Jeff Lankov, piano, in “Music of Robert Xavier Rodríguez” in Review

Jeff Lankov, piano, in “Music of Robert Xavier Rodríguez”
Presented by The University of Texas at Dallas
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
October 6, 2013
 
Robert Xavier Rodríguez and Jeff Lankov

Robert Xavier Rodríguez and Jeff Lankov

The name Robert Xavier Rodriguez (b. 1946) is hardly unknown in the music world, with an imposing list of worldwide commissions, performances, and other successes filling his biography, but a recent recital of his piano works had this listener convinced that his musical reach is destined to grow far greater still. Currently Professor at The University of Texas at Dallas (among other career demands), he has amassed commissions and residencies with many of the world’s most renowned symphonies and opera organizations, awards galore (Guggenheim, ASCAP, NEA, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, etc.), a long string of record labels and artists presenting his music, and exclusive publication by G. Schirmer. Such biographical information generally serves to “sell” an artist, but in Mr. Rodriguez’s case his music speaks for itself; moreover, the organizations mentioned among his credits may be the ones basking in reflected glory. Listening to this gifted composer, who has been outstanding in his field for decades now, one even begins wondering why certain accolades are missing – Pulitzer committee, where are you?

Part of what sets Mr. Rodriguez’s musical voice apart from others is its directness of expression, vibrant, unpretentious, lyrical, and often humorous, without sacrificing substance or craft. Though there was a liberal sprinkling of modern ragtime throughout the recital, that style predilection did not limit the emotional range (any more than with William Bolcom and others drawn to the genre) – and certainly all was not based on rags. The balance between accessibility and exploration was just right. In darker inspirations, such as the closing work “Caprichos” (2012), based on some rather unsettling Goya artworks, the tonal language was uniquely chilling and nightmarish, yet always with a life-affirming joy in the storytelling itself. Given its World Premiere here, it is a fascinating, thorny, and demanding work, which I look forward to hearing again. Drawing from a variety of musical resources (including fitting references to Scarlatti and Mozart), it is unquestionably fresh and new, a valuable addition to the piano literature (and for pianists, a natural to pair with “Goyescas” of Granados as a bonus).

Bringing the musical storytelling and imagery to life was pianist Jeff Lankov, who sustained musical interest from the recital’s first notes to its last in performances of brilliance and dedication. To open, he teamed up with the composer in Semi-Suite (1980) for piano, four-hands, an appealing work as full of fun as its punning title. Its four movements (the first one repeated as a fifth) include “The All-Purpose Rag” and “Limerick” (ingenious pieces after which the audience had to laugh out loud), plus a delightful Jig and Tango.  The players projected the tongue-in-cheek references and musical “punch lines” with wonderful deadpan delivery, as Lankov continued to do in “Estampie” (1981), which also contained several ragtime-inspired movements. Lest one underestimate the substance of the latter (with titles including “The Slow Sleazy Rag”, “The Couple Action Rag”, and “Reversible Rag”), the seven-movement work is actually a wide ranging set of variations with considerable lyrical beauty as well as stimulating formal challenges. As the Program Notes for one movement state: “In a complex Scherzo, the regular rhythm of the estampie is sharply juxtaposed with disjunct atonal writing. Ragtime rhythms appear, treated with Ars Nova discant and isorhythm techniques in a synthesis of widely disparate styles, after which the estampie reappears.” All of this intricacy made for challenging listening as well as playing, and Mr. Lankov was the man for the job. A veteran of new music performance whose repertoire includes the complete works of John Adams, plus Michael Finnissy, Messiaen, Piazzolla, Radiohead, and more, he embraces it all. There seems to be nothing that eludes his grasp.  His performance of Rodriguez’s tour de force “Fantasia Lussuriosa” (1989) was particularly compelling, with its seductive lines, decadent melodic embroidery, and all-encompassing virtuosity. It is hard to believe there are not more young pianists pouncing on this piece as a “vehicle.” Mr. Lankov played it to the hilt, yet there seems to be enough flexibility in it to elicit many additional interpretations.

In another note of levity, the second half opened with a selection entitled “Hot Buttered Rumba” from Aspen Sketches (1992).  The title as well as the infectious rhythms had many smiling. Despite prodigious skill, Mr. Rodriguez’s sense of humility and humor are never far. We may credit some of Rodriguez’s humor to the encouragement of his great teachers, Nadia Boulanger. In his words, “Boulanger told me that I would only be half a composer until I also learned to express in my music the same love of laughter that she knew I enjoyed as a person.” She would be proud.

In a possible nod to another of Rodriguez’s teachers, Jacob Druckman, the recital also included Rodriguez’s “Seven Deadly Sequences” (1990), an imaginative and highly pianistic set, which should keep pianists enthralled for years to come. Though not mentioned in the program notes on the piece, Druckman’s own piano set entitled “The Seven Deadly Sins” is similarly vivid and evocative. They would make an interesting pairing, perhaps on disc.

On the subject of discs, one reads in Jeff Lankov’s biographical notes that a recording of this recital’s music is in the works. One can only rejoice. Look out for it.


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!


Hee-Youn Choue in Review

Hee-Youn Choue, piano 
Merkin Concert Hall, New York, N.Y.
May 21, 2013

 

As a seven-year music reviewer in New York, I’ve become so spoiled by the bounty of pianistic offerings in the various concert halls that occasionally it is an interesting test to ask myself, “what will I remember of this evening ten years from now?” Occasionally one may remember just the bad weather or the difficult cab ride, but there is no chance of that happening with a recent concert of pianist Hee-Youn Choue, whose final work, Concert Suite from “The Nutcracker” Op.71a  (Tchaikovsky, transcribed by Mikhail Pletnev) was not to be forgotten. The pianist displayed in this work some of the most delightful pianism I’ve heard in recent live recital. I’ll especially remember her hummingbird-fast repeated notes in the March, the wonderfully zesty Trepak, and the witty and all too brief Chinese Dance – pieces I’ve heard often enough to want never to hear them again, though here they refreshed, as if new. I’ll remember with a measure of perplexity the sight of the less than full hall – this pianist deserves so much more. Then, with a bit of annoyance I’ll remember a nearby audience member, who apparently did not know about clapping, but saved all her expressions of appreciation for a bus stop cellphone call afterwards – about what an amazing performance her friend had missed! Amazing it was. We can at least hope that if everyone who was there gabs equally, the next recital will be jam-packed.

Ms. Choue has just about everything – technical brilliance, intelligence, poetry, poise, artful programming, and a beautiful stage presence. In addition, she has caught the attention of New York Concert Artists and Associates, under whose auspices she has performed several times. She is gaining momentum and deserves to go far.

Her opening work, Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C Major, Hob.XVI: 50, impressed with its beautifully differentiated articulations. It was delicate and crisp in touch, though thankfully never becoming too precious. The robust spirit of Haydn emerged especially in some of the bolder bass parts (also well suited to this hall’s piano). The last movement pointed up Haydn’s humorous surprises well, and Ms. Choue seemed quite at home stylistically. Minutest reservations arose in the second movement, where improvisatory adornments seemed a bit too glossy and pedaled to feel truly Haydnesque – to me their almost impressionistic sweep obscured the vocal relationship to the main melodies, but of course that is a matter of personal taste.

Schumann’s Fantasiestucke Op.12 followed. All was well thought through and polished, with special highlights being the hearty “Grillen,” and dazzling “Traumes Wirren.” The opening “Des Abends” was beautiful in tone and phrasing, but for my taste started to show too much of the Romantic tendency of left hand-preceding-right hand. That style is one way of wringing the tenderness from the harmonies, but Ms. Choue’s translucent sound, sensitive dynamic gradations, and pedaling (which was at times very generous) could probably achieve the desired effect without such stretching, which occasionally risks sounding mannered.

After Intermission, Chopin’s Nocturne in B Major, Op. 32, No.1, and Scherzo No. 4 in E Major were a beautiful pairing. Clearly Ms. Choue savored the tonal relationship between the two and, by projecting the connection physically, she successfully prevented applause from separating them. The Scherzo was another highlight of the evening, filled with silken streaming passagework and beautifully fluid melodic lines. The Nocturne I enjoyed less, simply wanting more attention to tonal continuity (or was there a voicing inconsistency issue with the piano?) – an anomaly in an otherwise stellar evening.

The Tchaikovsky which followed – I’ll just repeat myself here – was worth the trip all by itself.  It should become a signature piece by Ms. Choue, though undoubtedly she will find many of those.

An encore of Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in A Major (K. 113, L. 345) brought more of the precise delicacy one heard earlier in the Haydn, capping off the evening perfectly. Brava!


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.


Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts: Claude Debussy 150th Anniversary Year in Review

Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts: Claude Debussy 150th Anniversary Year
Complete Piano Preludes
Min Kwon, Director
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
December 19, 2012
 
Min Kwon, Director; Photo Credit : Doug Boyd

Min Kwon, Director; Photo Credit : Doug Boyd

 

Marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Debussy (1862-1918), the year 2012 has seen many concerts with various tributes to Debussy’s music and a smaller number that were all-Debussy programs. The latter type of concert has been a dicey proposition in general, with the monomania leaving this music lover with intense cravings for Beethoven, Shostakovich, and others. It was therefore an exhilarating surprise to discover that a recital of both books of Debussy Preludes (24 in all) turned out to be one of my favorite concert experiences in memory, thanks to Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts and the inspired direction of Ms. Min Kwon. Their all-Debussy concert at Weill Hall was – dare we use this word? – perfection.

Keys to the concert’s success were several. While a single-player recital can risk becoming too much of one musical personality, Mason Gross presented seventeen young artists of different ages and backgrounds, all from the Rutgers piano program, each player miraculously matched to his particular Prelude(s). One wonders how the assignment of music to each player was accomplished, but there seems to have been a musical equivalent to Central Casting involved; all that variety, however, was in service to Debussy’s art. All players were well taught, well prepared, and completely immersed in the elements of Debussy that they represented.

Another inspiration was the avoidance of fanfare and applause; what could have become a noisy marathon, with entries and exits of 17 players, became seamless and unified. Though the diverse performers’ biographies were those of opera coach, competition firebrand, and Music Education student, the players followed one another quietly and as equal participants in the masterpiece. The element of ego or comparison was entirely missing, and a listener could focus, undistracted, on the multi-faceted marvel that is Debussy. In lieu of applause, host and raconteur Jerome Lowenthal offered elegant and informative introductions to each work, complete with a sprinkling of humor and verse. Weill Hall became an intimate French gallery, with Mr. Lowenthal as docent and the musical art streaming on and off the stage.

All players deserve mention, so what follows is necessarily a hasty blur, and not always sequential. Zin Bang brought restrained sensuality to the Danseuses de Delphe and appropriate delicacy to Voiles. Robert Grohman conjured the mystery of Le vent dans la plaine admirably, and in Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir he brought his listeners into the realm of synesthesia. Soo Yeon Cho followed with a sprightly account of Les collines d’Anacapri, highlighting an aspect of Debussy worlds away from the heavier Baudelairian fragrances. The beautiful hush of snow was created next by Marilia Caputo in Des pas sur la neige, setting up contrast perfectly for Diyi Tang, who projected great drama in Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest. Mr. Tang also closed the program with Feux d’artifice, another tour de force well suited to his brilliant style.

On the lighter, gentler side were La fille aux cheveux de lin played with perfect innocence by Sohee Kwon, La sérénade interrompue, given humor and color by Salvatore Mallimo, and La danse de Puck both dreaming and impish in Rebecca Choi’s hands (which later in the evening brought life to the siren Ondine). Minstrels was as quixotic as could be in the reading of Dae Hyung Ahn, who also gave a fine performance of Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses on the second half. Bringing gravity to the first half was the formidable musical imagery of La cathédrale engloutie, conveyed beautifully by Erikson Rojas through his own sonic world.

The second half seemed to fly by, even with some of the dreamier, more cryptic Préludes. Azusa Hokugo’s readings of Brouillards and Feuilles Mortes were polished and sensitive, as were Junko Ichikawa’s La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, Hyewon Kate Lim’s Bruyères, and Grace Shin’s Canope, with its evocations of an ancient world. Erikson Rojas again shone in La puerta del vino, as did Kelly Yu-Chieh Lin in Les tierces alternées, less evocative due to its focus on a single interval, but brilliant nonetheless.  Some levity broke up the dreaming with General Lavine -eccentric played jauntily by Sojung Lee and Hommage à S. Pickwick, Esq., P.P.M.P.C., well realized by Eunsil Kim.  

All in all, it was an extraordinary musical project, unique, in fact. Such an evening might be imitated on the basis of the abovementioned format, but without Mr. Lowenthal and this particular chemistry of performers, it simply will not be replicated. If you missed it, all I can say is, “c’est dommage!”


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.


Seunghee Lee in Review

Seunghee Lee, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
December 1, 2010

Many pianists enjoy describing their programs and repertoires as “eclectic” lately, and, though the word is a bit overused, a recent recital program by pianist Seunghee Lee deserves that description. In a highly interesting mix of Heitor Villa-Lobos, Robert Muczynski, Francis Poulenc, Frédéric Chopin, Edvard Grieg, and Enrique Granados, Ms. Lee’s recital had something for almost everyone (though perhaps not for those hoping for a heaping helping of the “three B’s” – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms). What I found particularly interesting was that this pianist seemed to have an equal affinity for each composer in this unusual assemblage. Ms. Lee, who has studied and performed widely and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Kentucky, has widely ranging interests and the ability to share them — a valuable combination.

Starting off with Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 (“Preludio”) by Villa-Lobos, Ms. Lee established a thoughtful tone.  Though, as mentioned before, this recital offered none of the “three B’s,” the presence of the first “B” – Bach – was definitely felt here. Ms. Lee demonstrated beautiful tonal control from its rather stately opening. Occasionally high registers sounded a bit strident, perhaps from want of bass support via more pedal (as Ms. Lee was quite sparing in her use of pedal through much of the evening), but all in all it was a successful opening.

In a change of style, time, and continent, the program then moved to a work by U.S. composer Robert Muczynski (1929-2010) entitled “Desperate Measures” (Paganini Variations) Op. 48.  Based on the famous 24th Caprice of Paganini (the one which inspired Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and others), this roughly eight-minute set (written in 1995) shows at times a striking kinship with the Paganini Variations of Witold Lutoslawski (for two pianos, written in 1941), though Muczynski’s work breaks out in far more jazzy directions. Ms. Lee brought out its brilliance, rhythmic energy, and at times, lyricism, though emphasizing the acerbic dissonant qualities more than I’ve heard or would like.

Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 47, followed with a refreshingly gentle opening, though it was overall the least successful work on the program. Little raggedy edges are conspicuous in such an unforgiving piece as this, and there were passages that seemed glossed over, where loud peaks were reached from thin beginnings with no tonal middle ground in between. Also, some inner voices that most Chopin fans know and love were boldly announced at their beginnings, but not followed through to their natural conclusions.

In Poulenc’s Trois Pièces, Ms. Lee seemed much more in her element, reveling in the dreamy, brooding Pastorale, the bold Hymne, and the light and precise Toccata. Her palette of colors was just right for these works. I couldn’t help thinking it would be interesting to hear her play Ravel’s Toccata (or perhaps Scarbo), and a number of works of Debussy.

Shifting after intermission to Grieg, Ms. Lee played the “Rotnams-Knut, Halling”  (No. 7 from Peasant Dances, Op. 72), the Scherzo-Impromptu No. 2 from Stimmungen, Op. 73, and the Ballade, Op. 24. These works enjoyed a loving advocacy in this pianist’s hands. The Ballade (despite accuracy issues towards the craggy end) had many fine moments, prospering by Ms. Lee’s patient lyricism through its doleful and funereal sections.

The Allegro de Concierto, Op. 46, by Granados ended the evening on a positive note, concluding what was a rewarding evening of music. An appreciative audience received an encore that sounded somewhat like a new age improvisation on a hymn, though (as sometimes happens) it was impossible to hear the announcement.


Lukáš Vondráček in Review

Lukáš Vondráček, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
November 22, 2010
 

LUKÁŠ VONDRÁČEK

2010 Winner of the Hilton Head International Piano Competition, Czech pianist Lukáš Vondráček gave an exciting recital that bodes well for a bright future in music. He is hardly a newcomer, for though in his mid-twenties, he has (according to  his biography) visited over 25 countries and given more than 900 concerts (having given his first concert at age 4). He has clearly honed his craft through so much playing; what was perhaps more impressive, though, was how completely committed he was to every single phrase, with not a hint of anything “automatic.”

Opening the recital was Haydn’s Sonata in C Major, No. 60 (Hob. XVI: 50), in lieu of the printed program’s Bach Italian Concerto. While I think the Bach might have led even more beautifully to the Mendelssohn Variations Serieuses (Op. 54), the Haydn was full of delightful surprises. With the imaginative orchestral treatment Mr. Vondráček gave it, it seemed to be just as much an opera overture as a sonata, showing sensitivity to the distinct character of each phrase and an enormous variety of articulations. Occasionally the staccato releases of his hands seemed mannered, to the point where one felt it distracting to watch, so I decided just to listen, and what I heard never failed to hold me.

Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses also seized one’s attention and never let go. I can’t recall hearing a performance of this piece quite as dramatic and all-encompassing. It should be required listening for those (and sadly there are some) who relegate Mendelssohn to innocuous, prettified music. From Vondráček’s thoughtful interpretation of the opening theme, to the riveting machine technique in the twelfth variation and the driving final Presto, it was a ride of Romantic extremes. I especially loved the moments where time felt suspended, the ethereal eleventh variation and the melting Adagio of the fourteenth, as this pianist is just as bold in his slow tempi as in fast.

One concern in the Mendelssohn (and even the Haydn) was how the Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev to come could intensify the already full-blown tonal world without straining; one is used to striving for a different sound for each era in piano music, and that did not seem a big priority here. The priority was a genuineness of expression, with not a trace of the condescension that sometimes affects more history-minded performances. All the music felt new in a way that should draw more audiences to classical music. Sure enough though, the louder passages in four of Rachmaninoff’s Op. 33 Etudes-Tableaux saw some subtle harmonic changes eclipsed by sheer decibels, as near the climax of No. 3 in C Minor and the angular, angry No. 9. The Op. 33, No. 1 in F minor and No. 8 in G minor rounded out the set, offering much to admire in dramatic projection and lyricism.

The boisterous pianism of Smetana’s Czech Dances (Hulán and Skocná) opened the second half with energy and humor. It will be good to hear Mr. Vondráček bring attention to more music from his homeland. In an interesting and effective segue, four Lyric Pieces by Grieg followed, Op.57, No.6 (“Homesickness”) Op. 62, No. 2 (“Gratitude”- a nice touch on Thanksgiving week), Op. 62, No. 4 (“Brooklet”) and Op. 68, No. 3 (“At Your Feet”). All showed vivid imagination, but the stunning evocations of the brook took the prize.

Prokofiev’s Sonata, No. 7 (Op. 83) closed with all the firepower one wanted, bringing the audience to its feet. Mr. Vondráček is a powerful pianist, and he should be much in demand for large Romantic concerti, such as Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, which he is engaged to play soon. It seemed he would be capable of playing tirelessly for several more hours, and his choice of a highly percussive, energetic encore seemed to agree (something sounding like Martinu, though one could not hear his announcement). One might have wanted something more serene right after Prokofiev’s 7th Sonata, but this pianist left on a strong and confident note. He should be confident, as he really “has it all.” Bravo!