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 www.karahuber.com) – 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.


Foundation of M. K. Čiurlionis presents Victor Paukštelis in Review

Foundation of M. K. Čiurlionis presents Victor Paukštelis in Review

Foundation of M. K. Čiurlionis presents Victor Paukštelis
Victor Paukštelis,piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 30, 2016

 

It is a pleasure to review the fine Lithuanian pianist Victor Paukštelis in what was his second New York concert at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. Just last year he presented a recital in the same venue and was quite favorably reviewed by David La Marche for New York Concert Review (as the reader can see here: Review). I was delighted to find, after forming my own opinions, that Mr. La Marche and I had at least two strong points of agreement.

The first point is that Mr. Paukštelis possesses an admirable sense of architecture in the building of a program. That is no minor achievement. His sequence of selections was expertly conceived in terms of length, key, style, and emotion. On this occasion his opening of Handel’s Suite in E major (HWV. 430) established a tone of regal dignity and contemplation, inviting us to join his musical journey with confidence. (If this artist’s dual career as a pianist and painter had raised any questions about his ability to keep up with the monomaniacal pianists of today, any doubts were quickly dispelled.)

It made good sense to follow with Beethoven, one of Handel’s great admirers, and the flow was perfect key-wise to the Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No.2 (popularly called the “Moonlight Sonata”), which the pianist paced beautifully from its meditative start through to its stormy third-movement bursts.

Then, instead of intermission in this taut hour-long program, Mr. Paukštelis offered what amounted to a musical breather via three brief works by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), the Variations for the Healing of Arinuschka, Für Alina, and Anna Maria. Those who know the style of Pärt (sometimes called a “holy minimalist”) know that it can transport a listener to another universe through sheer purity of tone and texture, so these works were in effect their own “intermission” (sans chattering crowds) – an ingenious touch. The pianist played all three with refinement and sensitivity.

One was then ready to be swept up in the Romanticism of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor and Scriabin’s mystical and fiery Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 for a close. The dramatic trajectory was perfect, and it was all a captivating musical journey just shy of an hour, not including four encores (a good fifteen minutes worth).

My second point of agreement with the prior New York review is that Mr. Paukštelis is (as David La Marche aptly states) “a highly individual artist with a very clear vision.” A testament to this pianist’s strong individuality of conception is that he gave a feeling of newness and energy to works which are anything but new (with the exception of the Pärt). The Handel is a four-movement suite closing with a set of five variations on one of Handel’s most famous themes (known as the “Harmonious Blacksmith”). In the wrong hands it can sound stale, but Mr. Paukštelis, though his attentive articulations, strong sense of shape, and most of all deep connection to the music, gave it a bold energy that made it feel new.

The Handel wasn’t the only one of the evening’s selections belonging to that paradoxical category of works “so overdone that no one does them.” Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, attempted by nearly every intermediate piano student, falls squarely in this category, but the artistic Mr. Paukštelis breathed life into it it from its dreamy Adagio sostenuto to the gracious Allegretto and the impassioned Presto agitato. His playing had involvement, insight, and intensity. Though I had very few quibbles (including perhaps an excessive pedal blur in the last movement chromatic scale), criticisms seem moot in the light of such a persuasive conception.

Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, another top-ten list piece for pianists, followed suit – remarkably expressive in this pianist’s hands, but without the gnashing of teeth and histrionics that it sometimes arouses. It was thoughtfully conceived and held the audience rapt.

Among reservations, this listener prefers a deeper, fuller sound at Chopin’s peaks, some of which were a tad brittle. Similarly, in Scriabin’s Op. 53, one wanted to feel a bit more unleashing of power and abandon, where the emphasis seemed instead to be on precise articulation. Again, though, there did seem to be integrity and intelligence behind just about every decision.

Though it seems nitpicky to comment on administrative details, Mr. Paukštelis deserved to have had biographical notes that are in clearer English without so many typographical errors. He filled a hall amply with responsive listeners and will surely fill it more next time. He deserves to be well presented.

Standing ovations were met with several encores including Chopin’s Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20, the Tambourin from the Suite in E minor by Rameau, and the Sarabande from the English Suite in G minor. I look forward to hearing this pianist again.

 


New York Classical Guitar Society presents Meng Su in Review

New York Classical Guitar Society presents Meng Su in Review

New York Classical Guitar Society presents Meng Su
Meng Su, Guitar
Symphony Space, New York, NY
September 23, 2016

 

The 2015 Parkening International Guitar Competition Gold Medalist, Chinese-born Meng Su, played a successful debut recital this past Friday to a large audience with a fair number of guitarists in it. As her biography states, she is the first guitarist to have won both the youth and the main Parkening Competitions, and she is also the first female guitarist to win the Gold Medal (or even to make it to the final round) in the main competition. Such victories are certainly significant, but they are not the sole highlights of Ms. Su’s busy professional life.

As Ms. Su commented with easy elegance from the stage of Symphony Space, she has played in New York a number of times before, though usually sharing the stage, for example as part of the Beijing Guitar Duo with Yameng Wang at Weill Hall in 2010. She has also toured extensively in Europe and the US in a trio with her mentor the well-known Manuel Barrueco, under whose tutelage she received her Master of Music degree from the Peabody Conservatory. Ms. Su also has recorded several CD’s, which can be obtained from Tonar Music via Ms. Su’s website: http://www.mengsuguitar.com. In fact, those who missed her solo recital debut in New York will find much of the same repertoire on her latest CD, Meng – missing only the Aquarelle, by Sergio Assad (b. 1952), but instead offering “Avner’s Theme” by John Williams (1932) and Tarrega’s Rosita.

Ms. Su’s recital program featured a carefully selected cross-section of the classical guitar repertoire, from Bach’s famous Lute Suite No. 4 in E major (after the magnificent Violin Partita BWV 1006), moving chronologically to the Sonata Omaggio a Boccherini, Op. 77, of Mario Castelnuevo-Tedesco (1895-1968), to Five Bagatelles by William Walton (1902-1983), and Rounds by John Williams (b. 1932, the film composer for Star Wars and E.T., etc., not the noted guitarist of the same name). The recital closed with Assad’s 3-movement Aquarelle. It was substantial fare, thoughtfully presented and played.

As one might expect from a competition veteran, there is no question about Meng Su’s technical skill, as her performances throughout the evening were seemingly effortless and stunningly polished. She is also an artist who interprets with sensitivity and respect for the score. Add to that a beautiful – and fashionable! – stage presence, and she is poised to be in high demand.

Solo guitar recitals can easily verge on the monochromatic, but Ms. Su avoided that pitfall with skillful pacing. She renders her dynamics with fine control, as was soon evident in her Bach, drawing the listener into a tonal world that happily dwells quite far from the decibel levels of Broadway just outside, though still reflecting contrast and variety. One appreciated especially her nuances between lower dynamic levels – Bach, himself, was said to favor the clavichord for its exceptional potential for gradations in the piano and pianissimo range. While this listener will tend always to associate this great Partita with the bolder violin tones for which it was originally written, Ms. Su is a convincing advocate for it as lute music (not that guitarists have ever needed any endorsement for playing it!). Not only did Ms. Su achieve clarity and distinction between dance movements of her Bach Suite, but within each movement there were subtle color changes that kept the music vibrant and engaging.

The Sonata Omaggio a Boccherini, Op. 77 of Mario Castelnuevo-Tedesco followed perfectly, giving a nod to neo-classicism – with all due respect to its composer who wrote, “I have never believed in modernism, or in neo-classicism, or in any other ism.” A classical spirit does permeate this elegant work, and Ms. Su captured it well in each of the four movements. Slower sections struck me for the first time as sharing a kinship with the gentle grace of Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un gentilhombre, another guitar gem that was composed around twenty years later.

After intermission, Ms. Su re-emerged in a red ensemble (contrasting with the black and white of the first half), remarking after she played the Walton that “apparently, the second half is more contemporary … and colorful.” Colorful it was, with the Walton Bagatelles taking us far from what might be expected based on his other music (Viola Concerto, other symphonic works, etc.). Moments of it have a lush exotic quality, especially apparent in the central “Alla cubana” movement, which seemed to inspire Ms. Su in reaching new levels of lyrical expressiveness and freedom.

Rounds, by John Williams, was written for the Parkening Competition in tribute to Christopher Parkening’s great work in the service of music. Only around six minutes in duration, it showed considerable brilliance from composer and performer alike.

The closing work by Sergio Assad, Aquarelle (“Watercolor”) was, as one would expect in the composition of an expert guitarist, very idiomatic and effective, with jazzy Latin elements lending it a different flavor from the other works on the program. Ms. Su played it with zest, but as elsewhere favoring restraint over showiness and drama.

With such facility as Ms. Su possesses, there should be no limit on what she can achieve as she continues to explore her own individual gifts. The appreciative audience earned an encore of Tarrega’s Gran Vals, a piece with the dubious distinction of having a small fragment that today is a famous ringtone. It was a humorous touch that sent the audience out smiling.

 

 


Jonathan Levin, Pianist in Review

Jonathan Levin, Pianist in Review

Jonathan Levin, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
September 20, 2016

It was a treat on every level to hear young pianist Jonathan Levin in his New York solo recital debut this week. To start with, the program itself, entitled “American Portraits,” was an educational and thematically interesting sampling of some great (and in some cases neglected) music. Despite the “American” theme – or perhaps because of it – there was a great diversity of musical voice. There were large works by some of the great forces in American music history, George Gershwin (1898-1937), William Grant Still (1895-1978, “The Dean of African-American Music” as he is often called), and George Walker (b. 1922, thankfully still with us today). There were smaller works by J. Mark Stambaugh (a teacher of Mr. Levin’s at the Manhattan School of Music), Caroline Shaw (b. 1982, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013), and Vladimir Drozdoff (1882-1960), as well as arrangements and improvisations by Jonathan Levin himself. One had the sense that each work had been chosen by Mr. Levin (or arranged, as the case may be) with loving care, with nothing crammed in just to fit a theme. Each work was played with a strong sense of commitment and feeling, and Mr. Levin emerged as much more than a pianist, but a musician with a fine mind and enormously promising creative energy.

To open, Mr. Levin played his own showy arrangement of Jerome Kern’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Showboat. It was a warm and friendly beginning, with a very espressivo treatment of the “Fish gotta swim” line preceded by much Lisztian froth (with maybe a pinch of Earl Wild in inspiration). I love hearing such arrangements played by their arrangers, as they show so much about the artist’s own love of the music. Mr. Levin’s settings were quite good. There may be opportunities for publication here, as many pianists are not as versatile as Mr. Levin but wish to add show-tune elements to their programs (just look at the increasing appearance of Earl Wild’s Gershwin transcriptions on classical programs).

Another Levin arrangement based on Richard Rodgers’ “Falling in Love with Love” (from The Boys from Syracuse) opened the second half and was similarly exuberant and effective. The penultimate piece of the evening (before Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue) was Mr. Levin’s “Scriabin-type” (in his own words) arrangement of Cole Porter’s “So In Love” from Kiss Me Kate. I was just jotting down the word “overblown” in my notes about this particular elaboration when the audience burst forth with ecstatic applause, including my rapt concert companion. Oscar Wilde’s bon mot “Nothing succeeds like excess” popped to mind – I was clearly outvoted by the rest of the audience, who seemed to adore it.

 

In addition to these arrangements, Mr. Levin played his own “Improvisations on a Southern Folk Melody” – a fascinating work of intelligence, sensitivity, and bravura. In one of the informal comments to the audience, the pianist pointed out modestly that he doesn’t really consider himself a composer, but here I must take exception. What he has improvised is every bit as worthy as what is unabashedly exhibited as composition these days by those with no greater ability; I don’t wish to jinx things, however, so since he has done so well so far by “not really composing” may he simply continue to “not really compose” until he amasses a large collection of non-compositions that we can all enjoy!

 

Among the notable large works on the program, I was particularly grateful for the inclusion of George Walker’s Sonata No. 1, a wonderful but underplayed work by one of the greats of American music and a fine pianist himself as well. With the treatment of folk themes in it, it has all the Americana feel of so much music by Aaron Copland but with a distinctly individual intelligence behind it all and a brilliant idiomatic pianism about it. The slow movement, a set of variations based on “O Bury Me Beneath the Willow” is a gem of devastating beauty. Hats off to Mr. Levin for choosing this Sonata and for tackling all its thorny challenges – and by memory.

 

The next work necessitated a score, that of Caroline Shaw’s composition Gustave de Gray, an evocation of the photography of de Gray with considerable help from a Chopin Mazurka (Op. 17, No. 4), couched poetically in improvisatory musical frames by Ms. Shaw. It was surprising just how much of the Mazurka was used in Shaw’s piece – not so much a quotation as nearly the entire piece – but, framed with a twenty-first century musical introduction and conclusion, it gave the overall effect of entering a time warp or stepping in and out of a daguerreotype.

William Grant Still’s Three Visions on the second half were a worthy addition, particularly the very dreamy centerpiece, “Summerland,” played with gentle lyricism. Mr. Levin lavished it with care, and it was transcendent. Levin is a good advocate for a composer who is still (no pun intended) underappreciated. The opening “Dark Horsemen” was driving and dark, and the third (closing) movement “Radiant Pinnacle” was lovely, if not quite as “radiant” as the gem of a central movement.

J. Mark Stambaugh’s miniature A Waltz Conspiracy was a cryptic bit of fun – clearly some Waltz elements and some darkly encroaching musical “conspiracy” – followed by Vladimir Drozdoff’s more involved piece, Reflections at Chopin’s Urn. The latter took the listener on a twentieth century tour through Chopin’s Sonata No. 3, through a more episodic technique than in Ms. Shaw’s work, but still with recognizable sections of music – all thought-provoking, and handled well by Mr. Levin.

The recital closed with a rousing rendition of Rhapsody in Blue. Mr. Levin definitely had fun with the piece, adding some bravura touches here and there. Showmanship, intelligence, more than ample pianism, and sensitive musicality are all wrapped up in one package in this young artist, so he should do quite well in his career. The cheering audience earned an encore of “I’ve got Rhythm.” It was an upbeat finish to a highly successful debut recital.

 

 


SKP Management Presents Sang Ae Kim in Review

SKP Management Presents Sang Ae Kim in Review

SKP Management Presents Sang Ae Kim
Sang Ae Kim, flute; Jaeyoun Yoo, piano; Jaehyeon Ha, cello
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
September 15, 2016

 

An extremely impressive recital took place this week, that of flutist Sang Ae Kim, already solidly established in teaching and orchestral positions in South Korea, but appearing this week in her New York debut at Weill Hall primarily as soloist. In works of Vinci, Beaser, Holliger, Gaubert, and Martin, she was unfailingly polished and assured in some tremendously difficult repertoire. In some of the more recently composed, adventurous repertoire, this listener was reminded of hearing the flutist Marina Piccinini decades ago and being left with the impression that there must be nothing beyond such a player’s grasp; interestingly (perhaps not coincidentally) Ms. Kim has studied with Ms. Piccinini at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where she received her Master of Music degree and Graduate Performance Diploma. She has also studied at the Korea National University of Arts under Zvelev Valentin, privately with Hye Kyung Lee, Soo-Kyung Park, and Keith Underwood, and as a DMA candidate at Boston University in the studio of Elizabeth Ostling.

 

Starting off the program was the Flute Sonata in D Major by Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730) – not to be confused with the Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci, born over two-hundred years earlier (1452-1519)! This eighteenth-century Vinci, well-known for his operas, wrote some delightful instrumental works as well, of which perhaps the most famous is this one. It made for a gracious opening, with the basso continuo accompaniment tastefully realized by pianist JaeYoun Yoo, superb collaborator for the evening. A pristine Adagio opened and a buoyant Allegro followed, bubbling with clear and precise flute arpeggios. The central Largo movement was appropriately meditative, and the closing Pastorella and Presto were scintillating with delicate and varied articulations. Throughout the concert Ms. Kim played with a focused and beautiful tone, but here it was slightly mellower than the subsequent pieces – perhaps due to what appeared to be a change of the flute’s head joint, something one sees increasingly in earlier repertoire.

Sang Ae Kim

Sang Ae Kim

Fast-forwarding to some high-powered twentieth-century virtuosity, the program continued with the Variations for Flute and Piano (1982) by Robert Beaser (b.1954), noted American composer and Chairman of the Composition Department at Juilliard for over twenty years. The Variations are, as the program notes describe (quoting noted flutist and piccoloist Walfrid Kujala), “the flutist’s Mount Everest.” Starting off in folk like simplicity, and progressing through quasi-impressionistic and rhapsodic elaborations, it is a captivating work that tests the limits of flute-playing, but always with a sense of musical integrity. Ingeniously arranged as three movements, but each containing variations on the first movement’s theme, it has a feeling of inevitability and unity throughout. The atmospheric second movement, entitled Nocturne contains a cadenza that “pulls out all the stops” technically and dramatically. Ms. Kim was in top form here, approximating a musical dialogue with herself from register to register, retaining continuity all the while. It was stunning. The last movement (Variations 11-15, the last a coda) consummated the work with brilliance, flawless and unflagging. If Ms. Kim hadn’t taken the tiniest visible breath following the last note, one might never have suspected that she had climbed a musical mountain. Special kudos go as well to the pianist Ms. Yoo, who had to be master of her own challenging part as well as sensitive support to Ms. Kim at every step of the climb.

After intermission we heard Ms. Kim unaccompanied in a work entitled (é)cri(t) for Solo Flute (2006) by Heinz Holliger (b. 1939). Mr. Holliger has been renowned for decades as an oboist, but is also quite active as a composer. His piece (é)cri(t) is a play on the French word for “cry” (cri), embedded in the word “ecrit” (“written”). As the excellent program notes by Elizabeth Stern state, “Holliger explores the transformation of primordial sound into music.” With the multiphonics, harmonics, and whistle tones that range from a scream and wail down to a whisper, it was clear again that nothing was beyond Ms. Kim’s range.

 

On a somewhat lighter note the program progressed with a lush set of pieces by Philippe Gaubert (1897-1941) entitled Trois Aquarelles (Three Watercolors) for Flute, Cello and Piano (1915) with the ensemble of Ms. Kim and Ms. Yoo augmented by the talents of cellist Jaehyeon Ha. Ms. Ha’s cello lines intertwined with the flute’s in lovely balance. The Aquarelles are a fragrantly French set, not far from the styles of Fauré or Roussel, and the trio brought out some beautiful musical colors while blending with good balance. Par un clair matin (On a Clear Morning) took the listener to such a dreamy tonal world that one asked how it could have been composed in the midst of World War I – but the second piece, Soir d’Automne (Autumn Evening) answered with bittersweet nostalgia. The third piece, Sérénade, returned the listener from dreams back to the external world in dancelike rhythms.

 

To close the program Ms. Kim and Ms Yoo played the Ballade for Flute and Piano by Frank Martin (1890-1974). Composed in 1939, the work is rather brooding and intense at the start but growing in energy to a fiery, brilliant close. The duo played it with burning commitment and received several curtain calls in hearty approval, eliciting an unannounced gently lyrical encore.

To say that Ms. Kim performs with a focused demeanor would be an understatement. She is so single-minded in her mission that she seems psychically cordoned off from her audience. In fact, the first three rows of the audience were cordoned off with tape, perhaps a good idea in these days of rude distractions, but an infrequent occurrence. At any rate, the resulting air of solemnity – along with justifiable expectations of great playing – seemed to inspire unusually attentive listening, and the audience was impressively silent through even the quietest of tones (excluding one intrusive marimba ringtone).

Bursts of cheering were heard at the evening’s conclusion, and it was gratifying to see the faint flicker of a smile cross Ms. Kim’s face.

 

 


Simply Music – Andre Hajj: CD in Review

Simply Music – Andre Hajj: CD in Review

Simply Music – André Hajj, Oud & Composition;
with Paul Abou Gharib, Naji Azar, Antoine Khalife, violins; Samir Siblini, Nay; Gilbert Yammine, Quanun; Rony Barrak, Rhythm, Ali Khatib, Riq
Recorded at Studio PAG (Paul Abu Gharib), Tracks: 2,4,5,7, & 9
Recorded at Joseph Kallab, Tracks: 1,3,6,8,10, & 11
https://andrehajj.wordpress.com/

 

A CD called “Simply Music” was recently assigned to me to review, music of Andre Hajj, a Lebanese oud player, conductor, lecturer, composer, and arranger. Now available at various sites including CDBaby ( Simply Music CD: AndreHajj ), the recording, as we are told on a side note, is expected to be of particular interest to those who like music of Farid al-Atrash (1910-1974, Syrian Druze composer, singer-actor, and oud player), Riad al-Sunbati (1906-1981, Egyptian composer and oud player), and Zakariyya Ahmad (1896-1961, Egyptian musician). Though all of these musicians left the world 35-55 years ago, their music did not, and they are idolized in much of the Arab world. Mr. Hajj, who is also immensely popular in Arab regions, possesses the musical gifts to be included in their ranks, but beyond that he possesses the youthful energy and appeal to bring his native music to the next generation.  If one is interested in the music of Lebanon, Syria, and the Middle Eastern region (and current world events encourage this), this CD should be of considerable interest.

For those not familiar with the oud, it is essentially a Middle Eastern lute, in this case an especially lovely looking instrument crafted by respected luthier Fady Matta. It possesses many qualities of a modern guitar, though with its own unique timbres. Other instruments in the recorded ensembles include the qanun (a zither-like instrument), violins, percussion (including the riq, from the tambourine family), and the nay (or ney), which resembles the pan-flute in sound.

As a disclaimer, this reviewer has generally been a devotee of the traditional Western tuning system known as equal-temperament and not so much an aficionado of Arabic music, so the pitch variations of the traditional Arabic “maqams” (employing quarter tones and commas between the traditional Western semitones) are not second nature; it is good, however, to go out of one’s comfort zone, and the CD’s title itself – “Simply Music” – urges the listener to look beyond labels to the universality of music as a language.

The first and title track is “Mouci’a bass” translated as “Simply Music.” The composer states that because so many Arabic pieces are played with lyrics, and this one is not, he wanted to call it “Simply Music.” It is an accessible introduction to Mr. Hajj’s style. Starting with the kind of dramatic opening that one finds throughout the CD, Mr. Hajj’s oud resembles the more familiar balalaika here in its doleful tremolando solo, before all gets rolling with violins and a danceable folk-like rhythmic background (credited to Rony Barrak throughout the CD).

For each of the eleven tracks on this CD, there is minimal information in the liner, but I received some supplementary notes supplied by an agent of the composer. It is my suggestion that this additional information (and hopefully more) be supplied in the liner notes if there is a reissuing, as there could be broader appeal with more understanding of each piece.

The second track is somewhat mysteriously entitled “Dolce” – not quite the word brought to mind by its driving rhythmic undercurrent and repeating bass line (and largely minor mode), but interesting nonetheless. It opens with chiefly unison string lines – a stark effect resembling a midi synthesizer sound – before percussion instruments enter. The composer, Mr. Hajj, and his ensemble perform it with rhythmic elan. From the composer’s agent we learn that “this piece consists of A minor to C minor to Rast [an Arabic maqam] to A minor. This transition of these scales and Maqams in the Arabic music is very challenging. Andre Hajj makes all these transitions smoothly without making any dissonances.” We all listen for different things, and this listener has recently done much reading on and study of the maqams, but ultimately it is the melodic shape, rhythmic energy, and intensity of spirit that carry the day with this music. A Western musician can enjoy these aspects with little knowledge of the maqam, though he may subconsciously be adjusting the quarter tones and converting some of it mentally to modernized Greek modes.

The third track, listed as “Heard 1” on the disc, is also in the supplementary notes called “Music Heard.”  We are told that “listening to this piece makes you think that you have heard these tunes yet in reality the tunes are fresh and that’s why it’s called Music Heard.” After hearing it even once, one does find it cycling around in one’s mind, so it could be called “Heard 100!” Melodies center on the first, fifth, and sixth scale degrees – think of an accelerated “Twinkle Twinkle” à la libanaise, with quarter tone inflections. The quarter tones here challenge equal-temperament ears even more than previous tracks do, but one starts to hear it as simply Mixolydian after a while, especially with the rustic timbres of Samir Sablini’s ney (flute) mediating, plus quite skillful playing by Gilbert Yammine on the quanun, Antoine Khalife on violin, and more percussion from Rony Barrak.

“Music Heard 2” – fast forwarding to track 6 – shares the title idea of the third track. As the composer’s notes state, it is “a piece of music that resembles Maqam Bayati and Bashraf. Again, one thinks that these tunes were heard, but in reality they are freshly composed.” To this listener, the piece is quite different from “Music Heard 1” and one’s attention is captured here again by some beautiful, atmospheric playing of the ney by Samir Sablini. It is a highlight of the collection, and one of the longer ones at just under six minutes. Pitches that might be alien to the equal-temperament crowd are softened by the wide vibrato and sensual timbres of the ney. The tones are breathy in the beautiful ethereal way that a pan flute can be.

Many of the selections on this CD seem a combination of classical and popular or folk idioms.  The fourth track, “At night,” opens with a string-based introduction from Paul Abou Gharib that almost prepares one for a Vivaldi ensemble piece before taking us back to the Middle East with the characteristic modal flavor and sounds of the riq, played by Ali Khatib. The play between the dominant and flat sixth in the bass remind one of the flamenco sounds that owe so much to Arabic and Moorish influence. The supplementary comments state that this piece is a “blend of traditional and modern Arabic music in Hijaz and sama’i rhythmic mode that ends in 10/8, 16/8, 4/4, 2/4, 10/8, 2/4;” the effect, however, is disarmingly simple. It ends in a vigorous dance style that many will find infectious.

The fifth track of the CD is entitled, “Between La and Do”.  The composer’s notes state that, “Between the Notes A and C, this piece is composed in A minor and C Major. This composition broke the rules of composing Arabic music using these two scales.” After the characteristic extended introduction, including some soloistic violin lines from Naji Azar, a rhythmic dance takes over. The latter part again features the tonic, fifth and sixth scale intervals (so in a way this piece could be called “Music Heard” as well). Thus there is an organic quality connecting many of the pieces on this CD, but there is still plenty of variety.

The seventh track, entitled “Flamenco” – again with a dramatic (dominant chord) introduction and some virtuosic solo playing – breaks out into a typical music for that dance style– flashy, percussive and dizzying with some exceptional virtuosity from all players. This will probably be a popular favorite of many.

Perhaps the overall favorite of this listener is the eighth track, Khawater (“Reflections”), introducing more magic from the ney of Samir Siblini, plus oud and violin. It is a captivating musical journey, so evocative of spacious Mid-Eastern landscapes that one imagines it could be used to very good effect for a film score.

The CD continues with “Ud Fantasy”(track nine),  and Andre Hajj is front and center. It is as simplistic harmonically but with energetic rhythms and plenty of charisma and virtuosity from Mr. Hajj.

The penultimate track ten is a piece entitled “6 am” and adds a note of humor. The supplementary notes on the composer state that it is “dedicated to his son who used to wake up every day at 6:00 AM when he was a baby.” From the solemn, stately opening octaves one would not guess that the piece relates to the ritual of a baby’s daily awakening, but the image adds a note of humor to the set. Pizzicato strings and mischievous rests and pauses add a playful element.

The CD closes with an introspective work entitled “Last One.” It is fittingly nostalgic, opening with a sort of oud tremolo soliloquy but never bursting into the lively dance as in so many others – instead closing quietly.

Mr. Hajj is quite a versatile musician, as is reflected in the varied selections he composed, arranged and played for this CD, with some pieces being introspective and atmospheric, and some highly rhythmic and resembling more commercial popular dance music.  It will be interesting to follow his career as his reputation continues to spread.

Born in 1967, Mr. Hajj was among the first conductors born and educated in Beirut. He studied at the University of Holy Spirit, Kaslik, and his biography lists that was the first conductor to give repeated television lectures on Oriental Music, starting in 2011. As a composer he has written orchestral music, chamber music, film music, and choral works, with many of his works performed by Lebanese Oriental Orchestra (which he has conducted since 2011) and the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra. He has regularly led performances at major concert venues in Beirut, Dubai, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, London, Italy, Qatar, Morocco and has appeared on radio and international television. His biography states that he has demonstrated a deep commitment to elementary and secondary school music education, developing new talent and providing solo performance experience to young artists.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that Mr. Hajj’s CD shows an overall musical conception that goes beyond merely playing the oud, though he does that brilliantly. One awaits with interest his next step.

 


Book Review: Ignacio Cervantes and the XIX-Century Cuban Danza

Book Review: Ignacio Cervantes and the XIX-Century Cuban Danza

Book Review: Ignacio Cervantes and the XIX-Century Cuban Danza
By Salomón Gadles Mikowsky
Ignacio Cervantes and the XIX-Century Cuban Danza
By Salomón Gadles Mikowsky
LAP, Lambert Academic Publishing
273 pp (including Appendices and Bibliography)
New York, NY 2016
ISBN: 978-3-659-82531-6

 

It is not every day that one encounters a flexible and inspiring teacher of classical performance who is also an uncompromising and meticulous scholar, but apparently we have both in Salomón (or Solomon) Gadles Mikowsky, as is evident in his newly published book, Ignacio Cervantes and the XIX-Century Cuban Danza. We also have here a “must read” book for those interested in the music of our neighbor to the south – and especially given recent developments in diplomatic relations, that ought to be quite a few. More specifically, we have an excellent study of Cuba’s most important nineteenth-century composer, Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905), and a diachronic exploration of his favored pianistic form, the Danza, not only central to most Cuban music of his day, but influential to all that followed. In other words, if one is interested in a deep and thorough understanding of Cuban music, one will want to read this book.

Regular readers of New York Concert Review may have read my January review of Kookhee Hong’s book The Piano Teaching Legacy of Solomon Mikowsky, but to summarize, Ms. Hong’s book reflects Solomon Mikowsky’s role in the world as a pianist, pedagogue, and person. A reader may click here to read that review: Book review-The Piano Teaching Legacy of Solomon Mikowsky. Ms. Hong’s book, (also published by LAP) proved to be a somewhat fast and conversational read, so having been assigned to review this one, I was not quite prepared for the dense scholarship. The latter is an updated version of Dr. Mikowsky’s doctoral dissertation from 1973, Teachers College, Columbia University, so of course a breezy read it is not; it is, however, an extremely reasonable introductory course in Cuban music, and considering the voluminous materials that had to be predigested or evaluated for even each footnote, it is relatively short at 273 pages!

Naturally as an updated dissertation, this book on Cervantes is a highly specialized study. As such, it is appropriate for the serious student or professional, with references to chords and terms that presume at least an intermediate-level musical education; that said, much of it could be appreciated on a broader cultural level, as Dr. Mikowsky’s writing touches on many aspects of Cuban life beyond musical ones. Salomón Mikowsky (appropriately using his Cuban name as author) shows passionate dedication to his heritage. That dedication is absolutely essential in this area of music history, previously hindered by inadequate scholarship, domestic upheaval in Cuba, confusing and daunting nomenclature, and perhaps even a too-casual attitude towards the Danza, due to its social origins and the prevailing Euro-centricity of Cervantes’ day. Though there are now some respected reference books on Cuban music and Cervantes (cited by the author himself), it is clear that Dr. Mikowsky was a pioneer to be pursuing this study in the early 1970’s. As Radamés Giró, Cuba’s leading musicologist states in the Preface, “it was the first biography-study ever written about a Cuban composer from the 19th century.”

Ignacio Cervantes is neatly divided into two parts. Part I includes the introduction and background of the Danza, related forms, and the musical predecessors of Cervantes (prominently Manuel Saumell), and Part II is devoted to Cervantes, the man and his music, including generous musical examples and analyses. The Appendices that follow include some 44 pages of Cervantes Danzas that are a reason in and of themselves to buy this book (not to mention additional examples by other composers). Ensuing discussions of various editions and a helpful bibliography listing several hundred titles make this a valuable resource for pianists as well as a springboard for further study.

As stated before, the book is scholarly, packed densely with information, evaluation of sources, explanation of bibliographic and ethnographic considerations, discussion of the origins and even choreography of related dances: the longway, quadrille, cotillion, contredanses, contradanzas, the danza, and the danzón, among others. One may grow faint of heart from what seems a confusing array of fine distinctions in the dances’ overlapping evolutions and transitions from European forms to Latin American, but Dr. Mikowsky does sort it all out tirelessly, with clarity, and with a sense of mission in defining the forces behind a national musical identity. He strikes an expert balance between detail and overview. The origins of the Danza’s precursors from France, Spain, and England are convincingly disentangled based on every conceivable source, and the effects of African and Haitian-French influences are discussed and also disentangled.

Areas of controversy or ambiguity are labeled as such with honesty and integrity, including as an example a point of disagreement with Nicolas Slonimsky on whether Cervantes actually studied with Louis Moreau Gottschalk as often reported (the reader will have to read that for himself – no spoilers here!), but all is illuminated by Dr. Mikowsky’s solid foundation of knowledge. We see the many layers of scholarship behind each statement but are not forced to wade through that scholarship ourselves – mercifully!

Moments in the biographical section are particularly fascinating, including mention of Cervantes auditioning in Paris in front of Charles Gounod (playing the Herz Concerto No. 5 which he had had left only two weeks to learn), embarking on a career in France and Spain, and beginning friendly relations with Franz Liszt. Cervantes became friends with Gioacchino Rossini (and an accompanist for him), as well as with Adelina Patti and Princess Marcelline Czartoryska, a pupil of Chopin who gave Cervantes some of Chopin’s works annotated in his own hand. One imagines that if there were tabloids in heaven, they would contain similar intermingling of legends. Cervantes did indeed win many hearts in Europe, but for reasons on which one can only theorize, he arrived back in his native Cuba in 1870, where he stayed (with the exception of trips to the US and Mexico) and composed what became a source of pride for Cuban musicians. It was not the Europeanized music of his teacher Nicolás Ruiz Espadero or of those Europeans who visited on tour and adopted a Cuban flavor for a miniature or two, but it was the beginnings of a national music.

To express a minor reservation, I would suggest that for the next edition there could be further editing of the prefatory material by Dr Mikowsky’s colleagues, as they contain a few obvious careless errors and some longwinded language (perhaps from awkward translating or language issues). A preface should whet one’s appetite to read a book, not slow one down! I am glad such a matter did not deter me, as the book is one of considerable importance.


The Eighth New York International Piano Competition in Review

The Eighth New York International Piano Competition in Review

The Eighth New York International Piano Competition (NYIPC) under the Auspices of the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation
Greenfield Hall, Manhattan School of Music, New York, NY
June 24, 2016

 

It was an honor and pleasure to be asked to review the awards recital of the New York International Piano Competition – now its Eighth Biennial event – as I had enjoyed and written quite favorably about its seventh competition back in 2014. Interested readers may wish to read about the 2014 edition by following the link here: Seventh International Piano Competition in Review. To reiterate my positive reactions, this competition stands out in two special ways from other competitions. First of all, everyone is a winner in a way, because, in addition to the major prizes, there is a finalists’ award for each of the remaining contestants. Secondly, there is outstanding commitment to maintain relationships between the contestants and the organization, under the leadership of Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz, both veteran musicians and mentors. To read more about this remarkable duo, the reader can also read a recent article by Frank Daykin entitled “The Musical Father Figures We All Need” by clicking here: The Musical Father Figures We All Need. One may also click here to visit the competition website: http://stecherandhorowitz.org/competition/.

 

In addition to the two above-mentioned pluses and the “no elimination” policy (everyone getting to play every round), this competition is perhaps unique among soloist competitions in holding a piano-four-hand round, an appropriate signature feature given the history of the duo-pianist founders, Stecher and Horowitz. This year’s inclusion of John Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances was a particular joy. This competition boasts plenty of other pluses, including its distinguished jury and excellent track record for selecting talent, but the numbers tell their own story: this year’s twenty-two pianists were selected from an international field of over 150 applicants, and many of them traveled a long way for it.

 

These award evenings tend to start with a string of speeches. We heard from Mr. Stecher, Mr. Horowitz, and Chairman of the Board William S. Hearst, in addition to the delightful Master of Ceremonies, Robert Sherman, of WQXR fame. As engaging as the speeches were, one could not help empathizing with the twenty-two contestants seated onstage awaiting the calling of names and, in the cases of some winners, their own chance to perform. It won’t be the last time these youngsters (ages 16-21) are required to have nerves of steel in their chosen field, but the speeches are certainly a rigorous test. The winners were certainly up to the challenge.

 

We heard from First Prize Winner, Aristo Sham, who dazzled with Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9, Op. 68 (the “Black Mass”) as well as with Two Impromptus, Op. 131 by Lowell Liebermann. The latter was commissioned by the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation to be played by each contestant, and Mr. Sham happened also to win the award for Best Performance of Commissioned Work, so he gave the Impromptus what could be considered their public premiere on this occasion. It would be difficult to imagine them played more compellingly. Mr. Sham showed tremendous command, involvement, and what seemed to be intimacy with the piece, showing meditative lyricism through its melancholy sections and fierce intensity through its severe contrasts. It was impressive to consider that he, like all contestants, had been sent the scores only two months prior. Fortunately Mr. Liebermann, a fine pianist himself, writes some of the most idiomatic piano music today, so any contestant would be delighted to be assigned the Two Impromptus as a “test piece” – Mr. Sham said as much to emcee Robert Sherman, and volunteered that he was (“obviously”) already familiar with Mr. Liebermann’s Gargoyles. (How old that made me feel, as I recall when they were “hot off the press!”) The Impromptus are a welcome enrichment to the contemporary piano repertoire, and Mr. Sham will be an able champion for them.

 

Originally from Hong Kong, educated in London, and currently enrolled at Harvard University and New England Conservatory, the 20-year-old Mr. Sham is a young phenomenon. His Scriabin, in addition to showing passion and pianism, reflected logic and clarity, two qualities one doesn’t always associate with Scriabin but which are nonetheless vital in holding it together. Every note had a decisive place in the grand scheme of things, and the more extroverted moments had a strong sense of inevitability. One’s interest in Mr. Sham’s Beethoven was certainly piqued (and he had offered Op. 106 in earlier rounds, but opted here to play Scriabin, with help from an audience “vote” he solicited). There is clearly much to look forward to, both for Mr. Sham and for us.

 

We also heard from talented Second Prize Winner Angie Zhang, also age 20, in Los Requiebros from Goyescas by Granados. Ms. Zhang’s playing was warmly expressive, sensitive and polished, just right for this piece. Almost as impressive was her ease and eloquence in speaking about the music, to share a bit about the composer and give the audience some context. It almost seemed as if this were not an awards night but simply a chance to share music. Ms. Zhang will be a valuable advocate for classical music from her generation if this evening is any gauge. One looks forward to hearing her again, hopefully in a more telling variety of repertoire.

 

We did not hear the other prizewinners as soloists, but Jiacheng Xiong, age 19, from China, won Third Prize, and Evelyn Mo, age 17, from the US, took Fourth Prize. For the four-hands ensemble component, Second Prize went to the team of Jhiye Lin, age 19, from China, and Aaron Kurz, age 20, from the US.

 

First Prize in the ensemble round went to the team of Prudence Poon, age 19, from Hong Kong, and Jooyeon Ka, age 20, from Korea, who performed a pair of Corigliano’s wonderful Gazebo Dances with festive spirit. The Waltz showed nuance, elasticity, and playfulness that were just right. Despite a supposed language barrier during rehearsal (when asked, Ms. Poon said they relied somewhat on “body language”), they obviously had found a rapport. The feisty Tarantella was stunningly together, with an exciting display of fireworks at the end. The audience heartily approved. Mr. Sherman, with ever-perfect timing asked, “see what body language can achieve?”

 

All who participated in this event are to be congratulated, and certainly among them the distinguished panel of Francis Brancaleone and Anthony Lamagra (Screening Jury) and the Competition Jury of Tong-Il Han, Jane Coop, Ian Hobson, Orli Shaham, Jeffrey Swann, and Erik Tawastjerna. One eagerly awaits the Ninth NYIPC in 2018!