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!