Manuel Barrueco and the Beijing Guitar Duo in Review

Manuel Barrueco and the Beijing Guitar Duo in Review

MetLife Foundation Music of the Americas Concert Series, 2017 New York Guitar Seminar at Mannes: Manuel Barrueco and the Beijing Guitar Duo
Manuel Barrueco, guitar, and the Beijing Guitar Duo: Meng Su and Yameng Wang, guitar
The Americas Society, New York, NY
June 26, 2017

Kicking off the 2017 New York Guitar Seminar at Mannes was an absolutely superb concert by an esteemed master of the instrument, Manuel Barrueco and two extraordinary young stars, Meng Su and Yameng Wang of the Beijing Guitar Duo. Mr. Barrueco hardly needs introduction, having been a leader in the guitar world for several decades. After emigrating to the US from Cuba to train at the Peabody Conservatory, his career took off, and he now maintains his own small Peabody studio. The Beijing Duo members, counted among his protégés, are much more than protegés, as both are masters in their own right with very busy careers underway. Meng Su was winner of the Vienna Youth Guitar Competition and the Christopher Parkening Young Guitarist Competition, and Yameng Wang was the youngest guitarist in history to win the Tokyo International Guitar Competition at age 12 and was invited by Radio France to perform at the Paris International Guitar Week at age 14. They both perform actively across the globe. As a duo, Su and Wang play with consummate sensitivity, as if playing a single instrument. In Barrueco’s collaboration with them, one heard the sublime melding of his lifetime of musical experience with their split-second responsiveness and keen musical instincts. What a trio!

The program was divided between Bach on the first half and Enrique Granados on the second – not a huge surprise given that works from the Baroque and Spanish repertoires are mainstays for the guitar. On the first half, we heard Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 arranged for all three guitars and then the Chaconne in D minor from the Partita No. 2 for violin, BWV 1004, as arranged and performed on solo guitar by Mr. Barrueco.

Various transcriptions of the Brandenburg Concerti exist for nearly every kind of ensemble, including, of course, multiple guitars. As a devotee of these works in something close to their original instrumentation, I found their invigorating performance a surprise and delight. It was captivating. Because the arranger was not named in the program, one might be hard pressed to figure out whether the success was due more to the arrangement or to the performance – most likely there was a debt to both.

Despite the blending of similar timbres from three guitars, there was a clarity of voicing and distinctness of entrances that brought this work to buoyant heights. Highlights included the exquisite end to the brief Adagio movement, where ensemble work was about as close to perfection as it can ever be, and the extremely light finale, liberated from the less flexible weightiness that can beset larger ensembles. It enjoyed a breathtaking balance between individual expressiveness and group momentum. I won’t soon forget the first entrance of the finale’s sixteenth-note motive being tossed between guitars – it was pure life-affirming joy.

About the second work, I’ll confess that as soon as I saw a solo guitar arrangement of Bach’s famous Chaconne in D minor on the program, I had some trepidation. Despite popular opinion, most reviewers do not enjoy being a “wet blanket,” but this reviewer has long had serious misgivings about the effectiveness of this piece for solo guitar, even in the most masterful hands. There is simply something about the grandeur and passion of the violin’s sustained legato lines, the strenuous double and triple stops and heightened resonance, that is perfectly suited to the cathedral-like architecture of this piece (with Busoni’s arrangement for piano coming in perhaps as close second); despite the powerful original (or because of it), guitarists have not been able to resist this Everest, including, among past artists, the noble Segovia. Anyway, with that disclosure behind us, one can say that Mr. Barrueco’s version is surely among the best for his instrument, and his performance was indeed thoroughly engaging. He is undoubtedly still on top of his game, with enormous artistry and virtuosity to share.

The second half opened with the Valses Poeticos of Granados, played by the Beijing Guitar Duo. Extremely well suited to their sensitive listening and flexible team work, this arrangement from the original piano version (arranger not listed) came off beautifully. It was richly fulfilling to hear the exchange of lines from one guitar to the other, with intimate expressiveness, and also to behold the inspired moments when they were breathing musically as one player. No nuance was beyond their conception. Bravissima!

The biggest thrills of the evening, though, were in the performances of all three guitarists, mentor and “protégés.” The selections from Goyescas were enchanting. Again, we had the energy and flexibility of youth combining with a musical savoir faire that has spanned generations. This is not to suggest, by the way, that the younger players are in any way missing their own musical savoir faire – the rubato in melodies traded between Ms. Su and Ms. Wang had all the heart and soul of old Spain. Though all seven movements were listed, only three were performed, El Pelele (“The Puppet” or “The Strawman” by some translations), The Maiden and the Nightingale, and El Fandango de Candil to finish. Each was alive with musical color, and each was played with the highest polish. It was an excellent finale to a superb concert.

For encores the lucky and enthusiastic audience members (including many guitar aficionados) were treated to a Danza by Cervantes from Mr. Barrueco’s native Cuba, and a crowd-pleasing encore (name not quite heard) from China, the land of the Beijing Duo. Congratulations are due to these exceptional performers and to the NY Guitar Seminar for a strong start to their series.

Amy E. Gustafson in Review

Amy E. Gustafson in Review

Amy E. Gustafson, pianist
Florence Gould Hall, French Institute, Alliance Française, New York, NY
June 9, 2017


A sizable crowd at Florence Gould Hall was treated on June 9th to an evening of Debussy played by pianist Amy E. Gustafson to mark the release of her new CD entitled Reverie. The CD includes Book II of the Préludes, Suite Bergamasque, L’Isle Joyeuse, and the title piece, Reverie. The recital program included nearly all of the works from the CD, with the exception of three of the Préludes (Les fées sont d’esquises danseuses, La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, and Les tierces alternées), and with the Reverie not listed but being added as an encore. It was a beautifully crafted program showing Ms. Gustafson to be a sincere artist with a deep commitment to this repertoire.


It is not easy to pull off an entire recital of Debussy, but Ms. Gustafson did just that, and not once did the music overstay its welcome. She is not a performer of overt drama or physical demonstrativeness, but if one listened rather than watching (the point, after all), one found her to have ample emotional range within a carefully defined tonal palette, along with a keen sense of shape and direction within that palette. She tended to avoid dynamic extremes and the flood of pedal in which many indulge, opting for a more “pen-and-ink” approach to Debussy’s fine details, and it was a delight to hear.


Where Debussy required, Ms. Gustafson showed a versatile sense of his more theatrical characterizations, conveying the bumptious pace of Général Lavine – eccentric, the whiff of Dickensian air in Hommage á S. Pickwick, Esq. P. P. M. P. C., and the sinister shimmer of the nymph Ondine (painted with far fewer brushstrokes than Ravel’s Ondine, but with a similar spirit).


At the same time, Ms. Gustafson was unafraid of the grays of Brouillards (Fog), the subtle shades in Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves), and the deathly stillness of Canope (Canopic Jar – the jar used for various remains of mummies). These three pieces combined could represent the kiss of death in a live recital, given the ever-decreasing attention spans of many audiences today, but this pianist credited her listeners with keen sensibilities, and she was rewarded with the same. She led her willing listeners on a journey of the imagination, and for that she won my complete admiration. The touching simplicity of Bruyères (Heather) was captured perfectly as well.


The brighter musical colors of La Puerta del Vino and Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) were welcome, but Ms. Gustafson was never bombastic, and she never overplayed. I might have even wanted a touch more fire in the “fireworks” – but this is again individual. Vive la différence!


Taking no intermission (another plus in my opinion), Ms. Gustafson followed the Préludes with the Suite Bergamasque. It was refreshing to hear this four-piece set in its entirety, as one so often hears selections from it, particularly the Clair de Lune and to a lesser extent the Passepied. One can always safely bet that heads will turn as the dreamy Clair de Lune opens, listeners looking towards another as if to say, “that’s our song” or “remember this, my favorite?” – and I won that bet again. By virtue of such familiarity, performing the piece can be somewhat daunting; Ms. Gustafson knew what she was doing, however, and she played it beautifully with only the tiniest of glitches. Notable was how she took time to let the music speak. The musical result was richly satisfying. The Minuet from the same suite did not fare quite as well, with a few lapses along its winding path, but the Passepied concluded the set beautifully. Throughout the recital, Ms. Gustafson had shown thorough attention to detail, including some expert pedaling (for example in Ondine), but her delicate approach was especially impressive in the Passepied.


L’Isle Joyeuse capped off the program with joy, even if occasionally this listener wanted more abandon. The beginning was a bit measured sounding and even the end, not quite as ecstatic as I’ve heard – but again, these matters are highly individual. (This listener also wanted to hear more of the crests and nadirs in each wave and perhaps a bit less of the textures in between).


All in all, these tonal scenes and vignettes seemed the perfect musical fare for Florence Gould Hall, a venue frequently used for cinematic arts, particularly French films. In lieu of subtitles, we had some very expressive and articulate program notes by the pianist. She clearly wanted to share her reactions to this music, and she did so in every possible way. It was a wonderful evening.


Without a doubt, the high point of the recital for this reviewer was the encore, Reverie. In a slower–than-usual tempo, Ms. Gustafson savored each moment of the daydream. It was truly moving, and I’d have to place it high on the list of my favorite renditions of this piece. If you’d like to hear it, you can hear something close to it (without the live performance magic but still beautiful) on her CD (visit


Key Pianists Presents Sara Davis Buechner in Review

Key Pianists Presents Sara Davis Buechner in Review

Key Pianists presents Sara Davis Buechner, piano,
Recital of Japanese Piano Music and Ibert’s Histoires
with guest artist, Yayoi Hirano, Noh/Kabuki Mime and Mask Dancer
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
June 1, 2017


Sara Davis Buechner needs little introduction within the world of pianists. She has enjoyed a high- profile career for several decades, launched in part by numerous major prizes, and she has played with many of the world’s finest orchestras and in the most prominent concert venues. Her biography states that her repertoire of more than 100 piano concertos ranges “from A (Albeniz) to Z (Zimbalist),” and I can attest that what is in between – along with her discography – is a tantalizing array of discoveries and treasures.

While it is no secret that Ms. Buechner’s repertoire ranges from the mainstream to the exotic and underappreciated, including such names as Friml, Suesse, and Rózsa, nothing prepared me for the power and originality of her Japanese-themed program at Weill Hall. It went far beyond what one might expect as a doffing of the hat to Japan (2017 being her 30th year as a Yamaha artist). She plumbed the depths of a pianistic goldmine that has simply remained largely untapped here in the US. The works of Kouji Taku (1904-1983), Yoshinao Nakada (1923-2000), and Yukiko Nishimura (b. 1969) were revelations.

The Japanese works on the program that Ms. Buechner did not discover or rediscover, she commissioned, namely the first work Ten Etudes for Piano (2010-2011), by Yukiko Nishimura (a pianist in her own right). From the very first Étude, Snowy Sky, one was mesmerized by the kaleidoscope of colors, shimmering evocations that the pianist projected with crystalline sound, vivid tonal imagination and exceptional control. There emerged a definite kinship with works of the French Impressionists here, and yet this music was distinctly Japanese and bracingly new.

Ms. Buechner is capable of every shade on the musical spectrum and played each successive etude somehow more stunningly than the last. The set of ten pieces demanded nearly a half hour of pianistic wizardry of all kinds, but Ms. Buechner never flagged, and I’m happy to report that the listeners did not either. Fanfare dazzled with its energy and brilliance. Windmill intrigued with its tone-painting, augmented in sections by percussive knocking under the keyboard. Drops drew out more of the quieter colorist in Ms. Buechner, and the dance-like Hide and Seek was feisty and rambunctious through fistfuls of notes and hand-crossings. There were elements of modern jazz and minimalism apparent, but no piece in ten could be stylistically pigeonholed.

There was added fun in observing specific pianistic challenges as well. While Tango, for example, was wildly virtuosic all around, Daydreaming featured left hand alone, and Rock Candy exploited the right hand alone (the much less common solo hand). Harvest Moon, a transcription of one of the composer’s orchestral works, capped off the set with exuberance. These pieces will undoubtedly attract many pianistic daredevils and musicians, though it is difficult to imagine Ms. Buechner’s renditions being surpassed. She has, in a sense, created these pieces as well as inspiring them, and she is one with them. In the words of W. B. Yeats, “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?”

If the influence of jazz was prevalent in Ms. Nishimura’s pieces, it was even more the case in Variations on a Theme by Poulenc by Kouji Taku (1904-1983) a classical pianist (and student of Alfred Cortot) who had a lifetime of experience with French cabaret style. Ms. Buechner’s own excellent notes tell us that the Taku work was published in a 1960 Zen-On anthology and had almost no pianists perform it since its composition in 1957, except for Arthur Loesser in 1961, and, of course, herself. It is a fantastic (re-)discovery based on Poulenc’s well-loved Mouvement Perpetuel No. 1, a sweetly nonchalant theme with an ambling B-flat bass, a perfect point from which Taku could launch into an ostinato variation, tango, blues, and then samba-like flights of fancy. What a fantastic finale to the first half – bravissima!

As hinted above, a French tone to the evening was never far, but it was overt, of course, in the inclusion of Histoires (“Stories), the marvelous set of ten character pieces by French composer Jacques Ibert (1890-1962). Each of the ten miniatures was paired – incorporating the Japanese theme – with a performance by guest Kabuki mime and mask dancer, Yayoi Hirano, wearing traditional masks that she had created. One almost forgot about the pianist, playing from score (as she did, understandably, for the entire evening), with a string of varied masks poised on the piano lid; the music, however, was never forgotten. Ms. Buechner presented the “stories” vividly through her sensitive playing, as did Ms. Hirano with her movements. It was an intriguing conception, even to this listener who loves this music by itself.

This revelatory evening closed with Sonata for Piano (1949-1969) by Yoshinao Nakada, known in the US chiefly for some popular student miniatures, it seems. The Sonata is a large, complex, neo-Romantic work that represented a great struggle for the composer (as one might surmise from the composition timespan), and it will frankly take this listener a bit more listening to fully embrace. The composer, an ex-kamikaze pilot who survived World War II, poured his torment into it – that was quite clear – and moments were extremely stirring. I am grateful to Ms. Buechner for my first hearing of it, as well for first hearings of Taku and Nishimura, and I hope for more.

Loud ovations were met with some endearing quips from the pianist about encores being an unnecessary delay before the first martini – plus a poem and an original haiku by the pianist about the NY Mets’ recent performance (translated). I wouldn’t know about the Mets, but the performance I attended was phenomenal! Long may Ms. Buechner continue to find and commission great treasures to play for us! She has already given much to music, but her Japanese repertoire may become the most important contribution yet. She is well-situated to do more, as she now divides her time between Takatsuki, Osaka, Japan and Philadelphia, where she joined the illustrious faculty of Temple University in 2016 – lucky piano students!

Kudos to everyone involved, particularly to Key Pianists and Terry Eder for making it happen (see Frank Daykin’s interview from 9/14/16 Unlocking Beauty: A Conversation with Terry Eder).


Rondo Young Artist 2017 Presents Rondo Forma Competition First Place Winners’ Recital in Review

Rondo Young Artist 2017 Presents Rondo Forma Competition First Place Winners’ Recital in Review

Rondo Young Artist 2017 Presents Rondo Forma Competition First Place Winners’ Recital
Moeko Chiyozaki, Jui-Sheng Li, and Yan-Li piano; Jisu Choi, violin
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
May 19, 2017


Three pianists and one violinist were the performers in Weill Recital Hall as First Place winners of the Rondo Forma Competition under the auspices of the organization entitled Rondo Young Artist (, co-founded several years ago by Emilia Oskotsky, Executive Director, and Ilinka Manova, Artistic Director). Each performer gave what amounted to a mini-recital (approximately twenty-five to thirty minutes), and each proved to be quite worthy of the distinguished performing opportunity.

Moeko Chiyozaki of Japan was the first pianist, playing a program of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor (BWV 849), the first movement of the Brahms Piano Sonata in C Major, Op. 1, and the first movement (Allegro moderato) of Bartok’s Piano Sonata (Sz. 80). Ms. Chiyozaki conveyed the somber beauty of Bach’s Prelude with earnest dedication, proceeding with admirable control to its highly complex five-voice fugue. Her playing was marked by clarity of voicing and evenness of touch, all qualities which this work requires to a great degree. One would have loved to hear her in more Bach, but alas, there were time limits. Her Brahms followed, a movement of sweeping gestures and drama, which appeared not as well suited to her temperament as the Bach, but was nonetheless a good performance overall. Time will tell what repertoire will attract this pianist most powerfully. She has the fingers to play whatever she chooses, as was evident in her Bartok movement, which closed her set with good percussive energy. Ms. Chiyozaki was clearly up to its demands, and it was refreshing to hear a pianist not brutalizing the instrument, as some do in this work.

Incidentally, the program did not list the performers’ ages, and only one teacher was named for each performer on the final page, despite each player listing in their biographies an array of teachers and musicians whose master classes they have attended. One can therefore only guess about Ms. Chiyozaki’s age, but her biography stated that she will begin doctoral studies at SUNY at Stonybrook in the fall of 2017, having already obtained degrees from Elisabeth University and Illinois State University, as well as a Professional Studies Certificate at the Manhattan School of Music with Miyoko Lotto. It appears that she can look forward to an exciting musical future.

The second pianist of the evening was Jui-Sheng Li, a graduate of the National Taiwan Normal University (BFA) and the University of Wyoming (MM), and currently based in Montréal, Canada. He will begin his doctoral studies in music at McGill University in the fall, having already completed his Artist Diploma there with Kyoko Hashimoto.

Mr. Li played just one work, Schumann’s Fantasie Op. 17, a monumental work (even literally monumental, considering its intended role in helping raise funds for a statue of Beethoven in Bonn!). Though we heard only this single work from Mr. Li, it was really all one needed to hear to gain a picture of the player. Mr. Li is a musician of integrity and depth, and it was a joy to hear this work in his hands. Though the excerpting of movements that occurred throughout the rest of the evening cannot be held against the other young performers at all, given time constraints and possibly even contest guidelines (and this listener is not such a purist in that sense anyway), still, the selection of this magnificent piece in its entirety spoke volumes. It was a wonderful reminder that, through the tension and glitz of auditions, tapes and prizes, the ultimate star is the music itself. Mr. Li captured its ardor, wistfulness, and reverie with sensitivity to tone and phrasing. One looks forward to hearing more from this young artist.

The last of the three pianists was Yan Li, native of Shenzhen, China, and currently a Bachelor of Music candidate at the Manhattan School of Music with Dr. Joanne Polk. As with the other performers, one can only guess at the age of this young player, but her biography states that she began studies at age six and she has been winning prizes in competitions since 2005.

Ms. Li played with a fierce intensity (matched by a fiery red dress) and gave the music her all. She opened with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F Major, KV 533 (the opening Allegro), with rhythmic precision, crisp articulations, fine fleet finger-work, and extreme attention to detail. One would be hard pressed to find flaws! Ramping up the intensity still further, she played the first movement of Schumann’s Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor, projecting well its extremes of dynamics and emotions. She also showed the ability to switch directions “on a dime” – an essential for Schumann’s mercurial flights. Most brilliant though was Ms. Li’s performance of Impronta Digitale by Judith Zaimont, a work remembered best perhaps as one of the contemporary options in the 2001 Van Cliburn Competition. This toccata-like piece is an ideal vehicle for displaying finger technique, so Ms. Li, with her considerable digital prowess, gave it an impressive ride. She should get much mileage from it in future years (and it may even become a signature piece – or like its title suggests, a “fingerprint”).

The evening’s violinist, Jisu Choi, had the role of concluding the recital, and she did so commendably. A student of Lucie Robert, her biography lists that she is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Music degree at the Manhattan School of Music.

Ms. Choi started with J. S. Bach’s Sonata in A minor, No. 2, BWV 1003, just the first movement, Grave. It was a good movement for her to find her musical voice and adjust to the hall, so one could almost ignore the unresolved feeling at its close, omitting subsequent movements (on the dominant, no less, as Bach’s way of leading onward). The transition gave an audition-like feeling to the recital, but following it with something neo-classical was a good idea, in this case Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major. The movements selected were the Toccata, Aria II, and Capriccio, their sinewy lines showing Ms. Choi’s agility and precision. She is a gifted and energetic performer of considerable potential. Concluding with Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella, Op. 43, she was able to indulge in a completely different kind of sound, warmer and freer with a liberal use of slides. Her very capable collaborator at the piano was Kyoung Im Kim. It was an excellent close to a fine recital.

Congratulations are in order to the directors of the Rondo Forma competition for selecting and presenting four very deserving young artists, an experience that will undoubtedly be a stepping stone to their next exciting achievements.


Rutgers International Pianists Gala in Review

Rutgers International Pianists Gala in Review

Rutgers International Pianists Gala Featuring Pianists of the Mason Gross School of the Arts
Min Kwon, Artistic Director and Curator
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
May 8, 2017


The Mason Gross School of the Arts of Rutgers University presents yearly piano galas which feature consistently fascinating, thematically unified programs and high-level performances. Though the performers generally include numerous doctoral students (and alumni), the concerts also include talented undergraduates, giving us a sneak peek at some largely undiscovered potential stars.

Past galas have included a Schumann and Chopin 200th anniversary concert in 2010 and an all-Debussy 150th anniversary one in 2012, among others. This year, the uniting theme was diversity itself, drawing upon the varied cultural backgrounds of the nineteen participating students. The program was designed to take listeners “Around the World” with music from fifteen different countries (with duplications only in the cases of Russia, the US, and Korea). Though the concept is not at all a first (in fact, “Around the World” was a favorite titled program of this reviewer’s pianist father, Robert Schrade), the idea lent itself quite naturally to a concert including nineteen musicians from fifteen countries.

The musicians at Mason Gross make up a virtual United Nations, with the gifted and gracious Artistic Director, pianist, and teacher, Min Kwon, at the helm. The variety was heightened by native garb from the performers’ respective countries, and Ms. Kwon, who emceed from her chair onstage, joked about her role bringing to mind a Miss Universe pageant. The word “pageant” was apt, in its best sense, especially with such a fantastic array of colors and sounds.

The music began with Hui Diao of China playing four selections from Eight Memories in Watercolor (1979) by Tan Dun (b. 1957). Blue Nun, Staccato Beans, Herdboy’s Song, and Sunrain were the folk-inspired pieces, played with visible immersion and finesse. Music of Manos Hadjidakis (1925-1994) followed, played by George Lykogiannis of Greece. Two dances, Syrtos and Kalamatianos from For a Little White Seashell, Op. 1 (1947-48), brought some exotic rhythms and seven-eight meter, and, as Ms. Kwon suggested, some thoughts of ouzo!

 Though the musical itinerary zig-zagged, flow and variety were clearly a priority. Spanish music followed well after the Greek, and Enriqueta Somarriba of Spain was up next playing Aragonesa from Cuatro Piezas Españolas (1909) and Ritual Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo Suite (1915) by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). Both were handled with aplomb and a minimum of physical display. This reviewer was almost relieved not to see the popular Arthur Rubinstein-esque forearm antics in the Fire Dance, just Ms. Somarriba’s natural, individual interpretation.

Michael Bulychev-Okser of Russia followed with two transcriptions, Liebesleid (1923) of Sergei Rachmaninoff after Fritz Kreisler and Liszt’s The Nightingale (1842) after Alyabyev. Both renditions, surefire through some dense virtuoso writing, will perhaps acquire more elasticity with time, though they showed considerable strength. Following these came Sakura-Sakura (A Fantasy for Piano, 1953) by Kozaburo Hirai (1910-2002), which took the listener to Japan via a well-phrased, thoughtful interpretation by Junko Ichikawa. We sadly missed the next programmed work by Nodar Gabunia (1933-2000) which was to be played by Alexander Beridze, an excellent pianist I have reviewed before, but who was unfortunately away. Ms. Mijung Cho from Korea thus was next, playing Korean Rhapsody (1975) by Eun-Hoe Park (b. 1930) with – again – considerable pianistic facility through some very florid composition.

Three works from the US completed the first half. Michael Maronich gave an intelligent reading to Interlude II (2003) by Leon Kirchner (1919-2009), bringing interpretive sensitivity to what is often treated as chiefly cerebral. He seems well suited to play more music in this vein. Kevin Madison, next, played his own composition entitled room for milk (2017) – a fascinating piece with driving rhythms and jazz elements (including a final reference to Joplin’s rag, The Entertainer). Mr. Madison remarked that as a musician of mixed race he wanted to address the lack of representation of African-Americans in classical music, and he is off to a promising start. Carl Patrick Bolleia concluded the half with the ever-delightful Serpent’s Kiss from The Garden of Eden (1974) by William Bolcom (b. 1938). Ms. Kwon showed insight in matching this humorous piece to such an uninhibited player. Though some stomping was overly loud in this listener’s opinion – the stealth and suavity of the “serpent” were well captured elsewhere.

To open the second half, we heard the impressive pianist Anna Keiserman of Russia playing Basso Ostinato (1961) by Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932). A virtual pianistic tightrope, this piece leaves no split second for error, and there were none to speak of. Ms. Keiserman played brilliantly (and from memory), quite a feat considering the nerve-racking nature of these group concerts. What followed was aptly described by Ms. Kwon as “Liszt meets Liberace,” a fantasy on a Philippine folksong entitled Ang Larawan (c.1943) by Francisco Buencamino, Sr. (1883-1952). While the highly florid piece interested one chiefly as a novelty, the performer, Abraham Alinea of the Philippines, was noteworthy. While one tries in reviews to react to the music and not to biographies, it was shocking to learn from Ms. Kwon’s preface that he had been self-taught until only three years ago, when formal lessons were begun – spurred coincidentally by a course with Ms. Kwon entitled, “How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?” Apparently he learned how very quickly.

Playing late in such a long evening is challenging, but these young players gave their all. Shimrit Tsiporen of Israel commanded one’s full attention with her mature artistry in Pastorale and Toccata from Five Pieces for Piano, Op.34 (1943) by Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984). Two selections (Chula and Valsa Caprichosa) from Cenas Portuguesas, Op. 9 (1887), by José Vianna da Motta (1868-1948), were engaging in the hands of Nuno Marques of Portugal. Francesco Barfoed from Denmark followed with two pieces of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) first an early work, the Humoresque-Bagatelles, Op. 11, No. 1 (1897) followed by the third of Three Piano Pieces, Op. 59. Mr. Barfoed handled the contrasting styles and textures with assurance and artistry remarkable for one so young. I-Wen Wang followed Nielsen with a work by Yi-Chih Lu (b. 1982) based on a traditional folk song entitled Grasshopper Playing Tricks on a Rooster (2014). An interesting piece, set in alternating jazz and “classical” idioms (including a reference to Paganini’s 24th Caprice), it was given a crowd-pleasing performance.

Approaching the evening’s home stretch and representing Chile, composer Patricio Molina (b. 1989) performed his own piece, A Nicanor Parra (Chilean Rhapsody, composed in 2012), demonstrating a fluent command of the instrument as well as a natural sense of his national music. He also added a Brazilian Samba he had newly composed, in fact for Ms. Kwon (one must add “resident muse” to her job description!). The concert, in all honesty, was a bit too long (starting at 7:30 and ending close to 10), but it is understandable that Ms. Kwon, as dedicatee, would tend to yield to such a request. One felt for the subsequent performers, who had waited all evening for their moments.

The concert closed with offerings from Korea and Cuba, Three Korean Minyo (2014) by Edward Niedermaier (1983) given a superb performance by Rachel Yunkyung Choo of Korea, and works of Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963) including Danza de los Ñañigos (1930), La Comparsa, and ¡Y la Negra Bailaba! played with mellow artistry by Erikson Rojas, soon going off to assume a professorship himself. Bravo to them and to all who participated in the occasion. One can only admire Ms. Kwon and all those at Mason Gross for this entire undertaking. One eagerly awaits the next!


Duo Rosa in Review

Duo Rosa in Review

Duo Rosa Return World Tour
Duo Rosa: Stephany Ortega, soprano, and Léna Kollmeier, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 8, 2017


An amazing surprise awaited me Saturday evening in the form of a recital by soprano Stephany Ortega and pianist Léna Kollmeier, collectively known as “Duo Rosa.” I had not heard of either of these musicians, but I expect that the world will be hearing much more from them. The recital was part of a promotional tour for their new CD entitled “Return” recently released on the Et’cetera label (“Return” CD), and if the CD is anything close to the level of their live performance, one can bet it is a knockout.


The title “Return” refers to the life journey so far of Ms. Ortega, who ten years ago left her home country, the Dominican Republic, to pursue voice, piano, and conducting studies in Luxembourg (where she now holds dual citizenship), and at the Brussels Royal Conservatory, where she first met Belgian pianist, Léna Kollmeier, leading to a warm musical friendship. They have since collaborated in music from Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Spain, and Latin America. The program was structured so that nearly all of the second half was Latin American, hence the title, “Return.”


There were several factors that made this recital so stunning. First of all, obviously, there are the talents of the performers. Ms. Ortega is an extremely gifted coloratura soprano with a warm, powerful, and flexible sound, very true intonation with seemingly little effort, and an immediacy of expressiveness that engaged the listener every moment. Ms. Kollmeier provided unfailing support with a sensitive ear and excellent timing.


Secondly, there were the repertoire choices, simply delicious, carefully alternating the meditative, fiery, lush, quiet and dance-like qualities of music. From the well-named chill-inducing Extase of Henri Duparc, to the playful Guitares et Mandolines of Camille Saint-Saëns, France was handsomely represented. Le lilas of Claude Debussy was so breathtakingly beautiful that one could practically inhale the fragrance of the lilacs. Sombrero of Cécile Chaminade was delightfully cheeky, and the Sérénade Toscane of Gabriel Fauré was perfectly lilting. Les filles de Cadix of Leo Delibes, a specialty of the late great Victoria de los Angeles, was flirtatious and brilliant, even at the rather treacherous final high notes.


Spain was represented not only in music that was “French with a Spanish heart” to paraphrase Ms. Ortega, but also by music from Spain itself. There were folk-like and meditative selections from Joaquín Rodrigo’s Doce canciones españolas – “De Ronda,” “Adela,” and “En Jerez de la Frontera” – all done to a tee. It was quite clear how much these two musicians love this repertoire, and the feeling was contagious. From the dreamy “Descúbrase el pensamiento” from Canciones amatorias of Enrique Granados to the energizing “El Tumba y lé” from Canciones clásicas españolas of Fernando Obradors, the journey was a joy. We enjoyed more of Obradors – the Chiquitita la novia- on the second half. If there were minor glitches here and there, they simply did not matter. The spirit carried the day. No Spanish group would be complete without Manuel de Falla, and we heard his Olas gigantes in an expansive and soulful rendition. A piano solo rounded out the set, his Ritual Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo, affording Ms. Kollmeier a chance to command the stage, to explore pianistic colors, and to exercise some of the demonstrative forearm technique that Artur Rubinstein made famous in this piece. She gave the piece a good ride, despite a slight mix-up with page-turner before she began. Perhaps it was Ms. Ortega’s kind introduction of the solo, full of affection and admiration, that distracted the page-turner, who started to leave as well, requiring the pianist to corral him back.


That last sentence brings us to the next factor in this duo’s success. It is so clear that there is camaraderie and respect between the two musicians, even from the way Ms. Ortega truly listens to every piano solo and intro, turning towards the pianist without any semblance of waiting, as one sadly sees in the less musical divas (there was no pacing, no playing with fingers, no looks that say, “are you done yet” – yes, I’ve seen it). Related to this appreciation for the piano parts may be Ms. Ortega’s own piano background, as she holds a Premier Prix in piano from the Royal Conservatory of Brussels along with her singing degrees. Undoubtedly these piano studies are part of her sensitivity to harmonic nuance and exceptional overall understanding.


The Latin American component of the program offered some favorites along with some lesser-known gems. From Argentina, we heard Piazzolla’s Oblivion, a piece many have heard in various arrangements, but which was exquisite in its vocal form. From Brazil, we heard Samba clássico of Heitor Villa-Lobos, and from Mexico, we heard Juramé by Mariá Grever, who, as we learned from the introductory remarks, studied with Debussy. Incidentally, without a whit of pretense, the duo made the evening an educational as well as artistic experience. The program ended a delightful Cuban song, Ernesto Lecuona’s El Dulcero, livened up with maracas, as were several other songs.


The balance of the program was music from Ms. Ortega’s home country, the Dominican Republic (and as the reader has surely guessed, this review is not going in the order of the program, which was crafted with particular regard to flow and variety). We heard Luis Rivera’s Serenata en La-b, Asi es mi amor by José de las Mercedes Garcia, Pajarito cantador by Julio Alberto Hernandez, and Ven by Manuel Sánchez Acosta. The warmth and light of the Caribbean flooded the room with these heartfelt pieces. One could only marvel at how this music simultaneously tugs at the heartstrings and makes one want to dance. Rafael Solano’s Por Amor, sung with passion, was followed by Ms. Ortega’s introduction of her “Amor” (in the audience), after his trip from Europe that day – a moving moment. Ms. Kollmeier resumed the party at this point with another solo, Rafael “Bullumba” Landestoy’s Danza Loca, a fun and jazzy piece. Mr. Landestoy, whom I had to research, is currently in his nineties, and is known, despite his humility and low profile, as a leading Dominican composer.


One must not omit the opening of the program, a work entitled “Aller-Retour” commissioned by the duo from composer Camille Kerger (b. 1957, Luxembourg). It was ethereal and otherworldly, in a way a fitting point of departure for this journey of the musical imagination. As this piece began, one wished for printed text in the program, as, even with the best diction in the world and a reasonably fluent listener, one misses some meaning without it. None of the songs, in fact, had texts provided, and to include them would have enhanced the experience. One would make a bigger issue of it, but it happened that the musical delivery, complete with theatrical gestures and facial expressions, so often compensated. These young performers provide the musical equivalent of supertitles.


A large, appreciative audience gave a standing ovation, earning an encore of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” It was a joy, and a nice doff of the hat to New York. In the words of the Gershwin song, itself, “who could ask for anything more?”


The Center for Musical Excellence Presents Simon Hwang in Review

The Center for Musical Excellence Presents Simon Hwang in Review

The Center for Musical Excellence Presents Simon Hwang
Simon Hwang, Piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 6, 2017


A very auspicious recital debut was performed last Thursday by Simon Sunghoon Hwang at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. It is difficult to believe that this was actually his New York debut, as this pianist has already accumulated such a long list of credentials. There was no question of his being more than ready for the occasion.

Mr. Hwang’s biography lists forty prizes in piano competitions, in addition to special interpretive awards. As Min Kwon (Director of the Center for Musical Excellence) quipped during her introductory remarks, “I didn’t know there even were that many competitions.” As an extremely active professor and pianist herself, of course Ms. Kwon was joking, but what is clear is the formidable work that Mr. Hwang has done. To compete in such pianistic trials, one needs considerable polish, a grasp of repertoire from various style periods, and perhaps most of all, nerves of steel – Mr. Hwang appears to possess all of these, plus a burning commitment to his profession. One might not have agreed with each interpretive decision in his highly varied program, but that’s the nature of the art, and there was little question of the engagement and intent behind each work.

His first half opened with Alborada en Aurinx by Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002), moving on to Haydn’s great Sonata in E-flat Hob. XVI:52, and concluding with the monumental Chaconne in D minor, arranged by Ferrucio Busoni from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 BWV 1004. A second half of Scriabin Deux Poèmes Op. 32, Liszt Ballade No. 2 in B minor, and Ravel’s La Valse made up a program of considerable technical, stylistic and coloristic demands.

The opening Montsalvatge was a joy to hear. First of all, it is seldom played, so it was a fresh experience – I’ve actually never heard it in recital until this week, only on recording. Secondly, having heard it only in recordings in which the challenging, dissonant nature of it rendered it rather inaccessible, I was pleasantly surprised to hear it start with such sensitivity of phrasing and gentle colors, sensuous evocations of dawn. It built to quite a fever pitch in what was an altogether winning opening.

Haydn, next, was a good change of style, though I had trouble agreeing with Mr. Hwang’s conception. I always think of this Sonata as one of the more Beethovenian of the Haydn Sonatas, with its declamatory, almost gruff opening setting off an ensuing drama of contrasts. It is the last of Haydn’s Sonatas, perhaps the most substantial, yet in Mr. Hwang’s reading it seemed light almost to the point of being facile, a quality underscored by some superfluous hand gestures. Again, such differences of opinion often arise, and one has to be glad for them. Also, if all seemed to veer towards the Mozartean side of the classical spectrum, one wonders whether perhaps this interpretation was colored by Mr. Hwang’s decade-plus of work in a piano duet ensemble called Duo Arte Mozart (with pianist Alexey Lebedev). At any rate, his suave approach was most effective in the last movement, where some witty turns of phrase and harmony were highlighted.

The Bach-Busoni Chaconne was a rousing closer before intermission, and Mr. Hwang played it with tremendous intensity. Some pianists tend to favor more unity of tempo in this work than he does, but again there are umpteen different plausible interpretations possible here. Minor differences of opinion aside, it was a dramatic and virtuosic performance. He brought out interesting inner voices and lines and created interesting washes of sound with the pedal, all which marked his as an individual interpretation. Also – and it probably goes without saying, based on his competition track record – he missed nary a note!

The second half of the program exploited Mr. Hwang’s gifts for color in the Scriabin Op. 32, and the first Poème was especially sensitively played. The craggy second Poème was bursting with passion, and Mr. Hwang was persuasive and committed in each musical impulse.

Liszt’s Ballade in B minor, up next, was well-played with stormy bravura. It served as an effective transition to Ravel’s La Valse, the finale of the program, which again built to quite a furor. La Valse is an immensely difficult piece to play, as one strives for effects best conveyed (obviously) by a full orchestra to send the waltz airborne – but by the end Mr. Hwang triumphed. His pacing proved ultimately masterful. Whatever one might have missed in orchestral color initially was somehow made up for in the building swirl of momentum and thunderous climaxes.

An enthusiastic ovation resulted in an encore – Earl Wild’s Etude on “Embraceable You.” This piece is now nearly ubiquitous in recitals, but justifiably so, as it does make a sweetly sentimental encore. It was lovingly played here, actually one of the highlights of the evening.

Congratulations are in order for what was, all in all, a very successful debut. There is little question as to Mr. Hwang being safely ensconced in his pianistic role.

Kara Huber in Review

Kara Huber in Review

Kara Huber, Piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
March 16, 2017



An absolutely dazzling New York solo debut was given this week by American pianist Kara Huber. If that is “cutting to the chase” rather quickly, compared to the usual scene-setting introduction, I figured I’d better commit it to paper quickly before I might start to believe that the whole evening was a mirage. It was not, of course, a mirage – but a very rare achievement, one that those without the regular habit of attending concerts will have sadly missed. There are many fine players out there today, without question, but to hear such a fiendishly difficult program presented with such seemingly effortless polish, maturity, insight, grace, and stamina to burn leaves one simply dumbfounded – and yes, this is coming from a reviewer who has played (and taught) a sufficient amount of the same repertoire to develop some strong opinions.

One noticed first the interesting program itself, beautifully conceived to open with four of the Etudes by David Rakowski (b. 1958), a major work of Joan Tower (b. 1938), three confections of Earl Wild (from Seven Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs), and, after intermission, the complete Op. 32 (Thirteen Preludes) of Sergei Rachmaninoff. The general trajectory led the listener in reverse chronology from the bright and brash hues of the witty Rakowski into the sometimes dark ruminations of Rachmaninoff’s 1910 opus, with a change of wardrobe to match. Suffice it to say that it worked.

Incidentally, Ms. Huber has a captivating stage presence, but as this reviewer is indifferent as to whether pianists look like trolls, goblins, or goddesses, that aspect is a plus more for the visually oriented mobs.

One noticed next that there was a substantial set of credentials in Ms. Huber’s biographical notes (for more, see – but again, many years of reading these have made it all fade into so much verbiage. She has done quite a lot, but undoubtedly there is much more to come.

One noticed next: the playing! Opening with Rakowski’s Etude #52, Moody’s Blues (2003), Ms. Huber made short work of this perpetual motion chordal toccata, exhibiting fearless steadiness, riveting machine wrists, and charisma to boot. I am actually not a huge fan of this “Rock and Roll Etude on repeated chords” but it was such an invigorating opening in qualified hands that it won one over. Following (with an unannounced switching of order) came the Etude #25, Fists of Fury (1999). Again, Ms. Huber rode it as a vehicle for her prodigious pianistic skills. The next, Etude #30 A Gliss is Just a Gliss (2000), was a sheer delight in playful glissando acrobatics, and the conclusion, Etude #68 Absofunkinlutely (2005) captured the audience with its infectious and energetic “funk” rhythms. Mr. Rakowski is to be treasured for livening up the piano repertoire with close to 100 of these often humorous and appealing etudes on different facets of pianism (pianists who did not know that: get to work!). Ms. Huber, though, is to be commended for tackling such formidable challenges with ease and panache. One could only imagine the joy for Mr. Rakowski, who was present for a bow.

Continuing in the contemporary music vein, Ms. Huber performed the work entitled No Longer Very Clear by Joan Tower, one of the pillars in the world of American composers today. Each of the four movements relates to a line from the John Ashbery poem, “No Longer Very Clear,” including Holding a Daisy (1996), Or Like a … an Engine (1994), Vast Antique Cubes (2000), and Throbbing Still (2000). It is a challenging and evocative work, thorny, and of great scope (and lasting close to 18 minutes in duration), and Ms. Huber was as persuasive in interpreting it as one could hope for from any pianist. The composer, who was present for a bow, appeared thrilled, and one can easily see why. One expects young composers to be lining up in hopes that Ms. Huber will champion their works.

Three of Earl Wild’s Seven Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs (1989) capped off the first half with more immediately appealing “hummable” audience pleasers. We heard The Man I Love, Embraceable You, and I Got Rhythm, much-appreciated gems which showed a touch of Ms. Huber’s flair for good old-fashioned melody with frothy filigree.

One needed to recover from exhaustion just thinking about the energy involved in such a demanding first half, but the second half featured none other than the complete 13 Preludes Op. 32 (1910) by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The Preludes in general may not be as overtly rigorous as some of the larger works or even the Etudes-Tableaux, but – make no mistake – these are fiercely demanding works, obviously more so when played as a set. They were, in a word, flawless. Let’s repeat that: flawless! Not only could Ms. Huber’s performances go straight to disc with minimal edits, but they were interpreted beautifully lucidly, with no wallowing or self-indulgence. Each possessed a sense of shape and direction in every phrase, a keen awareness of the overall composition, and ample technique for each challenge. Moving from delicacy to power, from extroverted drama to quiet solemnity, the miracle of Rachmaninoff’s composition shone through, a testament to this superb performer. A highlight was the E minor Prelude (No. 4), which emerged as no “mere” Prelude, but epic in scope.

Consistent with the success of the evening were the very helpful program notes by John Bowen. On a critical note, there probably ought to have been attribution for twelve of the Preludes’ thirteen thumbnail descriptions, which one realized upon reading the twelfth, an especially beautiful one that cited “harp-like figurations running like water down the window-panes of a Russian dacha.” Those words originated in David Fanning’s excellent notes for a Steven Osborne Hyperion CD. Surely there was no intent on Mr. Bowen’s part to claim credit (as there were quotation marks for each characterization), yet still it seems that Mr. Fanning deserved a nod. Aside from that omission, kudos for such an effort to render the music accessible.

One had the sense that Ms. Huber could have played several more recitals after her standing ovation, but she wisely let Rachmaninoff have the last word. What a smashing debut!



Philip Petkov in Review

Philip Petkov in Review

Philip Petkov, Piano
The Consulate General of Bulgaria
New York, NY
February 23, 2017


Far from the madding crowds of New York’s larger venues, in an elegant second-floor room at the Consulate General of Bulgaria, a gathering of music lovers enjoyed a recital of piano music that felt in some ways like a throwback to an earlier day. The concert, which seemed scantily publicized but drew a warm, appreciative group of listeners, showcased the artistry of Belarussian-born pianist Philip Petkov, who studied in Bulgaria and now lives in the United States. His playing, including well-loved selections of Scarlatti, Chopin, Scriabin, and Gershwin, matched the surroundings in its unassuming elegance.

Mr. Petkov opened with two Scarlatti Sonatas, the very popular E major, K. 380, L. 23 (a favorite of Vladimir Horowitz, among others) and the perhaps equally well-known C major (K. 159, L. 104). One was struck immediately by Mr. Petkov’s meticulous attention to each tone and his delicacy of articulation – a joy to hear. Liberal flexibility of tempo, some inspired subito piano moments, and other surprises bespoke a free and unabashedly Romantic approach. The omission of repeats kept things flowing.

A Chopin group followed, starting with the Polonaise in C-sharp minor Op. 26, No. 1. Many pianists tend to gravitate towards the more bravura works – like the “Heroic” Polonaise (Op. 53), the “Military” (Op. 40, No. 1) – so Mr. Petkov’s more lyrical selection was refreshing. What emerged in the playing as well was Mr. Petkov’s sensitivity to each harmonic turn and his careful shading. In a city where pianists abound, this should not be an unusual quality to find, but many pianists do steamroll right over the nuances. There still is, in Chopin’s tonal world, such unplumbed depth that, even after generations of commercial over-exposure of so much of his music, there is always more to hear; it does however, take sensitive musicians to find it. Mr. Petkov did admirably.

The Polonaise was followed by both pieces from Op. 64, the C-sharp minor Waltz and the D-flat (“Minute”) Waltz. These were played with the requisite fleetness and charm (despite the occasional glitch), though one sometimes wanted greater sheen to the more obvious upper line and less absorption in the interesting tonal discoveries beneath. Mr. Petkov has the lithe technical control to do both.

Moving on to a larger-scale work, the program proceeded with Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52. If one had characterized this pianist as chiefly a player of delicate miniatures, one was corrected in short order. Mr. Petkov showed ample power and stamina for its many demands and showed us the beauty of holding power in reserve until it is absolutely time to unleash it, which he did to powerful effect. The infamous coda was navigated well, at a rather measured tempo, but with plenty of intensity.

Two of Scriabin’s loveliest Etudes followed, the gentle Op. 8, No. 4 in B major and Op. 8, No. 5 in E major. They were again sensitively played, with the E major enjoying some highly skillfully rendered legato octaves.

The recital was capped off with Gershwin’s Three Preludes, played with gusto. It was a joy to witness the relish that Mr. Petkov took in the first Prelude’s syncopations and in the guttural expressiveness of the central blues Prelude. The third Prelude brought the concert to a fiery close, inspiring hearty applause and the audience joyfully into the reception hall. It was a highly fulfilling evening, and I look forward to hearing this sensitive player again.


Karwendel Artists Gala Concert in Review

Karwendel Artists Gala Concert in Review

Karwendel Music Festival Faculty and Alumni: Javor Bračić, piano, Xi Wang, Sarah Kuo, Sven Stucke, and Rimma Benyumova, violin; Liyuan Liu, viola; Konstantin Bruns, cello; and Guest Artist, James Kim, cello
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
February 16, 2017

If you haven’t heard of the Karwendel Music Festival (KMF) in Mittenwald, Germany, don’t feel embarrassed, as it only had its inaugural season in 2016; you may, however, want to learn the name, as it seems headed to become a fixture among music festivals. Founded by vibrant young violinist directors, Xi Wang and Sven Stucke, the festival, which takes place in the latter part of August, has already enjoyed an auspicious start. According to the program notes for their recent New York recital, they’ve presented seven concerts, plus workshops, masterclasses, lectures, and panel discussions, “showcasing 10 internationally acclaimed artists and 18 fellows representing seven countries and four continents.” Perhaps just as meaningfully, they’ve awarded a €20,000 French violin bow made by Claude Thomassin to an outstanding alumna to use free for a year.

Ms. Wang is a persuasive spokesperson for the KMF mission, and she introduced their program by expressing the founders’ and directors’ desire to “give back” and help younger musicians, putting resources at their disposal. “We’ve been there,” she explained. It was striking to hear these words from a musician who seems so young herself!

Youthful vibrancy characterized the entire evening. Opening with just the first movement of the ever popular Café Music (for piano trio) by Paul Schoenfeld, violinist director Xi Wang joined pianist and KMF faculty member Javor Bračić and guest cellist James Kim to show they know how to put the “festive” in “festival.” It was saucy and stylish, just as it should be.

Following in extreme contrast to this jovial opening, but equally au courant was a solo cello work by Gerald Resch (b. 1975) entitled Al Fresco, inspired by the music of Syria and the beginnings of the Arab Spring in 2011. KMF Alumnus, Konstantin Bruns, played this tour de force to the hilt. The piece is improvisatory in feel, starting with a lone desolate pizzicato, inflected tonally to evoke sounds of the oud, and becoming powerfully rhapsodic with extended cello techniques, bending of pitches, glissandi, percussive strikes of the fingerboard and elsewhere, as well as foot-stomping. All of this was easily within the artistic range and abilities of Mr. Bruns, a highly imaginative performer, who also relates well to his listeners. Sensing their rapt attention as he tuned prior to the performance, he paused and quipped, “that is just the tuning.”

More traditional virtuosity followed in the form of Pablo Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen played by KMF alumna, Sarah Kuo with her excellent collaborator Javor Bračić. It was an engaging performance by an outstanding young violinist. She navigated the piece’s challenges with impressive ease.

Brahms’ Sonatensatz (Scherzo from the F.A.E. Sonata) followed, pairing up another excellent KMF alumna, violinist Rimma Benyumova, with Mr. Bračić. Ms. Benyumova plunged into the music with total immersion, and with just the intensity that the piece warrants.

After intermission we heard the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, bringing Mr. Stucke, Ms. Wang, Mr. Kim, and Mr. Bračić returning to the stage with excellent violist Liyuan Liu. On paper, the Brahms is the perfect second half to any program; on this occasion, though, to these ears, it could have been more cohesive. As a disclaimer, for this reviewer, it is one of those hypothetical “desert island” pieces, so a less than ecstatic reaction may be explained by an excessively high bar.

To analyze what one wants in such a work, one wants first a burnished collective sound. Admittedly, that can take years for a string quartet to achieve, but without it, even the great works become a mere alternation of thematic turns by four soloists rather than a unified expression from a single musical heart – that of Brahms, here. Brahms composed this magnificent work as an organic entity – and the work’s several incarnations (including one for two pianos) support this. One probably should not even be thinking “what an excellent violist” (as one did here) more than one should think, “that pianist has a great left hand thumb.”

One heard four fine string players who had clearly done their homework and sorted out their respective thematic entrances, but the entrances were showcased at times so prominently (abetted by the others’ receding) – that it reminded one of a tap dancer stepping out of an ensemble for the center stage moment.

Speaking of center stage, one did want more from the pianist, and having the lid on the half-stick was not ideal. Having heard this pianist before in a highly successful debut, one can safely say that there should have been no problem in his matching the quartet in power – so perhaps some group decision was at play. At any rate, the bass of the piano can pair so beautifully with the cellist in this piece, sometimes as a growl, sometimes as a throbbing pulse – and one wanted more of these qualities. Instead, the upper strings dominated, and some sections were strident rather than voluptuous or powerful. In matters of tempo as well, the strings seemed to take flight without regard for the fistfuls of notes in the piano part, which thus at times seemed glossed over in haste. The work is just as exciting –actually more so – if allowed time to build the surges, waves, and peaks with substance and intensity. There was indeed excitement in a virtuosic sense, but there could have been more.

It may be unfair to set such a high bar for what was probably an ad hoc collaboration, assuming the quintet may have suffered some of the last-minute travel-related personnel changes that Ms. Wang mentioned in her opening words. One could only guess which program selections were affected by the visa woes of the three absent performers from China, but the very stress of such matters in a way makes the entire evening seem miraculous.

The group is, all in all, to be congratulated for such an evening of variety and brilliance. The audience seemed to agree, and a final standing ovation earned a reprise of the Scherzo from the Brahms Quintet. Kudos to all for their concert – and also for such an important undertaking as the Karwendel Music Festival.