MARA Society of New York presents Fall Concerto

MARA Society of New York presents Fall Concerto
Alexandru Tomescu, violin, Matei Varga, piano, Jesus Rodolfo Rodriguez, viola
Merkin Concert Hall, New York, NY
October 9, 2013

The MARA Society of New York is dedicated to supporting and advancing Romanian music, arts, and culture. They have joined forces with Hospices of Hope to raise funds for the completion of Bucharest’s first hospice care facility. This season they presented a benefit concert entitled “Fall Concerto” along with a silent auction – I had my eye on the private tour of Dracula’s castle in Romania! One hundred percent of the proceeds from the performance and auction were to be donated to their hospice cause.  (To learn more, visit www.marasociety.com and http://www.hospicesofhope.co.uk/ .) Romanians Alexandru Tomescu, violin, Matei Varga, piano, and “honorary Romanian”, violist Jesus Rodolfo Rodriguez, lent their support by donating their time and talents in performance of works by Bartók, Brahms, Schumann, Bach, Enescu, Chopin, and Saint-Saëns.

Bartók’s Romanian Dances, six short pieces originally written for solo piano, opened the concert. Zoltán Székely’s virtuosic arrangement for violin and piano was used by Alan Arnold in his own arrangement for Viola and Piano. Mr. Rodriguez captured the essence of these dances; the sorrowful longing and the wild jubilation. The final dance’s virtuosic passages were tossed off by Mr. Rodriguez with a laser-like clarity. His playing is fearless, but never reckless.  Mr. Varga provided restrained support, allowing Mr. Rodriguez the starring role, as is proper for this work.

Next, Mr. Tomescu joined Mr. Varga in Brahms’s Scherzo for Violin and Piano. The Scherzo is the third movement of the so-called F-A-E Sonata, a collaborative work of three composers: Schumann, Brahms, and Albert Dietrich, as a gift to legendary violinist Joseph Joachim in 1853. The initials F-A-E stand for Frei aber einsam (Free, but lonely), which Joachim had adopted as his motto.  The young Brahms was already a master of this form, with opportunities for both violinist and pianist to assume leading roles, but also as a collaboration of equals. Mr. Tomescu and Mr. Varga realized these ideals in a sprightly and polished performance.

Playing the Stradivarius Elder-Voicu violin he received in 2007, Mr. Tomescu produces a tone that is bold and full-bodied, but never strident. He projects well at all dynamic levels and plays with a quiet, regal demeanor. This does not mean his is not a passionate performer, but rather one who invests his energy in the music and not empty histrionics.  He has the poetry as well as the pyrotechnics, but I am getting ahead of myself – more about that later.

Schumann’s Fantasy for Violin and Piano, Op. 131, followed the Brahms.  This work is one with fluctuating moods, from joyous to reflective and back – much like Schumann himself.  It was fascinating to watch how the performers projected the identities of Schumann’s famous alter egos. The extroverted Mr. Varga matched the character of Florestan, while Mr. Tomescu represented the more introverted qualities of Eusebius.  Both players shone in a spirited performance. One must say that this pairing of Mr. Tomescu and Mr. Varga is fortuitous, as their complementary personalities make for thought-provoking performances.

After a break for a presentation by Princess Marina Sturdza, the patron of Hospices of Hope, Mr. Tomescu returned to the stage for a solo performance of J.S. Bach’s well-known Chaconne from the 2nd Partita in D minor, BWV 1004. He delivered a majestic and dramatic performance sustaining the intensity from start to finish.

The first half closed with Mr. Rodriguez’s performance of Konzertstück for Viola and Piano by George Enescu. He played with great elan, and Mr. Varga was there every step of the way. This was a pairing of simpatico personalities. The work was brought to a close with bravura playing from Mr. Rodriguez- all that was missing were sparks flying from his bow!

After a long intermission, another Enescu work, the Impromptu Concertante for Violin and Piano opened the second half.  This lush, romantic work, allowed Mr. Tomescu to highlight the singing qualities of his tone, while the ever attentive Mr. Varga continued his excellent playing.

Mr. Varga then offered Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, the Heroic. True to his personality, Mr. Varga gave it a passionate and exciting reading.  One could never accuse Mr. Varga of lacking exuberance in his playing! His infectious smiles, intense involvement with each and every note (including inaudibly singing along), and his sensitivity to the needs and wants of his collaborators, combined with his technical gifts, make him a joy to watch and hear.

Mr. Tomescu rejoined Mr. Varga to close the concert with Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.  This showstopper calls for the violinist to reach deep into his bag of tricks to meet the technical and musical demands.  Mr. Tomescu is a master magician indeed – with the able support of Mr. Varga he fashioned a performance of wit and brilliance. The dazzling finale brought the full house to its feet in a long and well-deserved ovation – a great finish to a great evening.


Enrique Velez-Bidot and Hermelindo Ruiz, guitarists in Review

Enrique Velez-Bidot and Hermelindo Ruiz, guitarists
The American Bible Society; New York, NY
October 4, 2013

At concerts presented by Musica da Camara, the sponsors of this event, this reviewer has grown to expect performances characterized by a close connection between the performers and their audience. These events are almost like family gatherings. And this was palpably present in this Emerging Artist Concert, a recital by the young Puerto Rican guitarists Enrique Velez-Bidot and Hermelindo Ruiz, which took place in the Conference Center of The American Bible Society’s New York headquarters. The audience kvelled at every sound, at every word. (To kvell – Yiddish: to take pleasure in the achievement of family members and others close to you.)

The large and enthusiastic audience loved the concert, and their pleasure did not seem to be diminished by the things I will discuss in this paragraph. Firstly, the printed program bore little connection to what we heard. I find this unacceptable, as the printed program is both a guide for the audience and an historical documentation of the event. It seems that Mr. Ruiz, after deciding to change the works he would be performing, failed to inform Musica da Camara in time. He therefore had to verbally explain the changes to the audience, thus confusing the audience and lengthening the spoken part of the recital.  I know that many of today’s audiences find that spoken comments from the performers are both enjoyable and informative. But to this listener it seemed that there were almost as many words coming from the stage as there were musical sounds. A little spontaneity is a good thing. To be effective, however, performer-to-audience interaction must be very well planned and timed. Tonight, five pieces which appeared on the printed program had to be omitted because too much time was spent talking. I would have loved to have heard them, especially “El coqui” by Jose Ignacio Quinton and the two Bach Inventions arranged for two guitars.

The concert’s first half belonged to Hermelindo Ruiz. He began with three of his own works, “Espacio”, “Recordando a Margot” and “Three Sketches.” On all three he exhibited a fine technique and drew many lovely colors from the instrument. The first two were written in a quite accessible style and allowed Mr. Ruiz to spin out some lovely well shaped phrases with clear articulation. The third, equally well played, was much more complex and dissonant. This was followed by the Gavotte en Rondeau from J.S. Bach’s Suite for Lute in E Major, BWV 1006a. This very popular work is part of an arrangement by the composer of movements from his Third Partita for Violin Solo, BWV 1006. Perhaps Mr. Ruiz was being too “respectful” of this work by the great master, but I felt that the performance didn’t quite dance. I would also suggest that the first dissonant note of an appoggiatura should be a bit louder than its consonant resolution.

The first half concluded with the World Premiere of a piece Mr. Ruiz commissioned for this concert, “Variaciones sobre un tema Paraguayo” (“Variations on a Paraguayan Theme”) by the  Paraguayan composer Diego Sanchez Haase. Although very well performed, this work’s basic problem was that, at least on first listening, the theme (the melody, the harmony, the structure et. al.) was so complicated that during the variations one could not tell what was being varied. If the theme (everything about the original material) isn’t clear, then one cannot take joy in perceiving what the composer does with “the original stuff.” The work made great technical demands on Mr. Ruiz, but he was up to all of them.

The second half began with a performance by Enrique Velez of Andrés Segovia’s arrangement for guitar of one of the monuments of Western Classical music, the Chaconne from the Second Partita for Violin, BWV 1004 by J.S. Bach. It was, unfortunately, not a successful performance of this most difficult work. As he had to stop and retune twice in the middle of this long work, my thought was that there must have been something wrong with Mr. Velez’s instrument. And since I know that this would have unnerved any performer, I don’t think it necessary to describe the performance in any detail. But I am happy to mention that there were moments during the Bach (and in the following duet with Mr. Ruiz) that I heard examples of the quality of playing one expects from a player with Mr. Velez’s training and experience. For the concert’s last work, Messers Ruiz and Velez got together in a jaunty performance of Juan Francisco Acosta’s “Bajo la sombra de un pino”.


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.


Pianist Liam Kaplan in Review

Liam Kaplan, piano
Mannes College, The New School for Music, New York
September 28, 2013
Liam Kaplan

Liam Kaplan

Bach-on-the-piano activism is not the eyebrow raiser it once was. The tenet that J. S. Bach’s lifetime of keyboard works dealt only marginally with a plinky-hammered, Lilliputian forebear of a concert grand has been superseded, even among retro-fashionable harpsichordists and clavichordists, by the iconic status of the music and the deferential acknowledgment of equal access, if not equal temperament, to all performers who wish to claim it as their own. Now that the activists are at peace, the spotlight has shifted back to its original point, a discussion of the tuning systems which unlocked music forever when Bach composed his eloquent and sprawling “Well-Tempered Clavier.”

Temperament is a deliberate sweetening or souring of ordinarily pure consonances by a keyboard tuner, who distorts certain intervals slightly in order to retain the usable intonation of all twelve different notes in the octave. The choices of notes to mistune would determine the most aesthetically permissible keys through the centuries, but pieces had to stay near the keys related to the sweet notes or the instruments would have to be retuned around new keys. The search for a single operating system which could service all keys at once was so hotly argued that eventually the whole case was settled by the discovery of the twelfth root of the number two, an all-purpose multiplier for each note’s pitch in order to reach that of its northern neighbor, and no one has ever looked back. Meanwhile, on the sly, Bach safeguarded the family heirloom temperament and displayed the sacred formula not as a Wall Street pie chart but as a doodle on the title page of his book, according to the musical cryptographer Bradley Lehman and his supporters. Simple and harmonious, tuned in fifteen minutes, centered around B major, Bach’s Good Temperament distributed the tartness little by little en route to the brighter keys, stressing the recognized Affekt or emotion inherent to each of the twelve major and twelve minor tonalities. (Modern expense prohibits the use of Bach’s temperament in a usual recital setting.) The live demonstration in 1722, a prelude and fugue played in every one of twenty-four keys, landed Bach a teaching job in Leipzig and a demand for a spin-off collection of twenty-four even more complicated preludes and fugues. Chopin liked to warm up with them.

Fifteen-year-old Liam Kaplan is the latest candidate to have traversed Book One of “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier” in a single concert, at the Mannes College on Saturday evening. An unavoidable intermission bisected the majesty of the marathon but refueled the artist’s prodigious memory. Young Mr. Kaplan, a composition and bass student as well as a pianist at Mannes Prep, is finding his adult voice in a milieu rich with possibility. His inborn gifts of Swiss-watch rhythmic pulse, polyphonic lightness, and formal proportion were obvious from the start. Mr. Kaplan hears like a composer, albeit a rare composer who tells time and who communicates motives as well as harmony. He relishes excursions and surprises, layered balances, extended sequences and coda sections. Many of his performances could be lifted directly into a music history survey with complete satisfaction. Mr. Kaplan draws the listener into his world, a place of discipline and dignity, of sunny and attainable ideals. Although he seems as yet untouched by sorrow or even the theatrical portrayal of darkness, suspended in his refined atmosphere of feathery pointillism and trotting tempos, Mr. Kaplan is eminently likable. Some questions ensue if we fall captive to the cerebral perfection of his fugues in C-sharp minor or A major, or the expertly tailored articulation of his whirlwind preludes in G major and frothy B-flat: at the end of the day, Mr. Kaplan prefers to coax only a mezzo-piano out of a nine-foot Steinway. He seems not to need power or tragedy, to distinguish a poignant tonality from a soothing one, or to play a piano like an organ. He spreads chords ahead of their beats and crushes his leaning grace notes without spice. He is humble and happy not to show off.

Time will tell, of course. To evince such an abundance of fundamental musicianship at fifteen is no small feat. The self-control in Mr. Kaplan’s work is a proven predictor of success and a quality that few performing artists can hang on a shingle. In comparison with the rowdy boys in Bach’s charge at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig (some of whom burned mice over a candle and left them as trophies for the professor), Liam Kaplan might have made Bach a very proud mentor.


I-Bei Lin CD in review

I-Bei Lin, cello; Jonathan Korth, piano
Mae Zenke Orvis Auditorium, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, Honolulu, HI
April 18, 2011
 
I-Bei Lin Cellist

I-Bei Lin Cellist

Cellist I-Bei Lin has an impressive performance history, having given recitals throughout the world, including New Zealand, Thailand, Taiwan, much of Europe, and the United States. She received her bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School of Music and master’s and doctoral degrees from Northwestern University. She is currently an Associate Professor of Cello and Chair of Strings at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

This review is of an unedited, live recording of a recital from April 18, 2011, featuring works by Beethoven, Donald Reid Womack, Debussy, and Gregor Piatigorsky.  In the spirit of the “live” performance, I made the decision not to listen to the recording numerous times, but to imagine I was in attendance. I believe that this is the most objective approach.

The recital opened with the Sonata for Pianoforte and Cello, Op. 102, No.1, of Ludwig van Beethoven. This work belongs to the beginning of Beethoven’s late period. It is complex and unconventional in form.  Dr. Lin played with confidence, indicating her mature grasp of Beethoven’s visionary ideas. The Adagio was especially praiseworthy in its pacing and sustained intensity. It was an auspicious beginning.

fff, composed in 2011 especially for Dr. Lin and pianist Jonathan Korth by Donald Reid Womack (b. 1966), followed the Beethoven. One might be excused for expecting that the title referred to the dynamic marking fortississimo and that a very loud piece was to ensue; the title, however, refers to its three pieces (falling, floating, flying) played without pause. Womack writes, “they are bound by a common theme of groundlessness, of having air between oneself and the earth”.  These pieces conveyed their respective titles in a highly effective way that capitalized on Dr. Lin’s considerable talents, including a fluid technique and wide range of expressive timbres (Womack had previously written a solo piece for Dr. Lin in 2005 titled Scherzophrenic). The end result was a mesmerizing performance from both Dr. Lin and Mr. Korth.

The Cello Sonata of Claude Debussy closed the first half. This work, written in 1915, is one of the staples of the cello repertoire and deservedly so.  French cellist Louis Rosoor (incorrectly cited as Louis Rosser in the program notes) claimed Debussy told him that thematic material from the sonata was related to dramatic characters, but Debussy denied this.  Rosoor’s version is plausible, as this work is extremely mercurial, with sudden outbursts and mood changes throughout. Not only must the performer deal with the stylistic difficulties, but also overcome the myriad technical demands as well. To use a popular expression, Dr. Lin “nailed it!” in a highly nuanced performance.

The second half opened with a set of Taiwanese Folk Songs, which served a dual purpose. The most obvious was that Dr. Lin was honoring the music of her native Taiwan, but the second was the idea of bringing the audience back down to earth after the atmospheric fff and the emotional roller coaster of the Debussy.  These pieces were played by Dr. Lin in a sincere and unpretentious manner.

Paganini’s 24th caprice for violin has been the basis for brilliant variations by many great composers. Piano works by Liszt, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff readily come to mind, but why should pianists have all the fun? The legendary cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976) decided to write a set of variations on this caprice that allowed him to showcase his justly renowned technical prowess to the hilt. Dr. Lin took up the challenge of Piatigorsky’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini to end the recital.  Taking a page from Edward Elgar, Piatigorsky wrote fourteen variations as musical portraits of famous friends. They are, in order, Pablo Casals, Paul Hindemith, Raya Garbousova, Erica Morini, Felix Salmond, Joseph Szigeti, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, Fritz Kreisler, Gregor Piatigorsky, Gaspar Cassado, Mischa Elman, Ennio Bolognini, Jascha Heifetz, and Vladimir Horowitz. The variations are often witty, but many take the form of inside jokes, as it is not always readily apparent how each variation connects to its named inspirations (for example, the Hindemith variation sounds nothing like Hindemith the composer). This is a virtuoso work that projects much better live than in recordings, as the visual aspect is an integral part of the experience. In any case, it is a highly pleasurable tour-de-force for the cellist. Dr. Lin tossed off the challenges with ease in a confident performance. The rousing finish ended the concert in style and the audience reacted with loud applause.

I must commend excellent pianist Jonathan Korth as an outstanding collaborator to Dr. Lin, ever sensitive to balance issues and flexible to the cellist’s every impulse.

In 2005, the late Edith Eisler wrote in the pages of this journal that Dr. Lin “is a very fine cellist.” In 2013, I must tip my hat to her and wholeheartedly agree with her assessment. Dr. Lin is a fine cellist,  equally at home in wide-ranging styles and possessing the technique to make it all seem so easy.


Hyojung Huh CD in Review

Hyojung Huh, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
March 13, 2013
 
Hyojung Huh ,Pianist

Hyojung Huh ,Pianist

 
 

Korean pianist Hyojung Huh gave a debut in New York this Spring that introduced not only herself as a performer, but also, in the second half, the ten-movement, forty-five-minute Chorale Fantasy of contemporary Korean composer, Shinuh Lee, entitled “Comfort, comfort my people.”  While I missed the concert itself, I was assigned to review an unedited CD of it and found much to admire. While CD recordings almost inevitably miss the energy of a live performance itself, they do enable the multiple hearings one usually needs with new works. Ms. Huh holds an impressive array of degrees as a pianist, including B.M. and M.M. from Seoul National University, M.M. from Westminster Choir College, and P.D. (Performer Diploma) from Indiana University-Bloomington, in addition to an imminent D.M.A. from the University of Wisconsin where she is a doctoral candidate; in addition, though, Ms. Huh has earned degrees in aesthetics, sacred music, and choral conducting, all of which seem to make her a natural fit for the New York Premiere of Ms. Lee’s imposing,  Biblically-inspired Chorale Fantasy.  Drawn by musical and theological interests (having already done Masters studies on Messiaen in relation to Catholic ontology, liturgy and Biblical language), Ms. Huh is currently working on a dissertation offering a metaphysical and theological perspective on the Shinuh Lee composition performed in this recital, a work which does bear some kinship with works of Messiaen himself.  So, rarely will one see a confluence of such well-matched forces – the pianist, the composer, and the central inspiration of the work all in perfect synch.

Hyojung Huh ,Pianist

Hyojung Huh ,Pianist

In laic terms, the work is an intensely dramatic one, alternating evocations of fire and brimstone with those of ethereal peace, created brilliantly by Ms. Lee and conveyed sympathetically and passionately by Ms. Huh. The first movement is entitled “A brimful living chalice of despair and horror and astonishment.” The movement lived up to its title. Vivid in its thunderous and dissonant virtuoso writing, it alternated bass chants against smoldering trills and tremolos with nightmarishly unrelenting rhythms that were sometimes reminiscent of Ligeti’s “L’escalier du diable” to this listener. Comparisons are for expedience – not to suggest that the work is derivative – so I’ll also be forgiven for comparing some of Ms. Lee’s stomping martial accompaniments to Prokofiev’s “Montagues and Capulets” in their savagery. The overall effect was harrowing. Sheer terror yielded wonderfully in the second movement to a feeling of post-apocalyptic quiet. Entitled “Lord Have Mercy”, this prayerfully simple A-flat major Chorale (towards the end reappearing in A major) developed over a pulsating pedal point into a Brahmsian meditation that might make a jaded listener flinch at such sweetness, were it not in juxtaposition to the ferocious first movement.  Ms. Huh also gave it a pacing which prevented any feeling of glibness. Limitless emotional range, here and in the rest of the work, was matched by an arsenal of several centuries of musical techniques and styles, from early chant, to Bach, through the moderns (even hints of Einojuhani Rautavaara), all integrated organically. The work is quite a journey, and Ms. Huh was up to the task of guiding us through it – performing from memory, no less! Undoubtedly she will bring this work to many venues. Some choices in text will be challenging and controversial to many – and they frankly could prevent widespread acceptance of it – but the music itself could be imagined to depict numerous stirring but more widely applicable Bible verses, should changes be made at some point. Universal acceptance, however, does not appear to be the goal here. Remaining open-minded about new music can be one of the big challenges in reviewing, but the same applies to new interpretations of “old” music, which one also encountered in this recital. Ms. Huh’s first half, consisting of the oft-heard “Jeux D’eau” of Ravel and ubiquitous Symphonic Etudes of Schumann, was unconventionally played. Jeux d’eau (translated sometimes as “Fountains” or “Playings of Water”) was not the sort of sweeping, watery interpretation to which I’m accustomed.  My first reaction was that it needed more flow, flexibility, and the qualities that one associates with water; instead, this performance struck one as a bit stolid, on the slow side, and rather careful; on rethinking it, however, Ms. Huh’s was an interpretation that may have simply been focused more on the individual droplets, each in imagined crystalline perfection. Having not heard the concert live, but catching the tonal beauty of individual notes nonetheless, I’m inclined to give the performer the benefit of the doubt! Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes similarly seemed overly cautious.  In this case, due to some weak spots where tempi fluctuated and some messiness ensued, one imagines that there is simply a need to live with the piece longer. The additional Posthumous Etudes (Nos. II and V) were much appreciated, as they are often omitted, but suffice it to say that the Shinuh Lee work will be what is best remembered of this recital.  That is no small achievement.


Yumi Suehiro, Pianist in Review

Yumi Suehiro, piano
“Chromatic Journey”
Tenri Cultural Institute, New York, NY
June 15, 2013
 
Yumi Suehiro, pianist

Yumi Suehiro, pianist

 

In a recital entitled “Chromatic Journey,” pianist Yumi Suehiro presented a program that was challenging to both performer and listener. It featured Scriabin’s White Mass Sonata, Ligeti’s Autumn in Warsaw Etude, and the New York premiere of Football in Marja by American composer Alex Burtzos (b. 1985).

Opening with J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B-flat minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book Two, Ms. Suehiro showed straight away that she has her own ideas about the style and approach to this work. Perhaps her marimba experience helped shape these ideas, but whatever the case there was an overall percussive quality to her approach. Aaron Copland’s Passacaglia followed. Written in 1922 and dedicated to his teacher, Nadia Boulanger, this work was born of her insistence that her students “master traditional forms.” Featuring an eight-measure theme with eight variations, this work reflects Copland’s mastery of form, and it was given a well-conceived and taut performance, Ms. Suehiro built the intensity until it exploded in the last two variations. Football in Marja, written in 2011, is a musical portrait of Marja, a town in Afghanistan. The “football” is, of course, soccer, and is represented musically by hyper-energetic tritone motifs. The difficulties of everyday life are depicted with cluster chords. Ms. Suehiro championed this work with passionate commitment. With driving energy in the motoric sections, cascades of jagged clusters, and the final blast of sound, it was riveting from start to finish. Mr. Burtzos was in attendance and was obviously very pleased with Ms. Suehiro’s performance, as one would expect.  The half ended with Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op. 20 by Béla Bartók, an eight-movement work characterized by thorny, angry motifs and driving rhythms throughout. While the seventh movement is dedicated to the memory of Debussy, there is nothing remotely Debussyian about any of this work. It has moments of lyricism, but it is not an easy piece for audiences to warm up to. Ms. Suehiro played these variations with an aggressiveness that at times bordered on the savage, but also brought out some of the more lyrical elements with sensitivity. It was an intriguing, if not fully satisfying, performance.

After a short intermission, Ms. Suehiro offered Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 64, the White Mass. Composed in 1911, this highly chromatic work walks the tightrope between tonality and atonality throughout.  It was composed as an “exorcism” against the darkness of the Piano Sonata No. 6, Op. 62, which Scriabin believed to be fraught by demonic forces. He subtitled the work White Mass to signify the clearing of the darkness. Ms. Suehiro took the listener on a twelve-minute journey packed with moments of harrowing terror, beauty, and heaven storming.  It was a journey I was glad to go on, in what was the highlight of the evening.  Etude No. 6, Book 1 –Autumn in Warsaw from György Ligeti ended the recital. Ms. Suehiro remarked that she finds this work “funky and groovy” and a “weird and interesting piece.” It was the first time I had ever heard Ligeti referred to as funky and groovy and I admit it made me smile. In any case, this is one of Ligeti’s more accessible works, and Ms. Suehiro played it with polish. The audience rewarded Ms. Suehiro with a standing ovation. After all the thorns, it was time for a rose, which came in the form of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D major, Op. 23 No. 4, which Ms. Suehiro played as a encore with grace and sensitivity.

The evening left me with some reservations. First, the venue’s acoustics are not ideal. Even though the piano was on the half-stick, the volume was at times oppressively loud. Ms. Suehiro’s bold “all-in” approach would have been ideal for a larger venue, but not this one. I assume that Ms. Suehiro became oblivious to this issue in the heat of the moment; otherwise, I believe that she, being the intelligent and deeply committed musician that she is, would have made adjustments. Second, it might have been beneficial for Ms. Suehiro to offer some sonic relief; though the unifying theme was explicitly one of chromaticism, the “journey” would have benefited from more contrast. Third, although some would say this is nitpicking, the artist’s name was misspelled on the cover of the program, and there were factual errors in the program notes as well. Considering Ms. Suehiro’s careful attention to musical details, I was disappointed that these errors were not caught in the proofs.

Yumi Suehiro is an intense musician, one who invests every ounce of her energy, passion, and intellect into her performances. She should have a promising future.


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!


Wael Farouk, pianist in Review

Wael Farouk, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
June 1, 2012 
 
Wael Farouk, pianist

Wael Farouk, pianist

Just a year ago, I had the pleasure of hearing (and reviewing) Wael Farouk in one of the best renditions of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto I’d ever heard, and I could hardly wait to hear him again. The focus in that first hearing had not been his adverse situation as a pianist or, as his biography states, “small stature and an unusual hand condition that prevents him from making a fist or straightening his fingers” (though it was indeed striking to behold his hands’ miraculous maneuvers); what struck one most that evening was his tremendous music making, the kind that defies and transcends any and all challenges. His playing shows a commitment that is profound, and so does his repertoire, which according to his biography includes more than 50 concertos and 60 solo programs (of which he has given Egyptian premieres of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, and Prokofiev Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 2, and 3).

Mr. Farouk had been scheduled to give his New York recital debut in Weill Hall in November, 2012, but he was forced to reschedule the concert because of Hurricane Sandy. The debut finally materialized seven months later  – an annoying amount of time to keep a program on the “back burner” while scheduled also for a 140th Anniversary complete Rachmaninoff cycle – but his devoted following was handsomely rewarded for the wait. There were, as will increasingly be expected, numerous pianists clustered near the stage, gesturing towards their own hands, speaking about sizes and stretches, and watching intently. As one may guess, Mr. Farouk’s magic is not so much about hands as about the inner musician.

Mr. Farouk’s imagination was readily apparent from the very first notes of the Prelude in B-flat Minor, Op. 37, No. 1, by Alexander Scriabin. The gentle, almost glassily rendered melody of his opening announced the presence of a sensitive artist and set the tonal palette well for future building into the next work in the same key, Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2, Op. 36 (the revised version).  Here Mr. Farouk shaped his phrases with elegance and an almost cerebral quality that is unusual among the many heart-on-sleeve versions. I must admit I lean towards the heart-on-sleeve interpretations, but it was fascinating to hear so many inner voices featured and such a sense of priority in the architecture. For me, there needed to be more building along the way (especially in top melodic registers) from the very first accelerando of the first movement to the clangorous almost bell-like resonances later on, but disagreements are inevitable, and Mr. Farouk always showed persuasive commitment. Vive la difference – Mr. Farouk will not be without controversy!

To close the half (surprisingly, as one usually sees the Rachmaninoff Op. 36 closing a half), Mr. Farouk gave the U.S. premiere of “To Our Revolution’s Martyrs” by leading twentieth-century Egyptian composer Gamal Abdel-Rahiem (1924-1988). In two well-crafted movements, “Elegy” and “Clash” the music spoke of national struggles through a hybrid language of Arab and Western modalities (and outlines of diminished fourths never far). In light of 2011 events, it has an updated political resonance, perhaps the intent in Mr. Farouk’s programming; at any rate, it was particularly interesting simply to hear music of a composer who taught virtually an entire generation of Egyptian composers.

To open the second half, Mr. Farouk gave the World Premiere of “I Colored a Wanted Music I Can Always Hear”-  a tonally mild and quasi-impressionistic haiku-inspired composition by Scott Robbins (b. 1964). It was sensitively delivered, and the composer, present to take a bow, beamed with pleasure.

Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 32, No. 5 in G Major made a skillful transition back to the Russian world, specifically to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Here was the absolutely masterful playing of the evening. Mr. Farouk distilled the essence of each feeling and image in Mussorgsky’s phrases and gestures. Each highly contrasting movement was a gem of color and spirit, overflowing with energy and life right up through the final powerful chords. The audience leapt to its feet and was rewarded with three encores, the Gluck-Sgambati Melodie, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12 and the brilliantly played Liszt Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto. Bravo – and encore! While, nothing has eclipsed the memory of that Rachmaninoff Third Concerto of a year ago, I would still say:  run – don’t walk – to hear Wael Farouk!


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: Requiems for the Brave in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: Requiems for the Brave
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Jonathan Griffith, DCINY Principal Conductor; Mark Hayes, Composer/Conductor
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center; New York, NY
May 27, 2013
Dr. Jonathan Griffith for the Durufle Requiem

Dr. Jonathan Griffith for the Durufle Requiem

 
 

On Memorial Day, May 27, 2013, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented a concert entitled “Requiems for the Brave”, dedicated to the men and women of our Armed Forces.  With chorus members from Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, Canada, and Dubai performing, there was feeling of excitement as the hall filled.

The first half was the Requiem, Op. 9 of French organist, pedagogue, and composer Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) in the original 1947 version.  This serene work is largely devoid of the fearsome elements of the requiem mass (i.e. Dies Irae), but uses Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem as a model. Conductor Jonathan Griffith led the large forces in a highly nuanced performance. His patience at the podium as he waited for the stampede of latecomers to find their seats after the Kyrie was commendable, but after almost five minutes, the Domine Jesu Christe was delivered with a boldness that was worth the wait! The Agnus Dei was delivered with tranquil beauty, and the child-like innocence of the In Paradisum, which ended in a whisper, was breathtaking.  Baritone soloist Andrew Garland projected strength and confidence. Mezzo-soprano Holly Sorenson was sublime as she captured the essence of the hauntingly beautiful Pie Jesu. The chorus was very good throughout in what was a well-conceived performance.

During the intermission, The Patriot Brass Ensemble entertained the audience with a steady stream of Sousa marches and patriotic tunes from the balcony. As the singers in the chorus for the second half filed onto the stage, the Patriot Brass ended their set with a medley dedicated to the Armed Forces. It was a strong reminder about what Memorial Day is really about to see the servicemen and women stand when their hymn was played. Some were young, others older, but all proud and steadfast. What was said to them through music was simply “thank you for your service to our nation.”

Mr. Mark Hayes for his Requiem & The Gettysburg Address

Mr. Mark Hayes for his Requiem & The Gettysburg Address

Mark Hayes (b. 1953) led the second half in performance of his works: the New York premiere of The Gettysburg Address and the World Premiere of his Requiem. About The Gettysburg Address, Mr. Hayes In his program notes writes, “…the challenge of creating something musically profound was overwhelming.” These ten sentences are filled with sadness, hope, challenge, and triumph in what is probably the most famous speech in American History. Mr. Hayes’ conception captures all of these elements, from the bold opening, played with a brash exuberance, to the somber colors of the sorrows of war, to the final build-up in a martial style culminating with repeated declarations of “for the people” from the chorus.  It is a powerful work that does justice to Lincoln’s immortal words. After this stirring piece, it was time to pull back into a quieter, contemplative mood, for which the Requiem from Mr. Hayes filled the bill. Dedicated to the memory of Mr. Hayes’ parents, this work takes inspiration from Brahms, Fauré, and Duruflé in its six movements. Mr. Hayes freely uses the English translations of the Latin text in addition to the Latin itself in an interesting and effective way.  He parts company with Fauré and Duruflé in a pathos-filled Dies Irae, which did at times bear an uncanny resemblance to O Fortuna from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (i.e.  substitute Dies Irae/Dies Illa  and Confutatis maledictis for O  Fortuna/Velut Luna, with the same strong timpani replies, etc.). Baritone Andrew Garland was again a force to be reckoned with in his solo work.  The Agnus Dei was to this listener the highlight of the work, showing Mr. Hayes expressive melodic gifts. The final movement, the Lux Aeterna, much like the In Paradisum of Duruflé, ends in a fade to silence. When Mr. Hayes lowered his baton, the audience gave him a richly deserved standing ovation, which ended the successful evening.