: the third concert etude “Un Sospiro” and the Soirée de Vienne No. 6 (based on Schubert waltzes). His Un Sospiro verged on the mystical. It was simply magnificent. I’m so proud of him for playing the short internal cadenza (one of three provided by Liszt) and the whole-tone ending. The colors and phrase expansion were masterful. The virtuoso waltz piece was also a marvel of clarity and charm (hard to do both) amid the welter of fast notes. He had flair to burn.

He played two well-deserved encores: Rachmaninoff’s gorgeous Elegy in E-flat minor, Op. 3 No. 1, inspired by the death of fellow-composer Arensky. This was, no hyperbole, perfection, astounding in its lyricism and sorrow. He finished with Fazil Say’s perky jazz romp on the famous Paganini Caprice that has inspired so many classical composers. Mr. Heymann was obviously enjoying himself, and so were we. I do hope he’ll be able to “forget” this trifle when the time comes to learn the Brahms Op. 35 Paganini variations and/or the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Fazil Say was a Young Concert Artists winner. If Mr. Heymann continues on his course, he could well be too, soon.

 


The Edward J. Emerson Arts Foundation presents Daniel Adam Maltz in Review

The Edward J. Emerson Arts Foundation presents Daniel Adam Maltz in Review

Daniel Adam Maltz, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall: New York, NY
October 23, 2016

 

Those acquainted with my reviewing style know how earnestly I try to nurture artists—that there are always positive things to be observed. That being said, a few dozen people, mainly family and friends, turned out for Mr. Maltz’ recital, which is probably a good thing, for it was not quite “ready for prime time.” I suspect there’s a great deal of poetry and musical creativity lurking in this young man, but his pianism isn’t fully formed enough or consistent enough to allow him to express it unblemished by memory lapses, wrong notes, notes that don’t sound, thin tone, and a lack of deep-in-the-keys finger legato. He did retain his composure, however, and that in itself is admirable.

His stage presence is stiff, though I did appreciate that he wore white-tie-and-tails, which isn’t seen so much anymore.

His opening group, Schumann’s lovely Kinderszenen, had the above-mentioned flaws from beginning to end. I couldn’t tell if it was opening jitters, but things didn’t really improve. This is not music “for” children, but rather about childhood viewed through the poetic prism of the adult. The composer was only six years older than Mr. Maltz when he wrote it.

Chopin’s Second Impromptu, Op. 36 in F-sharp major followed, and pleasingly, there was light and brilliant jeu perlé fingerwork in the thirty-second note section just before the end (so difficult to do!), though this impressive bit was undercut by wayward phrasing. Elsewhere, the piece suffered from eccentric rhythmic disruption and lack of legato. Mr. Maltz followed this with Chopin’s Third Ballade, Op. 47 in A-flat major. Again, the numerous slips and eccentricities marred what I’m sure could have been a probing account of this once-ubiquitous work.

After intermission came the D minor Fantasy of Mozart, K. 397, a work that comes as close as any to what listening to Mozart improvise may have been like. The D major concluding portion was tacked on at a later date, and I’ve never felt like it really “belongs” there. Mr. Maltz had much delicacy, and caught the questing, improvisatory spirit well, although again, with a deeper legato and better phrasing, he could have said more with these deceptively few notes.

In conclusion, he offered the Beethoven Bagatelles, Op. 126, Beethoven’s final works for piano solo. These “trifles” are anything but—in them Beethoven seemingly engages in dialog with the cosmos and the creation of new ideas of aural “space.” Here, Mr. Maltz was at his very best, he seemed unified with the music, the composer, himself, and the instrument. He sank deeply into the keys for the most satisfying tone of the evening. Here, his personality really emerged, and I could see what he might become in a few years. (He is only twenty-two, after all.)

His biography says he is a champion of the music of his father, Richard Maltz, a composer. It would have been stimulating to have included some of that, rather than one of the more standard works. I do hope he won’t let himself be discouraged by my response to this one performance. What is important is to keep going, and to keep learning.

 


JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the Sander and Norma K. Buchman Fund present The Sphinx Virtuosi in Review

JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the Sander and Norma K. Buchman Fund present The Sphinx Virtuosi in Review

 JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the Sander and Norma K. Buchman Fund present
The Sphinx Virtuosi
Isaac Stern Auditorium/Ronald O. Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall
October 20, 2016

 

The Sphinx Virtuosi delivered another of their brilliant, fierce, dedicated, and inspiring programs on Thursday night, celebrating the eve of their twentieth year of standing as a sort of rebuke to the hidebound institutions of classical music—insisting on representation, participation, education, and development of Black and Latino musicians. For those who don’t know, the Virtuosi are composed of eighteen string players, all laureates of the Sphinx Competition, yet another part of the organization’s total outreach. The Virtuosi play as a conductorless chamber string orchestra. The sum total of all Sphinx Organization activities is much more important than any one concert given: may their efforts not only thrive but increase.

The program had a very single-minded focus on this occasion: Viajes Latinos (Latin Voyages). It sought also to redress an imbalance of programming that usually favors only standards, by presenting music of various South American composers (and one Spanish, one Mexican), though some of those are pretty much household names by now. In fact, my only wish would be that they had strayed farther afield into even more obscure music, even by the well-known names.

To attend a program of all-Latin music, one had best have made one’s peace with ostinati, since the lion’s share of the works possess this motoric drive. I could have wished for more meditative works, but I realize that generating excitement has a mission too.

The program began with Astor Piazzolla’s well-loved Libertango, played with rhythmic snap and great sound, although this arrangement robbed the tango of some of the bite that is usually present when bandoneon or piano are employed. Attraction and repulsion are the essence of the tango.

They followed this with the Mexican composer Javier Alvarez’ Metro Chabacana, named for and commissioned by (!) a subway station in Mexico City. (How about it MTA: Bryant Park Blues?) This was beautifully played, and one could hear the pulse of urban life both above and below ground.

The Last Round, for the unusual instrumentation of two “competing” string quartets and one “moderating” double bass, by Osvaldo Golijov followed. It was inspired partly by the death of Piazzolla, and the antagonism of the tango found its metaphor in the two quartets, who traded sultry moves between them, while the bass contributed rhythmic punctuation. Its concluding section, the mournful part, was absolutely haunting.

A phenomenal young violinist and recent prize winner, Hannah White, then took the stage to blaze her way through the only true novelty of the evening: César Espejo’s Prélude Ibérique, for unaccompanied violin. Espejo, from Spain, lived most of his life in France. His work carries figurations from Bach, with important mixtures of flamenco and even tzigane (gypsy) thrown in. White commanded every bit of the work, with perfect intonation, technique, flair, swing: in short, everything one could ask for from a violinist, of any age.

Heitor Villa-Lobos is also a name that really needs no introduction. In this section of the program, the “heart” of the Sphinx group, a quartet named Catalyst, performed the famous Aria from his Bachianas Brasileras No. 5. Despite perfect playing, I felt the piece was robbed of a bit of its humanity with the lack of the human voice soaring over its long lines. This led me to wonder about the inclusion of winds and voices to the Sphinx agenda. Is it possible, or have they already beat me to it?

The Catalyst group then segued directly into another Piazzolla “hit”: La Muerte del Angel, originally part of a movie score. Here the quartet was in stunning form, with elegiac sound, and great flexibility due to listening intently to each other (a property possessed by the entire Sphinx group: if I were to make a bad pun, I’d call them “Black Orpheus,” but that would short-change the Latinos.).

After a concise but moving video of the program’s influence and mission, some remarks were made, and an award was presented to a major patron, Robert F. Smith, the first African-American chairman of the board of Carnegie Hall.

The concert then concluded with a fiery account of Alberto Ginastera’s Finale furioso from his Concerto per corde, Op. 33 (an arrangement of a previous string quartet). The energy was almost unbearable, in a good way! The audience, refreshingly composed of many younger faces of color, leapt to its collective feet.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Artist Series presents Melissa Wimbish in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Artist Series presents Melissa Wimbish in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Artist Series presents Melissa Wimbish
Melissa Wimbish, soprano
Ta-Wei Tsai, piano
Jessica Meyer, viola
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 10, 2016

 

It has become politically correct to bash Columbus and his day; he didn’t even “discover America” anyway. Nevertheless, it seemed an appropriate choice for an all-American art song recital, all the music of which was by contemporary living composers. This marks the New York solo recital debut of Melissa Wimbish, the NATS 2014 competition winner. It was an ambitious program, and one that clearly showed her virtues, as well as a few minor flaws. Who doesn’t have flaws?

When she took the stage, I thought she bore a striking resemblance to Bernadette Peters. Then when she began singing, I thought: well, here is the “love-child” of Peters and Dawn Upshaw. Ms. Wimbish is a very stylish woman, svelte, with masses of curly red hair; she changed outfits three times, as befit the different repertoires. Her program also contained generous program notes (most of them by her) and the complete printed texts of everything performed. This is necessary, despite her exemplary diction, in a program where you have to sing words such as: transactional, chromosomes, flagella, and embezzled. She also gave concise spoken introductions from the stage prior to each group, just enough to enhance our appreciation of her feelings about the songs.

Ms. Wimbish is clearly very thoughtful about this repertoire, and she is a charming actor. The aforementioned diction was truly excellent—however, as the evening progressed, the diction flagged a little, revealing more vocal sumptuousness, which was welcome. In fact, my only slight reservation about the recital was the smallness of her softer singing, which often was covered by her otherwise expert collaborative pianist, Mr. Tsai, even though the piano lid was on the short-stick. He needs to support the voice he’s with, not the “theoretical” one we all carry around in our heads. I also disagree with his bowing from behind the piano bench, which he did every time until the final bows. When you’re as good as Mr. Tsai is, and you’ve worked that hard, equality is the way to go.

You know your voice is small when a single viola can drown you out. Ms. Wimbish projected the best she could, but her real “glamour” range was attained only when she went to high notes and above a mezzo-forte dynamic. Within her voice type, she displayed myriads of colors beautifully. Composers love voices like these that are pure and accurate, with flawless intonation, attached to inquisitive minds and hearts.

She began with the “feminist version” of Eve, in excerpts from Jake Heggie’s Eve-Song (poetry by Philip Littell). Mr. Heggie has attained major prominence as a vocal composer because he writes “for” rather than “against” the voice, in unabashedly neo-Romantic style, spiced with complex modern chords. Ms. Wimbish revealed the sassy update of this character perfectly; she is the master of the discreet “uh” following a consonant that prevents it from disappearing. I was immediately captured by her pronunciation of “Eeev[uh]” which gave so much emphasis and clarity. She bit into an actual apple during the performance, and it can not have been easy to sing around that lump of fruit while maintaining her diction, her sound, and gradually swallowing it!

This was followed by the Three Dickinson Songs by André Previn, more lushly tonal music, composed for Renée Fleming. It would be unfair to compare Ms. Wimbish directly to her role model, but one did long for more sensuous weight, particularly in the lower-middle ranges of the voice, which then would have informed the exposed final high notes with which the composer challenges his interpreters.

A world-premiere ensued; how many times do you encounter that at an art song recital? The composer Jessica Meyer was also the violist in her own work: Space, In Chains, a group of three songs to anguished poetry by Laura Kasischke, for viola and voice only (no piano). Ms. Meyer uses both extended and traditional techniques in her music, drawing on her years of experience as a professional violist. The most haunting of these, for me, was her gentle drumming on her instrument in the “Rain” song.

After intermission, six songs by the genial Tom Cipullo (another lyrical neo-Romantic composer) were rendered with sensitivity. There was less of the whimsy and humor I associate with his work (though some peeked through in “Fugitive”); these were more meditative and passionate. The poet of the sixth song, Something About Autumn, Robert Cole, was present along with Mr. Cipullo to acknowledge the applause. This was also the most effective song of the set, with a final held high note sung stunningly by Ms. Wimbish.

Ms. Wimbish closed the recital with a performance of the long scene for soprano and piano called At the Statue of Venus, by Jake Heggie. In it, a woman of unspecified age (though she does say “I’m too old for this”) is waiting in an art museum for a blind date with a man her friends have set up for her. During this wait, she agonizes over her choice of outfit (the word “slacks” received more inflections than I could have imagined); feels insecure about the whole idea; compares herself unfavorably to other female artists’ muses; then comforts herself with memories of how loved and protected she felt as a child. Finally, the man arrives (her obliging pianist supplied the final word: Rose, her name). The scene is not opera, but it certainly is operatic. Is it overwrought? Not for me to say—people adore Mr. Heggie’s music. It is grateful to sing, and after all, his operas: Dead Man Walking, and Moby Dick, notably, are performed worldwide. In the scene, Ms. Wimbish really opened her voice, producing the best singing of the night. The words became unclear but the sonority was worth waiting for. The audience leapt to its feet.

I salute this enterprising and versatile young artist, and hope she will return often with even more intriguing program ideas. If she hasn’t already, may I suggest she do an omnibus survey of Sondheim? She seems ideally suited for it.


Key Pianists presents Ann Schein in Review

Key Pianists presents Ann Schein in Review

Key Pianists presents Ann Schein, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 5, 2016

 

I attended the most marvelous poetry reading last night. I’m sure you are thinking “Is he out of his mind?” Perhaps, from time to time, but in this case no: the poet was legendary pianist Ann Schein, and she read from the poetry of Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin.

The hall was full and enthusiastically expectant, and they were not disappointed. From the outset, even in taking the stage, Ms. Schein radiates good-will, warmth, humility, and a sort of maternal embrace—these qualities were returned to her tenfold by the audience.

She began with an account of Beethoven’s programmatic sonata, Opus 81a, in E-flat major, nicknamed Les Adieux (The Farewells), that has three movements motivated by the subjects of Farewell, Absence, and Return, all of them linked by a descending posthorn motto. Immediately, in the Adagio introduction to the first movement, Schein made us aware of an interior stillness leading to sadness (and ultimately to a joyous reunion). This quality is not often audible in routine performances. The piano tone was sumptuous at all times. Beethoven’s sometimes awkward writing for the hands never sounded thus. The bleak, almost neurotic, “absence” movement was perfectly rendered, leading to the puppy-like dancing about the wheels of the carriage bearing the returning Archduke. Never have I seen or heard the extravagant leaps in the right hand dispatched with such appropriate happiness.

This brings me to an attempt to summarize the many virtues of Ms. Schein’s pianism: 1) she is able to “project intimacy”; 2) she understands and feels phrase grouping, harmonic motion, and the sense of arrival, such moments are generously breathed and punctuated; 3) her beautiful motions become e-motions; 4) she possesses uncanny sincerity; 5) meaning and feeling are at all times joined; and 6) simplicity and generosity are also at all times united.

The second work was, for me, the absolute pinnacle of an outstanding program: Schumann’s great Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6 (Dances of the League of David). This is a work with multiple sources and meanings—Schumann’s imaginary league of great creators vanquishing the Philistines of culture; the three sides of his own fervid personality: Florestan, the fiery impetuous one, Eusebius, the dreaming poet, and Master Raro, the mediator between the two; and Schumann’s often fraught relationship/courtship of the young girl who would eventually in fact become his wife, Clara Wieck. This piece gives pause to many seasoned professional pianists, who may not trust their ability to be poetic enough.

The work is a series of eighteen character pieces in the guise of dances, tightly linked with mottos (notably the descending “Clara” scale). In the first edition, each piece (save for three) is marked with initials “E” or “F” for its authorship by one of the aforementioned aspects of Schumann. Personally, I am drawn to the Eusebian sections, but I always have to realize that they wouldn’t emerge as beautifully without the contrasts around them. Full disclosure: many of Eusebius’ tears (mentioned in the program to the piece) stole silently down my own cheeks as this unforgettable rendition was happening. I had to hold my breath many times, so intense and revelatory was this performance. Each section was miraculous, with punctuations that I had never considered before. Particularly effective was Schein’s handling of the many coda or codetta sections, which put a metaphorical halo over what had come before. The final wistful waltz, with its mash-up of tonic and dominant at the beginning, was heartbreaking. One wanted this work (and possibly the entire recital) to be twice as long.

After intermission Ms. Schein gave us Chopin’s third and final piano sonata, Op. 58 in B minor. This is a massive work, with enlarged scope and heroism, and it led me to think what might have been if Chopin had not died at the untimely age of thirty-nine, but had lived to hear and see the Wagner operas. All of Ms. Schein’s tremendous virtues were present in this reading, including a feather-light Scherzo and the noble Bellini-like song of the third movement. As the finale arrived, Ms. Schein really seemed to let go and just tap into something primal, no caution, just abandon (but with all the fine shaping that we had come to expect.) Its triumphant ending inspired an instant standing ovation.

She favored us with two encores, of which the first was spellbinding, a new “definitive” performance in my opinion of a work that is often just “passed over”: Chopin’s second of the Trois Nouvelles Etudes, in A Flat. After that, Schein again just let loose and reveled in her ability with Rachmaninoff’s second Prelude from Op. 23, in B-flat major. I doubt this pianist has ever played an unmusical note in her life. Her mentor Mieczyslaw Munz predicted for her “a long life in music,” and he was so right. Thank you, Ann, for sharing this beauty with a world so in need of it.


A Joseph Barry Production under patronage of the German UN Ambassador Harald Braun: Adrienne Haan sings Kurt Weill in Review

A Joseph Barry Production under patronage of the German UN Ambassador Harald Braun: Adrienne Haan sings Kurt Weill in Review

Adrienne Haan sings Kurt Weill
Adrienne Haan, chanteuse
Barry Kleinbort, director
Richard Danley, music director/piano
Novembergruppe Quintet: Dan Levinson, band leader/clarinet/alto saxophone; Jonathan David Russell, violin; Vinny Raniolo, guitar, banjo; Jared Engel, bass, tuba; Mike Campenni, drums
The Metropolitan Room, New York, NY
September 28, 2016

 

Late September, when “the days grow short” is indeed the best time for a survey of the songs of Kurt Weill—and Adrienne Haan has proved herself to be one of the finest living exponents of his varied repertoire. In the intimate, elegant Metropolitan Room in Chelsea (New York City), she commanded a musical sextet of excellent players, and illuminated Weill’s chameleonic nature as a composer, with anecdotes from both his life and her own.

Let me say right at the outset that this evening had only highlights. This is rare. All classically-trained singers of art song should be required to attend several cabaret performances a year to see how it is possible to emote fully and sing with a large voice and still make every word understandable, as Ms. Haan always does.

She plunges with apparent abandon right into the heart of every song, with a unique affinity for 1920s and 30s Weimar-era music that includes decadence and disillusionment—but she never descends into sour cynicism, as other well-known Weill interpreters sometimes do. Ms. Haan retains a sort of positive radiance. In fact, if I were to counsel her at all, it would be to develop yet another dimension, whether it is a kind of world-weariness, all-passion-spent, or a frankly angry persona. Perhaps she will as the years roll by, as she is still young.

She explained in concise patter how Weill shifted his style to match the various countries he resided in and the lyricists he was working with: Gershwin, Brecht, Fernay, Nash, Magré, Kaiser, and Botrel. Ms. Haan performed with authority in the three languages English, German, and French.

My Ship (from Lady in the Dark) opened with suitably convincing longing for the boat to be bringing her “own true love” to her. (Though Ms. Haan’s supportive husband was in the audience, and was introduced.) She then plunged into Die Seeräuber Jenny, the showstopper from Die Dreigroschenoper in which the scrubbing maid hectors her disbelieving listeners into a tale of capture and murder of which she is in charge. Then Ms. Haan turned to French Weill in the form of the Youkali tango/habanera (from Marie Galante) in which the land of infinite pleasure is first described and then negated as not existing anywhere.

Speak Low (from One Touch of Venus) was beautifully sung: “The curtain descends, everything ends too soon”- an apt description for this program. This was followed by Weill’s most famous number, the one everyone has heard even if they didn’t know it was by Weill: Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (from Die Dreigroschenoper) and its not-so-covert protest against the German regime which caused it to be banned. Ms. Haan deftly pointed out some possible relevance to current politics (without being heavy-handed about it.) The song’s sudden ending took the audience by surprise. She continued in intense-mode with Surabaya Johnny (from Happy End). This and the next lost-romance number (Je ne t’aime pas) I felt were the only tiny missteps in an otherwise perfect program. They came off as duly overwrought and desperate, but I felt they needed more anger and perhaps less “victimization.” Forgive me, Adrienne.

After a brief humorous explanation of how Brecht obtained his exotic geographical names (by sticking pins into atlases, in places he thought had funny sounding names), Ms. Haan delivered a stunning rendition of Alabama Song (from Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) where her search for a “whiskey barrrrrrrr” was accompanied by the hurling of actual $100 bills into the audience, who were exhorted to join in the boozy chorus. Now that’s decadence! Cäsars Tod (from Der Silbersee) provided another censured bit of history, with its parallel of the ancient Roman dictator with the one rising in Germany at the time.

Nannas Lied states that “the love market becomes easier as you embrace them by the score,” with Brecht’s clever borrowing of the line from medieval French poet François Villon, “where are the snows of yesteryear.” Then Le Grand Lustucru (from Marie Galante) took the stage, a bogeyman from Provençal lullabies that devours little children who refuse to go to sleep. Bilbao Song (from Happy End), another whimsically chosen atlas-name, hymned the virtues of Bill’s Be-All Bar, where drink was unlimited, bar fights superseded any action on the dance floor, and the narrator can’t quite remember the lyrics to his song request, or whether the joy or pain was greater.

Regretfully, the evening had to end, and did so with The Saga of Jenny (from Lady in the Dark), quite a different gal from Die Seeräuber Jenny (or is she?), whose chief problem is that she sows tragedy quite effortlessly throughout her life simply by “always making up her mind.” Ms. Haan’s built-in (and well-deserved) encore was I’m a Stranger Here Myself (from One Touch of Venus), with perhaps more than a touch of nostalgia for her own experience as a transplant to the United States. Well, call me corny, but at an evening of Weill held on September 28, I would have liked to hear September Song. Maybe next time, and there will surely be many next times for this artist. (In fact, this concert was sold out, causing the Metropolitan Room to add another date for her in October.)