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!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solomon Mikowsky Dedication Concert in Review

Solomon Mikowsky Dedication Concert in Review
Solomon Gadles Mikowsky Recital Hall, New York, NY
Manhattan School of Music
October 3, 2010

Dr. Solomon Mikowsky

“Turnabout is fair play”, the saying goes. Frequently, an institution will pay homage to a great and distinguished member of its faculty. But this time, Solomon Mikowsky – who has certainly earned a tribute for his years as a renowned piano pedagogue who has produced many fine artists (and competition winners) –  honored the Manhattan School of Music with a beautiful and heartwarming gesture: a gift of a superb recital hall, replete with two Steinway concert grand pianos and a capacity for audio and video recording (plus a third Steinway Model B grand for his adjacent studio). On Sunday afternoon, October 3rd, I was honored to be present for the grand opening festivities of the Solomon Gadles Mikowsky Recital Hall on the third floor of the MSM. Dr. Mikowsky’s tribute was not only to this school, but also in honor of 12 of his former and present pupils who held forth with a fine concert by way of a retrospect. The live recital commenced with a recorded performance of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in A Minor as performed by Mikowsky at the age of fourteen. In front of the audience was a photograph of the fledgling virtuoso (what a handsome devil he was!). Later on, at the behest of many of his appreciative charges, Dr. Mikowsky (who was going to remain silent) played a Galuppi Sonata with elegant taste and good tone, showing us all that he can still “do” as well as teach!

Dr. Mikowsky was born Solomon Gadles in Cuba of Russian-Polish parentage and his mother’s maiden name was Mikowska. His early musical training was with Cesar Perez Sentenat, who had studied in Madrid with Cubiles and in Paris with Joaquin Nin, a pupil of Moszkowski, himself a pupil of Liszt. Later, he earned his degrees at the Juilliard School, working with Sascha Gorodnitzki (Bachelors and Masters degrees) and a doctorate from Columbia University. Frequently invited to serve on the juries of important international piano competitions, he has given master classes worldwide, and is the author of a book on nineteenth-century Cuban music.

Dr. Solomon Mikowsky with his students. Photo Credit: Brian Hatton

The impressive recitalists included two Domenico Scarlatti sonatas (A Minor, Longo 241, Kirkpatrick 54; and A Major, L. 395, K. 533) played with brilliant note-perfect fluency by Inesa Sinkevych, but with one gaffe: the printedprogram attributed them to Domenico’s father, Alessandro, 1660-1725 (who wrote vocal music!); Liszt’s F Minor Concert Etude, La Leggierezza (Ian Yungwook Yoo); Chopin’s C-sharp Minor Etude, Op. 10, No. 4 (Kookhee Hong); Albeniz’s Asturias (Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz); Albeniz’s Evocacion from Iberia (Gustavo Diaz-Jerez (who had originally intended to play El Puerto from the same work); Lecuona’s Cordoba (Yuan Sheng, who played lustily, although I have heard him play Bach wonderfully well and also had glowing words for his Schubert B flat Sonata, D. 960); the ubiquitous Albeniz Tango in Godowsky’s  gussied-up arrangement (Ren Zhang); Scriabin’s Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op 8, No. 12 (Alexander Moutouzkine); Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante  defunte” (Youngho Kim); Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Major, Op. 32, No. 5 (Wael Farouk, a Shura Cherkassy look-alike who I glowingly reviewed in New York Concert Review for his account of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto with the MSM orchestra last year); Busoni’s Sonatine super Carmen No. 6, K. 284 (Kirill Gerstein, a recent Gilmore Artist Award and Avery Fisher Grant winner); and finally the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations (Simone Dinnerstein; truly an Aria da Capo; the first time I heard her play at the tender age of 11, Ms. Dinnerstein was a pupil of Dr. Mikowsky and she has many accomplishments to her credit in the intervening years—subsequent studies with Herbert Stessin, Maria Diamond (a student of Artur Schnabel) and Peter Serkin. Herself-produced CD of the Goldberg, now available on Telarc, has been acclaimed a best-seller).

I must comment that the room can accommodate an audience of 50, and that its acoustics are ideally crystal clear, absolutely perfect for the obvious ideals of Dr. Mikowsky’s taste for extreme digital clarity and articulation, Spartan and judicious pedaling and discipline, as opposed to an often esteemed and encountered murkiness that could (and often does) hide a multitude of sins by less technically adroit students.

The concert was followed by a lavish reception and dinner, capping a joyously memorable and touching occasion. Congratulations to all, and especially to Solomon Mikowsky!