Andrew Mikhael LLC presents Elizabeth Mikhael and Santiago Piñeirúa in Review

Andrew Mikhael LLC presents Elizabeth Mikhael and Santiago Piñeirúa

 

Elizabeth Mikhael, Cello
Santiago Piñeirúa, Piano

 

Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 15,2017

 

As an encore performance of a Mexico City concert, cellist Elizabeth Mikhael and pianist Santiago Piñeirúa rejoined forces at Weill Hall on October 15, 2017. In a program of two cello sonatas, one by Brahms and other by Shostakovich, it was to be a triumph for the performers and a treat for the listeners in the packed hall.

As the hall filled, one noticed a large number of young people in attendance, many of whom were elementary school students. I was at first curious about this, as Ms. Mikhael’s printed biographical information did not mention teaching, either privately or with a school. Upon some further investigation, I learned that Ms. Mikhael is on the faculty at the School for Strings in New York. It was heartening to this reviewer to see that Ms. Mikhael’s students were in force to hear their beloved teacher in concert.

Elizabeth Mikhael and Santiago Piñeirúa both have impressive performance histories, complete with numerous awards and crossover collaborations with popular artists. One can learn more about Ms. Mikhael and Mr. Piñeirúa by visiting the following websites: Elizabeth Mikhael and Santiago Piñeirúa (in Spanish).

It was a bit disappointing that there were no program notes offered. Even the brief information that was listed at the Carnegie Hall website about the two works would have been helpful to offer some insights to the layperson. When one also considers that Shostakovich’s music almost always had some important autobiographical context, it seems that the opportunity to make his Sonata even more accessible to the listener was lost.

Ms. Mikhael and Mr. Piñeirúa took the stage to the roaring cheers of the audience. Complete with yelling, whistling, and stamping feet, this is something one is more likely to encounter at a sports event than a concert hall. Normally this reviewer finds such behavior a sign of lack of familiarity with “concert manners,” but in this case it seemed just a very demonstrative display of affection.

Brahms’s Cello Sonata in E minor, Op. 38 opened the concert. Brahms entitled it Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello with the intent that the piano is not merely a background accompanist, but a full and equal partner. Completed in 1865, the sonata is Brahms’s homage to J. S. Bach, and uses material from Contrapunctus 4 and 13 of The Art of Fugue. It is this work that is the source of a famous little story. A cellist friend was playing this work with Brahms at the piano. Brahms was playing so loudly that his partner remarked he could not hear his cello. “Lucky for you!” was Brahms’s reply! All fun aside, there was no danger of a re-enactment of this story. This Brahms was a delight for the reviewer, who had the rare pleasure of being able to sit back and enjoy a first-rate performance from these fine musicians. It was a twenty-five-minute journey through some of the finest music Brahms wrote, handled with polish and expertise by both players.

Ms. Mikhael has a warm, full-bodied tone. Her intonation was impeccable throughout, and she invests her considerable talents in the music, rather than in histrionic gestures or exaggerated musical extravagances. Her rapport with Mr. Piñeirúa was noteworthy as well.

After intermission, the duo offered Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40. Written in 1934 during a time of separation from his first wife Nina, it is filled with many of Shostakovich’s characteristic compositional traits – the somber character, the fluid shifts of tonality, mock ebullience, and frenzied energy. The duo captured all these elements with skill in a completely engaging performance. The audience was wowed by the brilliant finale, with its helter-skelter gusto, but this listener, though thoroughly enjoying the finale, is going to single out the Largo as not only his favorite of the work, but the highlight of the evening. The desolate beauty of the music was projected by Ms. Mikhael in a way that was heartbreaking. This was real artistry!

One would be remiss if not giving the proper respect to Mr. Piñeirúa. He was the ideal collaborator who not only blended seamlessly with Ms. Mikhael, but also handled these difficult works with an understated assurance. He was a star in his own right.

After the final notes the audience shouted and stomped even longer and louder than at the opening with an extended standing ovation. After two encores and the presenting of many bouquets of flowers, the two performers took their leave to the continued cheers of the audience.

 


Sohyun Ahn: J.S. Bach “Goldberg” Variations BWV 988 in Review

Sohyun Ahn: J.S. Bach “Goldberg” Variations BWV 988 in Review

Sohyun Ahn, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
October 8, 2017

 

Unmatched in contrapuntal science and expressive power, the Goldberg Variations are one of the definite “Mount Everests” of the pianist’s world. Sohyun Ahn gave a fully expert, involved reading of the work. Her recent Mozart CD was already reviewed in these pages, and I can attest that she has mastered what I call the “slender tone” that makes performances of Baroque and High Classical music on a modern piano successful.

Her approach worked best in the very fleet movements (Variations 5, 14, 17, 23, and 26, for example). She did not over-ornament anything, even in the repeats, all of which she observed. I think of her performance as very “Age of Enlightenment,” in that everything was balanced and rational. This is not to say that there was no emotion, far from it, but it was tempered in the service of the big picture, which in this case, is quite big. The entire set flowed out of her in a very natural way, for which I was greatly appreciative—this is not easy to achieve in music of such complexity.

One of the most terrifying things about a piano performance of the Goldberg Variations is that it was conceived for a two-manual (two-keyboard) instrument. The task of sorting out all the possible collisions and hand-crossings deters all but the most fearless. Here, Ms. Ahn was an absolute master, and I really didn’t see any rearrangement, only flexibility and comfort.

If I wished for anything, it would have been a greater sense of tragedy in the three minor-key variations, especially No. 25, which should really give the feeling of time having stopped in contemplation of something vast.

As mentioned in the Mozart review, Ms. Ahn does have a tendency to rely too much on echo effects for repeats. Variety can also be achieved with color change and touch alteration, which she sometimes did. Charles Rosen strongly objected to echoes ,except where specifically called for, saying that he found them emasculating.

After the humor of the Quodlibet (Variation 30: “Cabbages and beets kept me away, had Mother cooked meat, I would have come,” an example of the Bach family humor) and the sublime reappearance of the Theme, there is really nothing more to be said. Thus, I found it a bit shameless and not quite in good taste for Ms. Ahn to present the Mozart “Duport” Variations, K. 573, as an encore. She played them repeat-free, and displayed her considerable strengths: crystalline sound and precise, rapid fingers; but after the Bach, even the great Mozart just seemed trivial. That’s just me. Everyone leapt to their feet for well-deserved ovations after both works.


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!


The Art of Listening in Review

The Art of Listening in Review

The Art of Listening- Chopin: Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31
Javor Bračić, piano
National Opera Center, New York, NY
October 8, 2017

 

Mr. Bračić, has created a series and a format that aim to “change the way you think about classical music.” Based on my experience this past Sunday, I’d say he’s well on his way as a persuasive music educator, and he is a very capable pianist. The series has been reviewed favorably elsewhere in this journal.

 

When I saw the repertoire choice, Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31, my immediate reaction was “Oh no, not that warhorse,” but my worries were unfounded. He is one of only two pianists I’ve ever heard who played the opening theme in the proper “questioning” way that Chopin was always asking for—and with no rhythmic distortion. The other pianist was the estimable Krystian Zimerman. Because of his fleet fingerwork, many passages also seemed more “playful” (scherzando) than usual. As Schumann said: “It remains an utterly compelling piece; one could compare it to a poem by Lord Byron: so tender, coquettish, and affectionate—yet so full of scorn.”

 

He began by dividing the work into its major sections and giving a sort of gentle exegesis of Chopin’s process and possible meanings, but his engaging, soft-spoken manner, and his ability to involve the audience created an ease that drew everyone right in, regardless of their prior music education or experience. Everyone’s input was valued, there was never any condescension or feeling of “this way is right and that way is wrong.”

 

After a full exploration, he then concluded with a complete performance, very well-rendered, especially after having talked for nearly an hour. Not everyone has this double ability to speak well about music while remaining a super executant, but Mr. Bračić, definitely has it. I see that a future event will focus on Samuel Barber’s Sonata for cello and piano. This is to be commended, as the more “modern” repertoire needs even more advocacy.

 

I should mention the format was gracious too (despite the limiting piano quality of the National Opera Center, which Mr. Bračić, took in stride with no apparent difficulty): the audience mingles and chats, with wine and cheese served both before and after.

 


Creative Classical Concerts presents Hyun Ji You in Review

Creative Classical Concerts presents Hyun Ji You in Review

Hyun Ji You, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 4, 2017

 

Creative Classical Concerts presented pianist Hyun Ji You in a concert of Bach, Chopin, Scriabin, Debussy, and Villa-Lobos on October 4, 2017 at Weill Hall. Ms. You is a winner of multiple piano competitions both in her native Korea and the United States. She lists Hee Sung Joo, Karen Shaw and Jean-Louis Haguenauer, and Jae Hee Hyun as her teachers. Ms. You has earned her Master’s degree and Artist Diploma at Indiana University, and is working on her Doctorate at Sejong University in South Korea. She also teaches piano in three South Korean Universities.

Before anything else, I must express my dismay about one of my pet peeves. When you are performing at one of the most famous venues in not only the United States, but the world, it should be a given that all materials, such as program notes are done with care. I’m sorry to say that this was not the case (and not for the first time). The very spare program notes were almost an afterthought. Proofreading would have caught the non-idiomatic English and the fact that the 3rd and 4th Preludes of Debussy were listed with the same title. If English is not your first language, it is a must to have a trusted native speaker proofread. Add to this that some of the notes were copied verbatim from Wikipedia without attribution, and I was left thinking that it would have been better to forego the notes altogether. Note to presenters and performers alike: this is not acceptable. With all the time and money invested, there is no excuse (and lest anyone think otherwise, this reviewer has been a presenter as well).

Now that I have dealt with my annoyance, it is time to get to the many positive things about this concert. Ms. You has a fine technique, as one would expect from a multiple contest winner, but she also possesses a true poetic side, which sets her apart from many other contest winners.

Ms. You opened with J.S. Bach, the Adagio, BWV 974 (after Marcello), and Schafe können sicher weiden (Sheep May Safely Graze) from the Cantata Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (The lively hunt is all my heart’s desire), BWV 208. While my sheep prefer a slightly less hectic sound, and one with a bit more clarity, these are preferences more than anything else, and the end result was still lovely!

Chopin Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op.52 followed the Bach. Often considered the most demanding, both musically and technically, of the four ballades, this work was said by Robert Schumann to have been inspired by Adam Mickiewicz’s poem The Three Budrys; although this connection has been disputed, the epic sweep is undeniable. Ms. You showed both artistry and virtuosity, especially in the fiercely difficult coda. Rather than forcing a cohesive shape on the sprawling work, she surrendered to Chopin’s dream-like writing in what was truly a wondrous performance. It deserved a much better reaction from the audience, but it was the highlight of the evening for this listener.

Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 ended the first half. This eleven minute, single-movement work was written in 1907 and marks Scriabin’s transition away from traditional harmony, including the so-called “mystic” chord and movement away from a clear tonal center. In an earlier review I wrote for this journal, I quoted pianist Joong Han Jung, who described the piece as “hyper-romantic,” a simple description that I find rather apt. Ms. You seems to agree, as her approach was what some might call “over the top,” but I found it to be just right. If one does not embrace the ecstatic quality that Scriabin demands, the result seems a mishmash of random impulses. It is the extravagant spirit that holds the work together, and Ms. You captured it to a tee. It was an excellent end to a dynamic first half.

After intermission, Ms. You offered six selections from Book I of Claude Debussy’s Préludes. They were numbers three through eight: Le vent dans la plaine (The Wind in the Plain), “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (“The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air”), Les collines d’Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri), Des pas sur la neige
(Footsteps in the Snow), Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (What the West Wind Has Seen), and La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair). Ms. You was judicious in her selections. Her “winds” were ferocious and the “perfume” was exquisite. The “footsteps” were delicate, and her flaxen-haired maiden was delightfully innocent. I would like to hear Ms. You play the entire book, and have a go at the second book as well.

Ms. You closed her program with Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Ciclo Brasileiro, W. 374. She offered three of the four works in the cycle: No.2, Impressões seresteiras (The Impressions of a serenade musician), No. 3, Festa no sertao (The Fete in the Desert), and No. 4, Danca do Indio Branco (Dance of the White Indian). Written in 1936, this work brings to mind Stravinsky’s Firebird, but is not derivative – it is pure Villa-Lobos, overflowing with ideas, brimming with energy, and often alternating between poignancy and brutality (especially in The Impressions of a serenade musician). It is a fiendishly difficult work that is a much a showstopper for the eyes as for the ears. Ms. You wowed the audience, and they reacted with a standing ovation.

Ms. You offered two encores, the Paganini-Liszt La Campanella, in what was another display of technical prowess, and Debussy’s Clair de Lune, which she played with ethereal beauty.


Non Profit Music Foundation presents Eduardo Frias in Review

Non Profit Music Foundation presents Eduardo Frias in Review

Eduardo Frias, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 3, 2017

 

A disappointingly small audience turned out for what proved to be a well-played evening of contemporary Spanish piano music, about which, however, I had some reservations.

Eduardo Frias has made himself a champion of the piano music of Jorge Grundman, whose complete works for piano (up to 2016) were played on this occasion. He has worked side-by-side with the composer on developing this music, and he has also recently recorded them on Sony Classical.

Mr. Frias has an uncannily beautiful sound, especially at the softer dynamics, piano all the way down to ppppp. He never loses expressivity, and understands the nature of rubato. At the few louder moments in the program however, his sound grew strident. He used scores for the concert, yet did not deliver a “note-perfect” rendition of all the works, especially in those rare instances when the music got a bit rambunctious, breaking out of its gauzy moderato softness.

The music of Mr. Grundman was previously unknown to me, and since this is a rare and precious event in the life of a busy reviewer, I was looking forward to hearing it. He calls himself a “music writer” rather than a composer, whatever that means; and he has written chamber music and operas, besides this piano output.

Unfortunately, the piano music all sounded extremely similar: poignant, lyrical, and mournful, but too often with predictable formulae and cliché gestures. There were a few melodic moments that were compelling, but the main interest is in the harmonic changes. Mr. Grundman sounds like a neo-romantic composer combined with a minimalist (perhaps with more heart, but less craft).

In his mission statement, taken from his own website, he states: “I am sorry because there is nothing new in the music I write and, moreover, it was not even my intention. This might be the reason why I prefer to say that I consider myself a writer of music more than a composer. I just try to tell stories through the music narrative. I do this in the simplest, almost naive way possible. However, if there is something that leads me when I start writing a piece, it is to avoid communicating something tiring and boring. I want people to find my music sentimental and moving and also, as far as possible, to fancy listening to it again. I am talking about being accessible to the listener and the performers. In other words, I do not write for composers.”

I agree that he accomplishes nearly everything he said. The music is indeed sentimental, and sometimes quite moving. I just don’t feel there is enough strength on the compositional side to make it enduring. His justifications are numerous, all in this direction, and he claims humility as his start- and endpoint, but that seems like a defense. (Critics have been wrong many times before!) His titles verge on maudlin, though they must come from a very sincere place (Who Remembers Beauty When Sadness Knocks at Your Door? and We Are the Forthcoming Past).

Despite the attenuated Alberti-bass figure in Mozartiana, there was very little of either homage or even pastiche in it. The same was also the case for Haydiniana. Only in Chopiniana was the overt shadow of Chopin’s Etude Op. 10, No. 12 (“Revolutionary”) evoked, a bit heavy-handedly. These three pieces comprise the “Genius Suite for Sara.”

Of the four Piano Fantasies, I found Will Not Remove My Hope to be the most successful. The Lullaby for the Son of a Pianist had an appealing wistfulness, making ample use of Mr. Frias’s gorgeous whisper-soft playing.

For me, and I’m certainly willing to admit that I was not on the wavelength of this composer, Mr. Frias should lavish his talent on music that is of higher quality. From the first notes he played, I was immediately reminded of some of the sonorities of Giya Kancheli or Arvo Pärt. I wish him success in his performing career.

 

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Dinos Constantinides in Concert in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Dinos Constantinides in Concert in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Dinos Constantinides in Concert
Dinos Constantinides, composer
Maria Asteriadou, Michael Gurt, piano; Kurt Nikkanen, violin; Yung-Chiao Wei, double bass
Hamiruge, The LSU Percussion Group: Brett Dietz, Eric Scherer, Manuel Treviño, Kyle Cherwinski
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 1, 2017

 

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) opened its 2017-2018 season on October 1, 2017 with a concert entitled The Music of Dinos Constantinides. This is the tenth time that DCINY has presented the music of Mr. Constantinides. On hand were eight talented colleagues of Mr. Constantinides from Louisiana State University to present a survey of works from his long career. The performers were pianists Maria Asteriadou and Michael Gurt; violinist Kurt Nikkanen, double-bassist Yung-Chiao Wei, and percussionist members of Hamiruge (LSU’s percussion ensemble), Brett Dietz, Eric Scherer, Manuel Treviño, and Kyle Cherwinski.

Greek-born Dinos Constantinides is the head of Composition and Music Director of the Louisiana Sinfonietta at Louisiana State University. He is presently Boyd Professor, the highest academic rank at LSU. Mr. Constantinides has composed over 300 works, including six symphonies, two operas, and music for a wide variety of instruments and voices, and has a long list of prizes won and excellent reviews worldwide. His writing style is all-encompassing, from the simplest of forms to the ultra-complex, and from the strictly tonal to the acerbically atonal and serial. He is especially adept in his use of Greek influences, such as Greek poetry from both ancient and modern sources, and Greek modal harmony.

This is my third occasion to review Mr. Constantinides’s music, and anyone who read my two previous reviews may recall that I expressed my reservations about the excessive length of the concerts. I will confess that I was fully expecting to do so for a third time, but I have the great pleasure of saying that this was not the case. Perhaps I might be flattering myself in believing that my concerns were heeded, but whatever the case, it was a pleasant surprise.

Violinist Kurt Nikkanen and pianist Maria Asteriadou opened the first half with Patterns for Violin and Piano, LRC 119b, a highly dramatic work that was played with passion by both players. In particular, Mr. Nikkanen’s sound projected boldly, as his robust tone filled the hall without any stridency. It was to be this listener’s favorite selection of the evening. Mr. Nikkanen followed with the Sonata for Solo Violin, No. 3, LRC 63 (Kaleidoscope), a work that can be described as either serialist or experimental in nature. It was amusing to see the poster-sized score being carefully placed on the music stand before Mr. Nikkanen began. This work is thorny for the performer and listener alike, and Mr. Nikkanen’s fine performance might have not gotten the credit it deserved from the audience, but this listener was impressed. It was not just his commitment to this difficult piece, but also his technique in dealing with the challenges that abounded throughout. The Theme and Variations for Solo Piano, LRC 1, played by Ms. Asteriadou followed. The composer writes in his notes that this work is based on a famous Greek folk tune (but does not name the actual tune). The melodic line is definitely modal, but the harmonies have diverse styles, including bi-tonality. One could hear hints of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and even Debussy throughout this eight-minute work, which Ms. Asteriadou played with an evident reverence.

To end the first half, Mr. Nikkanen and Ms. Asteriadou offered the twelve-tone Sonata for Violin and Piano, LRC 21c. It would seem that Mr. Nikkanen has a special affinity for taking on works that require a huge technique without any real hope of the general listening public to be wowed by that technique (read: This work is not Sarasate). Kudos to both Mr. Nikkanen and Ms. Asteriadou for their excellent playing.

After intermission, double bassist Yung-Chiao Wei and pianist Michael Gurt offered Reverie II for Double Bass and Piano, LRC 81b, a lovely three-minute work. Mr. Gurt followed with a sensitively played Two Preludes for Piano, LRC 101b, the first of which employs melodic lines from the First Delphic Hymn (c. 138 B.C.(!)) according to the composer. I’m not at all sure about this, but I’m going to give Mr. Constantinides the benefit of the doubt! Ms. Wei and Mr. Gurt returned for the Concerto for Double Bass and Piano, LRC 269b, derived from a cello concerto. It showcased Ms. Wei’s virtuosity to say the least. It was notable how well she articulated some rapid passagework that one would have not expected to be possible on the double bass. Other than a few moments when there were some balance issues, it was a remarkable performance. Percussion Quartet No. 2, LRC 270, featuring Hamiruge, The LSU Percussion Group, closed the evening. This four-movement, fifteen-minute work saw the members of Hamiruge playing xylophones, wood blocks, suspended cymbals, snare drum, timpani, chimes, triangles, and even the celesta. It was mesmerizing both to see and to hear. The audience responded with prolonged applause. Mr. Constantinides was present and came to the stage to join all performers to accept the continued applause of the large audience.

 


The Art of Listening in Review

The Art of Listening in Review

The Art of Listening
Javor Bračić, piano
National Opera Center, New York, NY
September 17, 2017

 

The 7th floor Rehearsal Hall at the National Opera Center was a perfect venue for this most interesting hour- long event, an interactive investigation and performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor, Op. 27 No. 1. During the half hour before the scheduled start, pianist Javor Bračić mingled with the gathering audience while encouraging them to sample the wine and cheese set out in the back of the hall. As there is no raised stage in this space, the piano was at audience level, making for a continued intimate connection between performer and audience. I especially liked the fact that the piano was turned diagonally so that there was no “keyboard-side,” allowing all audience members the coveted view of the performer’s hands.

 

As stated in the event’s publicity material (notice I do not call this a “recital”) Mr. Bračić wishes both to break down the wall between performer and audience, and to give his listeners a deeper understanding of what they are hearing. It is a pleasure to say that he succeeded in both endeavors.

 

After a brief statement as to how the session would be organized, we heard a masterful performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor, Op. 27 No. 1. (But this was just a taste of Mr. Bračić’s pianism. I look forward to hearing a full recital.) He then asked the audience for any thoughts about the piece. After a silence, which felt longer that it really was, people began to overcome their shyness and spoke. Words like “sad,” happy,” “victorious,” were followed by stories people thought the music evoked. I, being a trained musician, thought major, minor, modulation, ternary form. I had to say to myself: “Stop! Just see what Mr. Bračić will do.”

 

Soon, after playing the opening two measures of the piece (the left hand playing just C#’s and G#’s,) he asked if the music was happy or sad. Silence followed. Both Mr. Bračić and I knew why. I raised my hand and said “We don’t know yet.” As I had just stepped on his line, Mr. Bračić made a joke about the showoff in the audience and proceeded to add an E, the first note of the right hand. “Sad,” said the audience, for this made the chord C#-E-G# – a minor triad. The next note in the right hand was E#, which then created a major triad. This was a brilliant way of introducing major and minor, concepts which are very important to understanding this Chopin Nocturne.

 

The concepts of polyphony, modulation and chromaticism were introduced in equally clever and easy- to- understand ways. (Upon re-reading the previous paragraph and seeing how convoluted it is, I won’t try to explain how he did it.)

 

The hour ended with another beautiful performance of the Nocturne. Three more events in the series will take place this season at the National Opera Center, when works by Chopin, Mozart and Samuel Barber will be performed, discussed and elucidated. I wish him continued success in this laudable project.

 


CD In Review Sohyun Ahn: Mozart Piano Sonatas and Duport Variations

CD In Review Sohyun Ahn: Mozart Piano Sonatas and Duport Variations

Sohyun Ahn: Mozart Piano Sonatas and Duport Variations
The ClassicArt
JEC-0242

As a young piano student, I was often admonished by my teacher to let the music speak for itself. “Whatever you want to add, leave it out…and whatever you want to leave out, keep it in!” At the time, I saw this as a curb on my expressivity, but I later came to appreciate the message. This concept of fidelity to the composer came to mind often as I listened to the recent recording of Mozart Sonatas and the Duport Variations by the pianist Sohyun Ahn. Click to purchase MP3 or CD.

Mozart composed the sonatas K. 330, 331, and 332 in 1783 during his time in Vienna and Salzburg, and published them as a group. In order to support his new wife Constanze, he turned to teaching to supplement his income. Although these three works would never be described as student pieces, their apparent simplicity would have made them suitable for Mozart’s pedagogical inclinations.

In general, Ms. Ahn adopted a straightforward, unadorned approach to her readings of these sonatas. Her mastery of the functional aspects of technique is complete, which allows her the freedom to craft a detailed interpretation. In the outer movements especially, a crisp, dry staccato and sparse pedaling evoked the texture of a fortepiano of Mozart’s time.

The arc of these three works traces a gradual expansion from small ideas to big ideas, and the Ms. Ahn understood the nature of this progression. The musical events in the Sonata No. 10 in C major, K. 330 take place within a modest framework. Ms. Ahn remained within the confines of this framework, yet was able to produce a perfectly balanced, crystalline performance. In particular, her second movement was phrased with tender rubato and room to breathe.

The lack of adherence to traditional Sonata form is a defining aspect of the Sonata No. 11 in A Major, K. 331. In the first movement, structured as a Theme and Variations, there is ample opportunity for a variety of stylistic contrast. Ms. Ahn was at her best in the beautifully posed third variation, and a brilliantly vibrant sixth variation. Perhaps because it is my favorite, I felt the quasi-operatic fifth variation could have used more drama and a more cantabile melodic line. The famed Rondo Alla Turca, however, was a very pleasant surprise. After hearing so many hackneyed renditions of this over the years, I appreciated this pianist’s miniaturistic version, with tapered phrasing and modest dynamic range.

This trio of sonatas most unconventional member is its last, No. 12 in F Major, K. 332. In terms of technique alone, it is the most rigorous, but more importantly, it requires the interpreter to think more orchestrally in terms of color and voicing. Ms. Ahn seemed to enjoy the challenge. Of the three, this was her most sophisticated, personalized reading. Her opening gesture in the Allegro Assai was thrilling, and she maintained a combination of impeccable skill and joyous feeling throughout the rest of this movement.

Hardly a year separates the publication date of these first three sonatas from No.13 in B-flat major, K. 333, but the latter already shows a striking difference in complexity.  The Andante Cantabile movement, with its chromatic modulations and liberal use of melodic ornamentation, is one of Mozart’s most sublime creations. As each sonata on this recording unfolds, a more flexible and evolved artistry is required. Ms. Ahn became a vessel for all of them, and then as a coda, she gave us the charming Duport Variations, K. 573, maintaining her high level of consistency and musicality.

I have two observations which are minor, but nonetheless merit a mention. In passages where a phrase was repeated verbatim, the pianist almost always played the second phrase as an echo. This can be effective, but only when used sparingly. Secondly, while her sense of rhythm is impeccable, I did find it constricting at times, especially in cases where the harmonic changes suggest more expansive phrasing. But these are small matters in the context of this remarkably impressive recording by Sohyun Ahn.