Jean Muller in Review

Jean Muller, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
January 18, 2013
 
Jean Muller, pianist

Jean Muller

Following the 2012 release of a well-received all-Chopin recording on the Fondamenta label, Luxembourgian pianist Jean Muller kicked off a world tour with largely the same repertoire in a fine recital at New York’s Weill Hall. It is not easy to offer fresh perspectives on the pillars of the Chopin piano literature, particularly after the composer’s bicentennial blitz of 2010, but Mr. Muller appears oblivious to any need to be different (or the same, for that matter); it is enough to be oneself, as Mr. Muller appears to know. These days, the slow burn of being a sincere, dedicated musician is almost revolutionary in its own right.

His program’s first half was made up of the complete Ballades. His were nuanced, at times understated, renditions of these musical treasures. With so many cranked up performances going around of what one could almost call “McBallades” at this point, this listener was relieved to discover that there was nothing formulaic or facile about Muller’s interpretations. Starting the G Minor Ballade (Op. 23) with a more pensive, deliberate first theme than one usually hears, Muller brought it a searching quality, as if encountering its mysteries for the first time. It was highly individual, without being distorted or eccentric. He played with a fluent, natural sense of rubato. Occasionally there were tonal balance issues exacerbated by a somewhat thin treble sound, but in each case one sensed that decisions had been made to favor overall dynamic pacing over individual cantabile lines. Indeed, the pacing toward climaxes was achieved skillfully, with refreshing attention to the work’s inherent logic and integrity. Technical hurdles were handled neatly without virtuoso excess – though perhaps with a bit too much caution for this listener.

The second Ballade (Op. 38) was similar in its strengths. Thoughtfully paced and with no exaggeration or bombast, it reflected the refined poetry of the work. Because the piece alternates quiet lyricism with tempests, this listener wished in turbulent sections for greater unleashing of this pianist’s full resources (as heard later on the program), but it seemed that Muller was holding his energies in reserve. Perhaps when performing all four Ballades, this is inevitable. The brilliant and dramatic coda was negotiated neatly, but with a bit more abandon it could have truly caught fire.

The third Ballade (Op. 47) was a highlight, not surprisingly, as it benefited from this pianist’s thoughtful, civilized approach. The famous rocking theme (or some say “cantering”) was especially winsome, and Muller built the ensuing drama well. Similarly the final Ballade (Op. 52), arguably the most challenging of the group to hold together, was unified with mastery. The chorale-like lull just before the ferocious coda was done perhaps more beautifully than I’ve ever heard – it’s prayerfulness stemming not merely from the perils ahead, as with some performances!

The second half included shorter works, framed by two Polonaises, the F-sharp minor, Op. 44 and the A-flat, Op. 53. Highlights were the poignant Mazurka in A minor Op. 17, No. 4 and the Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 69, No. 1, both expertly phrased, the latter with especially golden-toned melodic beauty. The old chestnut Waltz in D-flat (Op. 64, No. 1, the “Minute Waltz”) had just the right élan, and the Posthumous Largo in E-flat Major added novelty to the otherwise widely known offerings. Also heard were the Mazurkas in A minor, op. 67, No. 4, and in C Major, Op. 68, No. 1, both handled with polish and sensitivity. Happily the final “Heroic” Polonaise found the pianist letting go more, though still with expert control as he released torrents of left-hand octaves with riveting evenness. It was worth the wait.  Rousing ovations elicited encores of Chopin’s B-flat minor Nocturne and Fantaisie-Impromptu.


Suzanna Klintcharova in Review

ArtFusion Paris Presents Suzanna Klintcharova, harp
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall; New York, NY
December 27, 2012

In a concert originally scheduled for October 31, 2012, Bulgarian-born French-based harpist Suzanna Klintcharova took the stage at Weill Recital Hall nearly two months later. Hurricane Sandy had caused an 80-ton boom from a crane to become unsecured and swing wildly across from Carnegie Hall at a height of nearly 1000 feet. Countless concerts had to be cancelled. Some will not be rescheduled, and others have been pushed back as late as June 2013.  One must commend Ms. Klintcharova for rescheduling after what had to have been a terrifying experience; not only the storm itself, but being unable to leave the city after all airports were closed as well.

Ms. Klintcharova was introduced by the Bulgarian ambassador to the United Nations, who referred to her as a friend and a national treasure. It was gratifying to see an artist honored in such a way – I would be very surprised if any American artist got a similar introduction in Sofia from one of our own ambassadors.

In a program that would be a welcome antidote after such a storm, Ms. Klintcharova presented a selection of rather conservative works. This in itself was not a bad thing, but it was a bit puzzling considering that in her biography it is stated that she is very much interested in contemporary music and improvisation. The most recent work on the program was written in 1970 and not exactly on the cutting-edge.

Opening with two Sonatas (K. 132 and K. 531) by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), Ms. Klintcharova showed her meticulous attention to detail.  The Grand Sonata for harp by a composer much better known for his extensive violin output, Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824), followed. Other than an awkward moment in the Allegro Brillante, Ms. Klintcharova navigated the technical hurdles with apparent ease and captured the sparkling nature of the work without any grand gestures or histrionics. It was an intelligent approach from a sensitive and thoughtful musician.

The second half began with Lolita the dancer, more commonly known as Lolita la danseuse, the third piece from Images-1st suite, Op. 29, written in 1925 by the French composer and harp pedagogue Marcel Tournier (1879-1951). Ms. Klintcharova captured the essence of a temperamental diva with her incisive playing; Lolita pouts, she flirts, she stomps her feet, she laughs and cries, and she soars all in the space of three minutes. It was a delight. Archipel 5A, composed in 1970 by  André Boucourechliev (1925-1997), Bulgarian-born but considered a French composer, followed. Archipel 5A is the harp part from a larger work, Anarchipel, for six players, composed in the same year and separated as a stand-alone work. It is an aleatory work that the composer owes much to his time spent in the United States exploring the form and his encounters with proponents of chance elements in music, such as John Cage.  Ms. Klintcharova is as much at home in this form as in the more conventional. Her performance took the spirit of a dream, albeit a rather tormented, uneasy dream. It was skilfully conceived and executed in its details. As a finale, another nod to the impressionistic style of Tournier, the less frequently performed Sonatine No. 2, Op. 45, was played with elegance and refinement. The appreciative audience called Ms. Klintcharova back to the stage with loud applause.  As final thanks for her audience, she played the Moderato movement of the Sonata in C minor by Giovanni Battista Pescetti (1704-1766), as transcribed for harp by Carlos Salzedo. A beautiful piece, it was played beautifully as well, and Ms. Klintcharova closed the evening in fine style.


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

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

Min Kwon, Director; Photo Credit : Doug Boyd

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


The Music of Dinos Constantinides in Review

The Music of Dinos Constantinides
Louisiana State University Soloists
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
Presented by DCINY
November 30, 2012

 

The music of the Greek-American composer Dinos Constantinides is outstanding. He is truly original, in that he combines a Greek folk music or tradition with 20th century influences. “Theme and Variations for Piano on a Greek Tune” is one such example. Michael Gurt, pianist, played with both precision and affection. “Fantasia for Stelios and Yiannis” for violin and viola, LRC 244 was also lovingly played—and with real virtuosity by Renata Arado, violinist, and Espen Lilleslatten, violist. “Delphic Hymn” made for another wonderful contrast by Constantinides. The sound of the saxophone and guitar was a unique combination to begin with, but the writing was unusually colorful and expressive. Griffin Campbell on saxophone and Ronaldo Cadeu on guitar were a remarkable pairing. The percussive knocks on the guitar added a unique flavor—almost like a third instrument—and the saxophone’s soaring melodies made for an impressive contrast.

 Other notable listings on the program were “Mutability Fantasy” –this time scored for alto saxophone and piano, and “Hellenic Musings” for violin, soprano sax and piano. “Sappho Songs” were unique in the way Sappho’s poetry was set to music. It is simply amazing that the Greek poetess, Sappho, was born so many years ago–on the island of Lesbos in the 7th century BC. She is often considered the greatest lyric poet of antiquity, writing on such subjects as love, nature and friendship. Her work survives in fragments, yet Constantinides found a way to make it work.

Constantinides’ compositions have been performed throughout the US, Europe and Asia by prestigious ensembles including the American Symphony Orchestra in New York, the Memphis and New Orleans Symphony, the English Chamber Orchestra, the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic and the Athens State Orchestra. He has been the recipient of numerous awards including several Meet the Composer grants, as well as yearly ASCAP Standard Awards. In 1994, the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars honored him with a Distinguished Teacher Award. He has written over 250 compositions, most of them published. He has been the Director of the Louisiana State University Festival of Contemporary Music for 22 years, and he earned Artist of the Year Award of Louisiana. He is presently Boyd Professor, the highest academic rank at Louisiana State University, head of the Composition area, and Music Director of the Louisiana Sinfonietta. His music deserves to be heard often—and in important cities and arenas.


Ivan Ženatý, violin, and James Vaughan, piano in Review

Ivan Ženatý, violin, and James Vaughan, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
December 3, 2012
 
Ivan Ženatý, violin Photo: Tomáš Lébr

Ivan Ženatý, violin; Photo: Tomáš Lébr

When excellent Czech violinist Ivan Ženatý strides onstage with his pianist James Vaughan, one is in for an evening of artistry, probably whatever the program; presented by Mid-America Productions in an all-Czech program in Weill Hall, the duo brought their audience twofold pleasure. Underappreciated works by Antonin Dvořák, Leoš Janáček, and Bedřich Smetana are rarely combined as an entire recital here in the U.S., but if they were, it is unlikely that they would be performed as well. Mr. Ženatý, veteran performer claiming a large array of prizes, recordings, and collaborations, was recently appointed to the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music, having taught also at the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber in Dresden. He is a performer who clearly endows each note with a world of experience, though with apparent ease, and it is heartening to know that a performer of such musical integrity will be transmitting some of his artistry to the next generation.

Polished and elegant from music to stage presence, the duo filled their first half of the program with all Dvořák (1841-1904).  The composer’s Romantic Pieces for violin and piano, Op. 75, B. 150 (1886-87), first composed for two violins and viola (with movements originally entitled Cavatina, Capriccio, Romance, and Elegy), were heard in the composer’s own violin-piano arrangement. Mr. Ženatý projected his phrases with a mellow, cantabile violin sound on a 1740 Giuseppe Guarneri del Jesu violin (courtesy of the Harmony Foundation of New York). A feeling of gemütlichkeit permeated the intimate Weill Hall – somewhat in keeping with Dvorak’s own home readings of these pieces. At first the balance seemed an issue, and the piano (with the lid on the full stick) seemed a bit overwhelming, but in a very brief time the duo melded perfectly, and this listener was glad for the clarity in each detail of what was a true collaboration. Mr. Vaughan particularly impressed with his flexibility in adjusting his feather-light repeated notes  – in this piano’s rich middle register, no less – to each nuance of the violin.  He was outstanding in the most difficult dovetailing. Ženatý ramped up the energy for the quixotic second movement, and the third, wonderfully Schubertian with its gentle lyricism, was a dream. The duo conveyed the mournful spirit of the fourth movement with haunting beauty, and one could feel the audience sighing collectively afterwards.

Dvořák’s Sonata in F Major for violin and piano, Op. 57, moved the recital into more involved and weighty writing. It brought more challenges of all kinds, and they were handled well, with only occasional glitches in intonation. Mr. Ženatý and Mr. Vaughan brought out the Brahmsian breadth and nobility of this work, challenging the program notes’ assertion that, unlike Beethoven, Brahms, and others, this Sonata “has neither architectural grandeur nor higher unity in its contrasting ideas.” On a side note, one wonders whether such a comment is the best way to maximize the listeners’ experience as good program notes can do! The performers, on the other hand, advocated for the piece with each lovingly shaped phrase, and this listener would enjoy hearing them do it again.

After intermission came the Sonata for violin and piano JW VII/7 by Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), a work using folk elements in a dark, at times violent way. Just as the programming reflected a broad range of Czech musical style, this duo’s expressive range was explored to the fullest. While neither performer resorted to demonstrative excess, there was plenty of drama in the sound itself. The first movement captured the wrestling intensity of the jagged, even spasmodic motives. It was an impassioned performance, as this piece demands, reflecting the troubled times of Europe in 1914. The second movement, Ballada, found the duo by contrast on a journey at times nostalgic and at times desperately longing. Long, melodic lines were soulfully shaped, to heartbreaking effect in Ženatý’s hands. In the third movement, the sounds of war were evoked in brutal and strident accented blows, which Ženatý and Vaughan played to the hilt; as Janacek himself wrote, “I could just about hear sound of the steel clashing in my troubled head.” The final quiet utterances of the fourth movement left the audience again suspended in silence.

A comforting close came with Bedřich Smetana’s “Z domoviny” (“From My Homeland”) benefiting from more of Ženatý’s golden-toned phrases and Vaughan’s expert support. It built to a brilliant and spirited close capping off a richly satisfying evening. Prolonged applause was rewarded with Dvořák ‘s Mazurek in E minor as an encore.


Kent Sangster’s Obsessions Octet in Review

Kent Sangster’s Obsessions Octet
Presented by MidAmerica Productions
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
October 6, 2012
 

Kent Sangster’s Obsessions Octet

 

Kent Sangster’s Obsessions Octet gave us a lot to obsess about during the concert—mainly how good they are. Sangster is an excellent saxophonist, and moreover, the group he assembled performed with both an infectious energy and a spicy rhythmical precision throughout the evening. The hall was jam-packed. At one point, Sangster told the audience that the concert was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. One certainly hopes not, and that they appear in Weill Hall (or Zankel Hall) at Carnegie–and certainly in New York—more often.

The compositions crossed over from Jazz to Latin music to Classical, and each piece had its own appeal. There was a great deal of variety on the program: from Piazzolla to Cole Porter to excellent new material from Allan Gilliland and Sangster himself. Piazzolla’s “Oblivion”, “Melodia in A Minor”, “Preludio 9” and “Fuga 9” are in a class by themselves. These are also virtuosic pieces, and the intricacies of the off beats were handled with confidence and finesse.

A string quartet comprised of violinists Joanna Ciapka-Sangster and Neda Yamach, violist Rhonda Henshaw, and cellist Ronda Metszies swayed together with a unity of coordination and passion. Bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer Jamie Cooper were rock-solid, and pianist Chris Andrew has plenty of chops, but he also displayed a good deal of sensitivity.

Sangster performed with both warmth of expression and a suave detachment when needed. He played each of his saxophones with its own unique expressive voice and showed a very impressive technique to boot. A prominent member of Canada’s jazz scene for almost twenty years, Sangster and the group are based in Edmonton. He has released five original jazz albums; his CD “Melodia”, the second recording by the octet, was nominated for a 2010 Western Canadian Music Award for Best Jazz Recording.

Sangster is a full-time faculty member at Grant MacEwan University and the Executive Director and Producer of the Edmonton International Jazz Festival. There are plans for an Obsessions Octet tour to Europe; international—as well as national—exposure is what this group deserves to have.


Haobing Zhu, Pianist in Review

 Michigan State Collegiate Honors Recital, Featuring Five Winners
In Review: Haobing Zhu, pianist
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
April 14, 2012

As winners of the Michigan State University Collegiate Honors Recital Competition held in East Lansing, Michigan in February, five soloists were presented in a New York group recital under the sponsorship of Manhattan Concert Productions. The winners included Charles Morris, bass trombone; Bryan Guarnuccio, flute; Jennifer Cook, soprano; Dmitry Yanov-Yanovskiy, cello, and the subject of this review, pianist Haobing Zhu. They were selected by a jury of three, including Ralph Votapek, professor emeritus of piano at MSU (perhaps more commonly noted as the first Van Cliburn Competition Gold Medalist); Stephen Shipps, violinist, and Craig Arnold (the director of Manhattan Concert Productions). A varied repertoire, including Puccini, Dvorak, Gillingham, Berg, Liebermann, and Piazzolla, was heard before the pianist ever set foot onstage to close the recital with Haydn and Liszt, so one could only empathize with her for the challenge ahead.

On the subject of such group recitals, I am reminded of the insightful comments of my colleague Alexandra Eames, writing for New York Concert Review a few months ago: “This is an awkward and nerve-wracking experience; one waits in the wings unsure of when he will have to step onstage and face the specter of inevitable comparison. To relax and find one’s stride in just one or two pieces is extremely difficult and the performer must go through the same physical preparations (dressing for performance, arriving on time, trying the instrument, etc.) as he would for a full-length recital.  Often the most sensitive artists can be sabotaged by the endeavor, whereas the more arrogant temperaments barrel through their nerves.” For Haobing Zhu, the comparison aspect was minimized by the fact that she was the only solo pianist (though creditable pianist collaborators included Hyekyung Lee, Hsin-Chan Yang, Tzu-Yi Chang, and Natalia A. Tokar); nothing, however, diminished the challenge of taking the audience back in time to the sonic and stylistic world of Haydn after Piazzolla and Berg, and then rallying her energies to close the concert with a blast of Liszt virtuosity. Ms. Zhu was up to the task.

With seeming nerves of steel, matched by a lovely stage presence, she approached Haydn’s Sonata in E Major (Hob. XVI: 31) with a beautifully clear sound and precise articulations. There was not a trace of rushing, and all was elegantly controlled. This is a work that, compared with other Haydn Sonatas, has seemed to attract pianists of a virtuosic bent, as it especially invites a crisp and detached Horowitzian touch, has a brilliant last movement, and is over in a flash. In a way it was a wise choice for not taxing excessively the already satiated audience. Ms. Zhu maximized its brilliance and combined her technical polish with singing phrases, which showed a tasteful degree of liberty. Her second movement (incidentally a movement that never sounds Allegretto, tending more towards Adagio) was generously stretched with expressive phrasing. The final Presto was flawless and sparkling.

Liszt’s transcription of the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust (s.407) followed. Perhaps I need a disclaimer here that, having performed this very piece on the same piano and stage just six months ago, I must set aside some preconceptions and preferences. A good performance usually can overcome those – and Ms. Zhu’s largely did.  She launched into it zealously and with extreme speed, bringing out the diabolical element even in the opening “villagers’ dance,” which one often hears in a slightly slower pesante tempo than the one she took. She had just the right fearless approach for such a showpiece, and the excitement never lagged. At times I was surprised by the extremely generous pedal, which—combined with the flurry of octaves and the piano’s resonant bass—overwhelmed some details; assuming, though, that the depicted village merriment involves a bit of debauchery and drink, some drowning in pedal could arguably be considered to be in keeping with the spirit. A bit of messiness is par for the course in this work as well, but Ms. Zhu kept things well in hand. It really was astonishing considering the abovementioned challenges of this recital format.

If one were to make any suggestions, they would be that the lyrical central sections be more operatic, with long-breathed singing lines, and that the dance parts be a bit more danceable and a bit less rushed. To put things another way, one could want more singer and dancer, but there was plenty of pianist. Ms. Zhu is a pianist through and through, and she should have a bright future.


Henry Wong Doe, Pianist in Review

Henry Wong Doe, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
March 26, 2012
Henry Wong Doe. Photo credit: Tom Stoelker

Henry Wong Doe. Photo credit: Tom Stoelker

Henry Wong Doe, pianist, entitled his March 26th Weill Hall Recital “A Picture of New Zealand” and dedicated the first half of his program to the music of his countryman Gareth Farr, and the second half to his performance of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

Farr, born in 1968, as the program notes stated, is “recognized as one of New Zealand’s leading composers.” He studied composition and percussion performance at the University of Auckland and at Victoria University, Wellington. He moved to the United States to pursue studies at the Eastman School of Music with Samuel Adler and Christopher Rouse. A recipient of many commissions and performances, Farr’s music is particularly influenced by his extensive study of percussion–both Western and Non-Western. Rhythmic elements of his can be linked to the exciting rhythms of Barotongen log drum ensembles, Balinese gamelan and other percussion music of the Pacific Rim. In 2006, Gareth Farr was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music and entertainment, and most recently in 2010, he was the recipient of the prestigious New Zealand Arts Laureate Award.

The evening began with two of Farr’s works for solo piano: 1) “Tentang Cara Gamelan”, dating from 1994, when Farr was still a student at Eastman. The piece is redolent of both Farr’s early interest in Gamelan music, as well as his fascination with French Impressionism such as Debussy, et al. In an early note, Farr cites an imaginary dinner conversation between Debussy and the composer/ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee. While they initially discuss the role of Gamelan in each of their musical styles, professional jealousy disintegrates the conversation into a barrage of tongue-in-cheek insults. Henry Wong Doe’s lively performance, and especially the way he realized the music’s peppery virtuosity via his gestural way of playing the piano (which I found engaging visually) were beneficial to both protagonists. 2) “The Horizon from Owhiro Bay”, a short work commissioned by the James Wallace Trust for pianist Stephen Depledge as part of his program of Landscape Preludes by New Zealand composers, together with eleven other short works. Depledge gave the premiere in February 2008 in New Zealand, and Mr. Wong Doe gave the piece its North American premiere in his debut recital at Weill Recital Hall. Gareth Farr vividly conjures the Prelude’s descriptive aspects (Moody green depth; Inky blue sky; Endless unbroken horizon; Fishing Boats sitting on the horizon all lit up; occasional gusts of wind; wild eddies on the surface of the water; the odd rogue wave (hurling itself onto the rocks and up into the air in a spectacular explosion of sea spray, et al). It is a fine mood piece and I am looking forward to hearing Henry Wong Doe’s forthcoming recording of Farr’s Piano Music (Horizon MMT 2070).

The two piano solos were followed by a pair of chamber music compositions, one for flute and piano: “Nga Whetue e Whitu” (“The Seven Stars”), commissioned for Bridget Douglas (principal flautist in the New Zealand Symphony) and his regular pianist, Rachel Thomson. Alternating Messiaen-like harmonies with Farr’s moto perpetuo energy and sharp, articulated notes, he propels the music at a feverish pace. Both of its two movements are united by Farr’s expansion of long lyrical passages and unique amalgamation of rhythm and sonority. It was expertly played, with a cool “white” tone by Jesse Schiffman, flautist, and Henry Wong Doe.

But it was “The Shadow of the Hawk”, a 1997 work, originally commissioned by cellist James Tennant and pianist Katherine Austion that made the strongest impression on this listener. Farr writes about this composition: “The shadow of the hawk rises and falls as the landscape gently undulates beneath it. One moment it is indistinct and unfocused, the next it snaps into clear definition as the ground rises. A rocky outcrop thrusts up towards the sky.” Farr’s use of the cello confounds the usual conventionality—“the unique combination of cello pizzicato and piano bass notes in the opening gives the work an almost ‘jazzy’ groove.” How fascinating to hear the usually expansively melodic cello used as a percussion instrument. This was a brilliant performance by Mr. Wong Doe and Jisoo Ok, a Korean-born former pupil of Bonnie Hampton and Fred Sherry (Bachelor’s and Master’s at Juilliard).

Mr. Wong Doe’s version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures”, though a shade raw and unpolished, had great vitality and engaging thrust and characterization. He was at his best in some of the more aggressive Promenades (e.g. the opening one, and the final one just before Limoges), Gnomus, Baba Yaga, which had the appropriate sinister ferocity, and The Old Castle, which came forth with a long, flowing line (this vignette, believe it or not, has moments that are surprisingly Schubertian!). Other scenes had their drawbacks: Bidlo, for all its appropriate weight and ponderousness, sounded unrelievedly stolid and brutal. Tuilleries and The Unhatched Chicks lacked delicacy, humor and playful animation. The portrait of Samuel Goldenberg was suitably pompous, though his counterpart Schmuyle was stiff and unmemorable (but credit Mr. Wong Doe for superbly closing that piece with a correct C, D flat, B flat, B flat!). Best of all was the wonderfully inclusive, bustling Limoges Market Place. Alas, the Great Gate of Kiev, which ought to have been the suite’s proper capstone, was more than a bit anticlimactic and sectionalized. (The dangerous first note, coming right after the ferocious lead-in can be brilliantly effective at times but can dangerously fall flat as a pancake—as it did on this particular occasion). But enough faultfinding: Henry Wong Doe’s guided tour (he opted for Mussorgsky’s original unbowdlerized text), though not in the Richter class, was an extremely worthy effort.

I am most grateful to the pianist for lavishing his attention on the music of Gareth Farr. Incidentally, another of Farr’s pieces, entitled “Love Song” was played as an encore after the “Pictures”. (It sounded much more popsy and Flower Child-like, and not at all like the other Farr pieces on the concert’s first half).


Pro Musicis Concert Series 2012 in Review

Pro Musicis Concert Series 2012
Andrew Staupe, piano, Alexandria Le, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall;  New York, NY
April 11, 2012
 
Alexandria Le

Alexandria Le

Pro Musicis award winners Andrew Staupe and Alexandria Le appeared in a shared recital that also was each pianist’s New York debut.  With three world premiere pieces and some of the great works in the piano repertoire, it had the makings of a fascinating evening.  Happily, this was the case, as both performers brought brilliance, poetry, and a deep understanding of their respective selections.

Andrew Staupe

Andrew Staupe

Mr. Staupe took the first half of the recital and opened with the Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, Op. 28, by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Commonly called “Scottish Fantasy”, this work is Mendelssohn’s musical impression of Scotland, imbued with the spirit of the ancient poet Ossian. Mr. Staupe demonstrated a good sense of drama, with a confident manner, never allowing the stormy moments to be muddied or the lyrical sections to become overly sentimental, ending this work with a driven passion.  Two world premiere works followed without break between them. As Mr. Staupe informed the audience, these works were written especially for him by composers who are his close friends. The first by Christopher Walczak (b.1970), “Dark Blue Etude”, is in the words of the composer, “a hyper-compressed sonata form with a disproportionate coda”.  Indeed, it was over almost as soon as it began, but was played with subtlety.  I’d like to hear this work again, but at a much slower tempo! “Delusion” by Karl Blench (b. 1981) relies on the performer to choose the pace (“play the notes as fast as comfortably possible”), which makes each performance unique, but highly dependent on the ability of the performer. Mr. Staupe’s technical prowess made it a success.  Following these premieres was “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune”, from the Préludes, Book II, of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Awash in exoticism, this work requires a nuanced touch, which Mr. Staupe provided in a delicate and crystalline performance. The pianissimo final measures were stunningly rendered with a clarity I have rarely heard.  “Rudepoêma” by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) ended Mr. Staupe’s half. This massive work, with elements of savagery is not for the faint of heart (listener and performer alike!).  Described by some as a Brazilian “Le Sacre du Printemps”, I disagree; this work is the essence of Villa-Lobos – raw genius overflowing with ideas and passion. Mr. Staupe gave a brilliant performance, handling the virtuosic demands with apparent ease, capturing the savage without ever resorting to pounding, and maintaining a tremendous level of stamina and power. After the four final fist-driven hammer blows, the audience responded with what appeared to be bewildered applause.  I was stunned- this was one of the most incredible performances of this masterpiece I have ever heard, live or recorded. I wanted to shout out to the audience, “Wake up! Don’t you realize you have had the privilege of hearing a once-in-a-lifetime performance!”  Almost as an apology, Mr. Staupe played a Scarlatti sonata as an encore (stating “let me play something without my fist”), which he did with grace.

Ms. Le began her half with the Fantasy in G minor, Op. 77 of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).  Written in an improvisational style, this work shows the influence of C.P.E. Bach, whom Beethoven admired greatly. Ms. Le is a passionate and involved player; she invests herself entirely in her performance, which is ideal for a work of this nature.  Playing with fiery abandon, Ms. Lee gave a reading filled with impulsive pathos, but also longing and beauty.  “Competing Demands” by Ryan Carter (b.1981) was given its world premiere by Ms. Le. Mr. Carter is a close friend and former classmate of Ms. Le and he wrote this piece especially for her. Ms. Le shared with the audience that Mr. Carter is a great fan of the hall and wrote the piece with the hall in mind – an interesting concept.  Requiring a delicate, quicksilver touch in the right hand and a loud, insistent left hand, Ms. Le showed that she was up to the challenge.  There might have been a moment when something in the treble lost traction, but all in all, it was an exciting performance. To finish her half, Ms. Le took on “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). This work suits Ms Le completely – the concept of musical realizations of art works by a pianist who is so adept at painting tonal pictures.  “The Gnome” was played with sinister grotesqueness that was spot on.  “Tuileries” had the light and delicate touch of children at play, while “Bydlo” was powerfully played, as if the depicted wagon were passing through the hall, fading as it exited.  “The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” had all the humor one could imagine, and “Catacombs”, “Roman Tombs”, and “Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua” were simply fantastic. “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” was played by Ms. Le with demonic flair. She brought this tour-de-force to a close with a majestic “Great Gate of Kiev”, which ended a memorable performance in triumphal style. The audience responded with waves of applause. For an encore, Ms. Le gave a poetic reading of “Danza de la moza donosa” from the “Danzas Argentinas” of Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. As a final send off, the two pianists paired to play the Hungarian Melody, D.817 of Franz Schubert, as arranged by Mr. Staupe for four hands.