The William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival; Solo Semi-Finals in Review

Solo Semi-Finals Are Over – Nine Pianists Played

On Thursday, July 12th, the Jury of the William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival selected nine semi-finalists from a field of twenty four.  These nine pianists were heard in three solo semi-final rounds on Friday, Saturday and Sunday performing recitals of an hour each including both the required American piece — Leon Kirchner’s Interlude II proving to be wildly popular, at least among the competitors — and a portion of one concerto of the performer’s choice, plus standard repertoire solo works.  At the risk of being a bit crass, here is my racing form so far:

Jin Uk Kim, 28 from South Korea but residing in Boston these days is a DMA student at the New England Conservatory.  Mr. Kim played two of the Brahms Klavierstucke, Op. 76 in middle of the road mode, without much heat or light.  He chose Interlude II (the choice of 5 of the other nine players as well), a piece from Kirchner’s last years, as his American work.  It’s an evocative piece which lends itself to a touch of romanticism in tone and Mr. Kim’s satisfying approach was appropriately juicy.  Sparks flew from the Six Paganini Etudes of Franz Liszt but the requisite virtuosity turned his sound toward the hard side.  The Brahms Second Piano Concerto is the 32oz porterhouse of piano concerti, and for me, Mr. Kim left a good deal of meat on his plate.  It was a speedy reading of the first movement, without much breathing room, but the second movement was warmer.

Jin Uk Kim

Jeewon Lee, 30, is also from South Korea and pursuing her DMA at Rice University in Texas.  She began with her American work, Michael Torke’s Laetus and followed it with the Chopin Piano Sonata No. 3.  This, as all the piano playing world knows, is a towering work of great difficulty, both technically and musically.  Ms. Lee handled the technical demands without batting an eyelash, but the music itself was more problematic.  She tends to back away from the climaxes of phrases in a coy, cutesy way —  coquettish rather than ardent, and I think probably not what Chopin was aiming at.  Her Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1, however, was fullblooded and very well played.

Diyi Tang was the competitor I missed hearing in the Preliminaries due to that unfortunate combination of confusion about the start time and traffic.  He is 32, from China, and working towards a DMA at Rutgers University.  He made something of a fashion statement, entering the stage dressed in a sharp and shiny brown sharkskin suit.  Fortunately, his Gaspard de la nuit shimmered as well.  Ondine irridesced, Le gibet twisted ever so slowly in a non existent wind, the endlessly repeating B-flats sounding like they were played by some other pianist in some other room far away, and Scarbo terrorized, leaping and whirling and generally throwing the furniture around.  Mr. Tang chose George Walker’s Sonata No 2 as his American piece and gave it a thoughtful reading.  Less so Chopin’s Scherzo in C-sharp minor, Op. 39 which was strangely uninvolved given the opportunities it presents.  Mainly it was very, very fast with little give, even in the chorale sections.

Saturday’s Round Two began with Yue Chu, 28, from China and currently studying in Philadelphia, who started his program with Interlude II.  To my ears Mr. Chu exhibited tonal problems throughout his recital.  He produced a duller sound than his predecessors which didn’t flatter him by comparison, particularly in the Liszt Sonata which suffered from a few too many cracked notes as well as insufficient bass, leaving otherwise lush harmonies under-supported.  The Rachmaninoff Third Concerto (first and second movements) was better but still on the cool side.

Masafumi Nakatani

Masafumi Nakatani

Masafumi Nakatani, 28 and from Japan, is in the Doctoral Program at University of Miami.  He also opened his program with the Kirchner — a mesmerizing reading with warm sound and pinging high notes.  Things slid downhill from there, however.  Schumann’s Carnaval was overpedaled and sloppy with missed notes and memory slips.  That’s forgivable in this pressure cooker situation, but in an effort to do something “deep” Mr. Nakatani often twisted the music out of proportion, a propensity that afflicted the Beethoven Emperor Concerto too, and that I am less inclined to brush off.

Fortunately, critics are not expected to exercise neutrality.  I have pointed out what I perceive to be some of the problems of these competitors, but I’d like to say here and now that they are all at a minimum very very good pianists.  Remember that, please, as you read what comes next:

Steven Lin is a whole other order of being.  In this competition, he is a leopard in a room full of house cats.  (Mr. Lin may also prove to be a cure for triskaidecaphobics since he is Competitor No. 13).  There is little to say except to marvel at his level of technical accomplishment, well above most of the professional pianists who inhabit the world’s concert halls these days.  The ease of this young man’s playing (he’s 23, and of Taiwanese descent but born in the US), his poise and his absolute mastery enable him to really let his imagination loose.  He can do pretty much anything he wants to do.  This is not necessarily always a good thing, but even when Mr. Lin does something slightly cringeworthy, he does it with such astonishing skill and freedom that it’s pointless to argue.  He exists in a blissful zone of his own.

Steven Lin

Steven Lin

Yekwon Sunwoo is also 23, from South Korea and enrolled in the Masters program at Juilliard.  He seems to me a strong contender for a place in the Kapell finals.  He’s a technical whiz and a good musician.  My one complaint would be that he uses very soft dynamics too much (this has been something of a trend at this competition).  The Chopin Ballade No. 1 left me feeling cheated at many beautiful moments.  The slow movement of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy was much the same — projection above all, please,  even at low volume.   His Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, however, practically lifted the roof off the auditorium (and broke a string in the piano as well).

Yekwon Sunwoo

Yekwon Sunwoo

Misha Namirovsky, 31, from Russia by way of Israel is another newly minted Bostonian, now in the DMA program at New England Conservatory.  I’m about 95% sure Mr. Nemirovsky intended to play the German Steinway he used in the preliminary rounds, however, since the string broken during Mr. Sunwoo’s Rachmaninonff Concerto couldn’t be properly replaced in the 15 minutes allotted between performances, I think Namirovsky must have agreed to use the American Steinway he ended up playing at the last minute.  If that’s the way it happened, it’s a pretty undesirable position to be put in and I suspect it rattled him, subtly at first and then more overtly as the Schumann Symphonic Etudes proceeded.  By the time the Beethoven Fourth Concerto came along he was back in control and he gave a beautiful if slightly oddball performance of it — the second movement played first, followed by the first movement.

Jun Sun, 23 from China and currently a student at Juilliard, gave an appealingly haunting and reflective performance of (once again) the Kirshner Interlude II, and a carefully articulated performance of Brahms’ Handel Variations that was also athletic and fearless at the right moments.  Brahms First Piano Concerto was a little reticent for my taste but it roared occasionally too.

Chamber music is on the program for the next two days followed by the announcement of the finalists.

A Correction:

There are of course inherent problems in publishing same day pieces, and sometimes mistakes are made.  Let me rephrase that:  Sometimes I make mistakes — and I made a lulu the other day when I wrote that Misha Namirovsky had, at the last minute before his performance on Sunday, been forced by circumstances beyond his control to play the American Steinway.  He was, in fact, scheduled to play the American Steinway, has used it from the beginning of the competition and he played it again today in the Chamber Music Round.  My apologies to all concerned.

The Kapell Competition in Review

The Preliminary Round is Over

The Kapell Competition’s preliminary rounds were spread over three days – the only way to hear 24 pianists play 30 minutes of repertoire each without fatalities on the jury and perhaps the audience as well.  One fact becomes immediately apparent from such an undertaking:  there are a lot of excellent young pianists around.  This should give folks like Norman Lebrecht and other predictors of the demise of classical music something to think about.  These young artists are enthusiastic champions of the art form and in terms of audience, I think people have always come to classical music later in life when they go looking for real meaning as opposed to just entertainment.  In any case, we’ll see.  Personally, I’m not too worried.

William Kapell; Photo Credit: Clarice Smith Center

Among the performers here there are several with genuine star potential, and many more with the ability to inspire others to become interested in concert music.  Some time around 4pm today the jury will announce nine semi-finalists.  It’s 2:45 now so I’m going to go out on a limb and list my choices (in the order in which they played) to advance to the next round.  Once caveat:  due to the notorious Washington Beltway traffic, as well as a certain confusion of mind as to the actual start time of Round Three, I missed Diyi Tang’s performance entirely, and I only heard Maria Sumareva’s via closed circuit TV in the lobby since I arrived after she began — clearly not the best way to make a judgement, so if either or both of them deserved to be mentioned here, I can only apologize and look forward to hearing them in the next round.

Julia Siciliano

The first name on this list is bound to be controversial.  Julia Siciliano is a consummate musician who played very beautifully… except when she didn’t.  Nemesis stalked her through the Chopin Fourth Scherzo.  Its skittering leaping chords, which appear in I don’t know how many transpositions in the course of the piece, are a memorization death trap and Ms. Siciliano fell in.  Twice.  She climbed out, however, with elegance and grace and not the slightest effect on the rest of her performance of the piece or the remainder of her program — an absolutely engrossing and flawlessly played Waldstein Sonata, the equal of any I’ve heard.  I hope the jury will cut her enough slack to continue.

Younggun Kim

Younggun Kim is indeed, as his name implies, a young gun.  He has blazing technical capacity and a lush sound supported by a natural phrasing sense and an appreciation of the differences in approach required to project the music of Haydn – a little dry for my taste, but more about that in a later post about the pianos.  Kim’s Poulenc Novelettes shimmered with beautifully balanced voicings, and Prokofiev’s war horse Seventh Sonata was spiky and rhythmically driven but still played with full, beautiful tone.

Gonzalo Paredes

Gonzalo Paredes

Chilean pianist Gonzalo Paredes began with a sprightly performance of the first movement of Haydn’s big C Major sonata (Hob. XVI:50).  When I say sprightly I really mean fast, perhaps a little too fast, but perfectly controlled and bravely pedaled according to Haydn’s long markings.  Two pieces from Bartók’s Out of Doors Suite followed.  The Night’s Music was appropriately buggy, The Chase quite spectacular.  Liszt’s Variations on a Theme of J. S. Bach had the rapt audience eating out of Paredes’ extremely capable hands.  He has more than a little of his great countryman Claudio Arrau’s depth of sound and he uses it to great effect.

Steven Lin

Steven Lin

Steven Lin  is a phenomenon.  He seems effortlessly to do things which might reasonably be assumed to be impossible.  He is surely one of the most gifted technicians around, and that includes most of the professional pianists performing today.  This is not hyperbole; you have to hear him to believe it.  His Haydn Sonata, the same C Major as Mr. Paredes’, was playful and sparkling, and Mr. Lin milked it for every opportunity to do something remarkable.  He sometimes skated close to the outer bounds of good taste, but he never really crossed it, and, it has it be said again, it really was remarkable.  He followed this with a jaw-dropping account of Liszt’s very ungrateful Don Juan Fantasy — a piece I will readily admit that I detest.  In 40 years I never heard a performance of it that sounded like anything but a confused noise from without, that is until yesterday just before 11am when Mr. Lin set everything right.  Indescribable.  And I can’t wait to hear more.

Yekwon Sunwoo

Yekwon Sunwoo

Yekwon Sunwoo gave us a clear and well proportioned version of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 27, No. 1, the companion piece to the more famous “Moonlight” Sonata, and one of Beethoven’s loveliest.  One thing puzzles me — and I’ll admit it’s a nit-pick, but the other pianist who played this work did the same thing — and that is the unauthorized (at least by Beethoven) appearance of staccato notes in the left hand in measure 4.  OK, ok, it’s a minor thing, but it spoils the surprise when they do appear in the next measure.  Somebody should kill this before it spreads.  Ravel’s La Valse stretches anyone’s technical abilities to the limit, but it didn’t seem to disturb Mr. Sunwoo in any way.  He gave a whirling, kaleidoscopic account that never lost sight of the basic waltz rhythm.

Jee In Hwang

Jee In Hwang

Jee In Hwang produced a massive Rachmaninoff Corelli Variations, a glittlering Jeux d’eau and a solid Les Adieux Sonata, although the first movement was not improved by a tempo which strained the upper limits of musicianship.  Misha Namirovsky’s Schubert suffered from too much una corda pedal — it seems to be the fashion these days to show how softly you can play and a number of competitors are overusing it — but his Rachmaninoff, Debussy and particularly his Scriabin Fourth Sonata with its devilish Prestissimo volando were awfully good.  Jun Sun played a rather uninterested account of Haydn’s Sonata No. 33 but Godowsky’s fabulous elaboration of the Strauss waltz Wine, Women and Song had a technical command you couldn’t argue with.  The problem with the Godowsky transcriptions is that pianists nowadays take them too seriously.  There was a lot of mooning over the opening riffs and other inconsequentials.  Sometimes it is just noodling.   Guilliaume Masson is another of the una corda addicts, but his takes on Mozart, K. 330 and Liszt’s Après un lecture de Dante were highly original and, well, pretty convincing.  Canope, Debussy’s evocation of an Egyptian burial jar, was magically still and mysterious. And now, time to await the real jury’s decision.

July 12, 2012 — 2:45pm

Lang Lang, Superstar, Shows Why at Carnegie Hall

by Howard Aibel, President of New York Concert Review

Lang Lang

Lang Lang gave a phenomenal concert at Carnegie Hall, broadcast live on WQXR on May 29th, 2012. He is without a doubt the most famous pianist in the world, continuing to perform to sold out houses in every city he plays. In 2009, he appeared in Time Magazine’s annual list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. The Year before, more than four billion people saw his performance during the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games, inspiring over 40 million Chinese children to learn to play classical music on the piano. He just received an Honorary Doctorate Degree from the Manhattan School of Music in recognition of his extraordinary accomplishments as a musician, educator, and musical ambassador to the world. Lang Lang may very well be the most popular classical musician on the globe, and it isn’t difficult to see why. There was an excitement in the air before the concert began, with a sold out house, including some 120 stage seats. Thankfully, the live broadcast on WQXR is still available by typing in Lang Lang. This was the first time he was performing Bach in Carnegie Hall, and there were video cameras and microphones surrounding the stage; talk about pressure! Yet he played comfortably and intimately, as if in his living room. Oddly, the only noticeable minor slips were in the Gigue of the Bach Partita, where the left hand crosses over the right in a fast tempo. In the slow Sarabande, Lang Lang used rubato to be expressive, but in Baroque music he needs to do this while playing in time, which he did in all the other movements. Still, his playing was much more natural than the Bach of Glenn Gould, who was considered the greatest “Bach Specialist”.

Next on the program was the last sonata of Schubert, written in the year of his death, 1828.   Interestingly, it is in the same key as the Bach Partita (B-flat Major), and it also presents itself with a quiet simplicity. His performance was filled with an abundance of colors, as he has tremendous control over the piano. He defines the epitome of technique: the ability to do anything you want at the instrument. He can play incredibly softly, yet his sound still carries to the last row in the hall. Of course, nobody can please everybody; that was the case with Glenn Gould, Leonard Bernstein, and Daniel Barenboim, but Lang Lang comes close to pleasing most audiences at only 29 years of age. His newfound demeanor has changed his concert attire, his repertoire, and his maturity. That is not to say he doesn’t have to develop more; he still could play with more simplicity and let the music speak for itself. Gary Graffman was Lang Lang’s teacher at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia from the time he was 14 until 19. Mr. Graffman said that Lang Lang sent a DVD performance of all 24 Chopin Etudes when he was 13 or 14 years old! At this Carnegie performance, the Etude in Thirds was so stupendous that it elicited bravos from the audience, which then broke into consistently boisterous applause, which gave him a moment to wipe his brow. He quickly continued with the difficult “Winter Wind Etude”, which was indeed fabulous. As if to prevent more applause, he dove into the last etude, the “Ocean”.

At the conclusion, the audience went wild, jumping to their feet screaming “Bravo!” The first of the two Liszt encores was a Romance in E Minor, which was lovingly performed, and it was followed by “La Campanella,” which was nothing short of stupendous. He could have gone on and on, but the house lights went up, signaling that it was the end to one of the best recitals I have ever heard.

“The Most Happy Fella” by Frank Loesser in Review

“The Most Happy Fella” by Frank Loesser
Dicapo Opera Theatre, New York, NY
March 17, 2012
Leah Lane, Michael Corvino and cast; Photo Credit Rob Rich

Leah Lane, Michael Corvino and cast; Photo Credit Rob Rich

I first saw Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella” in 1957, during its first Broadway run. I bought the score as soon as it was published and the original cast album (the first recording of an entire show, including spoken dialogue) as soon as the 33rpm records came out. These were later replaced by CD’s. In 2006 I attended the New York City Opera’s disastrous production starring a woefully miscast, musically inept Paul Sorvino as the baritone lead. There were other revivals in between. Yes, I’ve had a fifty-five year love affair with this great American musical, but it was a love affair scarred by inept revivals. Would I ever experience a performance which came even close to my memories of the original? This thought went through my mind as I sat in the fifth row of the Dicapo Opera Theatre’s lovely 204 seat space in the basement of St. Jean Baptiste Church on E 76th Street. As the houselights dimmed I was in a state of wary anticipation.

And a few hours later, I was in a state of bliss. I had just attended a performance for which I am still finding it hard to find suitable words – superb, magnificent, sublime all come to mind.  Forget about 1957 – this was the best performance I’ve heard of this great American masterpiece; the perfect amalgam of wonderful unamplified singing (both operatic and pop,) moving acting, clear and simple staging, costumes which conjured up a time and a place, and beautiful orchestral playing.

“The Most Happy Fella” stands or falls on the performance of the “fella,” Tony Esposito, a lonely Italian immigrant who owns a winery in the Napa Valley. He is most often played by a large man who often exaggerates the characters awkwardness and lack of education. Baritone Michael Corvino is a slight, dignified man and his moving portrayal brought out the character’s fragility and, more than any Tony I’ve seen, his deep love for Rosabella, the mail-order bride who has come to his winery. He is a powerful and compelling baritone. But one never felt that he was an “opera singer” crossing over into musical comedy, as he brought the same natural delivery to his “arias” as he did to simple songs like “Happy to make your Acquaintance.” And there was a wonderful chemistry between Mr. Corvino’s Tony and soprano Molly Mustonen’s Rosabella. Possessing a beautiful soprano voice, Ms. Mustonen is a fine singing actress. Her deepening love for Tony was palpable and brought tears to my eyes.

But if much of the music sung by Tony and Rosabella tended towards the operatic, that of the two other leads, Lauren Hoffmeier and Brance Cornelius, was pure musical comedy. Ms. Hoffmeier’s singing of the show’s first number, “Ooo! My Feet,” was deliciously brassy, and her duet with Mr. Cornelius, “Big D,” brought down the house. The fine dancing of both these performers helped choreographer Francine D. Harman solve the problem of how an opera company treats the show’s two big dance numbers. The members of Dicapo’s chorus sang beautifully all evening, but couldn’t be expected to perform the complex choreography of big production numbers. Ms. Harman’s solution was perfect. Omit the dance following the chorus “Sposalizio” and leave most of the dancing in “Big D” to Ms. Hoffmeier and Mr. Cornelius. By the way, the chorus’s performance of “Song of a Summer Night” was memorable.

The supporting cast did much more than just support. One could not ask for better portrayals than Peter Kendall Clark’s Jo, Bess Morrison’s Marie, Michael Hopewell’s Doc and David Keller-Flight’s Postman. Three show stoppers were “Standing on the Corner,” performed by Brian Ribeiro, Nicholas Connolly, Jonathan Harris and the afore mentioned Brance Cornelius; “Abbondanza,” and “Benvenuta,” brilliantly sung by Paolo Buffani, Michael Imbimbo and Vincent Ricciardi.

The fine orchestra was under the masterful direction of conductor Pacien Mazzagatti. The orchestra was seated upstage, behind the performers, bringing the singers very close to the audience. But this setup did nothing to hinder the coordination between voices and instruments. The ensemble was perfect. The simple but effective set by John Farrell was beautifully lit by Susan Roth (In addition to what happened on stage, I loved the mysterious blue-lit orchestra behind the performers.) The fine costumes were designed by Julie Wyma.

Kudos to Dicapo Opera Theatre’s General Director, Michael Capasso. He has a smash hit show on his hands. My brother, who now lives in Paris, was with me at that 1957 performance of “The Most Happy Fella,” If Dicapo performs it again, he will fly back to New York to see it. I’ll be there too.

The Flury-Prinz Duo

The Flury-Prinz Duo brings together two of the finest soloists in Europe. As Duo partners, Vienna Philharmonic principal flutist, Dieter Flury, and acclaimed piano soloist, Maria Prinz, have been praised by the press as “deeply expressive” and “complete masters of their instruments.”

The Duo’s 2011-12 season includes a tour of New Zealand and Australia featuring a recital at St. John’s Cathedral in Brisbane; a performance of Ervin Schulhoff’s Concerto Dopio for flute, piano, and orchestra with the Baden-Baden Philharmonic (Germany) in January 2012; and a concert tour of the U.S. beginning in March 2012, with concerts at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall and the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. In June, the Duo is scheduled to record Mozart flute sonatas for Naxos. The late Edith Eisler hailed the Duo’s 2011 performance at Weill Recital Hall, noting that “Mr. Flury played on a golden flute whose radiance was matched by its warm, round, shimmering tone,” and praising Ms. Prinz as “an exemplary collaborator leading and supporting with equal sensitivity.”

Flutist Dieter Flury has been called a “Flute Paganini” thanks to his phenomenal finger and breath-technique. Solo flutist of the Vienna Philharmonic since 1981 and general manager of the orchestra since 2005, he enjoys a multi-faceted career as a leading soloist, recitalist, chamber musician, teacher, and orchestral leader. He has performed as soloist with the Vienna Philharmonic on numerous occasions and made concerto appearances with the Vienna Symphony, Zurich Chamber Orchestra, and New Japan Philharmonic. This season he will perform the Ibert Flute Concerto as soloist with the Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Barenboim in Vienna on May 19 and 20, and at the Festival “March Music Days” in Russe, Bulgaria, as soloist with the National Radio Orchestra of Romania. For the 2011-12 season, he is soloist-in-residence with the Baden-Baden Philharmonic. Originally from Zurich, Mr. Flury is a professor at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, Austria. He previously served on the faculty of the Vienna Music Academy and the Vienna Conservatory, and leads master classes around the world.

Hailed as “brilliant” and “deeply sensitive” by Das Orchester magazine, pianist Maria Prinz is widely in demand as a soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician. She has performed with leading orchestras throughout the world, including the Vienna Philharmonic, collaborating with conductors Riccardo Muti at the Salzburg Festival and Seiji Ozawa in Vienna. She has also appeared in Sofia and at the “March Music Days” Festival in Russe, Bulgaria, under Sir Neville Marriner, and in the “Musikverein Hall” in Vienna. Additionally, she performed the Bulgarian première of “Oiseaux Exotiques” by Olivier Messiaen. Upcoming solo recitals include a performance of works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert at the Pera International Piano Festival in Istanbul in May 2012. Maria Prinz, who was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, into a musical family, is on the faculty of the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna.

For more information, visit

American Symphony Orchestra in Review

American Symphony Orchestra in Review
Leon Botstein, Conductor
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall; New York, NY
October 21, 2011
American Symphony Orchestra

American Symphony Orchestra; Photo Credit: Jito Lee


One thing you can’t fault the American Symphony Orchestra for is lack of ambitious programming. The two hour long concert that they presented included virtuosic orchestrations of Bach chorales; preludes and fugues by Max Reger, Arnold Schoenberg and Wolfgang Gräser; as well as three fiendishly difficult fugues by Lyonel Feininger, and Schoenberg’s “Variations for Orchestra”, Op. 31.

However, once the concert began, it became clear that the ASO had bit off slightly more than they could chew. In much of the Bach, including O Mensch, Bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross, section entrances were timid and the beginnings and endings of phrases were scraggly and uncoordinated. Leon Botstein’s conducting did little to alleviate the ensemble’s problems; alternately vague and abrupt, his gestures often appeared ill-suited to the sweeping, legato character of the Bach. Intonation problems in the bass and viola sections abounded. There also appeared to be a discrepancy among the string players about the use of vibrato throughout the works by Bach, with some players employing lush, romantic vibrato and other players using none at all. In Bach’s Prelude and Fugue BWV 552, “St. Anne,” the principal cellist played out of tune and appeared to lose his place within the solo.  

The concertmaster’s solos, in contrast, were effortlessly brilliant. Her understated style of leadership also deserves recognition. Unlike many concertmasters that overplay and spoil the homogeneity of the orchestral texture in their zeal to lead, she gave an excellent, assertive example for her section to follow while always respecting the character of the music.

Quite strangely, when the ASO played Feininger’s Three Fugues, arguably more demanding both technically and interpretively than any of the Bach, the ensemble suddenly sparkled. Their sound came alive, their intonation improved remarkably and Botstein’s conducting seemed perfectly attuned to the repertoire and the needs of his ensemble. Feininger’s musical architecture was intelligently presented, with sensitive dynamic interplay that allowed each line to be heard clearly. Fugue III- Gigue opened beautifully with a gossamer pizzicato motif and ethereal quality which recalled the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, was similarly spellbinding and well performed. Although it was written during the height of his 12-tone period, the piece is still somewhat lyrical. The program, which seemed designed for the conservatory student with a penchant for atonal or complex music, was daring in its ambitiousness and cleverly-found continuity by utilizing many fugues or fugue-like pieces such as the Variations, which even incorporates the Bach motif (a succession of notes that quotes his name). However, the evening was far too long and dense for most audience members to digest. By the middle of the second half, many eyes appeared glazed-over. “No more Schoenberg, please!”, a lady muttered as she left. Perhaps the American Symphony Orchestra should take pity on their audiences (and musicians!) and intersperse their next concert with some lighter fare.

 –Holly Nelson for New York Concert Review; New York, NY

Edith Eisler in Memoriam

Edith Eisler in Memoriam
August 4, 2011


 The violinist Edith Eisler, who was a beloved teacher and coach for over 50 years, and a frequent contributor to New York Concert Review, died in her Manhattan home on July 18, at the age of 86.  Her Upper West Side apartment was a haven for violinists and chamber music players of all ages, beneficiaries of her lifelong immersion in music, and her disciplined yet humane approach to teaching.  In addition to her primary vocation,  she was a gifted writer and a highly valued reviewer on the staffs of several music publications.

I met Edith for the first time in 1995, after she was recommended to me by a mutual friend who was a colleague of hers at the Turtle Bay School.  She agreed to take me on as a violin student on the condition that I  also  make myself available as a pianist for her chamber music studio.  For the next sixteen years, I met with her weekly in my struggle to master the violin, and stayed on after my lesson for countless ad hoc sessions with flutists, cellists and violinists who, like me, were both Edith’s friends and devoted students.  My aptitude on the violin progressed at a glacial pace over those many years, due mostly to my spotty practice regime.  I did learn to play the violin though, and more importantly, I absorbed, through Edith, a tradition of playing music, a way of hearing and feeling music that has made me a better musician.

Edith Eisler

Her teaching was rigorous, methodical, and individualized.  The standard exercise books and student pieces were supplemented with hundreds of  study sheets, written in her own hand, and recycled over decades to adapt to each new technical challenge.  She would absolutely forbid her students to fake anything or to move on to a new piece until they had completely mastered the previous one.  Likewise, her chamber music coaching could turn into month long odysseys into the heart of a Beethoven sonata or a Schubert fantasy.  These composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms – were as close to her as her own family, and their works were sewn into the fabric of her heart and soul.

Music was Edith Eisler’s religion.  Indeed, she observed no holidays, religious or otherwise, offering lessons on Christmas Day or Yom Kippur, oblivious to convention.  She was extremely thin, with the appetite of a sparrow.  In all the years I knew her, the only thing I ever saw her consume was coffee, usually cold.  She often admonished me for patronizing Starbucks, when she had “perfectly good” coffee in the refrigerator.  When Edith wasn’t teaching or coaching, she was listening to music from her vast CD library, on the radio or television, or more likely, at one of New York’s numerous concert halls.  After her long career as a reviewer (she hated the word critic and most practitioners of that profession), she maintained free access to Carnegie Hall and most other venues simply because she was beloved by the people who worked there.  Edith’s concert companion for most of her life was her mother Sophie, and after she died at the age of 101, I became one of many friends to whom she would offer tickets, in exchange for help getting a taxi after the show.

Throughout her life, Edith remained nostalgic about her childhood in Vienna, and spoke with regret about having to flee her country in order to find a better existence here.  Like many displaced people, she worked very hard to make her new home a safe and nurturing place.  I, and many others, mourn Edith’s passing not only because we loved her as a friend and mentor, but because she represented a tradition which is slowly vanishing in this technological age.  That tradition rests on the creation of live music in one’s own home, the enjoyment of sharing this with others, and the gift of knowledge passed on through generations of musicians.

The XIV International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, Moscow June 14 – June 30, 2011

The XIV International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, Moscow June 14 – June 30, 2011

Finding myself with some time and a decent internet connection on my hands while packing up a house in the Caribbean for the approaching hurricane season, I discovered to my delight that the Tchaikovsky Competition was being webcast this year.  It’s of such monumental proportions now, with the piano, violin, cello and voice events being run simultaneously from Moscow and St. Petersburg, and with more than 100 participants, that it’s impossible to hear it all. So, being a pianist myself, I chose to listen to as much of the piano competition as I could.

First prize winner pianist Daniil Trifonov

First prize winner pianist Daniil Trifonov

Delight often turned to frustration with the Tchaikovsky’s website. It is a bit of a hash – a mass of counterintuitive menus – for instance, you cannot go directly from the performers listing to his or her performances.  And the page giving the results of each round has no links to the players at all, so you are constantly trying to remember which menu has the navigation you want.  They’ve also been rather slack about posting videos in the Archives section which, so far anyway, still does not contain all the finalists’ concerto performances.

Second Prize Winner Pianist Yeol Eum Son

Second Prize Winner Pianist Yeol Eum Son

The streaming video is of variable but generally poor quality, often grainy and pixilated and the audio (which, incidentally, is excellent) is almost always about a second ahead of the video.  Regrettably, the camera work is more suited to a hip-hop music video, particularly in the concerto rounds, with fast cuts (often 3 seconds or less) from a crotch shot of the tympani player to a close up of the concertmaster’s ear to the annoying up-the-right-nostril camera angle which has been used far too often with the soloists.  Whoever is cueing the cameras also seems to be fairly ignorant of the content of the repertoire, and either can’t read music or is just winging it because at nearly every interesting spot in the performances I’ve seen so far, the camera is anywhere but on the players’ hands.  Far below standard for an event of this importance and prestige – still, it’s wonderful to be able to view the competition in its entirety because these pianists really are the creme de la creme.  Commenting on it all for the webcast were Irina Tushintseva in Russian and John Rubinstein, the son of legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein, in English.  A tough job considering they had to ad lib through sometimes extended delays, but they chatted away gracefully, if not always informatively.

Third Prize Winner Pianist Seong-Jin Cho

Third Prize Winner Pianist Seong-Jin Cho

As I began to watch the opening round concerts – there were 29, and I have to admit I did not see them all – I was really astonished by the depth of talent at this event.  For the statistically minded, only 8 of the 29 competitors were women, including the youngest, 16 year old  Ekaterina Rybova.  This surprised me since in most other competitions the sexes are about equally divided, with numbers often tilting slightly to the female side.  Also interesting is that Steinway seems to be maintaining its dominance on the concert platform, chosen as it was by 19 of the 29 pianists.  The remaining performers went about half for Yamaha and the rest to Fazioli and Shigeru Kawai.  There was also a wide breadth of personalities apparent in these competitors – some comfortable and engaging on stage, some visibly nervous, or unhappy, or fretful.  Some smiling, some not, some handsomely dressed, some verging on shabbiness.  One excellent but possibly hard pressed player appeared to have borrowed his concert clothes from someone several sizes larger, a poignant sight.  One of the all male, mostly jacket and tie wearing jury members persisted in showing up dressed as if he’d been transported there direct from an aisle at K-Mart, not poignant at all, just objectionable.  In any case, in order to keep this account of the competition to a manageable length, let’s talk about the 12 pianists who made it through to Round II:

Sara Daneshpour
, the only American in the competition and one of only two women to emerge from the First Round, is an elegant player, prone to a sweetness of gesture that was an asset in Haydn’s F Major Sonata and Schumann’s Abegg Variations but didn’t work as well in other repertoire – notably the darkly brooding Corelli Variations of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev’s demonic Toccata, Op. 11.  In the Mozart Concerto round, her D minor, K. 466 was lithe and dramatic but went momentarily off the rails in the second movement – only an instant really, but probably enough to get her eliminated.

At 30, Eduard Kunz has been around the competition circuit for a number of years.  He’s a tremendously communicative and intelligent musician, and one of the most interesting and satisfying pianists to be heard at this Tchaikovsky Competition.  At crucial moments though, he’s prone to crack a note or have a slip of the finger and it damages his playing just enough to knock him out of contention.  It’s a problem because absolute technical perfection has become the norm, often superseding excellent musicianship  – a real case of the perfect becoming the enemy of the good.  Among his performances, a startlingly colorful and imaginative Gaspard de la Nuit was a particular gem.

Twenty year old Swiss pianist François-Xavier Poizat is another deeply fascinating musician.  I had hopes he might make the finals as well – he gave a Mozart Sonata in C Major (K. 330) of pure crystalline beauty, and an interesting and finely detailed performance of the rarely played Prokofiev Fourth Sonata.  There was also a stunningly beautiful Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel, ending with a luminous and finally blazing account of its perilous Toccata.

Born near Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, 22 year old Alexander Sinchuk is a sort of Byronic ideal of a concert pianist.  Handsome, elegantly dressed, ramrod straight at the instrument and with his David face tilted heavenward, it became obvious he has an affinity for the darkly romantic corners of the repertoire.  He gave forceful accounts of the Schubert A minor Sonata Op. 143, the Franck Prelude Chorale and Fugue and Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Sonata.  At the end of the first day, he hurled himself at the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata “Stalingrad” as if he could see the carnage and smoking ruins in his mind’s eye.  He was absolutely excellent, and on another day he might have finished in the top five.  That he didn’t this time is just additional proof of the stratospheric standards on display here.

Twenty-four year old St. Petersburg native Alexander Lubyantsev had some serious partisans at the event, to the point that when he was eliminated there was some vocal dissatisfaction with the judges’ decision.  For me, the judges were on the money this time.  At this level, everybody is good, but I found Lubyantsev’s performances rather square, particularly his Mozart K. 467, which seemed an endless series of groups of four sixteenth notes without enough grace or context.


Filipp Kopachevskiy

Filipp Kopachevskiy

Filipp Kopachevskiy, on the other hand, gave devastating readings of the Schumann Kreisleriana and Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Sonata, and an impassioned performance (from the score, but several of the competitors exercised this option) of the commissioned work, Tchaikovsky Etude by Rodion Shchedrin.  This 21 year old Muscovite with the Beatles style mop-top made a huge impression with his first round performances as well – particularly with Tchaikovsky’s Danse Characteristique, the Chopin Grand Polonaise in A-Flat and a whirling, stomping, blindingly incandescent performance of Ravel’s La Valse that took the Shigeru Kawai piano he chose to its outer limits without for a second tipping over into ugly sound.  Three very different dances, and he brought to each one its own characteristic rhythmic impetus, but they were unmistakably his performances, in his own immediately identifiable voice.  This is a trait only the greatest players have, and it’s what makes for really compelling listening.  In this competition, at least to my ears, Mr. Kopachevskiy and First Prize winner Daniil Trifonov were the only pianists who had it.

So what happened?  As I think about his elimination I am, well – frankly rather disgusted.  His kaleidoscopic playing was so obviously superior to at least three of the four others who were promoted to the final round, that I simply can’t understand it.  And I’m not the only one.  I speak Russian – well, perhaps more accurate to say that I understand it reasonably well.  So I can tell you that when Irina Tushintseva, the Russian anchor, in her commentary introducing him in Round II referred to Kopachevsky as “number one,” John Rubinstein, laughing, replied, “Irina, you’re not allowed to say that!”

There are two possible explanations, and probably some combination of both was at work here – one is that his final performance, a Mozart Concerto (the sober K. 491 in C minor, which, having changed from Kawai he played on a Steinway, and using Mikhail Pletnev’s slightly strange cadenzas), was not his best piece.  There were no problems, not a note out of place, but somehow it didn’t seem as deeply committed as his previous work.  The other is his demeanor on stage.  Kopachevskiy displays a Rachmaninovian unwillingness to smile, and he gives little indication to the audience that he appreciates or even accepts their attention and applause.  It shouldn’t matter in one so hugely talented, but perhaps it chipped off just enough appeal to make a difference with the judges.  It’s something they should never have considered, but I can think of no other explanation.  He should easily have placed first or second.  As it was, he didn’t even get the jury’s Discretionary Prize (which went to Pavel Kolesnikov, an excellent but not really distinctive performer) – anyhow, a real blot on the entire event.

No competition at this level ever goes off entirely without controversy, and while the piano division was relatively free of scandal – apart from my own grave dissatisfaction with the elimination of Kopachevsky – a real lulu of a storm broke over the cello contest.  Apparently, in the concerto round, conductor Mark Gorenstein made a racist remark during rehearsals with Armenian finalist, Narek Hakhnazaryan, calling him something like a “redneck.”  Tchaikovsky Competition officials put out a fairly hot statement disavowing Gorenstein’s comment in surprisingly strong terms, and Gorenstein scuttled out and was quickly replaced.  Hakhnazaryan, bless him, went on to win First Prize – the ultimate revenge.  I suspect that Mr. Gorenstein’s career has suffered, in E. F. Benson’s elegant phrase, “an irretrievable eclipse.”

So, on to the final five pianists:

Fifth Prize Winner Alexei Chernov, 28, from Moscow, was a puzzle to me from the beginning.  This guy should buy a Lotto ticket, because he drew the final performance in every round, an advantageous spot by most calculations since, assuming your performance is one among many decent ones, you are at least fresh in the judges’ minds.  He began his Round II recital by pairing a short Bartok Etude (the Op. 18, No. 3) with the required Shchedrin Tchaikovsky Etude, making an attractive combination particularly with Chernov’s incisive and tangy tone and ultra clear pedaling.  Next up was the Scriabin 5th Sonata, a wild ride under any circumstances, but in this case sounding more hysterical than phantasmagorical, in part due to the lightly applied pedal which served Chernov so well in the previous pieces.  It just wasn’t juicy enough.  A simple suite by Henry Purcell was next – a daringly un-virtuosic choice for a super virtuoso competition.  A Glenn Gould, or these days a David Fray, might have made it fascinating but Mr. Chernov doesn’t have that kind of irresistible declamation in music like this.  His Schumann Symphonic Etudes suffered from attempts to exaggerate the dramatic content – too much rubato, too much stretching of phrases, pauses that went on too long, and this tendency toward questionable taste carried over into his concerto performances (Mozart, K. 595 and Tchaikovsky 1st).  He ran into trouble in the final round with the Brahms 1st Concerto – the only time it was played in this competition – trying to engage with an orchestra that here sounded seriously under-rehearsed.

I expected Fourth Prize Winner, 26 year old Alexander Romanovsky of Ukraine, to finish higher.  I thought he was a more interesting player than the two immediately above him.  His Round I Brahms Paganini Variations, a notoriously demanding work, featured some pretty spectacular playing both technically and musically.  He has a maturity of musicianship and understanding that allows him the seriousness to bring off a piece like the Symphonic Etudes, which he also played, in a natural way – without sounding as Chernov sometimes did, like a youngster wearing a stage beard.  His Tchaikovsky 1st and Rachmaninoff 3rd concertos were full of warm sound and elegant phrasing, as well as the requisite high octane that I thought would have carried him further.  Perhaps his problem was that he had the misfortune to choose the same Mozart Concerto (in A Major, K. 488) as the ultimate winner Trifonov, who played it so beautifully that some of the color seemed to drain from Romanovsky’s performance.

The youngest competitor to make the later rounds, 17 year old South Korean pianist Seong Jin Cho took Third Prize and he certainly has plenty of virtuoso chops.  His playing was uniformly clean and unfazed by any technical challenge no matter how difficult, but I missed the kind of in depth musical approach to pieces like the Schumann Humoreske and the Beethoven Sonata Op. 110, and the color and character needed to do justice to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which he plays well now but will play better in a few years.  The fireworks in the Tchaikovsky and Rachmainoff 3rd Concertos he handles admirably, even astonishingly for such a youngster, but he lacks some of the drama to make them really effective.

Second Prize Winner Yeol Eum Son, 25, also from South Korea, has one overriding characteristic in her playing – a kind of superhuman éclat that can easily remind you of Hofmann or Lhévinne in its supremely clear, neat and even brilliance.  Is it that she deploys it too often that bothers me, or is it just as when someone extraordinarily beautiful walks by – heads turn to look?  In any case, it becomes hard to notice anything but her spectacularly perfect execution and all that flawless pearling has the unfortunate effect of making whatever she plays sound a little bit precious.  It works to her advantage in bon-bons like Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody and Samuel Feinberg’s extraordinary transcription of the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony.  Now there’s a piece that’s seldom heard due to its phenomenal difficulty, and Ms. Son very nearly took the roof off the Bolshoi Zal with it.  Even in Mozart’s effervescent K. 467 Concerto her diamond cut playing is attractive, but in meatier repertoire like the Sonata Op. 111 of Beethoven something essential is missing.  Perhaps she’ll have to resort to the Hollywood actresses’ method for avoiding smitten fans – some kind of pianistic version of big sunglasses, no-makeup and a ratty hairdo.  I wish I got more musical satisfaction from her playing (and clearly the judges disagree with me here), but I have to admit I’d love to hear her in Schulz-Evler’s Blue Danube.

First Prize went to Daniil Trifonov and there is no question that it was richly deserved.  This 20 year old, born in Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky) in the Russian heartland, is a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music in Ohio, studying with emigré Russian pianist Sergey Babayan who I vividly remember hearing practically turn the piano inside out in competition 20 years ago.  It’s an interesting combination since they are very different sorts of players.  Babayan, the incendiary virtuoso, has somehow had a hand in developing a mellow, rather introverted but angelicly pure musical soul in Trifonov.  Not that Trifonov lacks technical voltage – quite the contrary, he’s up to anything, in fact his complete Chopin Etudes, Op. 25 were one of the highlights of the entire competition, it’s just that he’s more Lipatti than Horowitz.  Every note he touched was pure gold, but I really think his crowning moment came in what must surely have been one of the loveliest performances of Mozart’s K. 488 Piano Concerto ever given.  Compelling, radiant, every gesture in the music lovingly communicated, directly and with perfect naturalness, artfully but without artifice.  It simply could not have been better.

Mr. Trifonov came to Moscow to compete in the Tchaikovsky directly from his First Prize win at the 2011 Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv.  The double first place finishes will doubtless give some impetus to what at his age is a fairly new career.  It’s likely to be a brilliant one.

Festival Chamber Music in Review

Festival Chamber Music in Review
David Oei, Heléne Jeanney, piano, Eriko Sato, violin, Calvin Wiersma, viola, Ruth Sommers, cello/director, Frank Morelli, bassoon
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
May 12, 2011

Festival Chamber Music has been presenting five annual chamber music programs in New York for 18 season; it has become a pillar of the city’s musical life. The rotating members are all top-flight freelance musicians, busy as soloists, orchestra players and teachers; the group has built up a large, loyal following, which always fills the hall to overflowing.

For their final concert of the 2010-2011 season, the players had selected familiar favorites by Mozart and Brahms, and an unfamiliar novelty: a Quartet for Bassoon and Strings by Bernard Garfield, a name well-known only to listeners of “a certain age.”  Born in 1924, he was one of the most famous and esteemed bassoonists of the mid- and late 19-hundreds: founder of the New York Woodwind Quintet in 1946; principal bassoonist of the New York Little Orchestra Society and the New York City Ballet from 1949 to 1957; principal bassoonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1957 to 2000. He has written numerous chamber music works featuring his instrument; the Quartet on this program dated from about 50 years ago and seemed most strongly influenced by Béla Bartók. Naturally written very idiomatically for the bassoon, it is a real bravura piece, vividly illustrating both its serious and its humorous characteristics. The slow middle movement sang in long melodic lines; the two corner movements, “Allegro con spirito” and “Allegro scherzando” were indeed full of spirit and drollery. Frank Morelli played the virtuoso bassoon part brilliantly and with great aplomb, no mean feat with the composer sitting in the first row. At 87, Garfield has the spryness of a man half his age; he had come to New York from Philadelphia, where he still lives, to hear his piece and bask in its enthusiastic reception. During Intermission, he struck up animated conversations with other members of the audience, who, having recognized his name from his years on the stage, were inquiring whether he was really the same person? “Yes,” he answered, grinning,” I’m Bernie.” The string players partnered Morelli splendidly, with obvious admiration for his virtuosity and enjoyment of the music.

The program opened with Mozart’s Sonata in F major K.497 for Piano Four Hands, played with unanimity, elegance and style by Heléne Jeanney on the upper and David Oei on the lower part. It closed with Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, played by Eriko Sato, Calvin Wiersma, Ruth Sommers, and David Oei. They brought out the ardor of the first movement, the wistfulness of the Intermezzo, the warmth of the Andante, and the gypsy abandon of the Rondo alla Zingarese, making it a rousing finale to the concert and the season. The group’s concerts for next season are already set: October 26, December 8, 2011, February 9, March 29, May 12, 2012.

The New York Philharmonic in Review

The New York Philharmonic in Review
Alan Gilbert, Conductor
Lisa Batiashvili, Violinist
Avery Fisher Hall; New York, NY
May 6, 2011

Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic; Photo by Chris Lee.

 From the moment she began, the audience was gripped by soloist Lisa Batiashvili’s bravura interpretation of Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto. The audacity and sheer technical brilliance of her playing were truly stunning.  Completely at ease, Batiashvili powered through blisteringly fast string crossings and finger-crippling passages with effortless finesse. So strong was the spell she cast that at the conclusion of her delicate second movement, the theater erupted with coughing: out of respect, the audience had strained not to make a sound until the pause.

 Batiashvili confidently attacked the thorny elements of Bartok’s concerto, but at times lyrical motifs lacked warmth and some solos felt ever so slightly rushed. Nevertheless, her flawless intonation, unshakeable sense of rhythm, and mega-watt stage presence proved that Batiashvili is truly an extraordinary artist.

 After intermission, the New York Philharmonic presented Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, “Eroica”. Conductor Alan Gilbert coaxed a warm, round tone out of the Phil, and ensured that Beethoven’s symphony retained a sparkling sense of transparency even in its stormiest moments.

 Careful not to allow the brass to overcome the rest of the orchestra, (as Zubin Mehta was often criticized of during his conducting tenure), Gilbert conjured a sensitive balance, which allowed all of the solo lines to soar above the cushion of sound generated by the rest of the orchestra. Beethoven’s idiosyncratic accents were also brought out beautifully by intelligent bowing choices in the violin sections owing to the fact that Gilbert is himself an accomplished violinist.

 The “Marcia Funebre” was the most gripping movement– at the same time devastatingly bleak and sublime. It was perhaps the most moving live interpretation of this movement that I have ever witnessed.

 When Beethoven’s “Eroica” first debuted, it was criticized for being too long. At the conclusion of the Philharmonic’s performance, however, the audience at Avery Fisher Hall was left wishing the heroic strains of Beethoven’s melodies would never cease.

 –Holly Nelson for New York Concert Review; New York, NY