The New School/Mannes School of Music Presents the Winners of the 2017 Mannes Concerto Competition in Review

The New School/Mannes School of Music Presents the Winners of the 2017 Mannes Concerto Competition in Review

Mannes Orchestra, David Hayes, Music Director
Tishman Auditorium, New York, NY
October 20, 2017

 

New York City offers incredible cultural riches, as most people know, but what not everyone realizes is that some of the best of it is free, in the form of student concerts given under the auspices of the leading music schools, among them the Mannes School of Music. The performances by such young musicians, who give their all, can be the most exciting and passionate experiences one encounters in live music.

 

Last Friday night I was assigned to review the Mannes Orchestra concert, in particular the performance of one of two winners of their concerto competition, pianist Ivan Gusev. playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. The other winner of the concerto competition, timpanist Jeffrey Kautz, was to perform Raise the Roof (2003) by Michael Daugherty (b.1954). Though I was not needed to be there, I decided to gain a feel for the orchestra by hearing the first half, including the timpani concerto plus the orchestra’s opening work, Capriccio Espagnole, Op. 34, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

 

As I’m not one who withstands high decibel levels, I sat far enough away to be safe, and was ready to plug my ears discreetly if necessary. Thankfully plugs were not needed, and in fact I wish I had sat closer to the stage for one of the most riveting virtuoso feats I’ve seen in a long while. Mr. Kautz is a timpanist of flabbergasting ability, who made the ingenious Daugherty work do just what its title suggests, that is, to “Raise the Roof.” The opening Capriccio Espagnole also provided showcases for some remarkable individual talents, as the orchestral section leaders took turns in some of Rimsky-Korsakov’s irresistible and idiomatic melodies.

 

The conductor at the helm of all the excitement was David Hayes, who leads his players with the kind of limitless, infectious energy that is especially remarkable in view of the fact that he is among the busiest conductors around (conducting at Curtis as well as Mannes, to name just two) – yet there is no sign of “phoning it in” or flagging in the slightest!

 

All of this seemed a tough act to follow after intermission, but the Grieg Piano Concerto proved, with its captivating drama, sumptuous melodies, and folk rhythms, to be as timeless as ever (and fire-resistant against the backdrop of the Daugherty pyrotechnics)! While the pianist, Ivan Gusev, had a formidable task cut out for him, he was more than up to the challenge. He gave a performance that let the gifts of Grieg shine brightly – technically assured without being too flamboyant and sensitive without being too self-indulgent.

 

Currently pursuing his Master of Music degree as a student of Jerome Rose, he has been a winner of the International Piano Competition in Finland (Jyväskylä, 2006), laureate of the Mauro Monopoli Prize International Piano Competition (Barletta, Italy, 2013), The Benditsky Russian piano competition (Russia, 2015), and the Third International Neuhaus piano competition (Russia, 2015), as well as recipient of other distinctions, including honors from Moscow Conservatory as student of Eliso Virsaladze and Michail Voskresensky. In addition to being a winner of the Mannes 2017 Concerto Competition, he was recently a prizewinner at the 2017 New York Piano Competition.

 

What immediately struck the listener about Mr. Gusev in the Grieg was his strong sense of the collaborative aspects of the concerto. Conductors in general love it when a pianist can treat a concerto like a piece of chamber music, because it lightens their responsibilities considerably. Mr. Gusev is secure enough with the nuts and bolts of playing to do just that. Through passages where many pianists would be fixated on the accuracy of an arpeggio, for example, Mr. Gusev had his sights never far from the conductor. Not once in all the thrilling runs and technical hurdles did he succumb to the temptation to “go rogue” but was always extremely attentive to the conductor and mindful of cues, entrances, and transitions.

 

Sometimes, considering such a skilled conductor on the podium, one wondered whether the pianist’s own cues might even have been a bit overstated, such as the highly accented tremolo chords before tuttis (the first of which might have been eased by more bass power). Then again, such junctures tend to invite awkwardness (as one did in the last movement), so it is better to be safe than sorry. All in all, Mr. Gusev’s thoughtful approach achieved admirable results.

 

The slow movement, containing Grieg’s most heart-rending lyricism, was beautifully projected. Mr. Gusev worked hand in hand with the orchestra to create a hallowed atmosphere, with seamless lines and a warm and balanced sound.

 

If the opening of the third movement was thrown off a bit, it was perhaps the challenge of breaking such a spell as one moves into the pace of a folk dance; dancing was what it did, however, and it brought the piece to a fine finish. All in all, the performance was a fine success and capped off a powerful concert.

 

This was an evening not to be forgotten – and first for this reviewer at the Tishman Auditorium, undoubtedly the setting for many future musical adventures. Bravo to the Mannes School of Music, and to the conductor, orchestra, and soloists!


The Center for Contemporary Opera Presents Gordon Getty’s “Scare Pair”: Usher House and The Canterville Ghost in Review

The Center for Contemporary Opera Presents Gordon Getty’s “Scare Pair”: Usher House and The Canterville Ghost in Review

The Center for Contemporary Opera Orchestra, Sara Jobin, conductor
Gordon Getty, composer
The Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, New York, NY
October 19, 2017 at 7:30pm

 

It is something of a rarity to have two operas performed in a single evening, but on October 19, 2017, The Center for Contemporary Opera presented what was billed as a “Scare Pair”: Usher House and The Canterville Ghost, by American composer Gordon Getty. Each single-act opera is approximately sixty-minutes in duration. There was a pre-concert interview with Mr. Getty to learn more about these works. The program contained a synopsis of each work, and it was a nice touch to have the names of the orchestra members listed in the program along with the members of the creative and production team.

Gordon Getty is well-known for his patronage of the arts, but he considers composing his true passion. The now 83-year-old composer is the subject of a PBS documentary, Gordon Getty: There Will Be Music. His style is strictly tonal, often to the point of being monochromatic. Quoting Mr. Getty, “My style is undoubtedly tonal, though with hints of atonality, such as any composer would likely use to suggest a degree of disorientation. But I’m strictly tonal in my approach. I represent a viewpoint that stands somewhat apart from the twentieth century, which was in large measure a repudiation of the nineteenth and a sock in the nose to sentimentality. Whatever it was that the great Victorian composers and poets were trying to achieve, that’s what I’m trying to achieve.”

Mr. Getty has the integrity to post on his website all available reviews (www.gordongetty.com), many of which are very harsh. For this decision he has my respect, especially in a world where artists share only praise.

This is not this reviewer’s first experience with the music of Mr. Getty, as he previously reviewed “The White Election,” a song cycle of Emily Dickinson poems (The White Election in Review April 19. 2012). I was especially curious to hear how Mr. Getty handled larger works.

Usher House is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher. In the words of Mr. Getty on the subject of the libretto he wrote, “I found myself taking liberties.” Poe himself is inserted as the narrator. Roderick and Madeline are re-cast much more sympathetically than in Poe’s actual tale, while introducing/inventing a character named Dr. Primus as the villain. Mr. Getty’s libretto would have benefitted from editing by an experienced librettist, as his version lacks clarity and there is far too much superfluous dialogue. Dr. Primus seems like an evil version of Sarastro, but his motivations other than just being evil were never made clear. In addition, calling Poe “Eddie” was bizarre to my ears.

The set was a series of projections on the stage, which was very good in creating the gloomy atmosphere of the Usher House, along with some “guest appearances” of ancestors, who may or may not have been apparitions depending on one’s viewpoint. Perhaps these projections were designed for a larger stage, as they were often out of proportion to the surroundings, especially the ancestors, who dwarfed the “living” persons on stage. There were supertitles projected above stage, which were helpful, without being entirely necessary, given the excellent diction of the performers.

Almost all the vocal writing in Usher House is recitativo, so much so that it wears thin on this listener. One can almost predict how the lines will be sung because of the repetitiveness of style, overly laden with fourths and fifths. The one actual aria, the lovely “Where is My Lady” as sung by Poe is proof that Mr. Getty can write effectively, making it all the more frustrating that there is not more. The orchestrations are sparse and rely heavily on creating effects (some bordering on stereotypical kitsch) instead of propelling the story or providing melodic material. It all meanders about, with the final destruction of Usher House rendered with a whimper instead of a bang.

All praise goes to the cast, who gave this material their full commitment. Dominic Armstrong as Edgar Allan Poe proved his vocal talents despite little material to work with. Keith Phares played Roderick Usher sympathetically, Matthew Burns was appropriately sinister as Dr. Primus, and Jamielyn Duggan’s macabre dance as Madeline might have been the highlight of this performance for the audience, who applauded respectfully.

After intermission, the hardworking cast members were back for American premiere of The Canterville Ghost. Based on Oscar Wilde’s 1887 story of the same name, the tale centers around the ghost Sir Simon de Canterville, and the Otises, an American family who purchased the property known as the Canterville Chase. For hundreds of years, Sir Simon has been terrorizing residents of the Chase, but the Otis family proves less than intimidated by his presence. Sir Simon is continually humiliated by the members of the family, save for daughter Virginia, the one member of the family sympathetic to Sir Simon.

As with Usher House, The Canterville Ghost relies heavily on recitative. There is a need for “smoothing” the libretto, as many scenes end abruptly, with awkward silences filling the air as the next scene is being set. Projections were used as well as fixed sets. There must have been limited rehearsal time, as the performers often were standing in the middle of projected images.

At the risk of repeating myself, the overuse of recitative, the skeletal orchestration, and the hackneyed musical elements are every bit as present in Canterville as in Usher House. Where The Canterville Ghost succeeds is in its fidelity to Oscar Wilde’s brilliant wit – the music is completely incidental. In spite of this, The Canterville Ghost is a delightful romp. Kudos to the cast, with special mentions to soprano Summer Hassan, who as Virginia wowed with her soaring voice in “Stay With Me Beautiful,” and to Matthew Burns as Sir Simon, whose comedic gifts stole the show.

The audience gave the cast a standing ovation, and when the affable Mr. Getty joined all on stage there were shouts of “bravo!” that filled the hall.

 

 


Dan Auerbach in Review

Dan Auerbach in Review

Dan Auerbach, solo violin
The West End Presbyterian Church; New York, NY
October 14, 2017

 

 

The violinist Dan Auerbach presented an evening of unaccompanied works for the violin in a concert that was unconventional in almost every aspect of programming. In the modest, but acoustically sound main chapel of The West End Presbyterian Church, the tripartite recital was given without an intermission, and with barely a break between a succession of meaty, challenging works, both technically and interpretively.

Mr. Auerbach’s playing shows a abundance of both intellect and facility. It cannot be easy to start any program with the Bach D minor Partita, and even harder to play it as well as he did. Overall, his phrasing was lucid, fluid, his tone solid but never harsh, and his intonation secure, even in the most difficult double and triple stops. The Allemande was propulsive, declamatory, almost conversational, followed by a Courante that was feathery light, accurate but simply rendered. As in the first two movements, the dynamic range of the Sarabande and Gigue tended judiciously toward the soft, a welcome choice that drew the listener in rather than a more presentational approach. Mr. Auerbach ended with a beautiful account of the great Chaconne, especially strong in the outer minor sections. It is difficult to find the right tone after the modulation to D major, and I don’t think Mr. Auerbach ever settled into a convincing interpretation here, but his transition back into minor was finessed elegantly. This was a very satisfying performance.

After the briefest of bows and a bit of drying off with a handkerchief, the violinist launched into the Hudba for Solo Violin, Op. 9b, by the Czech composer Alois Hába. As a preface to this piece, Mr. Auerbach spoke of the composer’s work with microtonal music, and specifically the use of quarter tones in the Hudba. Right away, from the opening Allegro, the violinist made a great case for this overlooked composer. With a more boisterous, aggressive style of playing, he drew long, arching phrases. The Andante movement, alternately lyrical and heated, ended poetically, with a long, sensitively played decrescendo. By now, the ear was accustomed to smaller intervals, and I realized that, as a compositional tool, microtonality can be employed for more nuanced, detailed expression, much the same as our own human voices. Mr. Auerbach layered his playing of the Scherzo and final Moderato movement with a quiet control of murmuring tremolos, lightning fast scales, and difficult passages in the alpine regions of the instrument. Again, this was a completely convincing reading of an impressive composition.

With barely a moment to recover and readjust his ear to Western tonality, the violinist tore into the first of three selected Paganini Caprices, Op.1, No. 14. This Caprice, with its preponderance of multiple stops, is a challenge under any circumstances. After having played the Hába though, it became even more of a hurdle. Mr. Auerbach handled it well, though he did retune immediately after. He should give himself more of a break in the future. Caprice No. 5, however, needed no such disclaimers. It was simply virtuosity of the highest order, with a fluidity and security that is rarely seen. By this time, Mr. Auerbach may have regretted leaving No. 11, the hardest, for his finale. He gave a creditable account, and was rewarded with warm applause from the audience.

It is a pleasure and a relief to encounter artists such as Mr. Auerbach. He is a gifted, serious musician who places the integrity of the music and the composer first. I see from his biography that he is a devoted teacher, and I can only say that it gives me hope for the next generation of violinists.


Ogninana & Michael Masser Family Foundation and Waring International Piano Competition present Yi-Yang Chen in Review

Ogninana & Michael Masser Family Foundation and Waring International Piano Competition present Yi-Yang Chen in Review

Yi-Yang Chen, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 18, 2017

 

The winner of the 2017 Virginia Waring International Piano Competition (www.vwipc.org) , twenty-seven-year old Yi-Yang Chen , was presented by the Ogninana & Michael Masser Family Foundation and the VWIPC in a recital at Weill Hall on October 18, 2017. The intermission-free program included works by Beethoven, Debussy, De Falla, Rachmaninoff, and a piece composed by Mr. Chen.

Yi-Yang Chen is currently the assistant professor of piano and music theory at East Tennessee State University. In addition to winning the VWIPC, Mr. Chen’s biography lists many other victories and prizes in a number of equally impressive competitions.

Before anything else, I must revisit one of my pet peeves, the omission of program notes. There seems to be a trend in omitting any program notes. I am not sure if this is a cost issue (saving money on printing fewer pages) or the thought that they are unnecessary and therefore there is no reason to write them. While in some instances this might be the case (as often performers are playing works that are so well-known that the average listener would be familiar with them), this trend is nonetheless disturbing to this reviewer. Even brief notes would enhance the listening experience. I will return to this issue later.

Mr. Chen opened with Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126. A bagatelle, by conventional definition is a trifle, a thing of little importance. In music, it may be assumed to be a work in a light style, but Beethoven’s Op. 126, among his later works, are no trifles. Intended to be played as a set, these six miniatures contain some of the most revelatory and profound music to be found in such crystalized form. Mr. Chen projected a keen awareness of this truth, but perhaps occasionally his very admiration of the pieces became an impediment, his approach sometimes growing a bit fussy or persnickety. The notes were all there – and Mr. Chen was unfailingly accurate – but the word “overthinking” came to mind. While there may be a discrepancy between the lightness of the term “Bagatelle” and the weighty nature of Beethoven’s distilled musical feeling in his late years, it may be best to let the pieces unfold more freely and spontaneously, letting the listener discover the depths.

The Debussy works that followed, Étude 11 pour les arpèges composés and La Puerta Vino from the Préludes, Book II, were epiphanies. They glimmered with a wondrous radiance in a way that was completely natural. Mr. Chen seems to have an innate understanding for this music. It was some of the finest playing of Debussy this reviewer can recall hearing, either in concert or recordings, and the highlight of the evening for me.

Next was De Falla’s Fantasia Baetica. Written in 1919, it was commissioned by and dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein. It seemed appropriate that Mr. Chen should excel at playing De Falla, considering Debussy’s influence on De Falla, and Mr. Chen’s affinity for the former. He negotiated this difficult work with what appeared to be the greatest of ease. The passagework was sparkling, and the energy never flagging. Mr. Chen held the line and momentum throughout, challenges which many players struggle with in this work. It was an excellent performance.

Mr. Chen followed with his composition In Memoriam: Japan, March 11, 2011. The date refers to the cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan. There is obviously deep meaning in this event for Mr. Chen (as for the rest of the world), but it would have been both helpful and appropriate for some notes of explanation to be included. The titles of the two movements ( I. Twisting Path, II. Oblivion) were inexplicably missing from the program, but were included in some promotional materials. It opens with sledgehammer blows on the lowest A, which one would assume is the earthquake itself, some use of plucking strings inside the piano to create sounds similar to the koto, and other atmospheric effects using the inside of the instrument. There were moments in the second movement that were reminiscent of Janáček’s Sonata 1.X. 1905, “From the Street.” Unfortunately, if one strips away such random hints, there is little to inform the experience. The work is obviously programmatic, but one wanted further insights, lest one’s assumptions do a possible disservice to the composer and the performer.

Ending with Rachmaninoff’s bravura Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 36 (in the revised 1931 version), Mr. Chen’s was a powerhouse performance. This was not the cookie-cutter reading that one often hears from competition contestants. His bold, take-no-holds approach was all that one hopes for in this work. It is a high-risk proposition that demands a large technique, and Mr. Chen delivered. I’ve heard many performances of this sonata, and Mr. Chen’s ranks among the best. The audience rewarded Mr. Chen with a well-served standing ovation.

Yi-Yang Chen has the promise of enjoying a very successful career. I look forward to hearing him again in the future.

 


Andrew Mikhael LLC presents Elizabeth Mikhael and Santiago Piñeirúa in Review

Andrew Mikhael LLC presents Elizabeth Mikhael and Santiago Piñeirúa in Review

Andrew Mikhael LLC presents Elizabeth Mikhael and Santiago Piñeirúa

 

Elizabeth Mikhael, Cello
Santiago Piñeirúa, Piano

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Carnegie Hall Presents Sphinx Virtuosi in Review

Carnegie Hall Presents Sphinx Virtuosi in Review

Sphinx Virtuosi Concerti per Venti
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 13, 2017

 

The atmosphere was jubilant in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium for a recital by the Sphinx Virtuosi, a group described in its biographical materials as “eighteen of the nation’s top Black and Latino classical soloists” performing as part of The Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based national organization dedicated to diversity in the arts.

Volumes could be written about the Sphinx Organization itself, led by the very dynamic Afa S. Dworkin, who was present to say a few words, but let it suffice to say that Sphinx programs reach more than 100,000 students, as well as live and broadcast audiences of more than 2 million annually. The program notes state that “the organization’s founding and mission were informed by the life experiences of Aaron P. Dworkin, who, as a young Black violinist, was acutely aware of the lack of diversity both on stage and in the audience in concert halls.” He founded Sphinx “to address the stark underrepresentation of people of color in classical music.” Not only is his organization now a boon to diversity with special regard to Black and Latino musicians, but it is a boon to classical music as a whole, as one could tell by the large excited audience. A visit to the website www.sphinxmusic.org will confirm the tremendous scope of this organization, including programs bringing instrumental music to public schools, web resources, a specialized academy, assistance programs, a competition, and various ensembles, including a symphony orchestra, and the Sphinx Virtuosi, the conductor-less string orchestra that we heard.

Sphinx Virtuosi Concerti per Venti

Volumes could also be written about the program we heard, which covered a similarly huge range, from the opening virtuoso violin solo, Paganiniana of Nathan Milstein (1904-1992) to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (Op. 133, arr. For String Orchestra) to Vivaldi’s B-flat Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Continuo (RV547), and the commissioned string orchestra pieces by Michael Abels (b. 1962) and Jimmy Lopez (b.1978).

The opening with Milstein’s Paganiniana was a touch of inspiration, as the sight of one unaccompanied young violinist walking onto that great Carnegie stage before a few thousand people seemed a powerful symbol for the Sphinx mission, representing bravery, youthful promise, and how a single soul’s dream can move mountains. Paganiniana is based on Paganini’s 24th Caprice, and because the Caprices are often used for glorified warm-ups, it brings to mind the intense but exciting discipline that is at the base of all free-wheeling artistry, as Sphinx artists undoubtedly experience. The soloist was Annelle Gregory, a highly accomplished young player who seems poised for an exciting career. Her performance had boldness and panache, and though it may not yet rival Milstein’s own rendition for effortless suavity (as he composed it to play at Carnegie Hall in 1945), hers was an assured romp through violinistic minefields. She was met with such enthusiasm that not only could some audience members not wait until the end, but they clapped at several of the big cadences, in one case just about a minute into the piece. There are certainly bigger concerns in the music world than premature applause these days. Ms. Gregory was unfazed and brilliant.

Sphinx Virtuosi. Photo Credit, Jennifer Taylor

The next work on the program was Beethoven’s thorny Grosse Fuge, originally for string quartet but played here in an arrangement for string orchestra (one guesses by Felix Weingartner, though the arranger was not listed, and this listener knows it mainly from its quartet performances). It struck this listener at first as an unusual choice in a program seemingly designed to draw in a wider audience for classical music – after all, Beethoven was given quite a lot of grief over its dissonance and difficulty for listener and player alike. In fact, though, it turned out to be an astute choice, its craggy counterpoint tackled expertly and dramatizing the skill and intense individual precision of each fugal entry, as well as the fierce collective drive of the ensemble. As many have said before, this piece sounds always “modern” – and here it sounded newer than ever!

Vivaldi’s double concerto which followed seemed quite tame by comparison, but was a good balance. Violinist Annelle Gregory came back onstage alongside cellist Thomas Mesa in what was a fine collaboration with the rest of the ensemble. Mr. Mesa’s playing had a musical intensity that was commanding in every detail and Ms. Gregory, undoubtedly more warmed up after the Paganiniana, relaxed into an even more fully beautiful sound here. They brought very different strengths and personalities to the work. Despite only a few moments where passages were not completely in sync, it was a thoroughly engaging performance.

Especially noteworthy on the program was the New York Premiere of Guardian of the Horizon: Concerto Grosso for Violin, Cello, and Strings (2017) by Peruvian composer Jimmy López. Co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall, New World Symphony, and Sphinx, the work was composed in honor of Sphinx’s 20th anniversary, but it is also a tribute to the composer’s father who passed away in 2016. Its three movements (Riddle, Crossing the Threshold, and Into the Effulgent Light) reflect the composer’s deeply personal feelings about life and death, intertwined with sphinx mythology in ingenious evocations of riddles (through cryptic musical question-and-answer phrases) and suggestions of shimmering light through tremolo string textures in its exquisite third movement. The violinist Adé Williams teamed up with cellist Gabriel Cabezas in the lead musical parts, both absolutely winning as champions of the work. Clearly there is no shortage of stars on the Sphinx roster, and there will be more to hear from these two musicians, as well as from this composer and composition.

The perfect close was chosen for this program, Michael Abels’ Delights and Dances, commissioned by Sphinx for a 2007 performance and understandably back for what may be becoming (one hopes) a “signature” finale. It is an utterly buoyant tour-de-force with elements of jazz, blues, and bluegrass being tossed in seeming improvisation from player to player, both in the orchestra and in the star string quartet. The quartet featured violinists Rainel Joubert and Alexandra Switala, violist Celia Hatton, and cellist Thomas Mesa, all exchanging mounting improvisatory one-upmanship, with the orchestra collaborating. All players were impressive, but the soaring rhapsodic phrases of Rainel Joubert were particularly captivating. The whole performance made one want to hear it again and again.

All in all, this reviewer has not felt so heartened by a group of young musicians since hearing the early recordings of Gustavo Dudamel with the young players from El Sistema, electrically charged performances of as high a caliber as any other professional group, but with the vital energy of a life-and-death mission.

Ms. Dworkin, in describing the Sphinx mission, used a quote by James Baldwin, that “The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” Sphinx is indeed illuminating that darkness.

 


The Fifth Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists Presents Gala Winners Concert in Review

The Fifth Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists Presents Gala Winners Concert in Review

Gala Winners Concert, The Fifth Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists
Benzaquen Hall, Dimenna Center for Classical Music, New York, NY
October 8, 2017

 

It has been several times now that I have been assigned to review the Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists, and, judging by what I heard this past weekend, the enterprise is thriving. Thanks to the efforts of Golda Vainberg-Tatz, who founded the competition to honor her mentor, the Bach interpreter Rosalyn Tureck (and with Ms. Tureck’s blessing before she passed away in 2003), the undertaking has become a biennial event, hosting a distinguished international jury, drawing outstanding international contestants, and attracting support by leaders in the piano world, including notably Evgeny Kissin and Olga Kern. Audition rounds and categories encompass virtually all of J.S. Bach’s keyboard repertoire, so it is really much more than simply a contest, amounting in effect to a four-day Bach festival. Moved this year from the Bruno Walter Auditorium (due to the Lincoln Center Film Festival) to a hall in the Dimenna Center, it seems destined for an ever-larger venue and wider audience.

 

Skimming through the booklet of biographies of the twenty-four semi-finalists who had performed in the days before (ranging from age eight to age twenty), this reviewer was already impressed, but little could match the humbling experience of hearing the seven young performing winners filling nearly two hours with music that was polished, spirited, and sometimes quite inspired. For a complete list of prizes for each winner, plus jurors and other contest information, the reader can visit the contest’s website at Tureck Bach Competition.

 

Starting the program was Andrew Gu, age eleven, playing the Two-part Invention in B minor, BWV 786 and Sinfonia (Three-part Invention) in B minor, BWV 801, by Bach. He played with a composure of a veteran performer, and it appears that his confidence has been well-earned. His playing was stylistically attentive, with admirably clear voicing and crisp articulations. As the competition pays homage as well to Rosalyn Tureck’s other specialty, contemporary music, we were treated to several modern pieces throughout the concert, and young Mr. Gu chose Five Bagatelles by Carl Vine. These miniatures reflected more overtly this youngster’s gifts, including remarkably fleet finger-work, ability to project contrasting styles, and a sensitivity to lyricism, particularly in the third Bagatelle. He made short work of the tenths in the left-hand part of the jazzy fourth Bagatelle – boding well for future encounters with the virtuoso Romantics!

Happy winners and relieved Judges at the Gala Concert.

Heroes of the day included the teachers of these impressive players (perhaps including master class teachers who will remain unsung heroes, due to sheer numbers) – but also parents and family, of course, for the many sacrifices they inevitably make to nurture such young talent. For Mr. Gu, teachers have included Helen Jung, Sasha Starcevich, and Corey McVicar.

 

Next up was Matthew Chang, age eight (and awarded in two repertoire categories), playing Bach’s Prelude and Fughetta in G major, BWV 902. What struck one about this young player was not just that he possessed command and polish in every regard (these being almost a “given” at such an event), but that he projected the life of each distinct phrase with a joyful and intense involvement. His rhythm was not merely solid, but also full of dance-like energy (with a bit of left hand conducting thrown in). While this sort of musicality is not something one thinks of as “taught” it was during his performance in particular that I flipped through the leaflet to learn the teacher’s name, Kuei-I Wu; after all, to take a child this far into polish and detail in a mere three years is an achievement, but enabling him to retain such seeming joy about it all while doing so is huge. Kudos to teacher and student alike!

Judges of the final round.

 

Julia Yin Zhou, age nine, brought another contemporary voice to the mix with selections from Eight Memories in Watercolor by Tan Dun, a set popularized most prominently by the pianist Lang Lang. Ms. Zhou played Missing Moon, Staccato Beans, Blue Nun, Red Wilderness, and Sunrain. Her Missing Moon was beautifully evocative for one so young, and Staccato Beans became the perfect vehicle for her tremendous digital control and articulations. Her Sunrain lacked for nothing in brilliance, bringing a bravura close to her set. Brava! Her fetching stage presence will only enhance the rewards that she garners through her talent and dedication, and she should be well on her way to a bright future. One would have liked to hear her in some Bach though. She has been a student of Ronald Kmiec since 2014.

With Tony Yun- Evgeny Kissin Grand Prize Winner of Fifth TIBC and Maestro Michael Cherry. ( from the Tureck Bach Research Institute.)

 

Moving on to larger Bach works, we heard selections from the French Suite in G major, BWV 816 played by Kiron Atom Tellian, age fourteen from Vienna, Austria (and also awarded in two repertoire categories). A student of Alma Sauer at the “highly gifted” program of the University for Music and Dramatic Art, he pairs piano with studies in composition, perhaps a source of the heightened thoughtfulness in his playing. He was one of the day’s most interesting musicians, with an individual style that brought to mind some of the earlier Bach performances of Ivo Pogorelich. His Allemande, Courante and Sarabande all had an expressiveness one most associates with Romanticism (as many felt about Rosalyn Tureck’s playing), and he played with a judicious use of agogics, some receding dynamics at climaxes, and some staggering of left and right hands at poignant harmonic points and trills. His Gigue was by contrast quite metrically straightforward, but a delight in its extremely fast and even execution, without losing the slightest detail. One looks forward to hearing this young man play again.

 

Also remarkable was Matthew Stephen Figel, age twenty and doing undergraduate studies at the Eastman School of Music with Nelita True. Mr. Figel had the daunting task of playing excerpts from Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, as he was winner in that category. It was such a tease not to hear his whole set (of course, the concert would have run late by another hour), but one looks forward to hearing him play the full set one day. His tone and approach were entrancing from the outset, and his ornamentation on repeats, fascinating and beautiful. Boldness and strength characterized his first variation, while the sixth which followed showed admirable control of the canon’s voicing. The seventh was the perfect balance between the cerebral and the playful, with wonderfully rhythmic flourishes. The pensiveness of the thirteenth reflected one’s general sadness of hearing this work end too soon, but I was glad there was no return to the theme to mimic some sort of completeness. Though we’ve had some very memorable Goldberg Variations in our day, I was happy to be reminded that we have room for more. I look forward to Mr. Figel’s.

 

Rolando Antonio Alejandro, age 18, followed with Bach’s French Suite in C minor, BWV 813. Hailing from Puerto Rico, where he lists Teresa Acevedo as his first teacher, he is now at The Juilliard School. His performance was excellent, with an easy warmth and feeling of leisure overall. He is a “stop to smell the roses” kind of a player, willing to lavish a phrase with extra time to mark a thematic entry, to highlight an interesting hidden line, or to feature an implicit syncopation (in bass-lines especially). In an event honoring Bach’s keyboard music, Mr. Alejandro reminded us that Bach was also a master of music for strings, winds, and voice, and that there are many ways to phrase. Those who seek the metronomic precision that is so common in Bach keyboard playing may want more tautness or motoric drive, but those can grow quite tiresome. Vive la différence!

 

The final performer of the day was Canadian Tony Siqi Yun, age 16 and a student at the Juilliard School Pre-College Division. Mr. Yun shared with Mr. Alejandro the prize awarded to outstanding Juilliard competitors, as well as winning the Evgeny Kissin Grand Prize and Steinway Recital Award, plus the Contemporary Music Award. He opened with the Ballade for solo piano (2005) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952). His performance showed, among other virtues, an impressive analytical rigor in conquering a highly challenging work that is not part of the familiar mainstream repertoire yet. The sheer memorization was impressive. Beyond that, he showed that he is capable of projecting the many colors and moods of its kaleidoscopic changes and contrasts. He is a pianist of precocious power and polish, no doubt destined for many future successes. He closed the entire program with the Bach-Busoni Chaconne in D minor, which he handled with grandeur and pianism to spare, while reining in the excess inherent in the transcription. It was a feat particularly impressive for one so young.

 

It is among the most difficult performing situations musicians face to be presented as part of an array of other pianists, having to prepare for one’s performance mentally while hearing others play, and also knowing that other works may exhaust the listeners’ ears before one even sets foot on stage. Perhaps the program could have been pared down slightly, but it is understandable to want to maximize an opportunity that comes only every two years, after herculean amounts of work from everyone involved. In any case, Sunday’s performers handled the demands with mastery. Congratulations to all!


The Art of Listening in Review

The Art of Listening in Review

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


Creative Classical Concerts presents Hyun Ji You in Review

Creative Classical Concerts presents Hyun Ji You in Review

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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