Opus Two Presents the Music of George Gershwin in Review

Opus Two Presents the Music of George Gershwin in Review

Opus Two Presents the Music of George Gershwin
Opus Two: William Terwilliger, violin; Andrew Cooperstock, piano
Bruno Walter Auditorium, New York, NY
December 28, 2013

On an unusually warm December day, I made my way to the Bruno Walter Auditorium to hear a performance of the music of George Gershwin by the duo Opus Two. I was expecting a smaller crowd because of the holiday weekend and the early afternoon starting time. Imagine my surprise, upon arriving, at the sight of a long line of about seventy people all hoping to get in, even though the hall was already filled! Luckily, my place was reserved.  A few other lucky people in this line gained entry and were treated to what was part concert, part lecture, and part sentimental retrospective.

Opus Two boasts the combined talents of William Terwilliger, violin, and Andrew Cooperstock, piano. This well-travelled duo with performances around the globe is especially renowned for championing American music and composers. What could be more American than the works of George Gershwin? Opening with Jascha Heifetz’s arrangement of “Summertime”, from Gershwin’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess, the duo gave the audience a taste of what was to follow. The performers then introduced themselves and alternated turns at the podium as they spoke of Gershwin. They included a few well-known anecdotes, including the oft-quoted one from Maurice Ravel (when Gershwin sought composition lessons from the French genius): “Why do you want to be a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?”  It was time for the concert proper to commence.

First up came Selections from Porgy and Bess as arranged by Jascha Heifetz. The renowned Heifetz had been quick to recognize the appeal of Gershwin’s music and was savvy enough to capitalize on that demand by making arrangements that highlighted his own virtuosic talents. Porgy and Bess is the best known of these arrangements and continues to delight listeners to this day. The playing from Opus Two was assured, from the restless “Summertime” (yes, again), to the laments of “My Man’s Gone Now”, to the joyous “Bess, You is My Woman Now’, to the biting irony of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. Images by African-American period photographer, Richard Samuel Roberts, were projected on a large screen behind the performers and were a perfect visual accompaniment to the music.  It reminded me of the style of Ken Burns in his various documentaries and was an inspired touch. This was the sort of imaginative conception that one hopes for, even expects, when two exceptional musicians who really are of the same mind and spirit join together.  Opus Two fulfilled this expectation throughout the concert.

Short Story, for Violin and Piano, was the only work originally written for this combination by Gershwin himself. The violinist Samuel Dushkin, a friend of Gershwin and a renowned performer in his own right (Stravinsky wrote his Violin Concerto for Dushkin in 1931), offered technical advice on the violin part.  Gershwin and Dushkin premiered this three-minute work, which has all the hallmarks of Gershwin’s style- rhythmic vitality and catchy tunes (in this case laced with the blues and ragtime).  But, for whatever reason, it never caught on with other performers and disappeared in oblivion. While admittedly not up to the standards of his later mature works, it is still worthy of attention, and the fine performance from the duo made that point clear. Kudos to Opus Two, for both their sophisticated reading and for sharing this little-known gem, which should gladden the heart of any Gershwin fan.

The Three Preludes for Piano, also arranged for violin and piano by Heifetz, followed and were played with stylish assurance. While I prefer the original, this arrangement was highly effective.

Excerpts from An American in Paris, which were partially arranged by Heifetz and later expanded by Ayke Agus in 2005, were introduced by a short talk and video selection from the movie featuring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing a pas de deux (as choreographed by Kelly) to set the mood. The players’ casual commentary included the remark, “They don’t make them like that anymore!” No, they sure don’t!   Violinist William Terwilliger joked about how he would be simulating the sounds of car horns with his violin. This work shows the ever-maturing Gershwin’s progress from song plugger to “serious” composer, with French influences (Debussy and Ravel), yet in his own highly characteristic voice.  Opus Two played with appropriate elegance and wit in yet another winning performance.

Composer Eric Stern continued the Heifetz tradition with his own arrangement of Selections from Girl Crazy, written especially for Opus Two.  Another video, this time Judy Garland singing “Bidin’ My Time” from the movie version of Girl Crazy, was played and brought smiles to all as a reminder of a golden age.  Returning to their performance, Opus Two presented Stern’s arrangement with panache.  Including the unforgettable classics, “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm”, this transcription was destined to be a crowd pleaser. The same energy and commitment with which the duo started the concert were still very much in effect, in even more refined playing. The lazy drawl of “Bidin’ My Time”, the enchanting “Embraceable You”, and an electric “I Got Rhythm” ended the piece and the concert in triumph. The audience demanded more, so for an encore, Opus Two offered a favorite from another one of America’s most loved composers, Aaron Copland, “Hoedown” from Rodeo.  Played with brio, it was a fitting close to a most enjoyable concert.

 

 


Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists in Review

3rd Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists: Gala Winners Concert
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Bruno Walter Auditorium, New York, N.Y.
June 9, 2013

Music competitions, amid all the flak they receive, offer some undeniable boosts to young performers needing experience and exposure; beyond that, though, they expand musical audiences to include listeners drawn by the more sporting aspects of musical performance. There may be no better example than the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which has just concluded amid passionate Tweeting and arguing over favorites. On the heels of this spectacular event is a specialized contest in New York for the junior circuit (up to age nineteen) that may be a similar launching pad (albeit on a smaller scale) for some future stars. The Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists honors the late great Bach interpreter by encouraging talented young pianists to explore the many different categories of Bach’s works (from the contest’s Category One’s Short Preludes and Fugues through Category Eight’s Goldberg Variations), and also those of contemporary composers, as Rosalyn Tureck was known to promote. Interestingly enough, this time it counted on its illustrious jury two prior Van Cliburn First Prize winners, Alexander Kobrin and André-Michel Schub – as well as Jeffrey Swann, Michael Charry, Sharon Isbin, John McCarthy, Zelma Bodzin, Max Wilcox, and Golda Vainberg-Tatz (the competition’s Director and Founder). Enjoying in addition the patronage of one of the world’s finest pianists, Evgeny Kissin, the Tureck International Bach Competition seems destined to gain prestige and continue drawing superb talents from far and wide.

Performers with the highest honors received “The Rosalyn Tureck Award” for their category, but there were also many Honorable Mention recipients who performed. One of the youngest winners, Neng Leong (age seven), kicked off the recital with Bach’s Fantasy in C minor, BWV 906 (all works in this review henceforth assumed to be by J. S. Bach unless otherwise specified). Young Ms. Leong’s mature and self-assured rendition was in stark contrast with her small stature and the sight of small feet dangling, unable to reach the floor.  Similarly Mingzi Yan (age eight) played the Fugue in C minor, BWV 961 with remarkable solidity and polish; she will undoubtedly find increased tonal variety with time. Connor Ki-Hyun Sung (another seven-year-old) contributed a commendable performance of the Invention in G minor, No. 11, BWV 782, followed by Liam Kaplan (age fifteen) playing the Invention in A Major, No. 12, BWV 783, with musical fluency and ease. The complexity of works generally increased, and the Prelude and Fugue in F minor, WTC I, BWV 857, was programmed next, played by Li Mengyuan (age thirteen). It was well polished, with thorough attention to imitative entries. One was reminded at this point how much good teaching undoubtedly went into each performance.

Movements from the suites brought more elements of Baroque dance into the mix, starting with Yali Levy Schwartz (age nine) playing the Allemande, Gavotte, and Gigue from the French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 817. She showed extraordinary poise and control for one so young.  Next, Fiona Wu (age nineteen) brought complete mastery of contrapuntal detail to movements from the Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830. Her unassuming, almost self-effacing entry onto the stage belied her intense immersion in its Toccata, Sarabande, and Gigue. Another lively Toccata, the D Major, BWV 912, came to life in the hands of Victoria Young (age thirteen). Refreshingly dancelike in feeling, it swept up both listener and performer (with only tiny glitches, which were masterfully overcome). Huan Li (age fifteen) was impressive in the Sinfonia, Allemande, Rondeau, and Capriccio from the Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826. Here were subtleties of articulation and dynamics, accomplished with fleet-fingered precision even in the Capriccio’s notorious leaps.

Moving on to the Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971, Anson Hui (age fourteen) acquitted himself well, especially in the livelier movements. The gem of a central movement was sensitively played and with continued development will be sure to gain in sustained intensity through its long-breathed phrases. Derek Wang (also fourteen) was declamatory and bold in his Toccata in C minor, BWV 911. One might argue that he tended to overplay in the forte passages, but it certainly was good to hear a robust interpretation (without any kid gloves in the name of historic fidelity); thankfully, he reveled in all the extremes, so his softer passages were equally engaging.

All contests have their big surprises, and Allison To (age twelve) was one. She proved to be one of the most refined and artistic for her age (or perhaps any age) in her performance of the Aria Variatta alla maniera Italiana, BWV 989. Not only did she win the Rosalyn Tureck Prize in her category (“various works”) but she was also the winner of the Evgeny Kissin Grand Prize Award, in recognition of the performer deemed most promising. This is a young player to watch!

Also outstanding was Athena Georgia Tsianos (age sixteen). While closing the evening with Bach’s English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 811 (Prelude, Sarabande, and Gigue), she also played David McIntyre’s “Butterflies and Bobcats” for which she had won the Prize for the Best Performance of a Contemporary Work. She offered arguably the most exciting performance of the evening in this vibrant composition, and one will eagerly await many further performances from her.

There was no Category 8 winner (for the Goldberg Variations), and the Category 7 winners (Concerti) did not perform. What was programmed, though, was more than enough. Congratulations to all these young artists!


Samuel Magill, cellist in Review

Samuel Magill, cellist in Review
Beth Levin, piano
Bruno Walter Auditorium
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
May 7, 2011

Samuel Magill

Samuel Magill is a very fine cellist. His technique is solid and disciplined, his tone warm, sonorous and variable, his expressive projection direct and immediate. Trained at the Peabody Institute and Shepherd School of Music, his teachers included Zara Nelsova, Laurence Lesser and Irving Klein. A longtime member of New York’s great Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Mr. Magill has been Principal Cellist of the New York Symphonic Ensemble, which featured him as soloist in many famous concertos; his Trio, the Elysian, won the 1997 Artist International Award. Mr. Magill has numerous critically acclaimed CDs to his credit, including the first recording of the Cello Concerto by Vernon Duke (Vladimir Dukelsky). His annual recitals at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, begun in 1994, always present a first performance and an unjustly neglected work of the 19th or early 20th centuries.

Mr. Magill’s excellent pianist at this concert was Beth Levin, renowned on stage and disc as recitalist, concerto soloist, chamber musician, and champion of contemporary composers. She made her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra aged twelve and soon afterwards began to study with Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute. Her subsequent teachers include Leonard Shure and Dorothy Taubman.

The program’s novelty was the world premiere of a new Sonata by Andrew Rudin (b.1939). A student of George Rochberg, he is renowned for his works for the stage and also as a pioneer in electronic and synthesizer music. He has taught at the Juilliard Graduate School, and for 37 years at the Philadelphia Music Academy. He retired in 2001, but continues to compose; the cello sonata was written last summer.

The work is very dramatic and seems to project an air of anguish and loss. The titles of its four movements vividly describe their emotional content: “Proclamation” begins with crashing piano chords answered by the cello; in “Rparteé” and “Discourse,” the instruments engage in agitated or conciliatory conversation, and “Consolation” is a mournful, resigned lament. Entering fully into these contrasting moods, the players gave an authoritative, moving performance, which was warmly received by the audience. The composer was present to share the applause.

The program’s rarity was the Cello Sonata in B minor Op. 27 by the French organist and composer Louis Vierne (1870-1937). A student of Charles Widor, he took over his mentor’s post as organist of Notre Dame Cathedral, and is remembered today chiefly for his organ symphonies and orchestral works. He must have possessed remarkable fortitude: born blind, he regained some sight as a child but lost it again in adulthood, and wrote his late compositions in Braille. He died, as he had wished, while playing the organ. The Cello Sonata is in three movements. A stately Introduction leads to an Allegro moderato; the middle movement is slow and expansive, the Finale fast and brilliant. Influenced by Cesar Franck’s style, the work is very lush and romantic; the players luxuriated in the sound, but kept the expressiveness from becoming sentimental.

The program also featured Beethoven’s Sonata in D major, Op. 102, No. 2, and Debussy’s Sonata in D minor. Playing with complete technical command, sensitive give-and take, and an unerring sense of style, the performers brought out the Debussy’s impressionistic color and whimsical humor, and the Beethoven’s classical austerity; even the counterpoint in the thorny Fugue came through clearly.


Maximilan Anikushin and Friends in Review

Maximilan Anikushin and Friends in Review
Samuel Barber Centenary Recital
Bruno Walter Auditorium
Lincoln Center; New York City, NY
November 18, 2010

Maxim Anikushin

The splendid pianist Maximilan Anikushin, with his friends, mounted a welcome and comprehensive retrospective to honor the centenary of the American composer Samuel Barber in the midst of bicentennial tributes to Haydn (d. 1809), Mendelssohn (b. 1809), Chopin and Schumann (both born in 1810.)  (Orage warning: the Liszt bicentennial will be coming down the pike—prepare for another onslaught imminently!) Barber’s beautifully crafted music richly deserves celebration and it is, without question, more audience-friendly than Elliot Carter, who is still with us (Barber died in 1981.)  

The first half of the program was devoted to Barber’s solo piano works, commencing with his most famous and impressive piece, the sonata, commissioned by Vladimir Horowitz, who premiered it in 1949 and subsequently recorded it for RCA Victor. Mr. Anikushin’s beautifully written program annotations interestingly relate that the composer had initially wanted the work to be a three movement sonata, but Horowitz convinced him that the piece needed a “very flashy last movement.” This last movement caused Barber much frustration. After months with no progress, Horowitz telephoned Barber and, hoping to inspire him, called him a ‘constipated composer.’ Barber became angry and wrote the entire last movement (the Fuga) the next day! This was in June 1949, nearly two years after the work was commissioned.  

The Sonata was appropriately followed by the four Excursions–vintage 1945–also in its day quite popular; Nadia Reisenberg performed them at her 1947 Carnegie Hall recital (published by Bridge Records, 9304A/B) and gave them to countless pupils. Next came a fine nocturne written in 1959 to honor John Field (not Chopin as one might have thought). The Three Sketches were the juvenilia of a talented teenager: A Love Song “To My Mother”, Tempo di Valse (1924); To My Steinway Number 2201 (Adagio, 1923); and “A Minuet to Sara”, (1923). Barber confesses that he “borrowed” its theme from Beethoven’s notoriously popular Minuet in G Major.  

Anikushin’s elegant performances were models of style, humor and– when called for–brilliantly clean, incisive technique; architecturally crystal clear and also amply subjective without hypertension. Anikushin told me that he loves Barber, and his adoration and enthusiasm were brilliantly self-evident.  

Anikushin, whose May 9, 1999 debut at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall earned high praise from this reviewer in New York Concert Review: “…undoubtedly destined to enter the annals of his generation’s important young pianists”, has studied with Y.I.Batuyev, Milton Salkind, Oxana Yablonskaya and Solomon Mikowsky, and holds Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees from the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music.  

After intermission, Dr. Anikushin gave a vibrant and memorable account of the 1932 Sonata for Cello and Piano, partnered by Adrian Daurov, who is currently at Juilliard. The Canzone for Flute and Piano, Op. 38a of 1961, was played by flutist Mayumi Yokomizo with a big, luscious tone (it may have been her gold instrument that partly influenced me!) Finally, there was a group of Five Songs: “Promiscuity”, Op.29, No.7 (1953), “The Secrets of the Old”, Op.13 No. 3 (1938), “Sure on this Shining Night”(1938), “A Nun Takes the Veil”, Op. 13 No.1 (1937) and “The Desire for Hermitage”, Op. 29, No. 10 (1953), communicatively sung by Megan Moore, an alumna of Hope College and the Manhattan School of Music.