Cameron Carpenter in Review

Cameron Carpenter in Review

Cameron Carpenter, organ
Orchestra Hall, Detroit
February 23, 2015

Organist Cameron Carpenter walked out on the stage of a sparsely populated Orchestra Hall in Detroit Monday evening (Feb. 23rd) to play the International Touring Organ, an electronic instrument he designed to liberate himself from aging and often badly maintained pipe organs. He’s like a kid with a new toy (I use the word he used himself) and his joy in exploiting its possibilities sometimes got the better of him, but it was an infectious joy that he shared with the five hundred or so folks in the hall who responded with whistling and stomping standing ovations.

His instrument, built by Marshall & Ogletree in Massachusetts and completed last year, contains sampled stops from organs of different periods and styles all over the world — baroque, romantic, theater organs of the “mighty Wurlitzer” type, there’s probably even a Hammond in there someplace. It can all be disassembled and packed into a van, albeit a pretty big van, for transport to anyplace with an electrical outlet to plug it into. It’s a novel concept, and really the only way to allow for the career as a touring virtuoso that Carpenter has embarked upon.

Mr. Carpenter takes a good deal of abuse from the traditional-minded in the organ world, though rarely from its most accomplished players. Some of it stems from his punk-radical dress and hairstyle which, incidentally, does not interfere with his articulate and intellectual way of explaining to the audience what he does. Other criticism is directed against his taste for flashy virtuosity in performance, which drives serious practitioners of historically informed styles crazy.

What is beyond dispute is that Cameron Carpenter is a performer of nearly superhuman technical accomplishment. He does things with his hands, feet and brain that ought to be impossible, juggling five or six independent musical lines among them, sometimes playing on four keyboards at a time with his two hands and thanks to a pedal divide feature, two more with his feet, all without a flinch or a bobble. He’s the Horowitz of the present generation, and incidentally, the grand old man was criticized for historical inappropriateness and bad taste too. People with skills on that level make their own rules, as they should.

His program, announced from the stage with some good humored commentary, covered a big stretch from J. S. Bach — the Prelude in A Major and the big Toccata in F Major taken at a quick clip and with enough colorful registrations to stoke the purists ire — to an encore of Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind that shimmered like a gamelan orchestra. In between there were Marcel Dupré’s Variations on a Christmas Carol, and Carpenter’s own spectacular transcriptions of Shostakovich’s Festival Overture, Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and Alexander Scriabin’s 4th Piano Sonata. Only in the last did I miss the original, the piano’s sustain pedal gives a hazy perfume that is simply not available on the organ but badly needed in this work. I also thought that throughout the program Carpenter was a little too enamored with the battery of super-low bass stops at his disposal, but then if you’ve spent a couple of million to be comprehensive, I suppose you feel like you ought to use them.

Really, it’s pointless to criticize Mr. Carpenter as a classical organist. What he’s doing with — and to — his innovative, purpose-built instrument hasn’t been done before. Love him or hate him, he’s an astonishing, and astonishingly original, artist.


2014 Concours de Genève  Piano Finals

2014 Concours de Genève Piano Finals

On the evening of December 2nd, the Concours de Genève returned to the Victoria Hall, this time with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and British conductor Alexander Shelleyfor the final round of the 2014 piano competition.  Four competitors remained from earlier rounds and, in contrast to the flute finals the evening before when by coincidence all three players performed the same two pieces, this time the program was more varied.  Only one  work was repeated and, really, who could object to hearing the Beethoven 4th Concerto twice in one evening?

The first pianist to play was Honggi Kim, 25, from South Korea, in the Beethoven 4th.  Initially, his reading struck me as too matter of fact, particularly the opening piano solo which can say a very great deal in five short bars.  However, as Mr. Kim went on, I began to appreciate the strengths in his playing: his respect for the score, his spectacular éclat in brilliant passages — a glittering quality that he never allowed to tip over into mindless virtuosity.  It was lean and clean playing of the very best sort, and it was perfectly clear that whatever Mr. Kim wanted to do, he did compellingly and with commitment.  This did not always work to his advantage, though, because it made all the more obvious the stretches when he wasn’t quite convinced of what he should be doing and he allowed the tight leash he had on the audience to slacken.

Ji-Yeong Mun

Ji-Yeong Mun – First Prize

Next on the program was Pallavi Mahidhara, 27, from the US.  Her concerto was the demanding and virtuosic Prokofiev 3rd, but the odd thing about her performance was that she didn’t really take full advantage of its obvious audience appeal.  The tempos in all three movements were decidedly on the slow side.  She was gorgeous in the lyrical themes (and yes, even in this barn burner of a piece, there are passages of almost super-Romantic lushness).  But this concerto needs to fly and, with the leisurely tempos and beat-laden inflections, it felt mostly earthbound.

Russian Igor Andreev, 26, took the stage after intermission to perform Chopin’s 2nd Concerto and during its long orchestral introduction I was a little alarmed by the slow pace.  Once Andreev began to play however orchestra and soloist began to move a bit and settled into a comfortable tempo.  Critical to any Chopin performance is a certain amount of rhythmic freedom, but this work in particular can easily lead pianists to indulge in excesses that constitute, well, shall we say bad taste?  In Mr. Andreev’s case he was admirably well aware of this and his innate good taste led him in the opposite direction. There was some delightfully sly playing in the mazurka-like sections of the final movement, but as a whole performance it did feel a bit straight-jacketed and that, coupled with a few (very few) too many finger slips may have put him out of the running.

 

18-year old Ji-Yeong Mun of South Korea was assigned the last spot on the program and she took good advantage of it with a straightforward performance of the Beethoven 4th that also had its moments of charm.  Her opening was warmer and more appealing than her colleague’s and her dynamic range seemed to me a little wider.  Her playing was never less than technically immaculate but I think both of these excellent pianists will play a better 4th in ten years when the elusive something in this piece, through experience, becomes more available to them.
Unknown-2

Pallavi Mahidhara- Second Prize

L’Orchestre de la suisse romande, and particularly conductor Alexander Shelley, did a fine job of accompanying — not an easy task in these concerti.  Of course it could be argued that Mr. Shelley was born to it.  His father is the superb concert pianist Howard Shelley.
Unknown

Honggi Kim – Third Prize

Results
First Prize:   Ji-Yeong Mun (18 years old, South Korea)
Second Prize:   Pallavi Mahidhara (27 years old, USA)
Third Prize:    Honggi Kim (25 years old, South Korea)

2014 Concours de Genève Flute Finals

2014 Concours de Genève Flute Finals

 

The flute finals of the 2014 Concours de Genève were held this evening (December 1st) in the festive setting of the flamboyantly rococo and acoustically fabulous Victoria Hall. Accompaniment was supplied by the Geneva Chamber Orchestra led by Nicholas Chalvin. The luck of the draw, combined with the admirable refusal of the judges to be influenced by programming considerations when choosing the finalists, resulted in an evening that featured only two works — Mozart’s Concerto in D Major, K.314 (a transcription of his C Major Oboe Concerto, and the Concerto for Flute and Strings (1958) by André Jolivet — repeated three times each.

The Three Winners

The Three Winners —  Adriana Ferreira, Yubeen Kim, Elena Badaeva

 

 

First to play was Elena Badaeva, 25, from Russia, whose swooping, balletic hijinks didn’t improve her somewhat airy tone and, I think, contributed to a tendency to be just under the pitch in long notes. She played with impeccable accuracy and good taste, which perhaps also led her to take less than full advantage of cadenza opportunities in the Mozart. And speaking of the Mozart, there was some wonderful oboe and horn playing from the orchestra but the strings were too often a little fuzzy around the edges. Paradoxically, the problem was less apparent in the much more difficult Jolivet.

Elena Badaeva

Elena Badaeva

South Korean Yubeen Kim, aged only 17, is already a real master of his instrument. Musically, his playing had life and immediacy, a way of keeping the audience’s attention without dropping the musical line for a moment which is the mark of a real artist. He already has his own signature sound — slightly hollow and chiffy, and squarely in the center of the pitch — something he manages to preserve even in extremes of register. And then there’s his infallible technical exactitude, and an attractively quiet stance in this age of more histrionic players. A real musician.

Yubeen Kim

Yubeen Kim

25-year-old Adriana Ferreira, from Portugal, had all the strengths of Mr. Kim, perhaps a little wilder and with less of her own stamp sound-wise but both the Mozart and the Jolivet bloomed in her performances. Despite the evening’s programming shortcomings, it really was fascinating to hear three gifted musicians bring their individual perspectives to the same two pieces. The audience bore up well under the repetitions and gave each player a warm reception.

Adriana Ferreira

Adriana Ferreira

Results

1st Prize: not awarded

2nd Prize: co-equal Mr. Yubeen Kim (South Korea) and Ms. Adriana Ferreira (Portugal)

3rd Prize: Ms. Elena Badaeva (Russia)

Mr. Kim also won both the Audience Prize and the Young Audience Prize.


Concours de Genève

Concours de Genève

The Geneva Competition’s 75th Anniversary 
November 26, 2014

As the Concours de Genève continues in Geneva, Switzerland, I had the opportunity to speak with Didier Schnorhk, Secretary General of the competition, who told me a bit about the history of the concours, its first grand prize winner, Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli, and how the event is run.

In the mid-1930s French-Swiss composer and organist Henri Gagnebin began to explore the possibility of creating a music competition at the Geneva Conservatory of music where he was Director.  He sought the advice of his friend Frédéric Liebstoeckl, who was then running a music competition in Vienna. 1938, just ahead of the Nazi annexation of Austria, Liebstoeckl, who was Jewish, fled to Geneva and together they opened the first competition in June, 1939.

The eventual winner, a young Italian pianist, almost didn’t make it to the event.  With so many people trying to leave Europe before the outbreak of war, the trip from his home in Milan to Geneva which should have taken 6 hours turned into several days.  The 19 year old musician had to bribe his way onto the trains and he arrived at the competition broke, exhausted and without accommodations. He won anyway and thus began both the great career of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and the sterling reputation of the Concours de Genève.  That September Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the world was drawn into the cataclysm of World War II.  Switzerland remained a neutral country but musicians of other nationalities could not get to Geneva to compete and so the Concours during the war years was restricted to Swiss citizens and those like Georg Solti, a 1942 winner in piano, who were already in the country.

From the beginning, private donors joined with the City and Canton of Geneva to fund the expenses of the Concours, a situation that continues today.  The leadership of the competition has remained unusually stable as well.  Mr. Liebestoeckl remained as its Secretary General for 40 years until his death in 1979 and Didier Schnorhk has occupied that position for more than 15 years now. Trustees of the foundation that runs the competition are selected from the great performing organizations of Geneva — l’Orchestre de la Suisse romande, Grand Théâtre (Opéra de Genève) and the Geneva Conservatory and an Artistic Advisory committee chooses jurors insuring the highest standards.  The featured disciplines rotate each year among a surprisingly wide variety of instruments, voice and composition.

Finalists in flute and piano will play their ultimate rounds on December 1st and 2nd and the prizes, totaling upwards of $50,000, will be awarded.  The competition will end with masterclasses by the distinguished French pianist Pascal Rogé, Chairman of the piano jury then the contestants will return home and, in a remarkable act of continuity which has resulted in the presentation of this extraordinary international competition every year since the end of the war, the organizers will hunker down to begin planning for the 2015 Concours de Genève. This one for composers.


2014 Concours de Genève First Round Flute Results

2014 Concours de Genève First Round Flute Results

2014 Concours de Genève First Round Flute Results
November 20, 2014
 

The opening round of the 2014 flute competition at the Concours de Genève (Geneva International Music Competition) has resulted in 18 competitors from 9 countries moving on to the round to be held on November 22nd and 23rd.  The first round selections were made from recitals of three pieces — Sigfrid Karg-
Elert’s Sonata Appassionata, C.P.E Bach’s Sonate for flute solo, as well as a contemporary piece from a list of 20th Century works by Georges Benjamin, Luciano Berio, Elliot Carter, Heinz Holliger, Philippe Hurel, Betsy Jolas, Tristan Murail and Toru Takemitsu.

The 18 competitors selected to continue are: Mayuko AKIMOTO (22, Japan), Elena BADAEVA (25, Russia), Hélène BOULEGUE (24, France), Ting-Wei CHEN (24, Taiwan), Hyunseo CHEON (17, South Korea), Adriana FERREIRA (24, Portugal), Julia HABENSCHUSS (24, Austria), Sébastian JACOT (27, Switzerland), Yubeen KIM (17, South Korea), Yuki KOYAMA (28, Japan), Helena MACHEREL (19, Switzerland), Alexander MARINESKU (26, Russia), Sarah OUAKRAT (27, France), Yaeram PARK (18, South Korea), Ji Weon RYU (22, South Korea), Sojeong SON (25, South Korea), Pantxoa URTIZBEREA (22, France) and Mark XIAO (27, Australia).


75th Anniversary of the Concours de Genève begins in Switzerland in Review

75th Anniversary of the Concours de Genève begins in Switzerland in Review

75th Anniversary of the Concours de Genève begins in Switzerland
November 20, 2014
The Geneva International Music Competition, better known by its more elegant French title, Concours de Genève, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.  Founded by Belgian composer and organist Henri Gagnebin who was then Director of the conservatory in Geneva, the first competition was held during the ominous days of July, 1939 on the brink of the outbreak of World War II.  Despite the shadows gathered over that first concourse, the jurors chose well: Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, then just 19 years old, was awarded  the Premier Prix, a choice that helped establish the competition among the most prestigious music prizes in the world.
Since that first edition, there have been 68 more — a more or less yearly event  with a handful of exceptions — and the long list of other prizewinners includes dozens of the most famous artists to grace concert stages across the world, among them:  Sir Georg Solti, Martha Argerich, Victoria de los Angeles, Paul Doktor, Friedrich Gulda, Maurizio Pollini, Heinz Hollinger, Elly Ameling, Maurice André, Pierre Laurent-Aimard, The Melos and Vegh String Quartets as well as the current Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert.
The 2014 edition will award prizes for Flute and Piano in performance rounds which began November 16th.  The competitors have been chosen from more than 300 applicants from 19 countries ranging in age from 17 to 29.  There are two international juries deciding the winners — acclaimed French concert pianist Pascal Rogé heads the piano jury and Emily Benyon, principal flutist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, chairs for flute. I am looking forward to covering the Finals — for flute on December 1st and for piano on December 2nd — when the selected pianists will perform with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under the direction of British conductor Alexander Shelley, and the flutists with the Geneva Chamber Orchestra, Nicolas Chalvin, conducting.  Watch for the reviews.

S&R Foundation presents Char Prescott and Ryo Yanagitani in Review

S&R Foundation presents Char Prescott and Ryo Yanagitani in Review

Char Prescott, cello; Ryo Yanagitani, piano
The Kennedy Center – Millennium Stage, Washington, DC
September 12, 2014

 

The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage has earned the remarkable record of having presented a free concert every afternoon at 6pm, 365 days a year (possibly minus a snow day or two), for more than fifteen years.  The concerts cover an enormous range of music and dance genres and I must say, if they’ve all been as good as Friday afternoon’s cello and piano duo, Char Prescott and Ryo Yanagitani, then as a New Yorker I’ve really been missing something.

The concert was sponsored by the S&R Foundation, a Washington, DC based charity that is the philanthropic arm of two very unusual individuals, Drs. Sachiko Kuno and Ryuji Ueno, a pair of biochemists who have plowed profits from their highly successful pharmaceutical patents into supporting the arts.  They have created an artist-in-residence program along with a concert series at Everymay, the grand Federal-Era estate in Georgetown that they purchased and renovated in 2011, and a kind of entrepreneurship academy at Halcyon House, another historic home they own nearby.  The glorious sounding 19th century Italian cello played by Char Prescott is on loan to her from the pair as well.

Ms. Prescott and Mr. Yanagitani opened their program with the second of the three Sonatas for Viola da Gamba — in D Major, BWV 1028 — by J. S. Bach.  Gambas are not too commonly found these days, so performances tend to take place on the cello, either with the original harpsichord as accompanying instrument or, in this case, piano.  The use of a modern piano can create balance problems, but in pianist Ryo Yanagitani’s hands, the complex interweaving of contrapuntal lines emerged cleanly and without overmatching his partner.  The phrasing and dynamics in the duo’s performance tilted a little towards the romantic for my taste, but that’s a quibble.  The sinuous interplay of the musical lines in this work makes a good case for some leeway in articulation, so I don’t really blame them for indulging a little.  The result was an enchanting reading.

Written in 1886, during a happy and productive summer Johannes Brahms spent in the dramatic lake and mountain scenery of Thun, Switzerland, the Sonata No. 2 for Piano and Cello in F Major, Op. 99 reflects his sunny state of mind. His exuberant score provides plenty of opportunities for virtuoso playing to both performers, particularly in the monumentally difficult piano part, perhaps why the piano is named first in the title.  There are generally two styles of performances in this piece: one in which the players hurl themselves at it full throttle in the most dramatic way, and the second which prizes charm and elegance over punch.  Prescott and Yanagitani chose the second way, and theirs was a reading that let the honey gold tone of Ms. Prescott’s cello shine through.  Mr. Yanagitani demonstrated a control of the thickly written piano part from the sometimes hushed, sometimes brilliant tremolos of the first movement to the whirling triplet chords of the scherzo to the sun-streaked finale that was really impressive.

Béla Bartók’s Six Romanian Folk Dances written in 1915 for piano solo and played in an arrangement for cello and piano closed the program.  Here Ms. Prescott got to show off her command of the instrument’s sonic possibilities and, as was the case throughout the afternoon, Mr. Yanagitani provided just the right support.  These two artists have clearly played together long enough to completely internalize this repertoire, and their absolute security and deep knowledge of the music communicates real pleasure to their audience.  I was certainly happy to have been there.

 

 

 

 


14th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Review

14th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Review

14th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition
Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Stages 1&2), Heichal Hatarbut (Finals), Tel Aviv, Israel
May 13-29, 2014

 

This year marked the 40th anniversary of the quadrennial Arthur Rubinstein Competition, held in Tel Aviv for two weeks in May. First Prize went to 25-year-old Antonii Baryshevskyi, of Ukraine; Second Prize to American Steven Lin, also 25, and Third Prize to Seong-Jin Cho, 20, of South Korea. There were also co-equal prizes given to the other three of the six Finalists —18- year-old Leonardo Colafelice of Italy, Maria Mazo, 31, of Russia, and Andrejs Osokins, 29, of Latvia. As we’ve all come to expect, the level of playing was very high and it struck me that on another day, the order of prizes could easily have come out differently. In any case, a distinguished competition like the Rubinstein demonstrates just how many really good young pianists are out there these days. Now that the compliments (and prizes of up to $40,000) have been handed out (For a complete list of winners, click here: 14th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition Prize Winners List) , let’s get to the performances.

First a general comment. It bothers me a good deal that most of the competitors, though not necessarily the winners, seem to feel desperate to make something outsized of the slightest turn within a phrase instead of playing out the long arches that would make sense of the works as a whole, and the effort drives them to make eye-rolling, grimacing, swooning cartoon faces in practically every other measure. If this bizarre habit added anything to the performances, I wouldn’t object — truly — but the result actually is the opposite, and it comes from a lack of understanding of the musical architecture they are trying to project. Maybe this is attributable to modern life — the noisiness and constant motion, the demand for instant gratification from even the smallest things, the quick-cut editing that plagues everything from contemporary movies, TV shows and commercials, to the 140 characters of a Tweet. There seems to be no long view any more. Watching one of the competitors play the opening of Appassionata as her face reflected in turn solemnity, horror, sticky sweetness, and what seemed to me like amusement, all in about fifteen seconds, looked (and sounded) an awful lot like schizophrenia. Worse yet, these expressions are applied on top of the music like Halloween makeup instead of emerging naturally from within it, and these little titivations are so numerous and follow so quickly one on the other that they make no long-term sense. As we are further and further removed in time from the very unmodern environment that produced this music in the first place, I really wonder if we can ever get back the physically quiet and straightforward approach of the best artists of earlier generations.

And now to the performers: Antonii Baryshevskyi opened his first recital with one of the competition’s pieces imposées, Benjamin Yusupov’s Subconscious Labyrinths — a daring way to introduce himself to the audience and jurors. He took full advantage of the lyrical elements in the work and his command of beautiful tone did a lot to make the unfamiliar and often clangingly dissonant piece palatable in a way that many of the others failed to do. His Pictures at an Exhibition was warm-toned and the characterizations popped out in high relief. His Scriabin had an appropriately perfumed and slightly debauched aura, but of all his recital pieces I was most taken with the Schumann 2nd Sonata. It’s a slender and classicist piece, but with a wild streak that requires a relentless drive and very fast fingers and here Baryshevskyi really made you feel the wind in your face. I was less happy with his concerti — the Mozart D minor, K.466 and the Prokofiev 2nd. Both seemed to me to plod a bit.

I’ve heard 25-year-old American pianist Steven Lin often in the last couple of years. He’s always been an impressive player, and the technical megawattage required to toss off the Don Juan Fantasy, Petrouschka, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 and other pyrotechnic repertoire seems to come naturally to him. In this competition though, it was his Bach (the French Overture) and Beethoven (Sonata Op. 31, No. 3) which really demanded attention. His natural phrasing, free of the anguished twistings and turnings of some of his colleagues, sounded refreshing, and when it came to Schumann’s turbulent and passionate 3rd Sonata, all the blood and thunder you could wish for was there. His Beethoven 1st Concerto was grand and spacious with a humorous twinkle when it was needed, and his Prokofiev 2nd Concerto I thought edged Baryshevskyi’s by being a little more flexible and singing, especially in the broad opening tune of the first movement.

Seong-Jin Cho is a more puzzling case. He had a lot of fans at the competition, and the jury clearly thought highly of him. He overcomes the thorniest technical problems easily and has a neat and polished surface but, I think he has an insecure grasp of the rhetoric — the language and grammar — of 18th and 19th century repertoire. His BartókOut of Doors Suite and his account of the required piece (Subconscious Labyrinths again) were compelling, but pretty much all of the earlier music he played suffered from fussiness and the constant (and maddening) cheating of climaxes in an attempt to make them more dramatic. As with actors of a certain kind, you can see the gears working — also, like Lang Lang, I found Mr. Cho hard to watch.

There were a number of competitors who didn’t make the finals for one reason or another but nevertheless gave astonishingly good performances. I’ll mention two, although there are certainly more who deserve recognition. Marcin Koziak, a 25-year-old Pole now living in Texas, has a stunning command, but his cleanly chiseled sound and wonderfully natural phrasing were marred this time around by a few too many finger slips. He is, however, a real artist who I look forward to hearing again. Another is 21-year-old Russian Nikolay Khozyainov, who opened his recital with a meltingly beautiful Pavane by Ravel in which the piano seemed to have acquired a bow to draw out the melody with seamless legato while the accompaniment floated around it like incense. This young man is a master of romantic tone, amply displayed in Rachmaninoff’s First Sonata as well. Feux-follets went less well, as it often does, and that was enough to put him out of the running.

 


The 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition Ends

The Kapell Competition Ends With An Evening of Concertos

After a concert last night in which the three Finalists played concertos with the Baltimore Symphony at the Clarice Smith Center’s Dekelboum Hall, the results of the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition are in, and they are as follows:

1st Prize – $25,000 to Yekwon Sunwoo, 23, of South Korea 2nd Prize – $15,000 to Jin Uk Kim, 28, of South Korea 3rd Prize – $10,000 to Steven Lin, 23, of the US The Chamber Music Award also went to Mr. Sunwoo.  A list of the other awards given can be found at:  http://claricesmithcenter.umd.edu

Well, it was a very exciting Final Round at the Kapell Competition, and there were some surprises.  Anyone who has been reading my postings will know that I expected — from the first ten seconds of his first performance — that Steven Lin would win the First Prize.  Based on his performances throughout the 2 weeks of the event, I still feel that way.  This opinion, however, should take nothing away from the actual First Prize winner, Yekwon Sunwoo, who played spectacularly well — particularly the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, which he played in the Semi-Finals (with a really superb accompaniment by pianist Colette Valentine, an ideal collaborator and a wonderful pianist in her own right), as well as in last night’s Final Round with the Baltimore Symphony and conductor David Lockington.  On both occasions he let the beast loose with daring tempos, plenty of sonority and an especially ringing top.  He cut mightily through what was often a pretty heavy handed orchestral accompaniment and, I think, therein lay his victory.

Mr. Lin, who had in every performance up to the Finals demonstrated a truly breathtaking technique as well as an imaginative and attention-compelling musicianship that was well beyond what I was hearing from his colleagues, was simply swamped by the orchestra throughout his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  Mr. Lockington and the BSO should take a share of the blame for this, there were passages, especially from the low brass, that were seriously, almost ridiculously, overplayed.  (Was it Richard Strauss who said, “Never look at the brass, it only encourages them”?)  But Mr. Lin, who at 23 is tall but still slight of frame, is going to have to find a much more robust tone when he next sits down in front of an orchestra, or risk another annihilation.

Jin Uk Kim, the Second Prize laureate, took a broad, encompassing view of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with its wide landscape of sun and shade.  The first movement was leisurely and reflective in tone; the second, which Brahms referred to jokingly as “a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo,” was suitably growly and threatening.  The Andante third movement was a glass of fine brandy and a cigar, an interlude of near stillness heightened by Chang Woo Lee’s plangent cello solo.  The final Allegretto grazioso was subjected to a rather speedy interpretation of that tempo marking, but it sparkled and danced and the notorious runs of double thirds in both hands seemed to cause Mr. Kim no distress — in fact he strode through all the really thorny pianistics with no problems at all but cracked a fair number of notes in less difficult spots.

As I said at the beginning of my coverage of the Kapell, an event like this reminds us all of how many terrific pianists there are seeking careers.  Not all of them will succeed, of course, but a number of competitors who didn’t make it to the Final Round still gave wonderful, memorable performances.  To wrap this up, here (in no particular order) are a few of my happier memories from the past two weeks:  Diyi Tang in Gaspard de la nuit, Guilliaume Masson’s Canope by Debussy, Jeewon Lee’s Tchaikowsky Concerto and Kreutzer Sonata (with Melissa White), both Misha Namirovisky and Alexandre Moutouzkine’s Scriabin performances, Younggun Kim’s Poulenc Novelettes and Prokofiev 7th Sonata, Julia Siciliano in the Waldstein Sonata, Chien-Lin Lu’s Chopin Bacarolle…, so many.  Congratulations to all who participated.


Anton Kuerti in Review

Anton Kuerti in an all-Beethoven recital

You overhear these conversations all the time at concerts:  “Well, he/she didn’t put enough emotion into it.”  Or:  “He/she put a lot of emotion into it.”  Non-musicians can be forgiven for being confused by this issue, but the fact is (in my opinion, anyway) that “putting emotion in” is about 95% of the time the result of following the written directions of the composer, laid out in the score.  These guys (and gals) knew what they were doing, especially Beethoven who was positively obsessive about putting the most minute instructions in his manuscripts, occasionally on nearly every note.  It’s when performers don’t really take the trouble to learn the music in depth, when they take the once-over-lightly approach, or worse, when they decide that they know better than Mr. van B, that they end up sounding cold, or unemotional, and generally run aground on a lousy performance.  They’re not cold, they’re just lazy.  You don’t add emotion, you allow it to emerge by really knowing the musical score in the deepest possible way.  A good musician has to master it all — to internalize every detail of the composer’s instructions — and only then begin to decide how to best reproduce the work.

Anton Kuerti is not lazy.

Mr. Kuerti’s extraordinary all-Beethoven program last night — two Sonatas: the Op. 26 in A-Flat, and the Op. 57 in F minor “Appassionata” plus the massive 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120 — was overflowing with carefully observed details, and, as a result, it had the kind of effect on the emotions that most performers think they are achieving but never do.  Kuerti has studied these works for a lifetime, and knows every jot in these scores.  So, one could ask, is there no room for individuality?  For a more personal interpretation?  Of course there is, and Mr. Kuerti’s playing was full of freedom and fantasy — individual touches like the tiny delays which served to intensify cadences and provide breathing room in phrases — it’s just that he started from a place where every mark Beethoven put on the page was accounted for in full, and embedded in his playing.

Anton Kuerti

Audiences don’t get the opportunity to hear a performance like the one Kuerti gave last night very often.  This audience clearly knew it and erupted in a standing ovation as soon as the Diabellis, which closed the program, ended.  This enormous set of 33 magical variations on perhaps the most banal tune ever written, something like 55 minutes in length (I glanced at my watch as  it began intending to time it, but became so engrossed in the playing that I forgot to look again), is not the sort of piece that usually calls forth that kind of reaction.  It is of great length, relentlessly repetitive, and worst of all it ends slowly and quietly.  Nevertheless the audience, with more than a few of the worlds best pianists sprinkled in, was on its feet at the end — a well earned tribute to the fantastic journey it had just taken with Mr. Kuerti leading the way.   The pianist is 74 now, and his fingers occasionally slip.  It matters not at all.  For a couple of hours last night, he showed us what a good musician is, and what a good musician does.