Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Suite Sounds of Christmas in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Suite Sounds of Christmas in Review

Distinguished Concerts Orchestra; Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Jonathan Griffith, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor
Randol Bass, composer-in-residence, and narrator
Mark Hayes, composer/conductor
Laura Sutton Floyd, soprano; Jessica Best, mezzo-soprano; Scott Joiner, tenor; Mark Gilgallon, baritone/bass
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 19, 2017


The holiday season is upon us, even before Thanksgiving. We are already being bombarded with early sales and “Black Friday” teasers, as people gear up for the latest crazes and finding special gifts for all on their shopping lists. It’s all so noisy and overwhelming that one can easily feel oppressed by it all. Thankfully, there are moments that remind us what Christmas was meant to be, and peace and serenity fill one’s heart despite it all. Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) gifted all those in attendance with a reminder of what the holidays can be. In a program entitled The Suite Sounds of Christmas, DCINY featured the music of Randol Bass and a suite of carols from around the world arranged by Mark Hayes. Singing them were groups from Texas, New Jersey, Montana, Florida, Idaho, South Carolina, New York, California, Kansas, Nevada, Maryland, Connecticut, Indiana, Canada, and “individual singers from around the globe.” It proved to be an evening filled with holiday magic.

The first half was dedicated to the music of Randol Bass (b. 1953). Opening with the popular Gloria, a dynamic work that is always a crowd pleaser, conductor Jonathan Griffith got things off to a fine start. His ability to take forces of singers in the several hundreds from many different choirs and get them to sound so polished is something that I have come to expect as par for the course, yet it continues to elicit my admiration time and time again.

Mr. Bass joined Maestro Griffith for an impromptu chat on stage. Regaling the audience with stories of the headaches that a composer has to deal with from commissioning groups, Mr. Bass proved to be a seasoned raconteur. He paraphrased a proposal by the commissioning as follows: “Do you know the style of John Williams? To be honest, there is no way we can afford John Williams, so we want you to write something in his style. And we want a bombastic ending!” Mr. Bass showed mock offense at this less-than-elegant request, but with a smile said to the audience, “You can decide how well I did.” (Spoiler alert: He did brilliantly!)

Seasonal Sounds is a medley of four well-loved Christmas songs (in order Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Jingle Bells) played without pause. It was delightful.

The Night Before Christmas, with Mr. Bass narrating the famous poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, followed. It should be an instant classic. One imagines that it could be used for an animated or live-action video which would enchant audiences of any age. Mr. Bass writes in his notes that “the piece is cinematically conceived, and each poetic image of the narration is imaginatively colored in such a way that audiences can clearly visualize the happenings from passage to passage.” Mr. Bass’s narration was filled with dramatic flair, and though it was perhaps a bit over-the-top, it enthralled his audience. Even this jaded listener found the work completely mesmerizing. John Williams could not have done it any better (wink, wink)!

A Feast of Carols, a medley of six carols, Gloucester Wassail, Il est né, le divin enfant, O come, O Come Emmanuel, The Holly and the Ivy, God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman, and We Wish you a Merry Christmas (again played without interruption), ended the first half in triumph. Mr. Bass came back to the stage to accept the loud ovation from the audience.

After intermission, Mark Hayes (b. 1953) took to the stage to conduct his International Carol Suite, a five-section work with thirty carols from twenty countries around the world. Starting in Western Europe, then moving onto Eastern Europe, then the British Isles, to Central and South America, and finally ending in North America, it was a remarkable fifty-five-minute musical journey. The featured vocal soloists were Laura Sutton Floyd, soprano, Jessica Best, mezzo-soprano, Scott Joiner, tenor, and Mark Gilgallon, baritone/bass. Mr. Hayes is a skilled composer and arranger, and he used his talents as a conductor to present his fine work in a winning performance.


It is not possible to comment on all thirty carols (for a list of the thirty, click Program Notes), so I will limit myself to my favorites from each region. For Western Europe, Angels We Have Heard on High; For Eastern Europe, Carol of the Russian Children; For the British Isles, Deck the Halls; For Central and South America, Song of the Wise Men; For North America, The Huron Carol. Likewise, I will mention the highlights from each of the four excellent soloists. Ms. Floyd showed the agility of her lovely voice in Song of the Wise Men. Ms. Best’s Infant Holy, Infant Lowly (in Polish) was very moving in its innocence. Mr. Joiner’s Gesu Bambino was delivered with a crystalline clarity, and Mr. Gilgallon’s strong voice filled the hall in Song of the Russian Children (In Russian). It reminded one of the great Russian bassos.

After the last notes of Go Tell it on the Mountain sounded, the audience leapt to their feet in a loud ovation for Mr. Hayes, the soloists, chorus and orchestra. Congratulation to all performers!


Hemsing Associates presents Kimiko Ishizaka in Review

Hemsing Associates presents Kimiko Ishizaka in Review

Kimiko Ishizaka, piano

Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

November 19, 2017


Kimiko Ishizaka gave an energetic, somewhat dry reading of Bach’s last work, Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue), further demonstrating her lifelong involvement with the master’s works. She has previously performed and recorded the “Goldberg” variations and Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.


She performed this gigantic series of fugues (referred to by the archaic term contrapunctus) and canons, all based on a single theme, from memory, an astonishing accomplishment, and she favored crisp touch, lots of détaché, generally brisk tempi, and absolutely no use of pedal. Andras Schiff also eschewed the pedal in his last presentation of the WTC at the 92nd Street Y a few years back, stating that although he had used it before, he preferred to find what he calls the “hand phrasing” that is only revealed when no pedal is used.


Now, I am an advocate of Bach on the modern piano, but if you’re going to use it, why deprive yourself of one of its principal resources? Of course, Baroque polyphony mustn’t “sound pedaled,” but the piano tone can be given much greater warmth and color variety with careful use.


I had that reservation about Ms. Ishizaka’s choices, as well as musical, dramatic, and philosophical reservations in general about this contrapuntal afternoon, as expertly played as it was. All Bach’s fugues and canons in this collection were written out in four-part open score, the standard for study—no instrumentation was ever specified. These were never intended for concert performance, or even private performance at one sitting, and though I enjoy hearing it that way, it simply lacked variety, mystery, a sense of the “sacred,” from which Bach’s entire oeuvre is never very far removed.


The most successful portion for me was, oddly, the four canons, in which her approach was perfectly united to the material. In the excellent program notes by Paul Griffiths, he mentions “creeping chromatic scale fragments” in one of the more complex fugues, but Ishizaka’s chromaticism lacked just that “creeping” quality, rather it danced, chirped, and just sounded busy.


Ms. Ishizaka also dared to complete the unfinished (projected quadruple) fugue. As Christoph Wolff points out, since combinatorial fugues like this are usually begun at the final, most complicated area, Bach had probably actually finished it (at least in his head) and was writing it out from the beginning when he died. That his death took place after the introduction of the third subject, the musical spelling of his own name (B-A-C-H is the German nomenclature for the notes Bb-C-A-B)), gave rise to generations of romanticization and speculation.


Completions are always a risk—none of us is J.S. Bach. Ms. Ishizaka’s while clever and not too lengthy, displayed more about Ms. Ishizaka than Bach, though she used many of the themes from previous fugues, and even a great reminder of the end of Contrapunctus I at the very end, thus coming full circle in a satisfying way. What her desire for completion tells me, however, is that perhaps she is uncomfortable with the mystery of just having it break off in midstream. Perhaps she has considered and rejected a “spiritual” approach to Bach, or perhaps this is her spiritual approach, but I can’t help wondering what a bit more legato and slightly slower tempi would have added to the music, even with no pedal.


Elsewhere, she had a few variant notes that I had learned differently, and altered rhythms, I’m sure intentional, in her incredible feat of precise memory. Contrapunctus IX was excellent in her hands, as were the two pairs of mirror fugues. The first eleven fugues were put in order by Bach himself. As for the rest, they were rather hastily cobbled together by C.P.E. Bach, his second son, for publication, hence some different accidentals, rhythms, etc, crept in.


Shortly after seeing to its publication, C.P.E. sold the engraver’s plates for the value of the metal—not too much respect to the “old wig,” as he called his father, whose style, sadly, was already superseded when he died. Paul Griffith mentioned that the modern premiere of the cycle was in Leipzig in 1927, in an orchestration by twenty-year-old Wolfgang Graeser. What he didn’t mention is that Graeser committed suicide right after the premiere. What Graeser’s friend, musicologist Erich Schwebsch said about it was “He took his life as one who, having penetrated through the mystery of life, no longer saw any need to continue therein.”


I’m almost apologetic about being so hard on such an obviously accomplished Bach pianist, but I do feel that there is much more that can be revealed in this monumental work. Ms. Ishizaka appears young, her stage presence is very upbeat, and as she lives with the work for years to come, I’m sure she will make ever-new discoveries.

The Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition presents Tony Yun in Review

The Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition presents Tony Yun in Review

Tony Yun, piano
Steinway Hall, New York, NY
November 14, 2017


Though only sixteen years old, Tony Yun has enjoyed a robust performing career for some years now—he is currently a student in the prestigious Juilliard pre-college division and has won numerous competitions. On this occasion, he was presented at Steinway Hall by the Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition, of which he is the most recent prize winner (October 2017).


At times it seemed as though there were two pianists present (and not because of the enormous amount of notes played): one, an impetuous, boyish virtuoso with technique to burn, the other, an introspective poetic dreamer. I preferred the latter pianist, though impetuosity also has its place. I fervently wish that he will meld these aspects together as he matures. This is a big, big talent, and anything I have to say below is only meant in the spirit of getting Mr. Yun to scrutinize all his pianistic and musical decisions carefully.


The recital opened with Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903. Rosalyn Tureck always said the Fantasy was as close as possible to hearing what Bach extemporizing might have sounded like. The great thing about it is that no two people ever realize it the same way. Mr. Yun displayed creativity in his rendering of the many arpeggios that are not written out, only signified by half- or whole-note chords. I did not feel that he revealed the full sorrow of the immense chromatically descending section at the end. His Fugue, more rapid than most, achieved a playful quality. That is a valid choice, though again I feel that the ascending half-steps of the subject, which mirror the descent previously mentioned, should be experienced with a greater sense of mystery and struggle. I think Ms. Tureck, a formidable woman, but an open-minded musician, would have been happy with it.


Next came the one Beethoven sonata that is forbidden on most conservatory audition programs: No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, “Quasi una fantasia,” known universally as the “Moonlight.” The first movement had become so hackneyed through amateur renderings, even transposed in some “easy” piano methods to C minor (!). Nevertheless, it is a haunting and progressive member of Beethoven’s canon. Mr. Yun really observed the indication of “delicacy with the damper pedal depressed throughout,” managing to create some daring blends on the modern Steinway, whose tonal weight is way too large, necessitating some compromises. I felt the tempo, though musicologically defensible, was too fast. Liszt called the second movement “a flower between two abysses,” and here the articulation of the phrasing was charming. The third movement, a gigantic sonata-allegro form, was Mr. Yun’s best of the three, remaining light while really showing off his rapidity, and he took advantage of every lyrical moment.


The first half concluded with Liszt’s Réminiscences de Norma/Grande Fantaisie, S. 394, a huge potpourri of themes from Bellini’s opera Norma. The story of a Druid priestess who loves a Roman soldier who deserts her for her best friend, and who then eventually offers herself as a sacrificial victim, is heavy going for a teenage boy. However, Bellini was twenty when it was produced, and probably a teen himself when composing it. Here, the “two pianists” theory of Mr. Yun was fully in evidence. The stentorian louder sections were all projected with superior virtuosity, but sometimes too harsh a sound, and a forgetting of the vocal nature of the music (still: always exciting). But when it came to the long, melting B minor/major theme in the middle, his poetic side created absolutely mesmerizing sounds, full of longing, and the rubati were perfection. The grande réunion des thèmes, a staple of all such transcriptions (not just Liszt’s) and the “three-hand” work were presented with complete mastery. Of course, to be able to play this at all is a triumph.


After intermission, Mr. Yun returned with another gigantic transcription: Busoni’s fleshing out of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor originally for solo violin. Busoni, I always felt, created a piece that is one composer’s emotional response to the spiritual message of the older composer’s piece, nothing to do with “faithful adherence” to the texture of the original, which would have been restricting (see Brahms’s left-hand alone version). Mr. Yun alternately thundered and whispered wherever required, with superb voicing and control over this very busy score.


He followed this with an incredibly mature, poised performance of Première communion de la Vierge (No.11: First Communion of the Virgin), from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus. This is one of Messiaen’s twenty “looks” at the baby Jesus, in which Mary adores the baby still inside her, shortly after the Annunciation. Redolent with Messiaen’s system of mystical leitmotifs, established earlier in the cycle, the dynamic palette is mostly hushed, befitting the adoration. Mr. Yun’s colors and his patience with the slow tempo were exquisite. In fact, they made me think that if I was his current teacher I’d put him on a diet of only p, pp, or ppp pieces for a year, to develop this side of himself that is so hypnotic. Remember, you can always impress a lot of people with rapid, loud, accurate playing—but you will really move people emotionally with your lyric warmth.


Now with what could he possibly top that? Stravinsky’s Firebird of course (L’Oiseau de feu– ballet presented in Paris in 1910 by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes), in the fierce transcription by the neglected Italian virtuoso pianist/composer Guido Agosti. This again showed Mr. Yun’s affinity with bold, fearless virtuosity, which is the only way to negotiate such a monstrously difficult score. He also really tried to evoke the spastic orchestral outbursts, particularly the wind sonorities. His blurred hush in the Berceuse was trance-like, another example of the “two Yuns.”


Mr. Yun favored the audience with Schubert’s Moment Musical No. 3 in F Minor, which was presented with innocence.


Mateusz Borowiak Third Recital in Review

Mateusz Borowiak Third Recital in Review

Mateusz Borowiak, piano
Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Center, New York, NY
Sunday, November 12, 2017, 8PM

Mateusz Borowiak’s series of three recitals came to a close on Sunday, with perhaps his most magisterial display of pianistic grandeur. It also gave me, now having heard all six of Louis Pelosi’s piano sonatas, a clear favorite. This is terrible to decide, a sort of musical “Sophie’s choice,” but his Sonata No. 3 in B-flat gets my vote. The crystalline piano sonorities juxtaposed with the characteristically dense ones, the overall playfulness of some of the material, and a certain resemblance (spiritual only, not imitative) to Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (slow movement) in Pelosi’s slow movement, all endeared it to me.

Over the course of the three recitals, I heard numerous audience members grumbling that they couldn’t “follow” the structure, but make no mistake about it, Pelosi is a firm structuralist. It does take a certain fierce concentration, for it is more about densities, textures, and motives, things that the average listener has lost touch with identifying (a fault of society’s lack of music education, and the decline of home music making). I think someone clever could fashion two sonatas for every one of Pelosi’s, simply by removing about half the material and placing it on another manuscript page, but that is not for me to decide.

The Sonata No. 2 in A, a much fiercer, grimmer work, opened the recital, and it was presented perfectly by Mr. Borowiak, certainly Pelosi’s most capable advocate. Its principle of continuous evolving variation was clear, and there was even a Brahms-like consoling moment in the slow section.

After intermission, Mr. Borowiak presented the second set (Op. 39) of Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux, which are programmatic, though the composer was often secretive about revealing specific images. They were composed near the end of 1916 to the beginning of 1917, just before the composer was driven from his native land, sorrowfully, by the turmoil of revolution. In fact, the famous E-flat minor etude (No. 5), the final one written, was completed just four days before the premiere of the set by Rachmaninoff himself. For who else could possibly have played these uncompromising, complicated studies?

Of course, today all young pianists grow up with these and other difficult repertoire firmly in their lesson plans, especially if they are serious about a career. In fact, through the course of Mr. Borowiak’s survey, I had to ponder how many physiological limitations have been conquered, how the landscape of what’s “possible” has evolved, even in my time, let alone since 1900.

Mr. Borowiak favored a “big-boned” approach to the Rachmaninoff, with gigantic sonority, big arching structure, clear voicing, and wonderful elasticity. Remember, Stravinsky referred to Rachmaninoff as a “six-and- a- half -foot scowl,” and it was mainly this person we hear in these distinctly anxiety-ridden works. For me, the stand-outs were No. 2 (“the sea and the seagull”), No. 5, No. 7 (“funeral march”), and No. 8, but they were all beautifully played, with complete fearless mastery. Mr. Borowiak organized their complexity with such assurance that the set sounded more coherent than I can recall from any recent artist.

After his customary tumultuous ovation, Mr. Borowiak, in a gesture of extreme modesty and renunciation, didn’t play an encore, though it was richly deserved (nor had he on any of the recitals).

When was the last time you saw the word aposiopesis in a program note? Yes, I had to look it up. Congratulations to you, Mateusz, and may you grace our shores again with more intelligent programming.

Mateusz Borowiak Second Recital in Review

Mateusz Borowiak Second Recital in Review

Mateusz Borowiak, piano
Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Center, New York, NY
November 8, 2017


As serendipity would have it, I saw a poster in a small restaurant prior to attending Mateusz Borowiak’s second recital (of three) comprising his US debut. The slogan said: “The only way to do great work is to love.” This seemed particularly apropos regarding the sonatas of Louis Pelosi, two more of which (Nos. 5 and 1) were played on November 8, 2017 by Mr. Borowiak.


Clearly, Pelosi works with a great deal of love: love of imitative counterpoint, love of tonal harmony with many layers of complexity, love of the piano and its possibilities, and love of expressing large feelings and ideas. My fear, if that is the right word, is that this literature will not appeal to other pianists en masse, or the wider audiences it merits (and perhaps that’s okay) for it seems to me now that I have heard four of the six that his music lacks one thing the average concertgoer wants: memorable melodies.


Pelosi works with “themes and motives” more than “tunes,” and this certainly is an honorable practice going all the way back through music history, but it does make his music harder to listen to for the novice, even for those with some experience. The Sonata No. 5 made a strong impression in Mr. Borowiak’s expert hands—he has a way of clarifying these extremely dense textures, leading the ear to where the main matter is. Sonata No. 1 alternated between playful imitative materials and darker forces, and again, one could not imagine a better performance.


After intermission, Mr. Borowiak continued his marathon presentation of three complete etude cycles with all twelve of Debussy’s etudes. These are great late works by the master, pointing the way to modern trends while remaining totally “Debussy” in style as well. Debussy probably had the deepest, most intimate knowledge of the potential for piano sonority of any composer since Chopin. Let me make absolutely clear that at no time was the technical prowess of Mr. Borowiak in doubt, however, those who know my background and writings know how fervent I am about French music and its style. I feel that Mr. Borowiak could benefit from a bit more in the way of tints and tones of the same color, delicacy, and an almost indefinable French “wit” so essential to this music. The “cinq doigts” needed more leggiero and its last note was cut way too short, the “Tièrces” and “Quartes” were very good, the “Sixtes” however needed more legato gliding and delicacy, as they were a bit too jumpy. The “Octaves” and the “huit doigts” were very good. In the second livre I felt he grasped the nature of each piece much better—these are frankly much less didactic and more imagistic in tone. Everything was just put perfectly in place by Mr. Borowiak, and his tempo for the concluding “accords” was the fastest I’ve ever heard, and accurate.


I’ll admit I do quibble about things, but the secret to French music is truly in the details. He has such a secure foundation already as a pianist, I hope Mr. Borowiak will continue to let these major accomplishments of his repertoire “sink in” to even deeper levels of refinement. Then he will truly be sans pareil.

Tenri Cultural Institute presents Wa Concert Series- Emotion & Intellect: Robert Schumann and Max Reger in Review

Tenri Cultural Institute presents Wa Concert Series- Emotion & Intellect: Robert Schumann and Max Reger in Review

Charles Neidich, clarinet and artistic director
Mariko Furukawa, piano
Tenri Cultural Institute, New York, NY
November 10, 2017


Charles Neidich displayed several facets of his immense talent on Friday night during one of his well-curated “Wa” concerts. “Wa” is a word that means “circle” or “harmony, completeness,” and these values were abundantly in evidence, from the intelligent programming of works by Robert Schumann and Max Reger, to the divine performance, the genial verbal introductions and context-setting, and the pre- and post-concert feast and wine by his wife Ayako Oshima (also a fine clarinetist). The intimate setting of the Tenri Institute was perfect for this event.


Interestingly, all the Schumann pieces were transcriptions, since he didn’t really create for clarinet and piano duo. Mr. Neidich and his superb collaborator Mariko Fukuwara opened with Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102 (Five Pieces in Folk-style), originally for cello. They imbued the set with all the verve it requires and were seamlessly coordinated in every nuance.


Then followed the huge clarinet and piano sonata by Max Reger, Op. 49, No. 1. When one hears Mr. Neidich, one really doesn’t think about the instrument, only the music, so unified is he with the clarinet that it is never an issue. I can’t imagine a better performance than this one of this complicated piece, every whisper and yearning was conveyed with utter sensitivity, from both players. Again, Ms. Fukuwara handled the difficult piano part with complete transparency, no easy feat in this repertoire.


After intermission, they lightened the tone a bit by sampling two of Reger’s shorter works, the delightful Tarantella (WoO II/12) and Albumblatt (WoO II/13). This is a distinctly German interpretation of the tarantella from Reger, indeed, no one is going to dance out their spider venom with this one, but it is lovely nevertheless.


Then after some pointed introduction, Mr. Neidich and Ms. Furukawa performed a virtually unknown Schumann sonata (Op. posth. WoO 2) that was originally composed for violin, re-using the two movements Schumann had contributed to the joint F.A.E.- Frei aber einsam (“free but lonely”) sonata, adding two prior movements of his own, very late in his life. As Mr. Neidich poignantly reminded us, Clara Schumann was such a zealous guarder of her husband’s legacy and reputation that she burned the work, thinking it beneath Schumann, though she did perform it a few times with Joseph Joachim. A sketchy manuscript copy of those first two movements was located recently in a library, hence it does survive. It has all the Schumann characteristics, the way he “behaves” in A Minor, one of his favorite tonalities. The fourth movement is a veritable hell-hole of difficulty, stemming from its violinistic figurations—this inspired Mr. Neidich’s most overtly virtuosic playing of the evening, and earned him well-deserved uproarious applause.


For an encore, the pair reached into another obscure Schumann corner: the Abendlied, Op. 85 No. 12, originally for piano four-hands. It was a lovely way to end a rare and valuable evening.

Pro Musicis Presents Juliann Ma in Review

Pro Musicis Presents Juliann Ma in Review

Juliann Ma, pianist
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 9, 2017


A noteworthy recital debut occurred last Thursday, that of excellent pianist Juliann Ma, under the auspices of the Pro Musicis organization. Pro Musicis, founded in 1965, has for decades had a track record of presenting outstanding and communicative young artists in both conventional venues and community service concerts. Their roster has had such an illustrious array of musicians that it is impossible to select just a few names (but one can visit www.promusicis.org to learn more). Whether the Pro Musicis magic is more in their choosing of exceptional talent or in their nurturing of it through concerts and outreach may be up for debate – surely a mixture of both – but, in any case, they continue to thrive. Juliann Ma, their 2016 addition to the roster, provided ample evidence of that at her recital.


Ms. Ma is much more than an excellent pianist. A graduate of the Juilliard School (MM), she also has a degree in music from Stanford University (BA) with a minor in Creative Writing, plus a Diplôme d’Exécution de Piano from the École Normale Supérieure de Paris Alfred Cortot (on a Fulbright grant) and a Professional Studies certificate from Mannes (The New School for Music). She possesses the communicative gifts, appealing stage presence, and keen instinct for clever, accessible programming that will serve her well in her musical ambassadorship in the coming years.


Ms. Ma has an individual mission as well, which is to spread the message about the beauty and fragility of nature. Her carefully crafted program, entitled “Arise, Awake” was filled with works inspired by nature, including Debussy’s Prélude à L’Aprés-midi d’un faune (“The Afternoon of a Faun”) transcribed by the pianistic wizard, Vyacheslav Gryaznov, and three movements from Stravinsky’s Firebird, in Guido Agosti’s knockout version that has experienced quite a popular resurgence in the past decade.


Ms. Ma’s passion for nature became most overt, though, in her dramatic performance of Ravel’s exquisite Oiseaux Tristes (“Sad Birdsfrom Miroirs), upon which she based a collaborative interdisciplinary project. She preceded her performance with her own environmentalist poem entitled “Arise Awake,” and then incorporated six dancers into her piano interpretation to dramatize the sad birds’ story. Towards the close, the “birds” fell into a despairing cluster around the piano, and Ms. Ma folded her arms over the nearest one, thus in a sense becoming part of the dance. A similar performance (though more elaborate and without the finish around the piano) was just released by her organization, Sustainable Environment through the Arts and Sciences (SEAS): https://juliannma.com/seas/ .


For the visually oriented audiences of today, Ms. Ma’s conception may have a strong impact. There is always something extra-musical to watch or consider, so it may well touch the hearts of audiences not yet enamored of this music; for someone already deeply devoted to this music, however, the composer’s pure creation already represents an artistic pinnacle. Ravel transformed nature’s sounds into something uniquely spiritual, and the question arises as to whether it serves his creation to go the reverse direction and concretize the ethereal. For this listener, the dance ultimately distracted from the music, and increasing the distraction were various extraneous issues – percussive footsteps on Weill Hall’s wooden floor, the hard-to-ignore squeak of a barefoot pirouette, and some unforgiving lighting, all necessitating some suspension of disbelief in order for one’s imagination is to truly take flight. In the polished video, the latter were non-issues, yet this listener’s preference for the unadorned music remains the same. Admittedly, pianist/reviewers are probably not the target demographic.


Just as Oiseaux Tristes needs no enhancement, Ms. Ma as a pianist does not. She possesses the ability to find the essence of each work, and with help from her strong, fluid technique, she projects the musical shape, color, and drama vividly. Her opening Debussy was a joy, and the lush Gryaznov version made up in pianistic shadings whatever was lost in the transcription from the orchestral original. One could hardly imagine it performed better than Ms. Ma did.


Her Scriabin Sonata No. 5 (Op. 53) was also excellent, as brilliant and full of fire and ecstasy as one ever hears, as well as remarkably clean and polished throughout. Additionally, she gave it one of the strongest and most dramatically persuasive endings that I can recall in a lifetime of hearing the piece. Brava!


On the subject of drama, Ms. Ma has a strong bent for theatricality, which may make some curmudgeons spring to the accusation “all flash and no substance”; I am delighted to report, however, that this is definitely not the case. The supreme test was after intermission, with J. S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor (BWV 903), and Ms. Ma more than passed with flying colors. Her performance was a model of thoughtful phrasing and voicing – the highlight of the program for this listener.


Following the Bach was Darknesse Visible by Thomas Adés (b. 1971), a musical descent into despair that Ms. Ma performed impressively from memory. The last few measures (after John Dowland) led without pause – a wonderful segue – into the opening octave blast of Danse Infernale, Berceuse, and Finale” from Agosti’s transcription of The Firebird, a musical phoenix rising from the ashes.


It was a marvelous evening, all in all, and the cheering audience was rewarded with an encore of the jazz standard “Body and Soul.” It will be a genuine pleasure to watch Ms. Ma’s career advance from this highly auspicious debut.

Mateusz Borowiak in Review

Mateusz Borowiak in Review

Mateusz Borowiak, piano
Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Center, New York, NY
Sunday, November 5, 2017 8PM


A stunning display of profound musicality and musical profundity took place in the first of Mateusz Borowiak’s epic three-recital series at Merkin Concert Hall, the venue of his US debut. When I first saw advance notice of the series, presenting the complete piano sonatas of American composer Louis Pelosi, two per recital, coupled with three of the major etude cycles—all twenty-four Chopin, all twelve Debussy, and Rachmaninoff’s Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39, I thought “This guy is either a foolhardy daredevil, or one of the great pianists.” After this first recital, I’m inclining to the latter.


Mr. Borowiak calls the presentation of the Pelosi works a “world premiere.” Perhaps it is for all six together, but I recall hearing Donald Isler perform the Sonata No. 1 a few years ago. No matter, it is certainly a noteworthy occasion in anyone’s musical calendar. Pelosi, who makes his living as a piano technician, calls himself a “tonal contrapuntist.” He believes in one “central tone” that dominates the proceedings.


I was going to compare Pelosi to Chopin, if Chopin had died 150 years later, with a dose of Anatoly Alexandrov, but that would be unfair to Pelosi. He is an original. His music is very brooding and gestural, favoring imitative counterpoint, with difficult, intricate piano textures that utilize the whole keyboard. He accomplishes all this without sounding neo-Baroque. Pelosi certainly has an ideal advocate in Mr. Borowiak, a pianist of serious demeanor and great concentration, who wore white tie and tails—one doesn’t often see that these days. The two have collaborated before, on a recording of preludes and fugues by Pelosi.


This recital opened with Pelosi’s Sonata No. 4, and closed with his Sonata No. 6, framing the complete Chopin etude sets of Op. 10 and Op.25. Both sonatas were rendered from score with clarity and expressiveness, even in the thickest murky textures. Pelosi seems to speak of tragic things, immense things, and his use of what I call “seeking and finding” in evaluating various contrapuntal outcomes leads him to his own seeking and finding of interior emotional states, which he generously shares with the listener. The music requires intense concentration, which is the least we can do when someone creates such material. Just when you think it’s perhaps a bit too discursive, it breaks into a sort of consoling song-like episode, then it turns to a jittery fugue. The works hold together because of superb thematic unity, and very often they are cyclic—themes from earlier in the piece return later in the work.


The Chopin Etudes were revelatory. Tempi in the fast ones were very fast, yet one never felt that Mr. Borowiak was at the outer limit of what he was capable technically. His lyrical playing was melting and passionate. He even managed to find flexibility, elasticity, and a certain flirtatiousness amid the welter of notes. Was it my imagination, or did the E-flat minor, Op. 10, No. 6, sound “Pelosi-like” in his hands? Really, all of Op. 10 was great, with perhaps two miscalculations: No. 10 needed more variety in the articulation, however it was completely convincing; and No. 12, the celebrated “Revolutionary,” was exciting but harsh (but certainly passionate!). I wrote “wow” next to No. 8, this was one instance of the flirtatious quality. Remember, Cortot said: “The Chopin Etudes are as inaccessible to the virtuoso without poetry as they are to the poet without virtuosity.” I imagine Cortot would have been pleased, for Mr. Borowiak possesses both.


The Op. 25 set was even more successful overall, if that is possible, a matter of degree. The pieces were stitched together into a sort of compelling narrative by Mr. Borowiak, from the delicacy of No. 1, “Aeolian harp,” to the feather light No. 2, with excellent attention paid to the left hand, the “not obviously difficult” one. His playful leggiero in No. 3 was breathtaking, and his incredible double thirds in No. 6. Again, only in the octave etude, No. 10, did I feel that he miscalculated the sound in the room, but it is a violent piece, and the middle section was gorgeous. I could go on, but this will have to suffice.


I can’t wait for the next installment!


New York Chamber Players Orchestra in Concert presents Zehavi Rodriguez in Review

New York Chamber Players Orchestra in Concert presents Zehavi Rodriguez in Review

Zehavi Rodriguez, cello; New York Chamber Players Orchestra; Giacomo Franci, Artistic Director
Liederkranz Concert Hall, New York, NY
October 13, 2017


Four prizewinning young string soloists had an opportunity last month to be heard with the New York Chamber Players Orchestra as part of their Young Artist Showcase Concert, chosen through NYCP’s Young Artists 7th Annual competition. As stated on the orchestra’s website www.newyorkchamberplayers.org, the competition finals in June were “open to 12 prodigies” with the intent of choosing three winners. Four were ultimately selected to perform October 13th at the lovely Liederkranz Concert Hall off Fifth Avenue.


As I was assigned to review only the cellist among the winners, I will focus on that shortly, but wanted to acknowledge also the other performers, in all cases exceptionally accomplished for their ages. In addition, one should mention that the NYCP Orchestra performed the much-loved Symphony No. 40 in G minor (K. 550) by Mozart as the first part of the program, acquitting themselves well of its challenges, especially for an orchestra that is not a large full-time one. The second part was devoted to soloists with orchestra.


The first soloist was Fourth Prize winner, Chelsea Xia, a violinist, who played Mozart’s Concerto No. 5 in A major (K. 219). She played just the final movement, for which the piece has been nicknamed the “Turkish” on account of its incisive rhythmic section in A minor (resembling the Rondo from the later Piano Sonata in A major K. 331). Ms. Xia played with admirable technical polish for one so young and a good amount of gusto in the jaunty “janissary music” moments. She has a very promising start on what should be a fine career ahead.


Third Prize went to Sara Yamada, violinist, playing Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20 (Gypsy Airs). It is always a striking experience to hear such a youngster (whom one might expect to see playing in the park) performing at such a high level in a Romantic virtuoso style. She played with exceptional technique and assurance. One should be accustomed to such accomplishments by now, with prodigies abounding, but it never fails to jolt one out of one’s seat. Granted, there is room for further growth, but if this is childhood, what amazing things may await!


The First Prize Winner, violinist Joseph Hsia, finished the concert with the Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5 in A minor, all three movements. The most mature of the players we heard, he appears ready technically to take on any challenges that music offers. He demonstrates the ability to immerse himself fully in a long, involved work and approaches even the perilous spots with the assured kind of bull’s-eye intonation that invites the listener to relax and do the same, without bracing nervously at each Olympic hurdle, as one often does in youth concerts (and even concerts by established professionals). Bravo!


The only cellist of the evening was the winner of Second Prize, Zehavi Rodriguez, also the youngest of the players at just age eleven. He performed the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 33, with a command and flair belying his youth.


On the subject of age, there was nothing about this cellist’s demeanor that screamed “prodigy” in the stereotypical way – no overdone attire, no precious mannerisms – but rather a no-nonsense attitude about what seemed an earnest pursuit of music. When he walked out to play, there was a mature suavity about him that was matched by some very mature playing. He is a young musician who may well be on his way to some grand achievements.


From his first declamatory phrases to the rapid double-stops, and particularly the more chromatic descending sixths section, he was undaunted. He demonstrated a keen awareness of the shifting drama and lyricism of the piece, and he always reflected a sense of where he fit in with the overall supporting harmony and structure – no small feat for one his age. While one can always find little issues here and there to critique – an isolated intonation glitch, an occasional need for more time or accentuation – there was no question that this young man has the ability to go far in music, should he ultimately desire that.


On a side note about the shortened version chosen, many teachers do have their students make some cuts, though this was perhaps one of the most radically shortened versions heard to date, leaving the piece at just six minutes duration (as opposed to around twenty). It “worked” to put it in practical terms, but one might envision Mr. Saint-Saëns cringing at the radical surgery. This reviewer (in the role of accompanist) recalls flipping through the chaos of omitted pages of a piano reduction of it decades ago in the studio of a famed cello teacher, having learnt the harsh lesson that “that is how everyone does it.” To fit something of the piece into a showcase concert or a competition time limit, yes, one can understand dispensing with the more “meandering” parts – and for an eleven-year old, even six measures of this piece can provide ample challenge! – but down the road one hopes to hear this young man in unaltered repertoire.


In any case, all flowed fairly seamlessly to an exciting conclusion. Mr. Rodriguez handled the final build-up with just the right bit of swagger in the syncopated passages, and there was joyous momentum towards the exciting finish. Even the most jaded reviewer has to admit that there is little that is more exciting than hearing a young musician’s first concerto appearance with orchestra.


All in all, the evening was a resounding success. Hats off to the NYCP Orchestra for pulling off such a worthy endeavor!


Carnegie Hall presents China NCPA Orchestra in Review

Carnegie Hall presents China NCPA Orchestra in Review

Lü Jia, Music Director and Conductor
Haochen Zhang, Piano
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 30, 2017


An exciting, successful concert was given on Monday night by the orchestra of China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts. This seems to me to be an unbilled youth orchestra, for the ages of the virtuosic players appear to be late-teens to mid-twenties. Even their excellent conductor is younger than average, as conductors go. I did not hear one single flub of a note, even in the treacherous horn (and other wind) parts. The strings make a luscious warm sound that would be the envy of any orchestra; and these players not only play their instruments beyond reproach, but their interpretations are full of real passion.

The first work, Qigang Chen’s Luan Tan, in its US premiere, was most effective for me in its early minutes, where the persistent click of the temple blocks really seemed authentic and mysterious. (Unfortunately, it was marred by a very noisy group of people who were in the reverberant hall just outside the auditorium.) The title of the work refers to a style of Chinese drama in the 17th century, one that was rowdy and boisterous, rather than based on decorum. Later, the work veered into what I would call “Debussy 2.0” (the late Debussy of Jeux), not surprising in a student of Messiaen. The piece built and built relentlessly, until I began hearing the influence of another French composer, Ravel, in the annihilating crescendo of his Bolero. Luan Tan even ends with a similar closing figure to Bolero. The frenzy was beautifully conveyed by the group.

Haochen Zhang, pianist


The next work, I will admit, I am not predisposed to like at all, was the totemic Yellow River Concerto. It is a four-movement work adapted from an earlier cantata, and it is so derivative in its bombast that I just can’t take it seriously. The whole thing sounds like bad Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Dvořák, and even Stephen Foster at times. I don’t see why such an important symbolic work should sound so “Western.” Even the pentatonic folk tunes on which it is based are stereotypical of what’s bad about imperialism, bound to major-minor tonality. I do apologize to any Chinese folk who think I am stupid or narrow-minded; I am not. The Yellow River is a “mother river” symbol, and as such, is very important to the Chinese. I first heard the work played by Lang Lang at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Since Lang Lang injured his left arm through over-practicing Ravel’s left-hand concerto, he was replaced here by Haochen Zhang. It is therein that the magic begins- this pianist was simply superb. He was the gold medalist at the 2009 Van Cliburn competition, and has since made a good career for himself.

Mr. Zhang drew me right in, despite my considerable reservations about the piece. I simply cannot recall the last time I heard a pianist of such quality and poetry. Every phrase was effortlessly dispatched, and lyrical passages sang with unbelievable poignancy. Also, on a less profound note, his repeated notes (in imitation of a Chinese wind instrument) were gasp-inducing; and he played this whole thing with sobriety, and with none of the theatrical facial contortions one has come to expect from Lang Lang. After his glorious ovation, he returned for a well-deserved piano solo encore: Chopin’s Lento con gran espressione (Nocturne) in C sharp minor, Op. posth. (1830). It passed by in a ravishing, delicately melancholic dream-state, the effusion of a very “old-soul” pianist.

After intermission, the orchestra gave a fully charged reading of Sibelius’ best-known and loved symphony, the Second, Op. 43 (1901/02). Sibelius’s lonely grandeur and constant questing were given ample space and time to occur. (The only finer performance I’ve ever heard was by Leonard Bernstein.) The deep, full-throated string tone was stunning, with a great sense of pull and elasticity, and the winds were perfect. The pizzicati in the second movement were perfectly together and expressive. The symphony gave rise to many conflicting opinions in the early 20th century, some not-so-favorable—people who were used to clear structural cues were disoriented (though they are present). I always think it’s wiser to feel the climaxes, those typical events in which Sibelius’ cosmos just seems to end, followed either by silence, or a renewed sense of either faith or optimism. These are the events that are his structure, and they were powerfully rendered by this orchestra under their superb conductor.

After the Sibelius, the orchestra performed two encores- Bamboo Flute- Tune, by Yuankai Bao, and Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 6.