Anna Han, Pianist in Review

Anna Han, Pianist in Review

Anna Han, Pianist in Review
The Stecher and Horowitz Foundation present 2012 New York International Competition First Prize Winner, Anna Han, piano
SubCulture Arts Underground, New York, NY
November 21, 2013

In the first of three scheduled concerts at the SubCulture Arts Underground, the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation presented sixteen-year-old pianist, Anna Han, the first-prize winner of their 2012 New York International Competition.  The foundation should be commended for looking beyond the usual concert halls in selecting this unconventional venue for classical music. In this day and age, anything that can be done in order to capture new listeners, who might not otherwise attend, should be explored.

A few words about SubCulture Arts Underground are in order. As its name implies, the hall is in the basement of a larger facility. It has the feeling of a club, with a small stage and intimate seating for the audience.  For more casual events, a full-service bar is open throughout the performances.  Lest anyone think that “underground” means somewhat less than savory environs, let me state that this hall is a place in which even the fussiest person would feel comfortable. While perhaps not a place designed with traditional classical artists in mind, it is nonetheless suitable for classical soloists and small ensembles.  My sole reservation was with the piano, of which I will speak later.

Anna Han sports a resume of competition victories and concerto performances that is quite impressive for such a young musician. What interested me the most was how this young player was going to handle her varied and eclectic program. Was this going to be a display of sheer technique, which so many young players seem to have in abundance, or was it going to be something more? The answer was forthcoming almost immediately.

Starting her program with the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B minor, BWV 855, Ms. Han showed the sensitivity of a real musician. She gave this work a performance with meticulous control, restraint, and attention to voicing. After this fine start, Ms. Han took on the Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35, Book 1, of Brahms. These fourteen variations of the famous 24th Caprice are unabashedly virtuosic, giving the performer ample opportunity to display her technical prowess.  Ms. Han certainly has the technique, but the larger variations seemed to lack something in power and projection. While I found the lighter variations to be done with style and wit, I never had the sensation of the intensity this work possesses. I do believe that this can be accounted for by the piano, which was not a 9-foot concert grand, but a much smaller instrument. This unfortunately somewhat undercut Ms. Han, who I do believe would have made a huge splash on a larger instrument. That being said, it was still an excellent performance.

Suite for Piano, a four movement by Michael Brown (b.1987) was commissioned by the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation and given its World Premiere by Ms. Han. It is a work filled with moments of both playfulness and poignancy. The second movement, Chant, was moving in its simplicity, while the third movement, Fugue, was a hilarious contrapuntal rendering of a theme that could be called “Bach Goes the Weasel”.  Ms. Han played the former with the right amount of somber introspection, while the latter conveyed delightful wit and whimsy. Mr. Brown was in attendance, seeming to approve wholeheartedly of Ms. Han’s interpretation. Ending the first half was the Liszt transcription of Liebestod, from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  I have mixed feelings about this work, as I find that the “accepted” performance practice of it is overwrought, overly loud, and a brutalization of the piano. The hall piano was probably a blessing here, as any ideas of blowing down the walls with sound were not going to happen. Ms. Han did a commendable job, but I prefer that the pathos and lament be the focus, with less emphasis on the heaven storming.

After intermission, Ms. Han played a set of pieces also commissioned by the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation, Three Etudes, by Avner Dorman (b. 1975). The three etudes are all modeled in the style of György Ligeti.  Snakes and Ladders is “Ligeti meets Boogie Woogie”, Funeral March is a study of tonal despair in a deceptively simple form, and Sundrops over Windy Waters, a shimmering and hyperactive display of velocity. These three pieces, much like those of Ligeti, call for a player with not only a great technique, but an uncommon intelligence that probes for hidden meanings. Ms. Han is such a player, and when one stops to consider that she is only sixteen years old, one must marvel at such musical maturity at such a young age. It was exceptional.  Beethoven’s Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 31, No. 3 was next, and Ms. Han continued to show the fine sense of style and architecture in her playing, a joy from the opening of the Allegro to the end of the Presto con fuoco. The Beethoven was the high point of the recital. Ms. Han is a sensitive and poetic player beyond her years.

Ending the recital was the Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op.28 of Prokofiev. It was well played, but the issues of projection were once again problematic.  The crowd was less sensitive to this issue, and gave Ms. Han a justly deserved ovation. She offered three encores, a lyrically played Etude No. 4, based on Gershwin’s “Embraceable You”, by Earl Wild, a quicksilver “Flight of the Bumblebee” that wowed the crowd, and Rachmaninoff’s Lilacs as a final note of artistry.


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!”

Anton Kuerti in Review

Anton Kuerti in an all-Beethoven recital

You overhear these conversations all the time at concerts:  “Well, he/she didn’t put enough emotion into it.”  Or:  “He/she put a lot of emotion into it.”  Non-musicians can be forgiven for being confused by this issue, but the fact is (in my opinion, anyway) that “putting emotion in” is about 95% of the time the result of following the written directions of the composer, laid out in the score.  These guys (and gals) knew what they were doing, especially Beethoven who was positively obsessive about putting the most minute instructions in his manuscripts, occasionally on nearly every note.  It’s when performers don’t really take the trouble to learn the music in depth, when they take the once-over-lightly approach, or worse, when they decide that they know better than Mr. van B, that they end up sounding cold, or unemotional, and generally run aground on a lousy performance.  They’re not cold, they’re just lazy.  You don’t add emotion, you allow it to emerge by really knowing the musical score in the deepest possible way.  A good musician has to master it all — to internalize every detail of the composer’s instructions — and only then begin to decide how to best reproduce the work.

Anton Kuerti is not lazy.

Mr. Kuerti’s extraordinary all-Beethoven program last night — two Sonatas: the Op. 26 in A-Flat, and the Op. 57 in F minor “Appassionata” plus the massive 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120 — was overflowing with carefully observed details, and, as a result, it had the kind of effect on the emotions that most performers think they are achieving but never do.  Kuerti has studied these works for a lifetime, and knows every jot in these scores.  So, one could ask, is there no room for individuality?  For a more personal interpretation?  Of course there is, and Mr. Kuerti’s playing was full of freedom and fantasy — individual touches like the tiny delays which served to intensify cadences and provide breathing room in phrases — it’s just that he started from a place where every mark Beethoven put on the page was accounted for in full, and embedded in his playing.

Anton Kuerti

Audiences don’t get the opportunity to hear a performance like the one Kuerti gave last night very often.  This audience clearly knew it and erupted in a standing ovation as soon as the Diabellis, which closed the program, ended.  This enormous set of 33 magical variations on perhaps the most banal tune ever written, something like 55 minutes in length (I glanced at my watch as  it began intending to time it, but became so engrossed in the playing that I forgot to look again), is not the sort of piece that usually calls forth that kind of reaction.  It is of great length, relentlessly repetitive, and worst of all it ends slowly and quietly.  Nevertheless the audience, with more than a few of the worlds best pianists sprinkled in, was on its feet at the end — a well earned tribute to the fantastic journey it had just taken with Mr. Kuerti leading the way.   The pianist is 74 now, and his fingers occasionally slip.  It matters not at all.  For a couple of hours last night, he showed us what a good musician is, and what a good musician does.

Leon Fleisher in concert

Leon Fleisher

Leon Fleisher

Legendary pianist Leon Fleisher appeared in a rare recital Thursday evening at the William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival at the University of Maryland campus in College Park.  It was an emotional event for the many pianists present as Mr. Fleisher, now approaching his 84th birthday, entered the stage moving slowly and looking a bit frail.  Fleisher’s meteoric career began as a child prodigy, becoming at 9 a student of the great Artur Schnabel, followed by a First Prize at the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium Competition in 1952 and continuing upward throughout the 1950s and early 60s with ecstatic notices and a series of concerto recordings with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra that are still unsurpassed.  It all fell to earth in 1965 when a problem with the nerves in his right arm, diagnosed many years later as focal dystonia, rendered his fourth and fifth fingers useless.  Decades of often painful search for a cure followed while Mr. Fleisher ventured into conducting, and became a much beloved teacher at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, a position he took up in 1959 and still holds today.   There were flashes of hope along the way — I remember being glued to the television, practically holding my breath, while he played the Franck Symphonic Variations about 30 years ago.  Again about fifteen years later there were some performances, and then most encouragingly, in 2004, the release of his CD Leon Fleisher: Two Hands.  I heard him then, in a concert in a friend’s living room in New York, play Egon Petri’s transcription of J. S. Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze so beautifully that I had to wipe the tears from my eyes.  Whatever success in treatment there has been, however, doesn’t seem to last and the artist who appeared before a full auditorium to warm and appreciative applause last evening, did so with the fingers of his right hand visibly clenched.  He played, except for duets with his wife Katherine Jacobson, only left-hand repertoire.  Still, it was not so much how Mr. Fleisher played, though there was a craggily beautiful account of the Bach Chaconne transcribed for the left hand by Johnannes Brahms that began in spare black and white and then blossomed like a flower into warm hues at it went, but the fact that he did play, and in doing so gave us the opportunity to honor both the great achievements of his career, and the long struggle, never given up, to regain what he lost.  He seems to have made peace with his ordeal though, dispensing witty comments about the repertoire and speaking movingly about his long ago friendship with William Kapell.  If there was ever a bittersweet tinge to these memories — it was Fleisher’s emulation of his older friend’s fanatic practice regimen that probably led to his eventual disability — time has erased it so that only love and admiration remain.

The William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival; Solo Semi-Finals in Review

Solo Semi-Finals Are Over – Nine Pianists Played

On Thursday, July 12th, the Jury of the William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival selected nine semi-finalists from a field of twenty four.  These nine pianists were heard in three solo semi-final rounds on Friday, Saturday and Sunday performing recitals of an hour each including both the required American piece — Leon Kirchner’s Interlude II proving to be wildly popular, at least among the competitors — and a portion of one concerto of the performer’s choice, plus standard repertoire solo works.  At the risk of being a bit crass, here is my racing form so far:

Jin Uk Kim, 28 from South Korea but residing in Boston these days is a DMA student at the New England Conservatory.  Mr. Kim played two of the Brahms Klavierstucke, Op. 76 in middle of the road mode, without much heat or light.  He chose Interlude II (the choice of 5 of the other nine players as well), a piece from Kirchner’s last years, as his American work.  It’s an evocative piece which lends itself to a touch of romanticism in tone and Mr. Kim’s satisfying approach was appropriately juicy.  Sparks flew from the Six Paganini Etudes of Franz Liszt but the requisite virtuosity turned his sound toward the hard side.  The Brahms Second Piano Concerto is the 32oz porterhouse of piano concerti, and for me, Mr. Kim left a good deal of meat on his plate.  It was a speedy reading of the first movement, without much breathing room, but the second movement was warmer.

Jin Uk Kim

Jeewon Lee, 30, is also from South Korea and pursuing her DMA at Rice University in Texas.  She began with her American work, Michael Torke’s Laetus and followed it with the Chopin Piano Sonata No. 3.  This, as all the piano playing world knows, is a towering work of great difficulty, both technically and musically.  Ms. Lee handled the technical demands without batting an eyelash, but the music itself was more problematic.  She tends to back away from the climaxes of phrases in a coy, cutesy way —  coquettish rather than ardent, and I think probably not what Chopin was aiming at.  Her Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1, however, was fullblooded and very well played.

Diyi Tang was the competitor I missed hearing in the Preliminaries due to that unfortunate combination of confusion about the start time and traffic.  He is 32, from China, and working towards a DMA at Rutgers University.  He made something of a fashion statement, entering the stage dressed in a sharp and shiny brown sharkskin suit.  Fortunately, his Gaspard de la nuit shimmered as well.  Ondine irridesced, Le gibet twisted ever so slowly in a non existent wind, the endlessly repeating B-flats sounding like they were played by some other pianist in some other room far away, and Scarbo terrorized, leaping and whirling and generally throwing the furniture around.  Mr. Tang chose George Walker’s Sonata No 2 as his American piece and gave it a thoughtful reading.  Less so Chopin’s Scherzo in C-sharp minor, Op. 39 which was strangely uninvolved given the opportunities it presents.  Mainly it was very, very fast with little give, even in the chorale sections.

Saturday’s Round Two began with Yue Chu, 28, from China and currently studying in Philadelphia, who started his program with Interlude II.  To my ears Mr. Chu exhibited tonal problems throughout his recital.  He produced a duller sound than his predecessors which didn’t flatter him by comparison, particularly in the Liszt Sonata which suffered from a few too many cracked notes as well as insufficient bass, leaving otherwise lush harmonies under-supported.  The Rachmaninoff Third Concerto (first and second movements) was better but still on the cool side.

Masafumi Nakatani

Masafumi Nakatani

Masafumi Nakatani, 28 and from Japan, is in the Doctoral Program at University of Miami.  He also opened his program with the Kirchner — a mesmerizing reading with warm sound and pinging high notes.  Things slid downhill from there, however.  Schumann’s Carnaval was overpedaled and sloppy with missed notes and memory slips.  That’s forgivable in this pressure cooker situation, but in an effort to do something “deep” Mr. Nakatani often twisted the music out of proportion, a propensity that afflicted the Beethoven Emperor Concerto too, and that I am less inclined to brush off.

Fortunately, critics are not expected to exercise neutrality.  I have pointed out what I perceive to be some of the problems of these competitors, but I’d like to say here and now that they are all at a minimum very very good pianists.  Remember that, please, as you read what comes next:

Steven Lin is a whole other order of being.  In this competition, he is a leopard in a room full of house cats.  (Mr. Lin may also prove to be a cure for triskaidecaphobics since he is Competitor No. 13).  There is little to say except to marvel at his level of technical accomplishment, well above most of the professional pianists who inhabit the world’s concert halls these days.  The ease of this young man’s playing (he’s 23, and of Taiwanese descent but born in the US), his poise and his absolute mastery enable him to really let his imagination loose.  He can do pretty much anything he wants to do.  This is not necessarily always a good thing, but even when Mr. Lin does something slightly cringeworthy, he does it with such astonishing skill and freedom that it’s pointless to argue.  He exists in a blissful zone of his own.

Steven Lin

Steven Lin

Yekwon Sunwoo is also 23, from South Korea and enrolled in the Masters program at Juilliard.  He seems to me a strong contender for a place in the Kapell finals.  He’s a technical whiz and a good musician.  My one complaint would be that he uses very soft dynamics too much (this has been something of a trend at this competition).  The Chopin Ballade No. 1 left me feeling cheated at many beautiful moments.  The slow movement of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy was much the same — projection above all, please,  even at low volume.   His Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, however, practically lifted the roof off the auditorium (and broke a string in the piano as well).

Yekwon Sunwoo

Yekwon Sunwoo

Misha Namirovsky, 31, from Russia by way of Israel is another newly minted Bostonian, now in the DMA program at New England Conservatory.  I’m about 95% sure Mr. Nemirovsky intended to play the German Steinway he used in the preliminary rounds, however, since the string broken during Mr. Sunwoo’s Rachmaninonff Concerto couldn’t be properly replaced in the 15 minutes allotted between performances, I think Namirovsky must have agreed to use the American Steinway he ended up playing at the last minute.  If that’s the way it happened, it’s a pretty undesirable position to be put in and I suspect it rattled him, subtly at first and then more overtly as the Schumann Symphonic Etudes proceeded.  By the time the Beethoven Fourth Concerto came along he was back in control and he gave a beautiful if slightly oddball performance of it — the second movement played first, followed by the first movement.

Jun Sun, 23 from China and currently a student at Juilliard, gave an appealingly haunting and reflective performance of (once again) the Kirshner Interlude II, and a carefully articulated performance of Brahms’ Handel Variations that was also athletic and fearless at the right moments.  Brahms First Piano Concerto was a little reticent for my taste but it roared occasionally too.

Chamber music is on the program for the next two days followed by the announcement of the finalists.

A Correction:

There are of course inherent problems in publishing same day pieces, and sometimes mistakes are made.  Let me rephrase that:  Sometimes I make mistakes — and I made a lulu the other day when I wrote that Misha Namirovsky had, at the last minute before his performance on Sunday, been forced by circumstances beyond his control to play the American Steinway.  He was, in fact, scheduled to play the American Steinway, has used it from the beginning of the competition and he played it again today in the Chamber Music Round.  My apologies to all concerned.

Chinese Hua Xia Chamber Ensemble in Review

Chinese Hua Xia Chamber Ensemble
“Dialogue Between the Traditional and the Modern”
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center; New York, NY
May 7, 2012

In a program entitled “Dialogue Between the Traditional and the Modern”, the Chinese Hua Xia Chamber Ensemble presented a program of Ancient and Modern Chinese music, pairing traditional Chinese instruments with “Western” instruments in commissioned works. Featuring six (!) World Premieres, it was a concert that bridged the musical heritages of the East and the West.

The Chinese Hua Xia Chamber Ensemble was founded in 1995. The members are mostly award-winning, young conservatory teachers who are considered the “best of the best” in China.  The ensemble requires members not only to master traditional folk music, but to explore and seek innovations in modern styles as well.  Conducted by Tsung Yeh, they have recorded several albums and have performed throughout the world.

Wanting a closer look at the various Chinese instruments, such as the zheng, the ruan, and the yangqin, among others, and to observe the players “up close” made me abandon my usual strategy of sitting in the back rows.  It was fascinating to see these wonderful instruments being played with such mastery.

Six members of the ensemble opened the concert with traditional Chaozhou music entitled “Lang Tao Sha”. In this arrangement, the erxian, zheng, pipa, flute, yangqin, and the ruan were used.  The playing and balance among the six players was outstanding; the six instruments sounded as one. Following this piece was the first premiere of the evening, “Feng Qiu Huang” (a male phoenix sparks a female phoenix). Written by Liu Qing for cello, Chinese percussion, and the guqin (a small, seven-string zither-like instrument, played by plucking the strings), it uses an ancient Hainan love song that depicts the story of a male phoenix (“Feng”) courting a female phoenix (“Huang”). Beginning with quiet low tones in the cello, followed by responses from the guqin, it built in intensity until it reached a climax, then released the tension and came to a quiet conclusion. There were moments where it was difficult to hear the guqin, but this did not spoil the net effect.  The second premiere, “Five Impressions” by composer Gao Ping, was given in partial form (stated in the program as “Part of Movements”). The conductor Tsung Yeh showed admirable concentration and restraint even before the first note by patiently waiting for the incessant picture taking to cease. Once these distractions passed, an inspired performance took place. With haunting flute lines paired with the cello, then pipa with marimba, then all players joining together, each “Impression” had reminders of one previously played. Culminating in rapid passagework that had me thinking of Prokofiev, this imaginative piece was brought to a crackling close. After this excitement, it was a good choice to pull back to an ancient work called “Wild Geese in the Sandbank”. Played on the xiao, a vertical end-blown flute that is roughly the size of the western Alto flute, this work has a pastoral quality, both in the beautiful lento and the joyful allegro sections. Zheng Weiliang gave an enchanting performance and was rewarded with thunderous applause from the audience; he returned to the stage for a well-deserved second bow. Ending the first half was the third premiere, “Graceful”, from composer Wang Danhong. Described as the emotional journey to Dunhuang Caves, and the graceful dancing of flying fairies, the work mesmerized this listener from start to finish. The erhu melody had Ravel-like moments, the flute playing was increasingly virtuosic, and the work continued to gather momentum to a fever pitch. Finally, there was an unforeseen twist – what seemed to be a final explosion of energy was a false ending. Indeed, conductor Tsung Yeh turned to the audience with a quick wave and smile that said “Don’t clap just yet! We’re not done!” Winding it down to a conclusion, he finished with clasped hands and a bowed head, and then turned to the audience. I found this amazing work to be the highlight of the concert, and I would like to hear it again and again!

After intermission, the first work by a Western composer and the fourth premiere, “Nodes”, by John Mallia was presented. In his notes, Mr. Mallia states, ”‘Nodes’ is composed from several discrete strains of material that are alternately exposed and hidden as thresholds positioned throughout the formal structure are crossed.” Combining violin, cello, bass clarinet, and percussion with the zheng, pipa, flute, and erhu, this interesting piece was played skillfully and showed expert blending of Western and Chinese instruments. As Mr. Yeh said in his charming remarks, “open your mind and let the music fill you”. After the piece was finished, zheng player Qui Ji discreetly pulled out a tuning wrench to re-tune the zheng, which she did very quickly, no doubt to bring it back to traditional Chinese tempering. The last traditional Chinese work, from Peking Opera, was “Dark Night”.  Mr. Yeh told the audience the story behind the piece, which I suspect a majority already knew, to judge by the roar of approval. The story is of a great warrior King’s wife saying good-bye to him on the eve of a great battle from which they both know he will not return. It was played with deep reverence, capturing the martial qualities with vigor. The audience was clearly delighted and expressed their approval with the loudest and longest ovation of the evening; this piece was clearly the audience favorite. Chai Shuai, playing Beijing erhu (a smaller version of the standard erhu), was called back on-stage by the audience for his incredible performance. The fifth premiere, “Less, but More” was next on the program, composed by recent Cincinnati Conservatory graduate Xie Wenhui. Ms. Xie writes in her notes that “the inspiration of this piece is taken from the concept of Wang Wei’s works, who is a well-known Chinese poet in Tang Dynasty (8th century). He affirms the world’s beauty, while questioning its ultimate reality in his works. In this piece, I want to draw a comparison between the deceptive simplicity and the Zen path to enlightenment, which is built on careful preparation but is achieved without conscious effort”. The program omitted the mention of the clarinet, pipa, and zheng. The work was given a thoughtful performance by the talented players, making what was quite complex seem simple. The final work (and premiere) was the ingenious “Bridges”. Composer Victoria Bond has written a work with a double meaning; inspired by bridges in both the United States and China, and the concept of ‘”bridging” Western and Eastern influences. It included a train-like rhythm (“Railroad Trestle Bridge in Galax, Virginia”), a traditional Chinese song “Moli Hua” (Jasmine Flower), shades of Joan Baez, and finally, George Gershwin (in the “Brooklyn Bridge”). I suspect this work is as fun to play as it was to hear, and the ensemble really took to the spirit in all the various tributes. East joined West in a jubilant finale and brought the evening to a close with a bang.

Some final thoughts on this most enjoyable evening- The Chinese Hua Xua Ensemble is a first-rate group and their conductor Tsung Yeh is a charismatic leader. It is truly a privilege to see and hear musicians who are all about the music, who play with such passion and such skill, and are keeping the thousands-year old traditions alive. Bravo!

“The Most Happy Fella” by Frank Loesser in Review

“The Most Happy Fella” by Frank Loesser
Dicapo Opera Theatre, New York, NY
March 17, 2012
Leah Lane, Michael Corvino and cast; Photo Credit Rob Rich

Leah Lane, Michael Corvino and cast; Photo Credit Rob Rich

I first saw Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella” in 1957, during its first Broadway run. I bought the score as soon as it was published and the original cast album (the first recording of an entire show, including spoken dialogue) as soon as the 33rpm records came out. These were later replaced by CD’s. In 2006 I attended the New York City Opera’s disastrous production starring a woefully miscast, musically inept Paul Sorvino as the baritone lead. There were other revivals in between. Yes, I’ve had a fifty-five year love affair with this great American musical, but it was a love affair scarred by inept revivals. Would I ever experience a performance which came even close to my memories of the original? This thought went through my mind as I sat in the fifth row of the Dicapo Opera Theatre’s lovely 204 seat space in the basement of St. Jean Baptiste Church on E 76th Street. As the houselights dimmed I was in a state of wary anticipation.

And a few hours later, I was in a state of bliss. I had just attended a performance for which I am still finding it hard to find suitable words – superb, magnificent, sublime all come to mind.  Forget about 1957 – this was the best performance I’ve heard of this great American masterpiece; the perfect amalgam of wonderful unamplified singing (both operatic and pop,) moving acting, clear and simple staging, costumes which conjured up a time and a place, and beautiful orchestral playing.

“The Most Happy Fella” stands or falls on the performance of the “fella,” Tony Esposito, a lonely Italian immigrant who owns a winery in the Napa Valley. He is most often played by a large man who often exaggerates the characters awkwardness and lack of education. Baritone Michael Corvino is a slight, dignified man and his moving portrayal brought out the character’s fragility and, more than any Tony I’ve seen, his deep love for Rosabella, the mail-order bride who has come to his winery. He is a powerful and compelling baritone. But one never felt that he was an “opera singer” crossing over into musical comedy, as he brought the same natural delivery to his “arias” as he did to simple songs like “Happy to make your Acquaintance.” And there was a wonderful chemistry between Mr. Corvino’s Tony and soprano Molly Mustonen’s Rosabella. Possessing a beautiful soprano voice, Ms. Mustonen is a fine singing actress. Her deepening love for Tony was palpable and brought tears to my eyes.

But if much of the music sung by Tony and Rosabella tended towards the operatic, that of the two other leads, Lauren Hoffmeier and Brance Cornelius, was pure musical comedy. Ms. Hoffmeier’s singing of the show’s first number, “Ooo! My Feet,” was deliciously brassy, and her duet with Mr. Cornelius, “Big D,” brought down the house. The fine dancing of both these performers helped choreographer Francine D. Harman solve the problem of how an opera company treats the show’s two big dance numbers. The members of Dicapo’s chorus sang beautifully all evening, but couldn’t be expected to perform the complex choreography of big production numbers. Ms. Harman’s solution was perfect. Omit the dance following the chorus “Sposalizio” and leave most of the dancing in “Big D” to Ms. Hoffmeier and Mr. Cornelius. By the way, the chorus’s performance of “Song of a Summer Night” was memorable.

The supporting cast did much more than just support. One could not ask for better portrayals than Peter Kendall Clark’s Jo, Bess Morrison’s Marie, Michael Hopewell’s Doc and David Keller-Flight’s Postman. Three show stoppers were “Standing on the Corner,” performed by Brian Ribeiro, Nicholas Connolly, Jonathan Harris and the afore mentioned Brance Cornelius; “Abbondanza,” and “Benvenuta,” brilliantly sung by Paolo Buffani, Michael Imbimbo and Vincent Ricciardi.

The fine orchestra was under the masterful direction of conductor Pacien Mazzagatti. The orchestra was seated upstage, behind the performers, bringing the singers very close to the audience. But this setup did nothing to hinder the coordination between voices and instruments. The ensemble was perfect. The simple but effective set by John Farrell was beautifully lit by Susan Roth (In addition to what happened on stage, I loved the mysterious blue-lit orchestra behind the performers.) The fine costumes were designed by Julie Wyma.

Kudos to Dicapo Opera Theatre’s General Director, Michael Capasso. He has a smash hit show on his hands. My brother, who now lives in Paris, was with me at that 1957 performance of “The Most Happy Fella,” If Dicapo performs it again, he will fly back to New York to see it. I’ll be there too.

Rutgers Pianists in Review

Rutgers Pianists in Review
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
November 13, 2011


Twelve piano students from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University performed an all-Liszt program, one of so many tributes honoring the composer’s 200th birthday. The pianists hailed from many nations and represented several degree programs at the university. While the repertoire offered selections from Liszt’s more well-known works, the program exhibited his multi-faceted genius as a virtuoso pianist, an unparalleled transcriber, and a visionary composer.  The general level of playing was of an extremely high caliber; the students played with confidence, technical security and musical sensibility proving that the music department at Rutgers is on a par with the world’s most prestigious conservatories.

Most musicians cut their teeth in group recitals, whether in their suburban teacher’s living room or community music school recitals. This is an awkward and nerve-wracking experience; one waits in the wings unsure of when he will have to step onstage and face the specter of inevitable comparison. To relax and find one’s stride in just one or two pieces is extremely difficult and the performer must go through the same physical preparations (dressing for performance, arriving on time, trying the instrument, etc.) as he would for a full-length recital.  Often the most sensitive artists can be sabotaged by the endeavor, whereas the more arrogant temperaments barrel through their nerves. The brutal arena of competitions is even more grueling.  Paradoxically, the audience frequently comes away with a totally different impression; the listener appreciates the diversity of the performances and how an instrument can transform under each pair of hands. While one might have personal favorites, he is not consumed by the ego of a single soloist. 

The award-winning author, lecturer and pianist David Dubal acted as master of ceremonies for the evening, interspersing the musical selections with commentary which both enlightened the audience and inspired the performers.  His inimitable, spontaneous yet reverent manner infused a festive aura into this event. 

The program opened with Paul Conrad’s sensitive and lyrical rendition of “Au lac de Wallenstadt” from the “Annees de Pelerinage”.  Eva Shu-Yu Huang followed with “Gondeliera” from “Venezia e Napoli”, which after a slightly stiff beginning settled into an evocative barcarolle.  A full range of sonorities were present in Jahye Kim’s account of “St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves”.  Three etudes followed; “La Leggierezza”, one of Liszt’s most Chopinesque works, was played with feverish ardor by Mina Nourbakhsh, Zin Bang delivered a powerful, headlong Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F Minor, and Alexander Beridze demonstrated an easy, fluid technique and piquant rhythm in “La Campanella”.

The second half of the program began with Liszt’s song transcriptions.  Miao Hou presented “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and the ferociously difficult “Erlkonig”, demonstrating exceptional technical mastery and a strong connection with Schubert’s original songs and texts.  Schumann-Liszt’s “Widmung” was played with tenderness by Junko Ichikawa, conveying more of an inward dedication than an open declaration of love. Two transcriptions of Liszt’s own songs followed; “O pourquoi donc” was rendered with delicacy by Huizhon Shen, and “Am Rhein, im schonen Strome” was performed with haunting mystery by Chia-Shan Cheng.  These are lesser-known works which deserve more hearings.

Erickson Rojas, who arrived late as a result of untold travails in traveling, played a hypnotic, insightful “St. Francis of Assisi Preaches to the Birds”. He demonstrated superb tonal control over the filigree and trills in the upper register, and was able to create a truly declamatory, legato vocal line in single notes. The listener was drawn into the inner dialogue between saint and avian creatures. Mr. Rojas unfolded the narrative brilliantly in this work, which can seem amorphous in less capable hands.  The closing work on the program was the “Mephisto Waltz No. 1”, which seemed almost too easy for Yevgeny Morozov.  His performance was more of a romp than a dance, and one would have wanted a more ravishing, seductive middle section. But Mr. Morozov certainly has no shortage of mechanical facility and energy.

Min Kwon, director of the piano department and teacher for the majority of the evening’s performers, offered gracious acknowledgements at the conclusion of the concert. A notable pianist in her own right, she proved to be a skillful and enthusiastic organizer as well.  Anniversary tributes have become a tradition among the Rutgers pianists, and Ms. Kwon anticipates a recital next year celebrating the 150th birthday of Claude Debussy.

Alexandra Eames for New York Concert Review; New York, NY

Louise Dubin, Cellist in Review

Louise Dubin, Cellist in Review
Forgotten Treasures by Franchomme and Chopin
John Street Church; New York, NY
September 29, 2011

Louise Dubin

Louise Dubin, a fine cellist who studied with Ardith Alton, Aldo Parisot, Timothy Eddy and Janos Starker, based her thesis on Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884). She has just completed her dissertation on the French cellist and romantic composer to fulfill her Doctoral requirements at Indiana University’s School of Music in Bloomington, and she is the school’s first music performance student to receive two grants for doctoral  research from the university, which funded the research trip to France where she met descendants of Franchomme and discovered much of the music heard at the concert under review. Franchomme, the most distinguished cellist of the era, is not exactly forgotten, but is best remembered as being the dedicatee of Chopin’s Cello Sonata, Op. 65 and, ergo, the great composer’s dearest friend. Franchomme, of course, left no recorded legacy of his performances, but Ms. Dubin’s research has retrieved Franchomme’s own music, and she has just made a commercial recording for the Eroica Classical label of Franchomme’s music, most of which has never been recorded or published. Moreover, Ms. Dubin’s intense and perceptive work has unearthed clues of Franchomme’s probable performance style by way of his fingerings and bowings, having an impact on sound production and an emotional impact on performance.

The September 29th recital began with two of Franchomme’s own pieces: one of his Caprices, Op. 7 No. 9, a fine specimen undoubtedly inspired by Paganini’s famous 24 Caprices, Op. 1 for solo violin, composed circa 1804 and published in1820. Franchomme obviously owes much to Paganini’s models. But its highly contrapuntal style also harks back to J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied Cello Suites. The Caprice was followed by a vivacious set of Variations on an Irish Air, Op. 25 for Cello and Piano, which commenced with a brief introduction and evolved into the theme itself– dancelike and energetic–and a lively numerous set of variants. Ms. Dubin’s excellent performances–likewise, the aforementioned Caprice–was a joy to savor, and Hiroko Sasaki’s cooperation at the piano worked beautifully as a Duo. (Her little asides and comments added immensely to the performance’s effectiveness.) Likewise, Franchomme’s “Fantaisie on Mozart’s Enchanted Flute,” Op. 49 at the end of the printed program (“The Zauberflote” or “Magic Flute”; Franchomme spent much of his career playing in the pit of the Paris Opera Orchestra at the Theatre Italien and in the court of King Louis Philippe). The Fantaisie interpolates parts of the overture and some of the arias heard in the opera itself. Again, Ms. Dubin and Ms. Sasaki worked beautifully together (and I was surprised to learn that the two protagonists had not previously played together before this concert.)

The rest of the concert, mostly Franchomme’s arrangements of Chopin’s treasures (the Nocturne, Op. 55 No. 1, the Funeral March from the Sonata Op. 35, the Mazurka, Op. 33 No.3, and the Prelude, Op. 28 No. 20), were hardly flattered by Franchomme’s tepid and servile recasting for cello and piano (Op. 55 No.1). Moreover, his recasting for Cello Quartet (of the Op. 35 and Op. 28 No. 20) sorely missed some of the ‘di rigeur’ percussiveness of the original piano, and the Second Ballade, Op. 38 was almost laughable (it turned out to be just the piece’s swaying opening theme.) The Cello Quartet, Ms. Dubin; Katherine Cherbas; Saeunn Thorsteindottir and Sarah Hewitt-Roth, also played Franchomme’s adaptations of Schumann’s “Soldier’s March” (from his Album for the Young) and the Can Can from Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld.”

On the one hand, Liszt’s audacious genius–like it or not–often imparted a vibrant life to the music of other composers that Franchomme’s more modest gifts simply could not do. But the great violinist Nathan Milstein did fashion a more compelling and interesting arrangement of an early Chopin Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. Posthumous. (Franchomme’s dutiful “arrangements” did nothing at all.) Mendelssohn’s own “Song without Words” for cello and piano was far more palatable for this listener. Ms. Dubin and Ms. Sasaki played it beautifully.

All told, this concert faute de mieux was worthwhile, mostly for the three original Franchomme pieces. And I am eagerly looking forward to Ms. Dubin’s imminent recording.

George Li, a 14-year-old pianist from Lexington, Massachusetts, is the first-prize winner of the inaugural Thomas and Evon Cooper International Competition.

George Li, a 14-year-old pianist from Lexington, Massachusetts, is the first-prize winner of the inaugural Thomas and Evon Cooper International Competition

Pianist George Li with members of the Cleveland Orchestra and conductor Jahja. Photo Credit – Roger Mastroianni.

Pianist George Li, 14, performs Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 with the Cooper International Competition in Severance Hall. Photo Credit – Roger Mastroianni.

His stellar performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11, with Jahja Ling conducting The Cleveland Orchestrain Severance Hall on Friday, July 30, brought the week-long piano competition, held at Oberlin, to an exciting climax. It also brought Li the top prize of $10,000, one of the largest awards offered by an international youth competition. The prize includes concert engagements with orchestras in Beijing and Shanghai, China, and a full, four-year scholarship to the conservatory.

(L-R): Dean of the Oberlin Conservatory David H. Stull; Thomas Cooper,who, with his wife Evon, is the sponsor of the competition; first-prize winner George Li, second-prize winner John Chen; and third-prize winner Kate Liu. Photo Credit – Roger Mastroianni

The Cooper Competition is presented by the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and The Cleveland Orchestra. Full Oberlin scholarships are also awarded to the second- and third-place winners. John Chen, 14, of Leesburg, Virginia, won second prize and $6,000 for his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. Kate Liu, 16, of Chicago, won third prize and $3,000 for her performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26. The enthusiastic audience in Severance Hall gave each pianist a standing ovation. Dean of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music David H. Stull and Thomas Cooper presented the awards. Mr. Cooper is the sponsor, with his wife Evon, of the competition. The concert was broadcast live on Cleveland’s classical radio station, 104.9-FM WCLV, and simulcast on

Evon Cooper was also one of the evening’s adjudicators, along with Gregory Allen ’70 of the University of Texas at Austin; Malcolm Bilson of Cornell University; Alan Chow of Northwestern University; Christopher Elton of the Royal Academy of Music; Stanislav Ioudenitch of the International Center for Music in Kansas; Matti Raekallio of the Juilliard School in New York and the Hochschule für Musik in Hanover, Germany; and Oberlin faculty members Angela Cheng, Sanford Margolis, Robert Shannon, director of the competition, and Haewon Song.

Listeners of National Public Radio can look forward to a feature about the Cooper Competition in the days to come. Noah Adams, senior correspondent for NPR’s national desk and veteran co-host of “All Things Considered,” spent time on the Oberlin campus this past week documenting the experiences of the participants, their parents, and the judges.