New York Concert Artists & Associates in Review

New York Concert Artists & Associates: Evenings of Piano Concerti, Season V
Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church, New York, N.Y.
May 17, 2013


To attend one of NYCA’s Evenings of Piano Concerti is to feel part of something quite special, and the concerts are clearly on the upswing if one can judge by full halls. A recent evening was typical in some ways, in its abundance of exciting virtuoso repertoire and passionate soloists (and orchestra), including some at beginnings of their careers plus those farther along in forging worldwide reputations. The more widely known name on this evening’s program was Alessio Bax, scheduled to perform the Piano Concerto, Op. 38 of Samuel Barber – an exciting prospect indeed – though in a last minute decision that was not explained, the Barber was replaced by Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. This substitution may have had something to do with another change, the replacement of scheduled conductor Matthew Oberstein by guest conductor Miriam Burns, but it’s anyone’s guess. In a way, such changes make for an even more edge-of-the-seat intensity than usual (which is saying a lot), but emotions were certainly running high.

You know it will be a high voltage evening when the “starter” work is Liszt’s E-flat Piano Concerto, often reserved for the final splash. In the hands of Jeanette Aufiero it was full of high drama, setting the tone for an evening of virtuosity. Ms. Aufiero produces warm lyrical lines and an enormous sound for raging octaves and arpeggios, just as this piece requires. It must have been a joy for this NYCA Orchestra’s exuberant brass section to be able to let loose without having to play “tiptoe around the soloist.” It was a performance of contagious energy, ablaze with passion that threw caution to the winds. There are those who deplore this piece as a muscle-flexing vehicle, but even the most diehard Lisztophobes would have found the infectious spirit hard to resist. The program included no soloist biographies, but did list that Ms. Aufiero won the 2012 NYCA Rising Artists Concerto Presentation.

Conductor Miriam Burns was simply amazing throughout in her responses to the work’s quicksilver changes, while drawing empathetic collaboration from the orchestra – especially in view of the short notice! A quadruple-concerto evening is something of a herculean feat  – ask any conductor about the extra dimensions and concerns brought in by a soloist, and multiply by four! Maestra Burns nonetheless brought tireless and balletic energy to it all.

The excellent young soloist in the Rachmaninoff First Concerto was Saskia Giorgioni, who sailed through the piece’s technical challenges while bringing genuine tenderness to its yearning phrases. One of the wonderful aspects of these multi-soloist evenings is that they are like multiple debuts, each pianist in the spotlight geared to the highest degree of polish and living each note as if it were the last. Ms. Giorgioni clearly knew each note of this demanding piece inside and out and invested herself in each one. She was able to handle nearly all the ensemble surprises that came her way (an inevitable challenge in this work) and to bend accordingly. At the same time she showed an assured solo presence that should guarantee her similar engagements in the future. She was listed as having also won the 2012 NYCA Rising Artists Concerto Presentation.

If one had to make a suggestion on the format of these evenings, it might be that the number of concerti be reduced to, say, three (depending on length) with perhaps a short orchestra work thrown in. While it is an amazing feast to hear four fine soloists in a row, there is an inevitable disservice done to one or two of them. After two or more “no holds barred” performances, the edge of one’s musical appetite is somewhat dulled, and the ears need a break not quite provided by intermission. Presumably the Beethoven Concerto No. 2 after intermission provided the sonic palate cleanser, but one doesn’t usually like to think of Beethoven as such.

It may have been the intense awareness of what preceded (Liszt and Rachmaninoff) that lent an extra edge to the performance of the Beethoven by Jingyi Zhang. She is an outstanding young player of considerable achievement and polish; somehow, though, for this piece I wanted a slightly more settled classical restraint. Her playing was admirable in its brilliant pearly passagework, but it occasionally seemed to press ahead too restlessly for this listener, approaching breathlessness at times.  The bright sound from the hall’s piano and live acoustics also helped bring the piece into the realm of slightly later Romantic works, and one couldn’t help imagining how wonderful this pianist would sound playing Mendelssohn or Grieg here. It seems highly likely that we will hear more from this pianist, so I look forward to hearing her again in a variety of repertoire. Ms. Zhang is listed as Winner of 2012 NYCA’s International Concerto Competition for Pianists.

Alessio Bax, the featured headliner of the evening, is enjoying a burgeoning career helped along by First Prize at the Leeds and the Hamamatsu International Piano Competitions and an Avery Fisher Career Grant. Having never heard him live, I was looking forward to this, as he is widely considered an artist to watch. The experience did not disappoint. While I would have preferred hearing him in the less-frequently performed Barber Concerto, he has much to bring to Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, which says a lot given this piece’s enormous popularity. One could argue with some points, including his rather straitlaced interpretation of the second movement’s octave lines – but such decisions are easily justifiable, if not universally embraced. All in all, it was a performance of considerable poetry and brilliance, which one would never guess was “last minute” – except possibly in a few last movement ensemble hiccups. Though his restrained interpretation may have been somewhat undercut by the high decibel levels of the evening’s earlier performances, he emerged as a sincere and individual player with a formidable technique, just as one would expect.

Kudos go to all the performers and to Klara Min, the founder and Artistic Director. These evenings are a gargantuan achievement.

New York Concert Artists and Associates Winners Evening: Evenings of Piano Concerti in Review

 New York Concert Artists and Associates Winners Evening: Evenings of Piano Concerti
Wael Farouk, piano; Alexei Tartakovski, piano; Vince Lee, conductor, NYCA Orchestra
Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church, New York, N.Y.
May 19, 2012


Anyone looking only to the larger musical venues of New York is missing out on some once-in-a-lifetime concerts at the “little church behind Juilliard.”  The Good Shepherd Church, which has held many exciting concerts over the years, is in its fourth year now as home to NYCA’s Evenings of Piano Concerti, which introduces concerto soloists, stars of the future, to adventurous audiences. Their May 19 concert was not to be forgotten.

Most memorable on this occasion was the performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto by Egyptian pianist Wael Farouk. The term “star of the future” is not quite apt here, as Mr. Farouk is something of a star already, with a career that has included innumerable concerto appearances, including the Egyptian premieres of Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3, Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, and Prokofiev Concertos Nos. 1, 2, and 3. Imagining Egyptian audiences hearing the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto for the first time is exciting indeed, but those who heard Mr. Farouk play it in New York may feel they heard it for the first time as well.

Contrasting with the many hulking pianists who treat this piece as an Olympic hurdle (yawn), Mr. Farouk simply lived and breathed the music with the poetry of a born artist. Incidentally, this pianist is not of hulking build, and anyone brainwashed by the “size matters” crowd might have expected a less-than-powerful performance; they would have been proven wrong (as they might have, if Josef Hoffman, the great but diminutive dedicatee, had given the piece a chance!). Mr. Farouk’s technique is unquestionably great, despite apparently small hands, though this listener didn’t think of the word “technique” once during the entire performance (rare for this piece). The performance lacked nothing, but the way Mr. Farouk sailed through the piece, as if daydreaming out loud, made masses of notes seem merely incidental. That is how it should be, but only when one hears it does one realize how rare it is. Soulful melodic inflection, growling outbursts, coruscating passagework, and powerful peaks all combined with the unity of a master to bring the piece the unique life it deserves. Mr. Farouk also seemed to inspire the orchestra to glorious new heights, not by brute force, but by force of musical spirit. I am now officially a fan of this extraordinary musician.

Coming down to earth for a few moments, one should mention that some of the tempi were faster than one is accustomed to hearing, particularly in the last movement, where just a bit of “holding the reins” can make for more dramatic surges; it was so exciting, nonetheless, that one hesitates to suggest even the slightest tweaking. Conductor Vince Lee was a skillful and sympathetic collaborator throughout.

Prior to intermission, the audience was treated to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto played by Alexei Tartakovski, and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, played by Yoonie Han. This reviewer is assigned to discuss the Beethoven but would be remiss in not mentioning Ms. Han’s excellent performance.

Alexei Tartakovski, Winner of the 2011 Rising Artists Concerto Presentation, has won several other awards as well and has fine credentials for one in his early twenties (his bio stating that he was born in 1989). He has performed in numerous cities in the US, Russia, Canada, Holland, Greece, and England, and is currently completing his Master of Music degree at the Peabody Institute. One competition jury member called him “a monumental talent” and another a “first-rate player.” Not surprisingly for one in the throes of a young competitor’s life, he offered a committed and solid performance of Beethoven’s Op. 58, one of the masterpieces of Beethoven’s Middle Period and a pillar of the piano repertoire in general. Mr. Tartakovski had the formidable challenge of starting the concert with this work’s contemplative opening – positioned on the program where one might find a light overture – but he was up to that challenge. He achieved a sense of spaciousness amid the settling of the audience and orchestra and delivered the music as a thoughtful and serious musician. Unassuming in demeanor, he also appeared to approach the work as chamber music, a goal which was not quite possible on this occasion (as undoubtedly there was limited rehearsal time). Unfazed by various ensemble glitches, Mr. Tartakovski showed intense concentration and resilience – qualities he will need in a busy performing career.

Tempo-wise, things were again a shade faster than I like. The last movement especially verged towards a light early classical romp rather than to a meaningful release from the preceding Andante’s depths. It nevertheless posed little challenge for Mr. Tartakovski, and he handled the movement comfortably and delivered its tricky trills with clarity and alacrity.

The task of a reviewer is presumably to review what one has heard and not what one could imagine given a different instrument or situation, but I can’t resist commenting that I would like to hear Mr. Tartakovski on a piano with a less strident treble for this work. While the instrument’s top register had cut through nicely for the previously heard Rachmaninoff (buffered by the rich underlying and surrounding harmonies), the leaner textures of the Beethoven left harsh upper octaves exposed, so one needs a mellower sounding instrument for it. Undoubtedly there will be future chances to hear this pianist, as he surely has many successes ahead of him.