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).

 


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Rutgers International Pianists Gala in Review

Rutgers International Pianists Gala in Review

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Duo Rosa in Review

Duo Rosa in Review

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


The Center for Musical Excellence Presents Simon Hwang in Review

The Center for Musical Excellence Presents Simon Hwang in Review

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kara Huber in Review

Kara Huber in Review

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

 

 

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

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

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

One noticed next that there was a substantial set of credentials in Ms. Huber’s biographical notes (for more, see 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!