Rutgers International Pianists Gala in Review

Rutgers International Pianists Gala in Review

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Viva La Musica de Argentina in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Viva La Musica de Argentina in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Viva La Musica de Argentina
Cuerda y Voz, Guest Artists: Dany Dorf, Drums & Voice; François Knab, Andean Flutes, Tiple Colombiano & Voice; Rodrigo Mosquera, Charango & Voice; Sergio Saraniche, Guitar & Voice; Vidal Rojas, Guitar & Voice
Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Jonathan Griffith, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor
Cuerda y Voz, Guest Artists; George Hemcher, Piano
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Saul Zaks, Guest Conductor
Martín Palmeri, DCINY Composer-in-Residence
Carla Filipcic Holm, Soprano; Daniel Binelli, Bandoneon; Martín Palmeri, Piano
David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
April 30, 2017


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) really did something to redress the grievous lack of Latin American music on our concert stages by bringing Argentine performers and composers to Lincoln Center on April 30, 2017. Many of us thrill to the Argentine tango as performed on Dancing with the Stars, and perhaps a few recognize the name Piazzolla. An intrepid singer might have explored the songs of Guastavino, and pianists may have struggled valiantly with Ginastera’s First Piano Sonata, but there is so much more going on in Argentina. The folk element is never very far from the surface, in fact sometimes it is the surface. Remember: the minuet and waltz were social dances before they were stylized into “classical” genres. Since the current Pope is Argentine, I think he would greatly have appreciated this evening, especially the sacred music. I enjoyed the concert so much (which was streamed live on DCINY’s Facebook page) that I ran home and watched it again.


The evening began with the vocal/instrumental quintet Cuerda y Voz (String and Voice) where all the members double on various instruments. They started with Atahualpa Yupanqui’s plaintive Camino del Indio (The Indian Road), which contained a tantalizing bit of the 1913 Peruvian melody on Andean flute that was appropriated by Paul Simon for his 1970 El Condor Pasa. Yupanqui is the most important Argentine folk musician of the twentieth century, his name means “He who comes from faraway lands to say something,” much like Cuerda y Voz. Then followed four numbers, all featuring the group’s great unanimity, expressive vocals, wonderful handling of the instruments, and even sly humor amid songs, many of which deal with the hardness of life. The tiple colombiano is a “small” guitar with three courses of four strings, very difficult to play, and I confess I had never heard one before. The charango is an even smaller stringed “guitar” with ten strings in five courses.


Cuerda y Voz stayed on stage, playing a discreet instrumental while the first massed choir took the stage for the Misa Criolla by Ariel Ramírez, in which they would take the role(s) traditionally allotted to soloists. This is a complete setting, in Spanish, of the Catholic Mass. Ramírez, who died in 2010, created this signature work in 1964, and it gave him financial independence, but many don’t realize that there are three hundred other works by him. The choir was accompanied by electric piano, a small percussion section, and Cuerda y Voz, the whole conducted by the excellent Jonathan Griffith, who wore a traditional poncho that matched those of Cuerda y Voz. Each movement has as its musical underpinning an Argentine folk-music genre. The Agnus Dei, particularly, was beautifully plaintive in its plea for peace; its music was in the estilo pampeano (from the pampas), a desolate area whose inhabitants are often lonely.


After intermission, a different set of singers took the stage, along with the DCINY orchestra, strings only, a concert grand piano (with the composer playing), a soprano, and a bandoneón soloist, all conducted by the superb Saul Zaks. For those who don’t recall, the bandoneón is the “accordion-like” Argentine instrument that imparts such bite, soul, and authenticity to that music. They were there to give us the world premiere of Tango Credo by Martín Palmeri, part of a projected complete Mass setting (he has previously created a Tango Gloria) in Latin utilizing tango rhythms and shapes. Daniel Binelli began the entire work with mysterious utterances from the bandoneón that sounded like he was assembling cosmic fragments that would later be revealed to be whole. He was excellent, and his virtual miming of death at the phrase “Passus et sepultus est” (He suffered and was buried) was gripping.


The soprano soloist, Carla Filipcic Holm, has a very big voice, and it was a pleasure to hear that it was totally in her control, capable of soft high notes and other subtleties. She invested the part with great feeling. The tango, for me, is such a physical dance, full of sudden alternations of seduction and rejection, that when it is stripped of dance movement I don’t know quite what to make of it. It seems a bit too sensual for sacred music, my limitation I’m sure; perhaps I just need a long stay in Argentina! Palmeri’s Credo took 38 minutes, whereas the entire Mass by Ramirez was 22 minutes. The Credo is the wordiest section of the Mass, and there was a lot of repetition of what had just been sung by the chorus or the soloist. Nevertheless, the movement built very well, the Crucifixus was the appropriately solemn low point, and thereafter the piece progressed to a triumphant affirmation of faith, which after all is the point of the Credo.


Interestingly, the Argentine composer Palmeri had a Danish grandfather, and the conductor, who is native Argentine, currently makes his home in Denmark. The choirs were extremely international, with groups from Argentina, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Denmark, as well as a few “domestic” groups. The triumph of globalization, when applied to something worthwhile!

Legato Arts presents The Ženatý/Shapiro Duo in Review

Legato Arts presents The Ženatý/Shapiro Duo in Review

Legato Arts presents The Ženatý/Shapiro Duo
Ivan Ženatý, violin
Sandra Shapiro, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 24, 2017


Today’s world is filled with frenetic energy. Loud, fast, and unrelenting sounds and “news” stories assault us non-stop. People shout instead of speak, debate is reduced to memes and 140-word missives, and attention spans are getting ever shorter. For a short time, those persons who stepped into Weill Hall on April 24, 2017 were transported back to an earlier time, when things moved more slowly. The sounds were not there to assault the ears, but rather to delight them in the creations of masters like Brahms, Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, and Elgar. The excellent Ženatý/Shapiro Duo took the stage to treat all present to this wonderful journey.

The Ženatý/Shapiro Duo is violinist Ivan Ženatý and pianist Sandra Shapiro. Mr. Ženatý ( maintains a busy schedule as a performer, collaborator, recording artist, adjudicator, and teacher. He plays a 1740 Giuseppe Guarneri del Jesu violin, courtesy of the Harmony Foundation of New York. Ms. Shapiro ( also is much in demand as a performer and teacher, and is highly sought-after as a chamber musician.

Mr. Ženatý exudes an old-world charm, in both his dress (tuxedo with tails) and his bearing. He stood silently as the rush of late-comers rushed about the hall looking for open seats, while nodding at this pack of humanity with a smile, as if to say “Please, take your time, I will wait for you.” He also held the stage door open for the page turner, who was late in exiting the stage, before exiting himself. It all gave this reviewer a feeling of gemütlichkeit, which further accentuated the feelings of a different era.

Brahms’s lyrical Violin Sonata No.2 in A major, Op. 100 was the opening piece. This work is Brahms in his happiest mood, with the piano and violin as equal partners. Lest anyone think that lyrical means “simple,” this work is demanding for the players, both as individuals, and as a duo. What was apparent from the very beginning was that Mr. Ženatý and Ms. Shapiro were more than up to the challenge. Their rapport was outstanding, the balance was finely realized, and the singing phrases of the work were brought out with practiced assurance.

Edward Elgar’s 1918 Violin Sonata in E minor, Op. 82 followed the Brahms. This work is highly emotionally charged, filled with melancholy and angst, which was no doubt reflective of the feelings of the nation at the time, weary from the carnage of World War One. There is always the danger of the melancholy becoming overblown in this work, and the effect descending into an almost cartoonish, mawkish mess of emotional wreckage. Much credit is due to Mr. Ženatý and Ms. Shapiro for not allowing this to happen even for a moment. It was an outstanding performance of a work that this listener has never found to his liking. It was so convincing that I must re-think my opinion about the work. The audience appeared to be moved as well, as the first half came to a successful close.

After intermission, the second half opened with Antonin Dvořák’s lovely Ballade in D minor, Op. 15. This six-minute work was written for John Coates, the publisher of the London Magazine of Music. The Duo captured both the brooding opening and the sudden explosive middle section in what was a superior performance.

Ending the program was Camille Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No.1 in D minor, Op. 75. It has been said that Marcel Proust confessed that this sonata provided the model for the fictional sonata by Vinteuil that plays such an important part in Swann’s Way. The four movements are grouped in twos, so there is only one pause (after the second movement Adagio), a plan Saint-Saëns’ used again in the Organ Symphony. It is a brilliant work that shows both the violinist and pianist to great advantage. The Adagio was especially beautiful, but the moto perpetuo finale highlighted Mr. Ženatý’s virtuosity. The audience responded with a standing ovation.

Mr. Ženatý is fully invested in the music, as he searches for and brings forth the emotions and subtleties of the works he plays. There are no histrionics, no flash, and simply no showiness. His tone is rich and warm, and his intonation is impeccable. He has technique to burn, so it would be an easy thing for him to dash off any number of virtuoso showstoppers. That he chooses to plumb the depths of deeper works reflects the confident, mature artist that he is, with faith in the best listening from his audiences. Mr. Ženatý has an ideal collaborator in Ms. Shapiro, who is a sensitive musician with superb technical command.

The duo played a beautiful Fauré encore as a final offering before we were returned to the present. It was a lovely two-hour trip, and one that I hope to take again with this fine duo.



Chamber Music|OC featuring Trio Céleste and Special Guest Artists in Review

Chamber Music|OC featuring Trio Céleste and Special Guest Artists in Review

Chamber Music|OC featuring Trio Céleste and Special Guest Artists
Trio Céleste: Iryna Krechkovsky, violin; Ross Gasworth, cello; Kevin Kwan Loucks, piano
Chamber Music |OC Young Artist- Reina Cho, cello, Leo Matsuoka, violin, Brandon Sin, cello
Special Guests: Eugene Drucker, violin; Philip Setzer, violin; Marta Krechkovsky, violin; April Kim, violin; Yuri Cho, violin; Hanna Lee, viola; David Samuel, viola; Colin Carr, cello
Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 15, 2017

Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall was the venue for a concert presented by Chamber Music|OC on April 15, 2017. On the program were three works – two established masterpieces of chamber music, Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90, the “Dumky,” and Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20, plus the World Premiere of Concerto Grosso for Piano Trio and String Octet by Paul Dooley (b. 1983).

Chamber Music| OC is based in Orange County California. Launched in 2012 by Kevin Kwan Loucks and Iryna Krechkovsky, Chamber Music | OC is dedicated to advancing the art of chamber music through performance, education, and community outreach. Mr. Loucks and Ms. Krechkovsky , along with cellist Ross Gasworth, form Trio Céleste, the featured ensemble. Also included were members of the Chamber Music|OC Young Artists program, and many special guests, including founding members of the famed Emerson Quartet Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer.

Trio Céleste ( took its name after the first meeting of the players in New York City, upon seeing the largest harvest moon in two decades – “a rare celestial occurrence.” Now with a full calendar of recitals nationally and internationally, a recently released recording (Navona Records – Trio Céleste ), and an impressive list of distinguished collaborators, it is obvious that this is a group on the rise. Each of the members has a long list of honors and accolades as soloists. What remained to be seen is how well they meshed as an ensemble. Often when talented individuals come together, the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

Let’s get a long-standing gripe of this reviewer out of the way- the lack of program notes. While it was good that notes were provided for the World Premiere work, it was a lost opportunity to educate many in the audience by not including program notes for the Dvořák and Mendelssohn. While they are well-known works, it would not be unreasonable to assume that at least one hundred members in the audience were hearing these works for the very first time, and would have been interested in knowing the meaning behind “Dumky” and that Mendelssohn was only sixteen when he wrote his Octet. On the other hand, it was above and beyond to include pictures and biographies of EVERY participant.

Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90, the “Dumky,” was the first work on the program. Written in 1891, this is one the great works in the genre, and one that has a rich performance history by some of the most distinguished ensembles. One might think that these young players were aiming too high in selecting this work, that they need to let it mature over many more years before offering it in concert, but in this case one would be completely mistaken. What was immediately apparent was the rapport the players have, which usually takes many years to develop to such a high level. The players as individuals were sparkling, and ensemble balance and intonation were flawless in a way that I have often found lacking with other (and often far more experienced) ensembles. The essence of this wonderful work was projected with skill and understanding that can hold its own with any more established ensembles. I might have started as a doubter, but ended as a believer. It was a first-rate performance that had me eagerly awaiting the following works.

Following the Dvořák was the World Premiere of a work commissioned by Trio Céleste and Chamber Music |OC for this concert, the Concerto Grosso for Piano Trio and String Octet (2017) by Paul Dooley. Mr. Dooley has a long-standing relationship with Mr. Loucks (they attended the same High School), and he expressed being honored to write this piece for Mr. Loucks and his colleagues. Mr. Dooley writes that his work is inspired by the concerto grossi of Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti, with the trio taking the part of the concertino, and the octet the part of the ripieno. It is a three-movement (the movements simply marked as I. II. and III) work that showed Mr. Dooley’s mastery of the form, but with contemporary harmony.

Forming the String Octet were violinists Marta Krechkovsky, April Kim, Yuri Cho, violists Hanna Lee and David Samuel, and future stars from the Chamber Music OC| Young Artists, violinist Leo Matsuka (age 16), and cellists Reina Cho (age 15) and Brandon Shin (age 12).

As the players were taking the stage and readying themselves, Mr. Loucks took out his phone to take a picture of the audience before starting the Concerto Grosso. “You all look so good,” he quipped to the delight of the audience.

This work was played with brio by the combined forces, in what was an impressive display from all eleven performers. One can’t imagine that there was a lot of rehearsal time, which made the achievement all the more striking.

This listener thoroughly enjoyed the Concerto Grosso, but his favorite was the eerie second movement, which sounded like a musical depiction of a nightmare, or at least some rather unsettled dreams. After the high energy final movement, the audience roared in approval. The composer was in attendance and came to the stage to embrace Mr. Loucks and accept the audience’s enthusiastic ovation. It was a nice end to the first half.

After intermission, Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major. Op. 20 was to be the last work of the evening. Joining Trio Céleste for the Octet were violinist Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Yuri Cho, violists Hanna Lee and David Samuel, and cellist Colin Carr – a group of “heavy hitters” to be sure! The eight players meshed beautifully. The Octet is demanding enough even apart from ensemble issues, but these musicians were in their element. What a treat it was to hear this performance, a rare opportunity for the reviewer to sit back and enjoy, when there is really nothing to quibble about. From the exquisite control of the Allegro moderato ma con fuoco to the thrilling Presto, it was without a doubt one of the best performances of the Octet this listener has heard.

The audience gave the players a standing ovation, which was richly deserved. Trio Céleste is a group to watch, and I hope to hear them again in the future.

2017 New York International Music Festival in Review

2017 New York International Music Festival in Review

2017 New York International Music Festival
Gwent Youth Wind Orchestra, Wales, United Kingdom
Sean O’Neill, director
Virginia Tech Wind Ensemble and Combined Choirs, Blacksburg, Virginia
Jonathan Caldwell, Dwight Bigler, conductors
Deborah Lee Gibbs, master of ceremonies
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 11, 2017


Carnegie Hall was the venue for a series of concerts of the 2017 New York International Musical Festival. The evening showcase concert featured the Gwent Youth Wind Orchestra from Wales, and the Virginia Tech Wind Ensemble and Combined Choirs. Also featured was world renowned euphonium player David Childs, who was the soloist in two World Premiere works that he commissioned. Master of Ceremonies Deborah Lee Gibbs introduced each group.

Program notes were only provided for the two World Premiere works. While it was nice that the Master of Ceremonies spoke briefly of each work, it was more of a “reading of the menu,” rather than offering much explanation or history of the works. I’m sure this was done to economize on printing costs (there were several concerts using the same program booklet, with only minor changes), but this, coupled with the curious placement of each group’s selection as if it were parenthetical, was vexing. The majority of the works played were not so well-known that they would not need some explanation or context.

The Gwent Youth Wind Orchestra, led by Sean O’Neill, took the stage for the first half. They offered six works (two World Premieres), five by Welsh composers, with the sixth by Arturo Márquez. The Gwent is open by audition to players up to college age. The rough equivalent in the United States would probably be a High School Honor Band. As one might expect, there is often some unevenness in the quality of the players, and this was no exception. That’s not meant to be a criticism, for the overall level of play was generally excellent, but it is just a reality of having a group with constantly changing personnel. The most problematic area was intonation, some of which one could attribute to nerves, but some to inexperience (e.g. the low D – concert C – at the end of Abide With Me is a notoriously sharp note on the B-flat Trumpet, which requires either a third valve slide adjustment or one brought about from embouchure to bring it into tune).

Now that I’ve gotten these issues mentioned it is time to move on to the positive, of which there was much to praise. The opening work, Prismatic Light by Alan Fernie, was boldly played, with precision and a festive feeling. Gareth Wood’s Salome – Rhapsody for Band has a grotesque, heathenish quality that the Gwent played up to the hilt – an impressive performance of a demanding work. Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, a popular and much-loved work, had the right amount of restraint that lesser groups often fail to maintain, and it showed the Gwent to the maximum advantage.

Now it is time to say a few words about the featured soloist. The story of the violin virtuoso Paganini is well known. Some said he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his virtuosity. It seems that Paganini was re-born in Wales, but instead of the violin, this new incarnation has taken to the euphonium. Disguised as the mild-mannered David Childs, the wizardry was on full display on the stage of Carnegie Hall. This is only half in jest – Mr. Childs possesses a mind-boggling technique that would be the envy of not only euphonium players, but many a trumpet player as well, especially in the clarity of his high-speed passagework and articulation. Usually with the larger brass, the faster the playing, the muddier the sound, but not so with Mr. Childs. Coupled with this, his extreme upper range tone is bright and clear, without a hint of strain.

Seren Wen (White Star) Euphonium Concerto was the first of the commissioned World Premiere works. The program notes quote composer Bernard Kane as saying: “I’ve used the ‘White Star’ as the title of the work…It was the Line of the Titanic, who’s [sic] distress signal was first heard in the Welsh Village of Pontllanfriath, some 3000 miles away from where Titanic hit that fatal iceberg … It is not a tone poem about the sinking, rather the story being the work’s impetus and the link with Wales.” I found this all puzzling, the relevance tenuous at best, not to mention the highly debatable claim regarding the distress signal (this reviewer is a long-time Titanic enthusiast). In any case, the work is a showcase for Mr. Childs’ virtuosity, with writing emphasizing his strengths (as listed above). It was a dazzling display.

The second World Premiere was the beautiful Welsh Prayer by Paul Mealor. It’s not showy, but requires great control to maintain its lyrical quality. Of course, Mr. Childs has this ability in spades, and I would not be surprised if this work figures into his regular repertoire.

After Abide With Me, as arranged by Karl Jenkins, the audience, which included many from Wales (many carrying the national flag), gave the performers a standing ovation. Da Iawn!

After Intermission the Virginia Wind Ensemble Tech and Combined Choirs took the stage. Before all else, it is notable to mention the great level of preparation and organization from Virginia Tech. Each stage change (and there were several) was accomplished in record time without any fuss at all, something I wish many other concerts would take as an example. What was disappointing was the complete lack of program notes and texts for their selections.

The Wind Ensemble with Combined Choirs led off. Conductor Jonathan Caldwell led a lively performance of Percy Grainger’s charming I’m Seventeen Come Sunday. Dwight Bigler then took the podium to conduct his work I Shall Not Live In Vain, which was moving.

The Chamber Singers, conducted by Mr. Bigler, offered three works. The first, William Byrd’s Sing Joyfullly had good balance, clear diction, and precise intonation. The second, Rivers of Light by Ēriks Ešenvalds (with one of the chorus playing a mouth harp), was hauntingly beautiful. The last, the third and final movement, Strike, of Gene Koshinski’s Concerto for Marimba and Choir with Percussion, is one of the more unusual works this listener has heard. Featuring Assistant Professor of Percussion Annie Stevens, this highly entertaining selection had a tribal, primitive feel. It would have been helpful to know the “back story” for his work to gain more insight.

Jonathan Caldwell then led the Wind Ensemble in Mason Bates’ Mothership, with soloists Jason Crafton (Assistant Professor of Trumpet), and Alan Weinstein (Associate Professor of Cello) playing an electric cello. It’s a scherzo-like work, with 21st-century idioms, such as techno rhythms. It’s a fun work, with electronic atmospheric touches, “visiting soloists to the docked Mothership,” and action-packed writing for all. The Wind Ensemble treated the listener to a ten-minute otherworldly romp.

To close the concert, Mr. Bigler returned to the podium to conduct the Wind Ensemble and Combined Choirs in his work Three Appalachian Songs. The whimsical Cluck Old Hen, the mournful Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger, with soprano soloist Ariana Wyatt (Assistant Professor of Voice), and the exultant Sourwood Mountain brought the night to a rousing close. The audience, which included ensembles that had performed in the earlier afternoon concert, gave the combined forces a loud and long ovation.

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Green Valley High School Symphonic Wind Orchestra/ Hershey Symphony Festival Strings and Hershey Symphony Orchestra in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Green Valley High School Symphonic Wind Orchestra/ Hershey Symphony Festival Strings and Hershey Symphony Orchestra in Review

Green Valley High School Symphonic Wind Orchestra (NV), Diane Koutsulis, conductor
Hershey Symphony Festival Strings, Hershey Symphony Orchestra (PA), Sandra Dackow, conductor; Odin Rathnam, violin
Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
April 10, 2017


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented a mixed program, with ensembles from a Henderson, Nevada high school, a group of middle-school string players From Hershey, Pennsylvania , and an adult all-volunteer symphony, also from Hershey. If some of the playing had its rough edges, all of it succeeded in the task of communicating emotion from players to audience. The program featured two excellent female conductors for a change, an all-too-rare occurrence.

The evening began with the Nevada group and Steven Bryant’s Ecstatic Fanfare, a little ragged in ensemble, but a festive beginning. This was followed by the second movement, Yellow, from Philip Sparke’s A Colour Symphony, which emphasized the upper ranges of the winds to create the impression of intense sunshine. I wonder if Sparke knew about Sir Arthur Bliss’ A Colour Symphony, dating from the 1920s. A rousing performance of James Clifton Williams, Jr.’s The Sinfonians (Symphonic March), commissioned by a musical fraternity, showed rhythmic verve. Green Valley saved the best for last however, a new work entitled there are no words [sic], a programmatic work about the horrific murder of nine worshippers in Charleston, SC, two years ago that did not trivialize tragedy. As its composer James M. Stephenson states, it is really not a portrayal of events, but a reflection of personal feelings about it. This work featured absolutely beautiful playing from the principal flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, and euphonium. The group achieved true transparency, a testament to their ability to listen to each other, and to the compositional quality of the piece. To honor the dead, there were nine clusters at the beginning and another nine, decreasing in volume, at the end; their names were read by a student prior to beginning the work.

After intermission, the Hershey Symphony Festival Strings, composed entirely of middle-schoolers, took the stage for three clever arrangements (two Mozart, one traditional English hornpipe) by their conductor Sandra Dackow, who is an expert creator of pedagogical materials for developing musicians. All the movements were quick; perhaps one slower one could have shown greater range. But the most impressive thing for me was the justness of their intonation (playing in tune). This is a quality that often suffers, not only in the young, but even in grown-up ensembles. Way to go, middle-schoolers; they are obviously getting great leadership from Ms. Dackow. And wasn’t she clever to sneak in a surreptitious morsel of Tchaikovsky for the double-basses right near the end of the hornpipe.

The Hershey Symphony, soon to be in its fiftieth year, is composed of musicians who voluntarily give of their time and talent for the purpose of creating a rich cultural experience for the people of their region. Ms. Dackow led them through three “chestnuts” of the repertoire. As a conductor, she has a delightful quality I call “inner expansion,” by which I mean a certain feeling for elasticity and arrival points, which she then transmits to her players. The only slight miscalculation, I felt, was the lack of inclusion of at least one contemporary work. Humperdinck’s famous Overture to his opera Hansel und Gretel spoke in its alternately prayerful and stentorian, Wagner-inspired ways. She was then joined by virtuoso violinist Odin Rathnam for Sarasate’s evergreen Ziguenerweise. He has not only the chops but the temperament to dispatch this work and not make it seem difficult at all; he even brought out the humor at certain points, which caused audience members to giggle appropriately. His tone was sweet and true throughout, particularly in the stratospherically high notes the piece reaches. The performance contained many gratifying rubato details that were carefully and thoughtfully worked out between soloist and conductor. One could definitely hear how certain manic “gypsy” passagework found its way into such a disparate piece as Ravel’s Tzigane! The evening finished with a grand account of the graduation day staple: Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. Ms. Dackow’s inner expansion here gave extra glory to the “Land of Hope and Glory” melody so beloved to all.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Total Vocal in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Total Vocal in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Total Vocal
Deke Sharon, guest conductor, arranger, and creative director
Kelley Jakle, guest soloist
Chesney Snow, guest artist
Cast members from Broadway’s In Transit, Writers from Broadway’s In Transit, Shemesh Quartet (Mexico), Forte (2016 ICHSA National Champion), special guests
Distinguished Concert Artists Singers International
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 9, 2017


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) hit another home run with its third (annual) presentation of a cappella glory, Total Vocal, led by the Mr. State-of-the-art himself: Deke Sharon. One might enter this event a curmudgeon, but one will certainly not leave that way. Mr. Sharon has the highest, most joyful energy imaginable, and his genuine enthusiasm in bringing people together creates a reciprocal love fest between him and his performers, then the performers and the audience. I hope that he is as happy and satisfied in life as his musical persona leads me to believe. He definitely deserves to be.


The mania for a cappella choral groups shows no signs of abating, thank goodness. We had the TV series Glee, then the Pitch Perfect movie, its sequel Pitch Perfect 2, and Pitch Perfect 3 has just wrapped, with a December 22, 2017 release date. NBC’s competition show The Sing-Off has also done very well. Mr. Sharon is the arranger for all of these. This concert was sold out.


At today’s concert there were well over four hundred singers from high schools all over the US (and international), as well as many solo additions and even some adults. Mr. Sharon volunteered at one point to hook up any audience member who desired to sing a cappella with a group in his/her area, no experience necessary; or even to help anyone start one of their own. He really believes in his gospel of harmonization, the “natural antidepressant.” The singers were deployed in roughly two halves, until the surprise end of the concert brought the full complement (the other half materializing from the audience side) to create a rousing sound in the glorious acoustic of Carnegie Hall.


Mr. Sharon was the arranger for Broadway’s first-ever a cappella musical In Transit, and the afternoon began with a stunning performance of Getting There by the cast of the show. By the way, they were on their way to perform their show just a few blocks away.


This was followed by Since U Been Gone (made popular by Kelly Clarkson) from Pitch Perfect and Under Pressure (Bowie and Mercury) from The Sing-Off, both excellent. Mr. Sharon related (in his always engaging patter) how important it is to awaken sensitivity to dynamic changes, which his choir then demonstrated in a sensitive rendition of the Ed Sheeran hit Thinking Out Loud. A featured group named Pitch Please from Northwood High School (NC) did a great job on the iconic Man in the Mirror. For such a happy occasion, I became profoundly sad thinking that Freddy Mercury, Michael Jackson, and David Bowie are all no longer alive, taken way too soon.


The girls sang the 1938 bluegrass novelty song Cups (When I’m Gone), sung around a campfire in Pitch Perfect 2. Then Chamber Bravura, another featured ensemble (CA) sparkled in the old Leslie Gore classic You Don’t Own Me, with its continuing relevance. The solos and beat-boxing were well done. The boys had their turn with Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl.


Then Kelley Jakle, one of the stars of the Pitch Perfect movies, took the stage for an amazing traversal of Tomorrow Never Dies, probably the best thing about that particular James Bond movie (as sung by Sheryl Crow). Ms. Jakle’s range is really wide, from deeper mezzo colors all the way up to “Shirley Bassey” highs. She was backed by the massed choir. The first half ended with a rousing Uptown Funk made popular by Bruno Mars.


For the second half, the choir changed personnel, and the joys of community continued to be celebrated with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Sing a Song, Put on a Happy Face (from Bye Bye Birdie), and the girls’ sensitive singing in Sting’s Fields of Gold. Forte, a featured group from Centerville High School (OH) performed their own original song Life’s So Lyrical. What great talent, they have now produced albums entirely of their own songs. You’re My Best Friend (also by Queen) was dedicated to Mr. Sharon’s mother, recently deceased.


After all this bounty, there was even more, with the advent of Shemesh (Hebrew word for sunshine), a Mexican a cappella group, that elicited the only outburst of unexpected profanity from Mr. Sharon, when referring to anti-Mexican attitudes and policies. The group performed a medley of songs so well-known that they risk being cliché, but in this quartet the vocal virtuosity was splendid. Then we went “north of the border” for the next featured group Soundcrowd, from Canada, which indeed delivered Signed, Sealed, Delivered stylishly.


The creators (as distinct from the cast) of In Transit, an a cappella group in their own right, then performed We Are Home from their show. I have yet to see this Broadway gem, which opened in December of last year, but just on the basis of the two songs done today, I’d go. Chesney Snow, possibly the world’s reigning beat-boxer (vocal percussion) was featured, and added an extended virtuosic solo right after.


The boys took a swagger-y turn with Jessie’s Girl. Then Mr. Sharon himself escorted us through his version of Gershwin’s Summertime, complete with his amazing imitation of a muted trumpet. The afternoon finished with the other half of the choir coming up through the audience to have just under 500 people singing Time of My Life (Dirty Dancing, also used in The Sing-Off). It was thunderous and exciting. Mr. Sharon finished with his traditional written-in encore The Lion Sleeps Tonight, with audience participation not only encouraged, but demanded. Ovation!


Duo Rosa in Review

Duo Rosa in Review

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band in Review

Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band in Review

Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band
Andreas Delfs, conductor; Terell Stafford, director
William Wolfram, piano
Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
April 8, 2017


One of the greatest pleasures of being a music reviewer is when one is treated to a night of music by passionate young players giving their utmost in performances that rival those of more seasoned professional groups. In these cases, one can almost “turn off the meter” and sit back and enjoy. On April 8, 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, the Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band stepped up and gave a concert that was not only technically polished, but full of vitality. Anyone who bemoans the alleged decline of concert music should take note – this is how you do it!

Conductor Andreas Delfs took the stage to lead the Symphony Orchestra in Orchestral Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 26 (1947) by Boris Blacher (1903-1975). Blacher is among a long list of luminaries (Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Lutoslawki, and Rochberg) who used Paganini’s 24th Caprice for sets of variations, and his version has sixteen diverse variations, of which many are jazz infused (this listener’s favorite was a stylish pizzicato variation). Other than one moment when one of the string players was a fraction of a second behind in attack, it was an excellent reading in what was a great start to the night.

Maestro Delfs is one of the most involved conductors I have ever seen. He was fully invested in each and every note, as if he was living and breathing the music. His players returned that passion with interest.

After the Blacher, the stage was readied for George Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra. Written in 1931 for the movie Delicious, the Second Rhapsody in its finished form has been largely neglected until recent times. This fifteen-minute work lacks the appeal of the Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F, which probably accounts for its lesser popularity. That is not to say that it is not filled with Gershwin’s characteristic melodies and rhythmic liveliness, but that its darker nature makes it more difficult to embrace. It certainly helped that one of the finest pianists in the country, William Wolfram, was the featured soloist. Mr. Wolfram is a no-nonsense musician. He took the stage, sat down at the piano, and without any ado launched into the opening notes. There were not any displays or histrionics, for Mr. Wolfram doesn’t need any gimmicks – he lets his playing speak for him. I wonder if the audience really knew how good Mr. Wolfram is, as he made it all look so easy, in what might be an “occupational hazard” of having such a huge technique. It was an outstanding performance that had this listener wanting to hear Mr. Wolfram in one of the “big” works (such as Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto), where his firepower could be unleashed. The audience gave him a nice ovation.

After intermission, the Jazz Band, led by Terell Stafford, offered Juan Tizol’s 1941 classic Perdido, which has figured in the recorded work of many of the giants of jazz (Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, to name a few), but was most associated with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. The Spanish word perdido usually is translated as “lost,” but in this case it refers to a street name in New Orleans. The players took on Gerald Wilson’s supercharged arrangement, which is no walk in the park. What a high-octane performance it was, from the soloist to the ending double High C in the trumpets (I was waiting for it!), which shook the walls of the hall. This highly-opinionated listener found himself highly impressed and just a touch nostalgic for those long ago days when he was a young trumpeter.

Conductor Andreas Delfs spoke to the audience prior to the New York Premiere of UNITED, Symphony for Orchestra and Big Band, by Daniel Schnyder (b. 1961). Descirbed by Maestro Delfs as a concerto grosso, UNITED is a four-movement work that seeks to unite the two worlds of classical and jazz, while giving each “faction” an opportunity to shine not only in its own “style,” but in the style of the other! It’s a powerhouse work, a showstopper par excellence. The huge combined forces, to borrow an expression from Mr. Schnyder’s notes, “rocked the house” in a scintillating performance. The composer was in attendance and was greeted with an ovation as Maestro Delfs held the score in the air.

Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, in a special arrangement by Bill Cunliffe for Orchestra and Big Band, served as a built-in encore, a “victory lap” for everyone to enjoy. The audience was obviously enchanted (three women directly in front of me were dancing in their seats), and when it was over there was a long, loud, and well-deserved standing ovation. I’m sure that everyone in attendance left happy. Congratulations, Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band, for a most enjoyable concert, which this listener will remember for a long time.

The Center for Musical Excellence Presents Simon Hwang in Review

The Center for Musical Excellence Presents Simon Hwang in Review

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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