Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Presents “Messiah … Refreshed!” in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Presents “Messiah … Refreshed!” in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York; Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Jonathan Griffith, Conductor
Penelope Shumate, Soprano; Claudia Chapa, Mezzo-Soprano;
John McVeigh, Tenor; Christopher Job, Baritone
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
New York, NY
November 26, 2017

 

DCINY has a magic touch. Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) under the direction of Jonathan Griffith has made a name since 2008 with extravagant large-scale productions, but their performance this weekend of Handel’s Messiah (the larger-than-life Goossens version) just may have topped all.

 

The sounds at their fullest were glorious, thanks to an enormous cast of musicians supporting fine soloists Penelope Shumate, Claudia Chapa, Christopher Job, and John McVeigh. Not only does DCINY have its own capable orchestra for such occasions, but it gathered close to five-hundred singers from Arizona, California, Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio, as well as international choruses from Austria, Canada, France, Hong Kong, Mexico, and “individual singers from around the globe.” The emotions created by such large musical forces, mirrored and magnified by the excitement of the packed hall of music-lovers, have to be experienced to be believed. Suffice it to say that anyone proclaiming the end of classical music needs to crawl out from under his rock and witness it.

 

This reviewer was on a cloud of joy and admiration, a remarkable state in view of the fact that she has heard the entire piece many dozens of times in various incarnations, not counting excerpt performances, collectively bringing the tally into the hundreds. One might expect this music to feel “old hat” but Sunday’s concert was the farthest thing from it.

 

The overriding thrill has to be expressed first, as it is a shame to leave a concert floating on air, only to lose that spirit in the myriad details of the music’s history, its different arrangements, its performance practice, and more – though those details are rich and important in this much-storied work. Fortunately, for several years now, the illustrious reviewers of New York Concert Review have written about DCINY’s “Messiah … Refreshed!” as it has been titled, and so for background one can read their work here, Messiah Refreshed 2016 and here, Messiah Refreshed 2015. Because many among the personnel have been the same, even much of that information is still pertinent, though of course the performances are new each time.

 

The first solo of the day was from tenor John McVeigh in the recitative “Comfort ye my people.” He projected a warm sound and beautiful clarity of diction here, though he truly seemed at his best in the aria “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted.” Where some singers blur Handel’s long lines with indistinct pitches, and others manage the pitches with machine-gun-like attack, Mr. McVeigh established the perfect balance of flow and precision.

 

Baritone Christopher Job made his strong entrance with the recitative “This saith the Lord” but was particularly impressive in the “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” (hundreds of years later, as relevant as ever!). In the latter, thanks to Goossens’ expanded forces, Mr. Job had much to compete with, but he was more than up to the challenge.

 

Mezzo-soprano Claudia Chapa, with arguably the most to contend with in terms of balance against a similar range orchestrally, emerged victorious with her warm burnished phrases. What struck one about this singer was her musical sensitivity in subtly inflecting her held notes in “O thou that tellest good tidings in Zion.” She seemed responsive to each nuance in the orchestral parts, performing as a true ensemble member. Also excellent was her “He was despised.”

 

Soprano Penelope Shumate projected her bright sound quite powerfully, and there was never a hint of being overwhelmed by the substantial forces of chorus and orchestra. Her “How beautiful are the feet” was delivered with devout feeling, but perhaps her most memorable moments were in “I know that my redeemer liveth,” in which her softer dynamic levels were absolutely haunting.

 

Bringing everything together was Maestro Griffith, who managed the veritable army of musicians with heroic energy and skill. At times Handel – and Goossens – left an easier task than at others. For example, there are stretches of more homophonic textures, fairly cut and dried, in which Goossens’ ample orchestration simply makes everything fuller. On the other hand, in some of the more polyphonic sections where one part’s melismatic lines interweave, overlap, or synchronize with others’ – or in the rapid sixteenth notes of the chorus “And he shall purify” – ensemble matters become more daunting, not unlike getting several hundred centipedes to march in tandem. Occasionally a section of the chorus tended to dwell a bit too lovingly on their own lines, threatening to upset the rhythm by just a crucial nanosecond, but miraculously Maestro Griffith held them together throughout the entire concert. He is part conductor, part ringmaster, and part magician. Bravo!

 

There is not much space here to engage in debate on the relative merits of Goossens’ vs. Handel’s orchestrations (or Mozart’s), but there is, after all, much to appreciate in each one. The Goosens version, with expanded percussion, winds, and brass was first made famous by Thomas Beecham’s 1959 recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and has, despite much controversy, earned a rightful place in the music world. The numerous voices decrying it as a bombastic juggernaut will eventually have to accept that it is here to stay along with its earlier versions – one can always simply opt to listen only to one’s preferred versions.

 

Yes, there are moments in the Goossens when the use of the tuba seems superfluous, or harps and piccolo seem like so much window-dressing, but at the same time, the expanded forces make possible some gripping contrasts. The tender quietude of the pastoral “Pifa” movement, for example, stands out precisely because of the full orchestral sonorities preceding it.

 

Most of all, though, there is just nothing quite like the full orchestral forces unleashed in the famous Hallelujah, an apotheosis augmented by full brass, crashing cymbals, and the heightened decibels of hundreds of choristers singing from the balconies. The movement can be a life-affirming musical high, and we can thank Goossens for making that high even higher.

 

In the world of historic performance practice, if a musician is to be faithful to the spirit rather than the letter of musical “law,” then one perhaps ought to consider Handel’s own famed remark upon writing the Hallelujah chorus, “I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God.” If the music is to suggest such a revelation, then it might not be considered outrageous for the floors of Carnegie Hall to vibrate with the thundering resonance – and they did just that. It might also be considered appropriate that the audience leave a Messiah performance with mouths agape from wonderment – and they did just that, after a prolonged and deafening ovation.

 

Under the circumstances, one can best close this review with just one more word – Hallelujah!

 


Pro Musicis Presents Juliann Ma in Review

Pro Musicis Presents Juliann Ma in Review

Juliann Ma, pianist
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 9, 2017

 

A noteworthy recital debut occurred last Thursday, that of excellent pianist Juliann Ma, under the auspices of the Pro Musicis organization. Pro Musicis, founded in 1965, has for decades had a track record of presenting outstanding and communicative young artists in both conventional venues and community service concerts. Their roster has had such an illustrious array of musicians that it is impossible to select just a few names (but one can visit www.promusicis.org to learn more). Whether the Pro Musicis magic is more in their choosing of exceptional talent or in their nurturing of it through concerts and outreach may be up for debate – surely a mixture of both – but, in any case, they continue to thrive. Juliann Ma, their 2016 addition to the roster, provided ample evidence of that at her recital.

 

Ms. Ma is much more than an excellent pianist. A graduate of the Juilliard School (MM), she also has a degree in music from Stanford University (BA) with a minor in Creative Writing, plus a Diplôme d’Exécution de Piano from the École Normale Supérieure de Paris Alfred Cortot (on a Fulbright grant) and a Professional Studies certificate from Mannes (The New School for Music). She possesses the communicative gifts, appealing stage presence, and keen instinct for clever, accessible programming that will serve her well in her musical ambassadorship in the coming years.

 

Ms. Ma has an individual mission as well, which is to spread the message about the beauty and fragility of nature. Her carefully crafted program, entitled “Arise, Awake” was filled with works inspired by nature, including Debussy’s Prélude à L’Aprés-midi d’un faune (“The Afternoon of a Faun”) transcribed by the pianistic wizard, Vyacheslav Gryaznov, and three movements from Stravinsky’s Firebird, in Guido Agosti’s knockout version that has experienced quite a popular resurgence in the past decade.

 

Ms. Ma’s passion for nature became most overt, though, in her dramatic performance of Ravel’s exquisite Oiseaux Tristes (“Sad Birdsfrom Miroirs), upon which she based a collaborative interdisciplinary project. She preceded her performance with her own environmentalist poem entitled “Arise Awake,” and then incorporated six dancers into her piano interpretation to dramatize the sad birds’ story. Towards the close, the “birds” fell into a despairing cluster around the piano, and Ms. Ma folded her arms over the nearest one, thus in a sense becoming part of the dance. A similar performance (though more elaborate and without the finish around the piano) was just released by her organization, Sustainable Environment through the Arts and Sciences (SEAS): https://juliannma.com/seas/ .

 

For the visually oriented audiences of today, Ms. Ma’s conception may have a strong impact. There is always something extra-musical to watch or consider, so it may well touch the hearts of audiences not yet enamored of this music; for someone already deeply devoted to this music, however, the composer’s pure creation already represents an artistic pinnacle. Ravel transformed nature’s sounds into something uniquely spiritual, and the question arises as to whether it serves his creation to go the reverse direction and concretize the ethereal. For this listener, the dance ultimately distracted from the music, and increasing the distraction were various extraneous issues – percussive footsteps on Weill Hall’s wooden floor, the hard-to-ignore squeak of a barefoot pirouette, and some unforgiving lighting, all necessitating some suspension of disbelief in order for one’s imagination is to truly take flight. In the polished video, the latter were non-issues, yet this listener’s preference for the unadorned music remains the same. Admittedly, pianist/reviewers are probably not the target demographic.

 

Just as Oiseaux Tristes needs no enhancement, Ms. Ma as a pianist does not. She possesses the ability to find the essence of each work, and with help from her strong, fluid technique, she projects the musical shape, color, and drama vividly. Her opening Debussy was a joy, and the lush Gryaznov version made up in pianistic shadings whatever was lost in the transcription from the orchestral original. One could hardly imagine it performed better than Ms. Ma did.

 

Her Scriabin Sonata No. 5 (Op. 53) was also excellent, as brilliant and full of fire and ecstasy as one ever hears, as well as remarkably clean and polished throughout. Additionally, she gave it one of the strongest and most dramatically persuasive endings that I can recall in a lifetime of hearing the piece. Brava!

 

On the subject of drama, Ms. Ma has a strong bent for theatricality, which may make some curmudgeons spring to the accusation “all flash and no substance”; I am delighted to report, however, that this is definitely not the case. The supreme test was after intermission, with J. S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor (BWV 903), and Ms. Ma more than passed with flying colors. Her performance was a model of thoughtful phrasing and voicing – the highlight of the program for this listener.

 

Following the Bach was Darknesse Visible by Thomas Adés (b. 1971), a musical descent into despair that Ms. Ma performed impressively from memory. The last few measures (after John Dowland) led without pause – a wonderful segue – into the opening octave blast of Danse Infernale, Berceuse, and Finale” from Agosti’s transcription of The Firebird, a musical phoenix rising from the ashes.

 

It was a marvelous evening, all in all, and the cheering audience was rewarded with an encore of the jazz standard “Body and Soul.” It will be a genuine pleasure to watch Ms. Ma’s career advance from this highly auspicious debut.


New York Chamber Players Orchestra in Concert presents Zehavi Rodriguez in Review

New York Chamber Players Orchestra in Concert presents Zehavi Rodriguez in Review

Zehavi Rodriguez, cello; New York Chamber Players Orchestra; Giacomo Franci, Artistic Director
Liederkranz Concert Hall, New York, NY
October 13, 2017

 

Four prizewinning young string soloists had an opportunity last month to be heard with the New York Chamber Players Orchestra as part of their Young Artist Showcase Concert, chosen through NYCP’s Young Artists 7th Annual competition. As stated on the orchestra’s website www.newyorkchamberplayers.org, the competition finals in June were “open to 12 prodigies” with the intent of choosing three winners. Four were ultimately selected to perform October 13th at the lovely Liederkranz Concert Hall off Fifth Avenue.

 

As I was assigned to review only the cellist among the winners, I will focus on that shortly, but wanted to acknowledge also the other performers, in all cases exceptionally accomplished for their ages. In addition, one should mention that the NYCP Orchestra performed the much-loved Symphony No. 40 in G minor (K. 550) by Mozart as the first part of the program, acquitting themselves well of its challenges, especially for an orchestra that is not a large full-time one. The second part was devoted to soloists with orchestra.

 

The first soloist was Fourth Prize winner, Chelsea Xia, a violinist, who played Mozart’s Concerto No. 5 in A major (K. 219). She played just the final movement, for which the piece has been nicknamed the “Turkish” on account of its incisive rhythmic section in A minor (resembling the Rondo from the later Piano Sonata in A major K. 331). Ms. Xia played with admirable technical polish for one so young and a good amount of gusto in the jaunty “janissary music” moments. She has a very promising start on what should be a fine career ahead.

 

Third Prize went to Sara Yamada, violinist, playing Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20 (Gypsy Airs). It is always a striking experience to hear such a youngster (whom one might expect to see playing in the park) performing at such a high level in a Romantic virtuoso style. She played with exceptional technique and assurance. One should be accustomed to such accomplishments by now, with prodigies abounding, but it never fails to jolt one out of one’s seat. Granted, there is room for further growth, but if this is childhood, what amazing things may await!

 

The First Prize Winner, violinist Joseph Hsia, finished the concert with the Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5 in A minor, all three movements. The most mature of the players we heard, he appears ready technically to take on any challenges that music offers. He demonstrates the ability to immerse himself fully in a long, involved work and approaches even the perilous spots with the assured kind of bull’s-eye intonation that invites the listener to relax and do the same, without bracing nervously at each Olympic hurdle, as one often does in youth concerts (and even concerts by established professionals). Bravo!

 

The only cellist of the evening was the winner of Second Prize, Zehavi Rodriguez, also the youngest of the players at just age eleven. He performed the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 33, with a command and flair belying his youth.

 

On the subject of age, there was nothing about this cellist’s demeanor that screamed “prodigy” in the stereotypical way – no overdone attire, no precious mannerisms – but rather a no-nonsense attitude about what seemed an earnest pursuit of music. When he walked out to play, there was a mature suavity about him that was matched by some very mature playing. He is a young musician who may well be on his way to some grand achievements.

 

From his first declamatory phrases to the rapid double-stops, and particularly the more chromatic descending sixths section, he was undaunted. He demonstrated a keen awareness of the shifting drama and lyricism of the piece, and he always reflected a sense of where he fit in with the overall supporting harmony and structure – no small feat for one his age. While one can always find little issues here and there to critique – an isolated intonation glitch, an occasional need for more time or accentuation – there was no question that this young man has the ability to go far in music, should he ultimately desire that.

 

On a side note about the shortened version chosen, many teachers do have their students make some cuts, though this was perhaps one of the most radically shortened versions heard to date, leaving the piece at just six minutes duration (as opposed to around twenty). It “worked” to put it in practical terms, but one might envision Mr. Saint-Saëns cringing at the radical surgery. This reviewer (in the role of accompanist) recalls flipping through the chaos of omitted pages of a piano reduction of it decades ago in the studio of a famed cello teacher, having learnt the harsh lesson that “that is how everyone does it.” To fit something of the piece into a showcase concert or a competition time limit, yes, one can understand dispensing with the more “meandering” parts – and for an eleven-year old, even six measures of this piece can provide ample challenge! – but down the road one hopes to hear this young man in unaltered repertoire.

 

In any case, all flowed fairly seamlessly to an exciting conclusion. Mr. Rodriguez handled the final build-up with just the right bit of swagger in the syncopated passages, and there was joyous momentum towards the exciting finish. Even the most jaded reviewer has to admit that there is little that is more exciting than hearing a young musician’s first concerto appearance with orchestra.

 

All in all, the evening was a resounding success. Hats off to the NYCP Orchestra for pulling off such a worthy endeavor!

 


A Concert Celebrating the Publication of Barrett Cobb’s book, Walk, Shepherdess Walk, in Review

A Concert Celebrating the Publication of Barrett Cobb’s book, Walk, Shepherdess Walk, in Review

Barrett Cobb, flute/mezzo-soprano; Chris Fecteau, piano;

Teresa Diaz, flute; Rae Ramsay and Ruth Ann Cunningham, sopranos;

Elizabeth Thorne, Mezzo-soprano; Kate Goddard, violin; James Diaz, narrator

Special guest: Harry Saltzman

Church of the Good Shepherd, New York, NY

October 29, 2017

 

In celebration of the recent release of her sing-along book, Walk Shepherdess Walk, the author/illustrator Barrett Cobb, in her other roles as singer, flutist, and composer, gave a delightful program this Sunday based on pastoral themes. The above sentence warrants a long pause: singer, flutist, composer, author, and illustrator/painter! One often calls versatile artists “triple-threats” but Barrett Cobb is really a quintuple threat and more. For full disclosure, I had encountered some of her writing in her work for New York Concert Review, but her other gifts, as well as her winning presence in person, are new to me.

 

The concert was subtitled “A Program of Mostly Sheepish Music.” Though musical themes of lambs and shepherds might to the untutored seem rather limiting, the program’s reach was actually quite broad, touching on profound and beautiful themes that have recurred in music for centuries. Along with the likeliest choices (naturally several Agnus DeiLamb of God – settings), there was related music of pan pipes, satyrs, and walking woven into the program in organic ways, including Claude Debussy’s exotic Syrinx and the show tune You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel (Richard Rodgers), without ever straying too far afield.

 

The concert opened with Barrett Cobb singing Antonín Dvořák’s Songs My Mother Taught Me, in homage to her own mother, who taught her the book’s title song Walk, Shepherdess, Walk, by Eleanor Farjeon. Ms. Cobb sang the Dvořák with true feeling, sure intonation, and a lovely tone that projected well in the highly reverberant church. It was a deeply touching tribute. Sensitive accompaniment for the entire program (except the unaccompanied Debussy and Scull selections) was provided by pianist Chris Fecteau.

 

Following the Dvořák came the song Walk, Shepherdess, Walk, for which Ms. Cobb played the flute in her own charming arrangement, along with soprano Ruth Ann Cunningham and Mr. Fecteau. Again, it was beautifully done. It was a novel experience to hear a performer move so fluently from singing to playing the flute on the same recital, both at such a remarkable level. Incidentally, I listened to Ms. Cobb’s recording that accompanies her book (as the title song can be downloaded at www.walkshepherdesswalk.com), and it is winsome, but it actually does not do justice to her voice as we heard it live on Sunday – one usually finds the reverse to be true!

 

After this introductory set of songs came a grouping entitled “Sheep” containing some of the world’s most famous pastorally inspired music. Naturally a program about lambs and shepherds would be unthinkable without J. S. Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze (from Cantata BWV 208), and so this aria followed with the three performers we had just heard, joined by Teresa Diaz on second flute. It was a beautifully balanced rendition of a beloved classic. Equally appropriate was He Shall Feed His Flock, from Handel’s Messiah, and Ms. Cobb and Mr. Fecteau handled it well. The spiritual, Listen to de Lambs, closed the set in a soulful way.

 

 Walk Shepherdess Walk, the author/illustrator, singer, flutist, and composer

Barrett Cobb

 

The program’s next section, containing just one piece, was entitled “A Shepherdess” and cast the shepherdess as object of the unrequited love through Mozart’s setting of Goethe’s poem, Das Veilchen (The Violet). Ms. Cobb found just the right balance of mood between the song’s bucolic innocence and the pain of the trampled violet’s story, giving a light touch to the disturbingly facile resolution of Mozart’s final added line.

 

Moving to music about lambs in a more religious context (a section entitled “Lambs of God”) we heard the Agnus Dei from Bach’s Mass in B minor, followed by Barrett Cobb’s own Agnus Dei, and the Agnus Dei from Petite Messe Solemnelle by Rossini. It was quite interesting to hear three settings of the Agnus Dei in a row. Bach’s is famously heart-rending and was sensitively done by Ms. Cobb with the addition of Kate Goddard on violin. Ms. Cobb’s own composition followed it well stylistically, without any attempt to overturn tradition or to be original for originality’s sake. The Rossini brought the first half to a grand close, followed by a brief intermission.

 

Along with the text of the song Walk, Shepherdess, Walk, illustrated line by line with enchanting pastoral watercolor images in Ms. Cobb’s book, the book also contains her own brief story entitled “A Lamb’s Tale.” Present to read this tale was narrator James Diaz, a welcome new voice. To set the stage was Schumann’s tender ode to delicate innocence, Du Bist Wie Eine Blume (You are Like a Flower), sung by Ms. Cobb, and the reading was followed by another of Ms. Cobb’s own compositions, The Lamb’s Lament, for alto flute and piano. The piece reminded one faintly of Poulenc or Ibert, though with its own distinctly individual and melancholic voice. It was played hauntingly by Ms. Cobb, with gentle support from Mr. Fecteau, as ever.

 

The section of the program entitled “Pan’s Lament” featured Debussy’s Syrinx, a musical depiction of the mythological origin of pan pipes. Here, Ms. Cobb as flutist was at her finest, with Debussy’s sinuous lines shaded perfectly.

 

On a nostalgic note, the program continued under the heading “Lost Lambs” with the Whiffenpoof Song by Guy H. Scull (ending with Baa-ing). It brought a collegial (and collegiate) touch and was given a spirited performance by the quartet of Ms. Cunningham and Ms. Cobb, joined by soprano Rae Ramsey and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Thorne. The classic Gershwin tune Someone to Watch Over Me, sung by Ms. Cobb, closed the grouping with sentimental grace.

 

The final selections under the heading “Walking Songs” began with one of my personal favorites, Handel’s Where’er You Walk (from Semele), inadvertently listed as being by Purcell (who was also inadvertently listed as having lived from 1659-75, a mere sixteen years). It is not my intent to (ahem) lambaste anyone or in any way, er, ram these corrections through, but given this program’s potential for future performances, these typos should be fixed. No one wants to “pull the wool over anyone’s eyes” about composers’ lives!

 

An unexpected delight was the unannounced appearance next by Ms. Cobb’s husband, Harry Saltzman, singing Walkin’ My Baby Back Home, by Fred Ahlert. Complete with baseball cap and vaudevillian gestures, he brought added fun to an already very friendly event, and the audience loved it. Ms. Cobb followed with her finale, a powerful rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone (from Carousel, by Richard Rodgers). What a pair!

 

The sizable and enthusiastic audience gave a standing ovation and for an encore was invited to sing along in Walk, Shepherdess, Walk, before a reception that included (you guessed it!) “Goats do Roam” wine. Bravo to the many people involved in this memorable afternoon, at least five of whom were Barrett Cobb!

 


The New School/Mannes School of Music Presents the Winners of the 2017 Mannes Concerto Competition in Review

The New School/Mannes School of Music Presents the Winners of the 2017 Mannes Concerto Competition in Review

Mannes Orchestra, David Hayes, Music Director
Tishman Auditorium, New York, NY
October 20, 2017

 

New York City offers incredible cultural riches, as most people know, but what not everyone realizes is that some of the best of it is free, in the form of student concerts given under the auspices of the leading music schools, among them the Mannes School of Music. The performances by such young musicians, who give their all, can be the most exciting and passionate experiences one encounters in live music.

 

Last Friday night I was assigned to review the Mannes Orchestra concert, in particular the performance of one of two winners of their concerto competition, pianist Ivan Gusev. playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. The other winner of the concerto competition, timpanist Jeffrey Kautz, was to perform Raise the Roof (2003) by Michael Daugherty (b.1954). Though I was not needed to be there, I decided to gain a feel for the orchestra by hearing the first half, including the timpani concerto plus the orchestra’s opening work, Capriccio Espagnole, Op. 34, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

 

As I’m not one who withstands high decibel levels, I sat far enough away to be safe, and was ready to plug my ears discreetly if necessary. Thankfully plugs were not needed, and in fact I wish I had sat closer to the stage for one of the most riveting virtuoso feats I’ve seen in a long while. Mr. Kautz is a timpanist of flabbergasting ability, who made the ingenious Daugherty work do just what its title suggests, that is, to “Raise the Roof.” The opening Capriccio Espagnole also provided showcases for some remarkable individual talents, as the orchestral section leaders took turns in some of Rimsky-Korsakov’s irresistible and idiomatic melodies.

 

The conductor at the helm of all the excitement was David Hayes, who leads his players with the kind of limitless, infectious energy that is especially remarkable in view of the fact that he is among the busiest conductors around (conducting at Curtis as well as Mannes, to name just two) – yet there is no sign of “phoning it in” or flagging in the slightest!

 

All of this seemed a tough act to follow after intermission, but the Grieg Piano Concerto proved, with its captivating drama, sumptuous melodies, and folk rhythms, to be as timeless as ever (and fire-resistant against the backdrop of the Daugherty pyrotechnics)! While the pianist, Ivan Gusev, had a formidable task cut out for him, he was more than up to the challenge. He gave a performance that let the gifts of Grieg shine brightly – technically assured without being too flamboyant and sensitive without being too self-indulgent.

 

Currently pursuing his Master of Music degree as a student of Jerome Rose, he has been a winner of the International Piano Competition in Finland (Jyväskylä, 2006), laureate of the Mauro Monopoli Prize International Piano Competition (Barletta, Italy, 2013), The Benditsky Russian piano competition (Russia, 2015), and the Third International Neuhaus piano competition (Russia, 2015), as well as recipient of other distinctions, including honors from Moscow Conservatory as student of Eliso Virsaladze and Michail Voskresensky. In addition to being a winner of the Mannes 2017 Concerto Competition, he was recently a prizewinner at the 2017 New York Piano Competition.

 

What immediately struck the listener about Mr. Gusev in the Grieg was his strong sense of the collaborative aspects of the concerto. Conductors in general love it when a pianist can treat a concerto like a piece of chamber music, because it lightens their responsibilities considerably. Mr. Gusev is secure enough with the nuts and bolts of playing to do just that. Through passages where many pianists would be fixated on the accuracy of an arpeggio, for example, Mr. Gusev had his sights never far from the conductor. Not once in all the thrilling runs and technical hurdles did he succumb to the temptation to “go rogue” but was always extremely attentive to the conductor and mindful of cues, entrances, and transitions.

 

Sometimes, considering such a skilled conductor on the podium, one wondered whether the pianist’s own cues might even have been a bit overstated, such as the highly accented tremolo chords before tuttis (the first of which might have been eased by more bass power). Then again, such junctures tend to invite awkwardness (as one did in the last movement), so it is better to be safe than sorry. All in all, Mr. Gusev’s thoughtful approach achieved admirable results.

 

The slow movement, containing Grieg’s most heart-rending lyricism, was beautifully projected. Mr. Gusev worked hand in hand with the orchestra to create a hallowed atmosphere, with seamless lines and a warm and balanced sound.

 

If the opening of the third movement was thrown off a bit, it was perhaps the challenge of breaking such a spell as one moves into the pace of a folk dance; dancing was what it did, however, and it brought the piece to a fine finish. All in all, the performance was a fine success and capped off a powerful concert.

 

This was an evening not to be forgotten – and first for this reviewer at the Tishman Auditorium, undoubtedly the setting for many future musical adventures. Bravo to the Mannes School of Music, and to the conductor, orchestra, and soloists!


Carnegie Hall Presents Sphinx Virtuosi in Review

Carnegie Hall Presents Sphinx Virtuosi in Review

Sphinx Virtuosi Concerti per Venti
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 13, 2017

 

The atmosphere was jubilant in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium for a recital by the Sphinx Virtuosi, a group described in its biographical materials as “eighteen of the nation’s top Black and Latino classical soloists” performing as part of The Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based national organization dedicated to diversity in the arts.

Volumes could be written about the Sphinx Organization itself, led by the very dynamic Afa S. Dworkin, who was present to say a few words, but let it suffice to say that Sphinx programs reach more than 100,000 students, as well as live and broadcast audiences of more than 2 million annually. The program notes state that “the organization’s founding and mission were informed by the life experiences of Aaron P. Dworkin, who, as a young Black violinist, was acutely aware of the lack of diversity both on stage and in the audience in concert halls.” He founded Sphinx “to address the stark underrepresentation of people of color in classical music.” Not only is his organization now a boon to diversity with special regard to Black and Latino musicians, but it is a boon to classical music as a whole, as one could tell by the large excited audience. A visit to the website www.sphinxmusic.org will confirm the tremendous scope of this organization, including programs bringing instrumental music to public schools, web resources, a specialized academy, assistance programs, a competition, and various ensembles, including a symphony orchestra, and the Sphinx Virtuosi, the conductor-less string orchestra that we heard.

Sphinx Virtuosi Concerti per Venti

Volumes could also be written about the program we heard, which covered a similarly huge range, from the opening virtuoso violin solo, Paganiniana of Nathan Milstein (1904-1992) to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (Op. 133, arr. For String Orchestra) to Vivaldi’s B-flat Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Continuo (RV547), and the commissioned string orchestra pieces by Michael Abels (b. 1962) and Jimmy Lopez (b.1978).

The opening with Milstein’s Paganiniana was a touch of inspiration, as the sight of one unaccompanied young violinist walking onto that great Carnegie stage before a few thousand people seemed a powerful symbol for the Sphinx mission, representing bravery, youthful promise, and how a single soul’s dream can move mountains. Paganiniana is based on Paganini’s 24th Caprice, and because the Caprices are often used for glorified warm-ups, it brings to mind the intense but exciting discipline that is at the base of all free-wheeling artistry, as Sphinx artists undoubtedly experience. The soloist was Annelle Gregory, a highly accomplished young player who seems poised for an exciting career. Her performance had boldness and panache, and though it may not yet rival Milstein’s own rendition for effortless suavity (as he composed it to play at Carnegie Hall in 1945), hers was an assured romp through violinistic minefields. She was met with such enthusiasm that not only could some audience members not wait until the end, but they clapped at several of the big cadences, in one case just about a minute into the piece. There are certainly bigger concerns in the music world than premature applause these days. Ms. Gregory was unfazed and brilliant.

Sphinx Virtuosi. Photo Credit, Jennifer Taylor

The next work on the program was Beethoven’s thorny Grosse Fuge, originally for string quartet but played here in an arrangement for string orchestra (one guesses by Felix Weingartner, though the arranger was not listed, and this listener knows it mainly from its quartet performances). It struck this listener at first as an unusual choice in a program seemingly designed to draw in a wider audience for classical music – after all, Beethoven was given quite a lot of grief over its dissonance and difficulty for listener and player alike. In fact, though, it turned out to be an astute choice, its craggy counterpoint tackled expertly and dramatizing the skill and intense individual precision of each fugal entry, as well as the fierce collective drive of the ensemble. As many have said before, this piece sounds always “modern” – and here it sounded newer than ever!

Vivaldi’s double concerto which followed seemed quite tame by comparison, but was a good balance. Violinist Annelle Gregory came back onstage alongside cellist Thomas Mesa in what was a fine collaboration with the rest of the ensemble. Mr. Mesa’s playing had a musical intensity that was commanding in every detail and Ms. Gregory, undoubtedly more warmed up after the Paganiniana, relaxed into an even more fully beautiful sound here. They brought very different strengths and personalities to the work. Despite only a few moments where passages were not completely in sync, it was a thoroughly engaging performance.

Especially noteworthy on the program was the New York Premiere of Guardian of the Horizon: Concerto Grosso for Violin, Cello, and Strings (2017) by Peruvian composer Jimmy López. Co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall, New World Symphony, and Sphinx, the work was composed in honor of Sphinx’s 20th anniversary, but it is also a tribute to the composer’s father who passed away in 2016. Its three movements (Riddle, Crossing the Threshold, and Into the Effulgent Light) reflect the composer’s deeply personal feelings about life and death, intertwined with sphinx mythology in ingenious evocations of riddles (through cryptic musical question-and-answer phrases) and suggestions of shimmering light through tremolo string textures in its exquisite third movement. The violinist Adé Williams teamed up with cellist Gabriel Cabezas in the lead musical parts, both absolutely winning as champions of the work. Clearly there is no shortage of stars on the Sphinx roster, and there will be more to hear from these two musicians, as well as from this composer and composition.

The perfect close was chosen for this program, Michael Abels’ Delights and Dances, commissioned by Sphinx for a 2007 performance and understandably back for what may be becoming (one hopes) a “signature” finale. It is an utterly buoyant tour-de-force with elements of jazz, blues, and bluegrass being tossed in seeming improvisation from player to player, both in the orchestra and in the star string quartet. The quartet featured violinists Rainel Joubert and Alexandra Switala, violist Celia Hatton, and cellist Thomas Mesa, all exchanging mounting improvisatory one-upmanship, with the orchestra collaborating. All players were impressive, but the soaring rhapsodic phrases of Rainel Joubert were particularly captivating. The whole performance made one want to hear it again and again.

All in all, this reviewer has not felt so heartened by a group of young musicians since hearing the early recordings of Gustavo Dudamel with the young players from El Sistema, electrically charged performances of as high a caliber as any other professional group, but with the vital energy of a life-and-death mission.

Ms. Dworkin, in describing the Sphinx mission, used a quote by James Baldwin, that “The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” Sphinx is indeed illuminating that darkness.

 


The Fifth Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists Presents Gala Winners Concert in Review

The Fifth Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists Presents Gala Winners Concert in Review

Gala Winners Concert, The Fifth Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists
Benzaquen Hall, Dimenna Center for Classical Music, New York, NY
October 8, 2017

 

It has been several times now that I have been assigned to review the Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists, and, judging by what I heard this past weekend, the enterprise is thriving. Thanks to the efforts of Golda Vainberg-Tatz, who founded the competition to honor her mentor, the Bach interpreter Rosalyn Tureck (and with Ms. Tureck’s blessing before she passed away in 2003), the undertaking has become a biennial event, hosting a distinguished international jury, drawing outstanding international contestants, and attracting support by leaders in the piano world, including notably Evgeny Kissin and Olga Kern. Audition rounds and categories encompass virtually all of J.S. Bach’s keyboard repertoire, so it is really much more than simply a contest, amounting in effect to a four-day Bach festival. Moved this year from the Bruno Walter Auditorium (due to the Lincoln Center Film Festival) to a hall in the Dimenna Center, it seems destined for an ever-larger venue and wider audience.

 

Skimming through the booklet of biographies of the twenty-four semi-finalists who had performed in the days before (ranging from age eight to age twenty), this reviewer was already impressed, but little could match the humbling experience of hearing the seven young performing winners filling nearly two hours with music that was polished, spirited, and sometimes quite inspired. For a complete list of prizes for each winner, plus jurors and other contest information, the reader can visit the contest’s website at Tureck Bach Competition.

 

Starting the program was Andrew Gu, age eleven, playing the Two-part Invention in B minor, BWV 786 and Sinfonia (Three-part Invention) in B minor, BWV 801, by Bach. He played with a composure of a veteran performer, and it appears that his confidence has been well-earned. His playing was stylistically attentive, with admirably clear voicing and crisp articulations. As the competition pays homage as well to Rosalyn Tureck’s other specialty, contemporary music, we were treated to several modern pieces throughout the concert, and young Mr. Gu chose Five Bagatelles by Carl Vine. These miniatures reflected more overtly this youngster’s gifts, including remarkably fleet finger-work, ability to project contrasting styles, and a sensitivity to lyricism, particularly in the third Bagatelle. He made short work of the tenths in the left-hand part of the jazzy fourth Bagatelle – boding well for future encounters with the virtuoso Romantics!

Happy winners and relieved Judges at the Gala Concert.

Heroes of the day included the teachers of these impressive players (perhaps including master class teachers who will remain unsung heroes, due to sheer numbers) – but also parents and family, of course, for the many sacrifices they inevitably make to nurture such young talent. For Mr. Gu, teachers have included Helen Jung, Sasha Starcevich, and Corey McVicar.

 

Next up was Matthew Chang, age eight (and awarded in two repertoire categories), playing Bach’s Prelude and Fughetta in G major, BWV 902. What struck one about this young player was not just that he possessed command and polish in every regard (these being almost a “given” at such an event), but that he projected the life of each distinct phrase with a joyful and intense involvement. His rhythm was not merely solid, but also full of dance-like energy (with a bit of left hand conducting thrown in). While this sort of musicality is not something one thinks of as “taught” it was during his performance in particular that I flipped through the leaflet to learn the teacher’s name, Kuei-I Wu; after all, to take a child this far into polish and detail in a mere three years is an achievement, but enabling him to retain such seeming joy about it all while doing so is huge. Kudos to teacher and student alike!

Judges of the final round.

 

Julia Yin Zhou, age nine, brought another contemporary voice to the mix with selections from Eight Memories in Watercolor by Tan Dun, a set popularized most prominently by the pianist Lang Lang. Ms. Zhou played Missing Moon, Staccato Beans, Blue Nun, Red Wilderness, and Sunrain. Her Missing Moon was beautifully evocative for one so young, and Staccato Beans became the perfect vehicle for her tremendous digital control and articulations. Her Sunrain lacked for nothing in brilliance, bringing a bravura close to her set. Brava! Her fetching stage presence will only enhance the rewards that she garners through her talent and dedication, and she should be well on her way to a bright future. One would have liked to hear her in some Bach though. She has been a student of Ronald Kmiec since 2014.

With Tony Yun- Evgeny Kissin Grand Prize Winner of Fifth TIBC and Maestro Michael Cherry. ( from the Tureck Bach Research Institute.)

 

Moving on to larger Bach works, we heard selections from the French Suite in G major, BWV 816 played by Kiron Atom Tellian, age fourteen from Vienna, Austria (and also awarded in two repertoire categories). A student of Alma Sauer at the “highly gifted” program of the University for Music and Dramatic Art, he pairs piano with studies in composition, perhaps a source of the heightened thoughtfulness in his playing. He was one of the day’s most interesting musicians, with an individual style that brought to mind some of the earlier Bach performances of Ivo Pogorelich. His Allemande, Courante and Sarabande all had an expressiveness one most associates with Romanticism (as many felt about Rosalyn Tureck’s playing), and he played with a judicious use of agogics, some receding dynamics at climaxes, and some staggering of left and right hands at poignant harmonic points and trills. His Gigue was by contrast quite metrically straightforward, but a delight in its extremely fast and even execution, without losing the slightest detail. One looks forward to hearing this young man play again.

 

Also remarkable was Matthew Stephen Figel, age twenty and doing undergraduate studies at the Eastman School of Music with Nelita True. Mr. Figel had the daunting task of playing excerpts from Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, as he was winner in that category. It was such a tease not to hear his whole set (of course, the concert would have run late by another hour), but one looks forward to hearing him play the full set one day. His tone and approach were entrancing from the outset, and his ornamentation on repeats, fascinating and beautiful. Boldness and strength characterized his first variation, while the sixth which followed showed admirable control of the canon’s voicing. The seventh was the perfect balance between the cerebral and the playful, with wonderfully rhythmic flourishes. The pensiveness of the thirteenth reflected one’s general sadness of hearing this work end too soon, but I was glad there was no return to the theme to mimic some sort of completeness. Though we’ve had some very memorable Goldberg Variations in our day, I was happy to be reminded that we have room for more. I look forward to Mr. Figel’s.

 

Rolando Antonio Alejandro, age 18, followed with Bach’s French Suite in C minor, BWV 813. Hailing from Puerto Rico, where he lists Teresa Acevedo as his first teacher, he is now at The Juilliard School. His performance was excellent, with an easy warmth and feeling of leisure overall. He is a “stop to smell the roses” kind of a player, willing to lavish a phrase with extra time to mark a thematic entry, to highlight an interesting hidden line, or to feature an implicit syncopation (in bass-lines especially). In an event honoring Bach’s keyboard music, Mr. Alejandro reminded us that Bach was also a master of music for strings, winds, and voice, and that there are many ways to phrase. Those who seek the metronomic precision that is so common in Bach keyboard playing may want more tautness or motoric drive, but those can grow quite tiresome. Vive la différence!

 

The final performer of the day was Canadian Tony Siqi Yun, age 16 and a student at the Juilliard School Pre-College Division. Mr. Yun shared with Mr. Alejandro the prize awarded to outstanding Juilliard competitors, as well as winning the Evgeny Kissin Grand Prize and Steinway Recital Award, plus the Contemporary Music Award. He opened with the Ballade for solo piano (2005) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952). His performance showed, among other virtues, an impressive analytical rigor in conquering a highly challenging work that is not part of the familiar mainstream repertoire yet. The sheer memorization was impressive. Beyond that, he showed that he is capable of projecting the many colors and moods of its kaleidoscopic changes and contrasts. He is a pianist of precocious power and polish, no doubt destined for many future successes. He closed the entire program with the Bach-Busoni Chaconne in D minor, which he handled with grandeur and pianism to spare, while reining in the excess inherent in the transcription. It was a feat particularly impressive for one so young.

 

It is among the most difficult performing situations musicians face to be presented as part of an array of other pianists, having to prepare for one’s performance mentally while hearing others play, and also knowing that other works may exhaust the listeners’ ears before one even sets foot on stage. Perhaps the program could have been pared down slightly, but it is understandable to want to maximize an opportunity that comes only every two years, after herculean amounts of work from everyone involved. In any case, Sunday’s performers handled the demands with mastery. Congratulations to all!


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 http://www.amygustafson.com).

 


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).