Aleyson Scopel, Pianist in Review

Aleyson Scopel, Pianist in Review
MidAmerica Productions Presents: Aleyson Scopel, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 23, 2013

MidAmerica Productions has a long history of presenting talented artists in venues around the globe. The honor of the 1200th concert worldwide was given to the Brazilian pianist Aleyson Scopel in a program featuring Mozart, Schubert, and his countryman, Almeida Prado. Mr. Scopel dedicated his performance “To Alys Terrien-Queen, the first to believe in me.”  Terrien-Queen may have been the first believer, but after this performance, he added countless others, including this listener, as those “in the know.”

Opening with Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511, Mr. Scopel demonstrated his mature understanding of this highly introspective and melancholy work.  He played with refinement and sensitivity, but without superficiality or glibness that lesser players sometimes display in Mozart.  His control was excellent, the voicing clear, and contrasts rendered decisively. His was the playing of an artist, pure and simple.

The world premiere of Cartes Celestes XV (Celestial Charts XV) by Almeida Prado followed the Mozart. José Antônio Rezende de Almeida Prado (1943-2010) composed eighteen sets of pieces he called Cartes Celestes , works depicting the sky and universe, using a harmonic language the composer called “transtonality.”  Cartes Celestes XV was finished in 2009 and dedicated to Aleyson Scopel.   Subtitled “The Expanding Universe”, it is divided into six movements. The opening GRB090423, a musical depiction of a supernova 13 billion light years from the earth, was played by Mr. Scopel with harrowing effect, from the rumbling of the unstable stars to the brilliant explosion of light. The other movements (Eskimo Nebula, Pictor Constellation and Extrasolar Planet, The Bird of Paradise Constellation, Planetary Nebula NCG 3195, and Solar Wind) were further examples of the genius of this composer and his visionary conceptions.  Almeida Prado pays tribute to his teacher Messiaen in Bird of Paradise. One can also detect some intergalactic Debussy (imagine La cathédrale engloutie in outer space!). The use of tonality without a tonal center, which the composer called his “pilgrim harmony”, was highly effective. Mr. Scopel took the listener on a tour of the stars in a spellbinding performance full of power, passion, and lyricism. After he had finished, Mr Scopel pointed to the sky in tribute to the composer. It was a touching gesture, and I am confident that Almeida Prado was listening with joy from somewhere in the vast universe he loved so much. Given that Mr. Scopel has recorded other of the Cartas Celestes, it is a reasonable hope that he will, at the very least, add this set to the mix, but I would very much like to see him record all eighteen Cartas Celestes. It would do honor to both Mr. Scopel and Almeida Prado.

After intermission, Mr. Scopel offered Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959. This Sonata, completed only months before Schubert’s death, is a monumental work that is majestic, pathos filled, and nostalgic (especially in the finale’s look back to a theme from his Sonata in A minor, D. 537). Mr. Scopel continued to share his artistry with a well-considered and executed performance of this massive work.  His playing was crisp and accurate. The contrasting moods were dynamically realized, the laments were moving in their simplicity, and the finale had unflagging energy. One must also contend with the virtuosic elements throughout, and Mr. Scopel was more than capable of dealing with those as well, which he did in an unpretentious and understated way.  This was fine Schubert playing, and would have served as an excellent example to students on what constitutes a reference performance.

Aleyson Scopel is a first-rate pianist. Anyone who values substance over style should make it a point to hear him in performance.  I look forward to hearing him again.

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.


Javor Bračić, Pianist in Review

New York Concert Artists and Associates presents: Javor Bračić, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 22, 2013

Recital debuts can be a dicey proposition in New York, depending on what other concerts and events are scheduled. Learning that a young Croatian pianist would be giving his New York debut in Weill Hall the same night as the much-heralded and fashionable Yuja Wang would play next door at Stern Auditorium, I imagined that a half-empty hall might await him. How wrong I was! Mr. Bračić’s sold-out house left a virtual mob swarming around the box office, hoping for tickets from last-minute cancellations. As the evening progressed, it became clear why: Javor Bračić is a pianist who possesses a deep, genuine musicianship and an outstanding technique that serves the great music he chooses. He honors both listener and composer with his intelligent, committed interpretations, and he offers a thoughtfully constructed program with elegance and humility. It was heartening to be reminded that such an artist is still a draw and that the “competition” for listeners is not always a zero-sum game.

Mr. Bračić began with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major, WTC II (BWV 870), which was at once noble and sensitive, with not a note out of place. Moving on to Haydn’s Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI: 42, he sustained musical tension and interest through its rather long Andante con espressione, right through to the last note of the Vivace assai. Occasionally I wanted ornaments to be more singing in the first movement, and less subservient to the meter, but that was about the only quibble one could have – and a very personal one at that. The delicacy and precision were outstanding.

Moving to later style periods, Mr. Bračić tied his first half together to the Bach and Haydn by performing Debussy’s underplayed Hommage à Haydn (1909) and the even less well known Hommage à Bach (2001) by Croatian composer Davorin Kempf (b. 1947). In between old masters and homages came a World premiere of a work entitled Entwined, Disquiet  (2013) by Rosalie Burrell (b. 1988). At times searching and at others explosive, the two movements explored a tonal world that verged on orchestral, bearing hints of Messiaen and even Scriabin, though without being derivative. Ms. Burrell is still quite young, but already emerging as quite a colorist. I would have enjoyed some information on the piece, but Mr. Bračić, playing from score, appeared to meet this new work’s challenges beautifully, with considerable expressiveness.

As far as the homages go, I’ve never completely grasped the Haydn connection in the ever so brief Debussy work, apart from some tenuous structural likenesses and passing elements of humor and surprise, but it is immediately appealing and was played convincingly by Mr. Bračić. The Bach tribute by Mr. Kempf is far less elusive. Crisp mordents, preceding impassioned scalar writing, hearkened back to Bach’s Toccatas (notable the BWV 565 Organ Toccata in D minor), while quieter counterpoint and sequential episodes were set ingeniously amid some highly adventurous, clearly twentieth-and-twenty-first-century composition. Virtuosity abounded, and Mr. Bračić was on top of it all with dash and drama. Hints of the B -A-C-H theme by Bach himself (based on the tones B-flat, A, C, and B-natural) emerged amid dissonant writing that at times resembled a Bach festival recalled through a dream, all brought to an end with a nod to Bach’s characteristic Picardy close. It is a work I’d like to hear again, especially thanks to Mr. Bračić’s superb performance.

The program’s second half consisted of the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5, a feast of some of the noblest, warmest, richest piano writing in history, and Mr. Bračić was well suited to it all. Some minor glitches arose – as happen to almost all pianists – but most seemed here to stem from over-straining for power against the piano’s somewhat resistant treble register at climaxes. If those moments can be conquered with the majesty shown elsewhere, Mr. Bračić will have one of the best Brahms F Minor Sonata performances around. As it is, I would hear him again in a heartbeat. His audience seemed to agree, earning an encore of a small Ravel work – you guessed it!- Hommage à Haydn.

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.

Sergei Kvitko in Review

 Sergei Kvitko, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
May 23, 2013
 Sergei Kvitko, pianist
Sergei Kvitko, pianist

The solo piano debut of Sergei Kvitko at Weill Hall was a heartwarming occasion – even a love-fest – for many reasons that became clear throughout the evening. As a bit of background, the Russian-born resident of Lansing, Michigan is no average pianist. Having come to the U.S. to pursue a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Michigan State University under the tutelage of Ralph Votapek, he has become a highly successful recording engineer and producer, with accolades for his work from numerous musical reviewers and a loyal following of musicians whom he has helped in their career paths. Beyond this, he is a composer and transcriber, as evidenced by several remarkable contributions on the evening’s program. He gives one hundred percent when he performs, and his energy is inspiring. In addition, he has an engaging personality, full of humor, something that showed in his commentary throughout the evening.

Mr. Kvitko opened with his own original transcription of Bach’s Prelude in C Major (from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I). The title was listed on the program as “Prelude in C Major with a Few Added Notes.” A few, indeed! Roughly as Charles Gounod had been inspired by this Bach work to add melody above, Mr. Kvitko took things farther, using the Prelude as a bass (entirely played by his left hand) and adding a florid quasi-improvisatory right hand part which built virtuosically to a large climax. I always appreciate new inspirations coming from this beloved piece, and this was a fresh one.

My first reaction to seeing that Kvitko had also programmed his own transcription of Ysaÿe’s Third Sonata for Violin (also known as “Ballade”) was to ask “why?” – because in my opinion the Ysaÿe still could stand a few more decades of hearings as written before it becomes the foundation for a “fresh perspective” transcription. Well, that question was quickly negated by what emerged as a captivating expansion upon the original. Starting off with a note-for-note statement taken from the violin work, Kvitko continued the original but with fleshed-out and reinforced harmonizations, octave doublings, and in general heightened drama via his own elaborations. Rather than obscuring Ysaÿe’s work, the transcription became an elucidation of it. I must confess to understanding the original better than I had before – and how great it was to hear it without any intonation problems! Just as each of the Ysaÿe Sonatas was dedicated to a great violinist (this one originally to Enescu) Mr. Kvitko dedicated this transcription to “the most important violinist” in his life, his mother. It was a special moment.

Another question “why?” might be elicited by the engagement of dancers for the Escenas Románticas by Granados, because those of us spoiled by the suave elegance of, say, Alicia De Larrocha’s renditions of these solo pieces may feel that the music says more than enough without visual distraction; Mr. Kvitko, however, clearly thinks outside such boxes. It also may even be silly to ask “why” when creative spirits such as he simply DO – a quality for which we may usually be thankful!

Kvitko’s interpretation was an expansive one, even if not as nuanced as I’d like. His playing maximized the drama, as the whole ballet concept encouraged it to do. The dancers, Lucas Segovia and Kara Zimmerman of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, offered what amounted to a half-ballet and half-pantomime creation of various scenes of love, including the first glance, the rebuff, the seduction, the celebration, and finally the settling of passions into lasting love. Some of the earlier pantomiming (including props of newspaper, chairs, and flowers), while charming, seemed to undermine the intimacy that I treasure in this musical set, but the last movement, the heartfelt and Chopinesque Epilogo, was quite moving. It was also interesting to behold dancers at Weill Hall, something I’ve not experienced before.

The second half opened with the pianist’s own transcription of Trepak from Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death” (dedicated to the composer Ricky Ian Gordon, who was present). It was another miniature one would hear nowhere else, to me an asset to any recital. In the story behind the music, the protagonist dies, so the music was that of tragedy – or as Kvitko wryly introduced it, “it’s Russian.” It was well transcribed and performed, and a good introduction to the rest of the program.

The substance of the second half was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (the pictures being a nice parallel to the “Escenas” aspect of the first half). It is a work that Mr. Kvitko has recorded, to very favorable critical response. This evening’s performance was an “over the top” one, with almost unremitting massive and prolonged fortes, a test to the pianist’s staying power. Even the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks was larger than life, raising concerns about how the Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba-Yaga) would top it – but as it turned out, Mr. Kvitko had more than enough stamina to follow the genetically modified chicks with steroidal hens! Where some wonderful piano dynamics did impress was in the end of “Bydlo” where one could imagine cattle carts disappearing into the distance: the fadeout was so well paced in fine gradations that one guessed that such a conception might have been helped by Mr. Kvitko’s experience with the wonders of audio technology. To hear that effect transferred to a perfect extended diminuendo on the piano was a treat. One can be confident that Mr. Kvitko has more of such treats in store, in whatever pursuits he undertakes, whether in producing, composing, or performing.

The end of the Great Gate of Kiev was met with rousing applause, bravos, and a standing ovation. Encores included another ballet performance (to a Piazzollaesque piano work) and a lightning-fast Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum by Debussy.

Piano Transcription of Solo Violin Sonata No. 3 “Ballade”

Pianist Sergei Kvitko with Lucas Segovia & Kara Zimmerman of Joffrey Ballet of Chicago perform last movement of Enrique Granados’ Escenas Románticas – Epílogo.
Filmed live at Cook Recital Hall of College of Music, Michigan State University.

Misoon Ghim, mezzo-soprano in Review

Misoon Ghim, mezzo-soprano
Amy Yang, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
April 22, 2013

What an auspicious New York debut vocal recital, as two wonderful performers, mezzo soprano Misoon Ghim and pianist Amy Yang, presented songs from five stylistic periods, sung beautifully in five languages. I was most impressed by the high quality of the music they chose, and how these works allowed both performers to exhibit the many aspects of their fine technique and deep musicality.

And what better way to open a program than with the words “Music for a while/ Shall all your cares beguile,” the opening lines of Henry Purcell’s setting of John Dryden’s poem “Music for a while.” I was pleased that the performers chose an edition with a stylistically correct keyboard part, rather than one with the souped-up accompaniments so often used by singers who aren’t Baroque specialists. Ms. Ghim possesses a beautiful bright voice which is produced with great ease. (Darker vocal colors were to appear later in the concert.) Another Purcell work,  “Dido’s Lament,” followed. Most moving was her heartfelt singing of the words “remember me” which showcased her thrilling upper register. I did wonder why Ms. Ghim chose to ornament repeated lines during “Dido’s Lament,” while failing to decorate the da capo of “Music for a while.”

Next we heard four songs by Brahms. During these works Ms. Ghim produced many vocal colors to express the meaning of the words. Most memorable was her performance of “Die Mainacht” where we first heard her moving dark sound. Pianist Amy Yang, very much an accompanist during the Purcell, was given her first chance to shine during these songs. Her rapid finger work imitating the sound of spinning wheels during “Mädchenlied” and her stormy accompaniment during “Mein Liebe ist grun” gave us a foretaste of many pleasures to come.

The first half ended with a superb performance of Mozart’s Concert Aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” As the accompaniment of this work was originally scored for orchestra with obbligato piano, one could think of this piece as a concerto for voice and piano. It was therefore exciting to hear both of these fine musicians vie for our attention. That Ms. Ghim has been a success on the opera stage was vividly shown by her expert performance of the expressive opening recitative, the lyrical first section of the aria and then its thrilling dramatic conclusion. This was wonderful singing. Equally wonderful as both accompanist and second soloist  was pianist Amy Yang.

That the recital’s second half would maintain the high quality of the first half was made clear during the opening moments of the first of Mahler’s “Fünf Rückertlieder,” “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!” as Ms. Ghim spun out a most ravishing phrase. And at the climax of the intimate “Liebst du um Schönheit” she was very much the singing actress, as she lovingly caressed the words “o ja, mich liebe” (“oh yes, love me.”)  “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” allowed Ms. Ghim to show off her dark lower register and Ms. Yang to offer a sensitive accompaniment featuring a beautifully played left hand. Both performers shone during the very slow and quiet “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” But what sticks in my mind was Ms. Yang’s beautiful tone color and subtle phrasing, especially during the piano’s introduction, interludes and postlude. The last verse of “Um Mitternacht” brought the set to a goose-bump-producing- climax. For this listener, these Mahler songs were the highest point of a concert with many high points.

After a fine performance of Debussy’s “Fêtes galantes 1”, the program ended with “Cinco Cancione Negras” (“Five Black Songs”) by the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002.) Employing Spanish and West Indian rhythms and themes, these songs lightened the mood and showed us another side of Ms. Ghim’s artistry. She and Ms. Yang brought the concert to a jolly conclusion with a wild rendition of the last song, “Canto negro.”

Thanks to the Korean Music Foundation for bringing these wonderful artists before a very appreciative New York audience.

West Chester University of Pennsylvania School of Music Presents: Faculty Recital in Review

West Chester University of Pennsylvania School of Music Presents: Faculty Recital
Vincent Craig, piano, Stephen Ng, tenor, Dan K. Kurland, piano
Steinway Hall; New York, NY
April 18, 2013

In a performance originally cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy, West Chester University of Pennsylvania presented two of its faculty members in a shared recital at Steinway Hall. Vincent Craig is an assistant  professor of piano and Stephen Ng is an assistant professor of voice.

Opening with J.S. Bach’s English Suite No. 3 in G minor, BWV 808, Dr. Craig showed he has a strong affinity for this work. The playing was everything one hopes for in Bach- attention to detail, clear articulation, balanced voicing, and a steady rhythmic sense. It was excellent throughout, and the highlight of his performances to this listener. His Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G minor was solid, but reflected a somewhat undifferentiated interpretation. The 2005 work Actions and Resonances by composer Alex Miller (b. 1982) followed. The composer writes, “the title describes the texture of the piece, which frequently features crisp, percussive gestures followed by pauses in which the sound is left to resonate momentarily before moving on.” Dr. Craig gave this interesting work a reading that was mostly in line with Miller’s description. There were some moments when it was not entirely clear that all was according to plan, and there were some rather awkward page turns that could have been avoided by having a page turner. In the end, the composer, who was in attendance, signaled his approval with demonstrative applause. Ending with Liszt’s St. Francis of Paulus Walking on the Waves, Dr. Craig captured the dramatic sense of this work without falling into the trap of making it bombastic. If anything, it was a bit too understated for my liking, but I did admire Dr. Craig’s consistency of style. The virtuosic elements were dispatched with ease in a performance that brought the audience to their feet in excitement.  Dr. Craig is a thoughtful, meticulous player who does not “showboat”. Clarity of lines and attention to inner voices were features of his playing throughout. His students are fortunate to have a teacher with the ability not only to verbalize, but to demonstrate clearly his ideas and approaches to the music.

Dr. Ng began his selections with “Sweeter Than Roses” from Henry Purcell, accompanied by Dan K. Kurland. The music’s demands were well met with Dr. Ng’s sure technique in a highly polished performance. It was an auspicious beginning. Benedetto sia’l giorno and Pace non tovo from Liszt’s Tre sonetti del Petrarca, S.158 were then offered. These highly effective songs tax the pianist and the vocalist to the utmost in Liszt’s characteristic virtuosic writing. Dr. Ng was up to the challenge, with a soaring voice in the extreme registers that could be simply described as amazing. Mr. Kurland was commendable in his own right, navigating the challenges with skill. Nine selections from Clairières dans le ciel (Clearings in the Sky), a thirteen-song cycle taken from poet Francis Jamme’s Tristesses by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) followed. Given the astonishing maturity of this work from Boulanger at age twenty, one cannot help but lament what might have been if not for her tragically early death at age twenty-four. Dr. Ng fashioned a performance that was mesmerizing from Elle était descendue au bas de la prairie to the ending, Demain fera un an. It is regrettable that Dr. Ng did not do the entire set, as he did in recital February 11, 2013 at West Chester University. It is a set that highlights his talents to the maximum, and I would highly recommend that any music lover hear him perform this song cycle. To close the program was  Lensky’s Aria, Куда, куда вы удалились, весны моей златые дни (Where, where, have you gone, spring of my golden days?), from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. Dr. Ng’s performance of it closed with the same energy and commitment with which he began. He is a superb singer and one whom West Chester University can be proud to call their own. It was gratifying to see the support from the West Chester University community and administration for both of these fine musicians.

The Klopotic-Pierce-Zoering Trio in Review

Light and Sound Presents
The Klopotic-Pierce-Zoering Trio
Julianne Klopotic, violin; Joshua Pierce, piano; Lawrence Zoering, cello
The Old Stone House; Brooklyn, New York
April 4, 2013

Founded by violinist Julianne Klopotic, Light and Sound bills itself as a “full-spectrum music performance series.” From the experimental to the classic, with jazz/rock and world music in between, Light and Sound is  in residence at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn for the 2013 season. The Old Stone House is a very intimate venue.  The feeling is very much like the 19th century salon, with seating for a small audience in immediate proximity to the performers.  The acoustics are remarkably good for a stone building constructed in the 17th century.  The small but enthusiastic audience was treated to a performance of Franz Schubert’s Piano Trios by the Klopotic-Pierce-Zoering Trio.

These three performers each have extensive and impressive resumes as soloists.  What always remains to be seen is the end result of joining such strong personalities as an ensemble. Sometimes it does occur that the whole is less than the sum of the parts, but I am pleased that this was not the case for this trio.

The first half was the Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 99 (D. 898). This work was started in 1827 and finished in 1828, the last year of Schubert’s life.  From the opening notes of the Allegro Moderato, the trio took an assertive and confident direction with its strong, full-bodied sound. For a small venue, this was especially bold, declarative playing, led ably by the energetic pianist Pierce. It was highly satisfying. Klopotic has a very rich, singing tone that captured the optimistic essence of this movement.  Zoering’s solo in the Andante poco mosso was played with artistry.  There were some rough edges at the end of this movement, but it did not spoil the overall effect. The Rondo finale was played with gusto to the last.

The performers are to be commended on their level of concentration considering the less-than-exemplary behavior on the part of some listeners. Several of the audience members were recording the performance with their mobile phones held in the air facing the performers, while one very enthusiastic listener “conducted” by waving her arms a la Leonard Bernstein throughout the entire work, at a distance of maybe three or four feet from Klopotic.  Perhaps one should be grateful for the fact that she actually kept an accurate beat!

The second half was dedicated to the nearly hour long Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 100 (D. 929). This work, completed in November 1827, was one of the few late works that Schubert actually heard played in his lifetime.  The second movement theme is well known for its prominent use in the movie Barry Lyndon; so much so that the association is as strong as the use of Mozart’s Andante movement of K. 467 is to the movie Elvira Madigan. The thematic material in this trio is extensively developed and requires tremendous attention to detail. The trio mostly met the challenge, continuing their bold approach in the opening Allegro. It was extroverted playing from completely involved players. The sublime Andante con moto was met with nodding heads and smiles from the audience, who no doubt felt the pleasure in recognition of the theme. The Scherzando was played with care but also some small issues of ensemble- -fleeting in the grand scheme of things. The Allegro Moderato finale proved the players indefatigable, with a tremendous drive that built in intensity, to the delight of the same audience members so moved by the finale of the B-flat trio. After the final E-flat chord sounded, there was a moment of silence, after which the bemused Pierce called out, “That’s it!” The audience responded with a loud, prolonged standing ovation that surely was gratifying to the trio. It was a fitting end to an excellent concert. They encored this program on April 6, 2013 at the same venue.

The Klopotic-Pierce-Zoering trio is a fine ensemble.  I do hope to have the opportunity to hear them again in the future.

Oberlin Orchestra in Review

Oberlin Orchestra
Raphael Jimenez, conductor
Jeremy Denk, piano
Carnegie Hall
January 19, 2013
Oberlin College

Oberlin Orchestra; Photo Credit: Chris Lee

The Oberlin Orchestra sounded polished and impressive in their Carnegie Hall Concert on January 19th. The music was challenging, including Ravel’s “La Valse” and Stravinsky’s “Firebird” (1919), and the young players rose to the occasion, sounding highly professional–especially in the execution of complex rhythms. The percussion nailed those complexities with ease and solidity of sound, the brass and winds were expressive and noble–even during tricky sections, and the strings were clear and energetic at all times. In Ravel’s “La Valse”, for example, the violins employed every bow stroke, vibrato and portamento with precision and unity.

One could quibble with the lack of sheer tonal strength in the strings, but this may have been due to the brass and percussion overpowering them at times. Or it may have been due to the inferior quality of some of the string instruments (after all, not every student can afford something top-notch yet). Here is something a little esoteric: the influence of the major orchestra in town could enter the attitudes of the major conservatory in town. In other words, it may be that the sound of the pristine, elegant Cleveland Orchestra is in the air.The Oberlin Orchestra in many ways sounded like a young Cleveland Orchestra: polished and elegant, but not necessarily powerfully robust–and that is not a negative, but simply a tradmark characteristic. Conductor Raphael Jimenez did a wonderful job of balancing the sections of the Ravel and Stravinsky, and bringing out the various colors in Christopher Rouse’s “Iscariot”, a dissonant work reminiscent of Ives, from 1989. All these works require an excellent navigator for the heavy orchestration, and Jimenez made these textures transparent. He also deserves credit for preparing the ensemble so well. Most of these young musicians have never played in Carnegie Hall, and any nerves were tempered by Jimenez’s controlled, collected podium style. That said, Jimenez might have allowed for more abandonment and chaos in certain sections of the Ravel. This is a not an effervescent, ebullient Johann Strauss Jr. Waltz, but rather a parody of it–music that gets more and more out of control.

Rouse, an outstanding composer who is Composer-in-Residence of the New York Philharmonic and an Oberlin alumnus (graduating class of 1971), made a welcome onstage appearance.  A younger alumnus, the accomplished Jeremy Denk (a 1990 graduate), performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467. Denk gave an impressively speedy and facile performance, but one that still found time to be sensitive to all the music’s phrasing and harmonic shifts. The ensemble between orchestra and soloist was superbly homogenius. The quality of the strings and winds was very high, imbued with clarity of rhythm and excellent intonation.

This evening at Carnegie Hall was a wonderful celebration of Oberlin’s depth of talent and the school’s and students’ accomplishments. Oberlin is no doubt a great place to be if you want to make a deep impact as a musician.

The Alonso-Drummond Duo in Review

Evan Drummond, guitar
Orlay Alonso, piano
Sponsored by The Cuban Cultural Center of NY
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
November 14, 2012


Evan Drummond and Orlay Alonso are a truly remarkable duo, as they are always committed to sharing every note with one another and—most importantly— the audience at hand. For them, it is never about showing off what they can do technically, but rather about bringing the listener into the meaning of the music. They are real virtuosos of their respective instruments, but I don’t want to draw any more attention to their technique; I’d rather discuss their one-of-a-kind chemistry. After all, there are thousands of ensembles who can play extremely well but don’t know how to blend as an organic unit.

The music of Leo Brouwer is an example of music that is not extremely well-known, but when this duo plays it with their trademark passion, the audience seems to feel that they know it like the back of their hands. Brouwer’s music is—simply put—marvelous. Always catch it whenever it is programmed because you’ll walk away rejuvenated and enlightened—especially when the Alonso-Drummond group plays it.

A key component to this duo’s chemistry is their individual backgrounds and how these accomplished musicians joined forces. Alonso traveled  from his native Cuba to New York’s LaGuardia School for the Performing Arts, where he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Manhattan School Pre-College, and later Mannes and Yale. Alonso met Drummond at Yale, and upon their graduation, they began a series of concerts presenting programs of re-imagined interpretations of some of the most cherished repertoire of Spain and Cuba.

They are now also presenting their own arrangements of well-known composers in a quasi-ballet suite format. Drummond has signed with Dunvagen Music Publications for an arrangement of a Phillip Glass composition, and I believe the duo has a future not only because of their communicative gifts, but also because they will build a whole new repertoire for this unusual but aesthetically pleasing pair of instruments.