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.
-Rorianne Schrade for New York Concert Review; New York, NY
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.
-Jeffrey Williams for New York Concert Review; New York, NY
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 Center for Musical Excellence (CME) is dedicated to the ideal of helping gifted artists of all nationalities realize their potential by providing them not only with top-notch training and mentoring, but with practical assistance in areas such as housing, language, and securing necessary documents. Originally conceived to assist pianists, CME has now branched out to also accept players of all instruments and vocalists as well. Founder, Artistic and Executive Director Min Kwon headlined a group of talented artists in a benefit concert to raise money for this fine organization. A silent auction with a variety of items, from the expected (a private concert from Ms Kwon) to the unexpected (an opportunity to watch an open-heart surgery!) awaited the highest bidders.
Such group concerts are always great fun for the audience members, who get to enjoy a variety of talented performers in crowd-pleasing works; it is a lot more stressful for the artists, however, who have to come in “cold” and be ready to go immediately. To be judged on a few short minutes where anything can happen can be a frightening prospect. It is also difficult for the reviewer, who must make snap judgments and avoid the temptation to compare performers. If all goes well – and it did – the festive nature of the occasion rules the day.
Min Kwon and Alexander Beridze opened the concert with Variations on a Theme of Paganini for Two Pianos by Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994). Played with panache and style, this much-loved work got the night off to a great start. Ming Xie followed with the “Alborado del Gracioso” from Miroirs of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). At only eighteen years of age, he played with involvement and mastery far beyond his years. This is a young man who bears watching. Heegan Lee Shzen followed with Etude –Tableaux in E-flat Minor, Op. 39, No. 5 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943, not 1891-1953 as the printed program stated twice- those dates are Sergei Prokofiev’s!). Mr. Lee did not begin serious studies until age fifteen. This late start makes his achievement all the more remarkable when one considers that most players of his caliber usually began at the age of four or five. He seemed to gain confidence as he played and finished strongly. He is a diamond in the rough who will be a pleasure to follow. Closing the first half, Diyi Tang treated the audience to Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest (What the West Wind Has Seen) from the Préludes, Book I from Claude Debussy (1862-1918). This virtuosic tribute to Percy Shelley’s Ode on the West Wind was played with fiery intensity – a stormy wind full of raging aggressiveness. This I believe to be the most effective approach and not the understated interpretation that I have heard from many others. It was an exciting close to the half.
Miao Hou joined Diyi Tang to open the second half with two selections of two-piano works. The first included “Meng Songs” and “Miao Dances” from China West Suite by Chinese composer Chen Yi (b. 1953). These two movements could be described as Béla Bartók and Prokofiev mingling with the sounds of China; the Meng Songs being poignant in simplicity and the Miao Dances infectious in their energy. The pianists then swapped pianos and offered the Valse from the Second Suite for Two Pianos of Rachmaninoff. It sparkled with optimism and brightness in the hands of these two very sensitive musicians. The youngest performer of the evening, soprano Sydney Lazar followed. Ms. Kwon told of how Ms. Lazar won the hearts of the Viennese when she was a participant in CME’s ConcertoFest in Vienna. Her performance of “Bel Piacere” from Rinaldo by George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) showcased her lovely voice, but it was her performance as Adele singing the “Mein Herr Marquis” aria (probably much better known as “Adele’s Laughing Song”) from Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) that made it completely obvious how she won over the Viennese. Projected with coquettish charm, it was a winning performance from start to finish. Ms. Lazar is personality plus and should have a bright future. Her accompanist, Lachlan Glen was a star in his own right; any singer would be happy to have him as a collaborator. Erikson Rojas followed and proved to be an impressive performer in his own right. Playing Ante el Escorial by Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), Mr. Rojas gave an impassioned and intensely committed performance; the intensity of his performance made me forget that I am not especially fond of this piece – no small achievement! To cap off the night, Ms. Kwon joined Mr. Rojas for Libertango of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), played with Piazzolla’s characteristic fire. All the performers came back for a group bow before the enthusiastic audience. Congratulations are due to all the performers and especially Ms. Kwon, whose energy and dedication has made the difference in the musical lives of so many through CME.
-Jeffrey Williams for New Yotk Concert Review; New York, NY
Tatiana Tessman’s November 30th Tully Hall recital presented the latest winner of the World Piano Competition—an artist of technical brilliance, interpretive authority along with a comforting aura of authority and dependability. Ms. Tessman, was who was born in Russia, studied at the Gnessin School in Moscow with a series of excellent teachers and has concertized and won several prizes in her native land. Later, she came to New York to polish and complete her training at the Manhattan School of Music with Solomon Mikowsky. She is a recipient of the Elda van Gelder Memorial Foundation.
Her program began with three Chopin Mazurkas, Op. 50 which commanded attention with a bold rubato and extroverted, rhetorically flexible rhythmic drive. For some, her “in your face” feistiness may have seemed overly flamboyant. But quibbles aside her style, proved justifiably idiomatic.
Six additional Mazurkas by Karol Szymanowski, (also Op. 50) and still another two by Thomas Adès, beautifully complemented the Chopin group and in fact proved to be even more delicate and whimsical, more colored and intimate, too, than what Ms. Tessman’s extroverted style brought to the Chopin.
Chopin’s imposing Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49 brought the first half of the concerto to a close, and her memorable, masterfully held together interpretation was, for this writer, the highpoint of the evening. Every crucial detail made a fine impression: the rock solid rhythmic underpinning of the alla Marcia introduction; the long lined harmonic shaping of the second subject: the superbly judged timing and pacing of the central Trio (which coincidentally bears a striking resemblance to the analogous middle Trio of the Schubert Klavierstuck No.1 in E flat Minor, D. 946); and the towering climactic drama at the very end proved unusually effective and convincing.
Prokofiev’s Eighth Piano Sonata, the penultimate of his works in that genre, and the last of the three great “War Sonatas” (Nos. 6-8), is extremely passionate, nostalgic and imposing (the Ninth Sonata, the contemporaneous Cello Sonata and Seventh Symphony, all showed the composer to be depleted and spiritually threadbare, a depressing decline). Ms. Tessman’s interpretation was heartwarming, excitable and charged with virtuoso brilliance. Her version was also happily tempered with generosity and lyrical warmth.
The rapturous response of the audience was rewarded with a lovely, communicative reading of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 32, No. 5.
Tatiana Tessman is an emotionally outgoing but formidably controlled virtuoso. I look forward to hearing much more of her playing.
-Harris Goldsmith for New York Concert Review; New York, NY
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.
-Anthony Aibel for New York Concert Review; New York, NY
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.
It is a daunting task to organize, rehearse and perform in a vocal recital featuring fourteen singers, a pianist and in one number, even an obbligato cellist. But for Samantha Jeffreys and her colleagues, this “Celebration of Song” was a labor of love, evidenced by the joyful and heartfelt music making tonight’s audience experienced. The concert, a benefit for the brain cancer research being carried out at The New York Brain Tumor Center at Weill Cornell Medical College, was dedicated to Ms. Jeffreys’ mother Karen Jeffreys who is undergoing treatment at Weill Cornell.
The singers on this program showcased many facets of New York’s vibrant musical life. We heard both emerging artists and veteran performers in the fields of opera and musical comedy. Some specialized in one field, others such as Ms. Jeffreys exhibited skill in both. And it was interesting to see how the paths of the performers have crossed, as educational institutions such as the Manhattan School of Music and local opera companies such as the Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble and the Di Capo Opera Theatre popped up in so many biographies.
Most of the concert’s first half was devoted to operatic arias and duets. The recital began with the lovely “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” sung by Ms. Jeffreys and mezzo-soprano Sara Fanucchi. This was followed by the American composer John Duke’s art song “I Carry Your Heart,” performed with a rich sound and fine diction by mezzo-soprano Katie Hannigan. We then heard another duet, “Evening Prayer” from Humperdink’s “Handel and Gretel,” in which Ms. Jeffreys was joined by another mezzo-soprano, Jocelyne O’Toole. The singers in both duets blended beautifully and were perfectly balanced. In these duets, and in all of the following ensembles, the interaction between performers was dramatic and quite convincing. This even extended to the way they entered the stage before singing.
Michael Corvino’s magnificent rendition of the aria “Nemico della Patria” from Umberto Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier” followed. This veteran baritone possesses a thrilling sound in all registers and sings with palpable dramatic intensity. In a preceding paragraph I mentioned that this evening featured both emerging and veteran performers, and the overall excellence of Mr. Corvino’s performance is something that all of tonight’s younger artist should strive for.
The preceding statement is not meant to infer that there were no other great performances this evening. The tenor Ta’u Pupu’a (that’s not a misprint – he’s originally from the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga) thrilled the audience with his idiomatic rendition of the song in Neapolitan dialect “Tu, ca nun chiagne” by Ernesto DeCurtis. Both he and the tenor Brian Gagde, who later sang Rudolfo’s aria “Che gelida manina” from Puccini’s “La Bohème,” possess exciting tenor voices that have that wonderful ring which the Italians call “squillo.” They are the kind of tenors that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up when they move into their upper register.
Mr. Gagde’s aria was immediately followed by Mimi’s response, “Mi chiamano Mimi,” sung by Ms. Jeffreys. Her lovely voice ascends with ease to the top of the lyric soprano’s range and left us deeply gratified. The first half ended as Ms. Jeffreys and Mr. Gagde sang the duet which concludes Act I of “La Bohème.” Their voices soared together to climax on the word “amor” as they exited through the audience, leaving it eagerly anticipating the second half.
The second half featured music from the American Musical Theater. I love this music, having been in the audience during the opening run of half of the eight shows from which tonight’s music was chosen. Let me touch on some high points. Ms. Jeffrey’s performance of Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch over Me” was idiomatic and touching. She showed how a singer with an operatic voice can convincingly cross over into musical comedy. I would, however, suggest leaving out the operatic high note at the end. And speaking of operatic high notes, “Mamma, Mamma” from Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella,” more an aria than a song, was given a knockout performance by Michael Corvino. Although many of the other performers on this half were more “singing actors” as opposed to the above “acting singers,” they were no less effective. Lastly, mention must be made of the exemplary pianist Djordje Stevan Nesic, whose sensitive accompaniments in both musical styles were a pleasure to hear.
Ms. Jeffreys has done an admirable thing in raising over $10,000 for cancer research and in so doing, she gave her audience a wonderful evening. Her mother must be very proud.
-Harry Saltzman for New York Concert Review; New York, NY
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 Dvorák, Leoš Janácek, and Bedrich 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 Dvorák (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.
Dvorák’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 Janácek (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 Bedrich 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 Dvorák ‘s Mazurek in E minor as an encore.
The arts are in a jumble, but America remains the coveted destination for those who seek higher education and a head start in a classical performance career. As college costs aspire to reach the stars, so do many of our foreign students, who are being trained superbly, and increasingly, outside of the typical metropolitan capitals of the country.
On Saturday, November 24 at 2:00 pm, the Korean pianist Seunghee Lee gave a recital at Alice Tully Hall presented by MidAmerica Productions (now in its 30th season of forging concert liaisons here and abroad). A graduate of SangMyung University in Seoul, Ms. Lee chose to make her next stops at Ohio University and the University of Kentucky, whence she has emerged in the spring of this year, fully equipped to join the profession as instructor at SangMyung University in Seoul, with a doctoral dissertation on Korean contemporary piano music in hand. Ms. Lee’s biography cites a number of prizes and credits, including concerts in Brazil and a master class coaching with Kimura Park (presumably the pianist Jon Kimura Parker).
Ms. Lee established her porcelain signature sound from the outset on Saturday in a pair of unrelated Scarlatti sonatas, the tender K. 197 in B Minor and the top-ten favorite K. 159 in C Major, with its stuttering staccato thirds and cheery grace notes, deftly enunciated. Consistently attentive to clarity and polished treble, Ms. Lee prefers to butter her Baroque textures lavishly, but her sound retains its characteristic simplicity and integrity at all times.
If Ms. Lee is discovering a personal statement independent of the common sincerity of all music-making, this statement may be in its germinal phase: Saturday’s recital was a heavenly musical pot-luck. Its major works were the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel (listed familiarly as “Handel Variations”). The Bach-Busoni was a late substitution for the “Corelli Variations” by Rachmaninoff, publicized on the outdoor marquee. A penchant for Baroque themes with their sets of full-blown Romantic variations would be an intriguing specialty, but the association would warrant an architectural perspective as well as an effervescent one. Ms. Lee’s cultivated sound and beautifully proportioned sense of rhythm did much to compensate for the absence of tragic declamation or exhilaration, respectively, in Bach-Busoni and Brahms. To decrease the cumulative effect of repetition and downplay the arrival of the fugue, Ms. Lee showed the courtesy to keep things moving and omitted nearly every repeat in the Brahms, as if for a timed audition. The through-composed Variation 13, in which Brahms extravagantly reiterates phrases in the upper octave to prolong the sway of the Hungarian lassan, contrasted noticeably with the compactness of the piece. After a dozen progressively thornier segments, the expected main course fugue proceeded as a blip on the radar, proficiently executed but minimally histrionic.
Partial responsibility for this non-starter of a cultural event should fall to the MidAmerica audience, which seemed especially papered with musical novices. Just as we were getting to know Ms. Lee and her lithe, violinistic style in the Bach Chaconne, the handsome crowd erupted into intermittent applause as if to cheer a home run every time she traversed the keyboard with razzle-dazzle. The offending persons did not stay beyond the first half, but we were treated to security ringtones, flash photography, electronic chimes, and exiting audience members during the remainder of the concert.
The most successful aspect of the recital was the grassroots parallel Ms. Lee drew between Samuel Barber’s Excursions and two atmospheric Korean dances by the composer Young Jo Lee, who is lucky to have such a devoted interpreter of his new piano works. Barber’s ostinato figures were comfortably controlled and his violin square dance full of fun, while the octatonic barcarolle and sicilian rhythms in Young Jo Lee’s Korean Dance Suite extended throughout the piano’s range and began to resemble Henri Duparc’s L’Invitation au Voyage gone to the dark side. Christian Sinding’s Rustle of Spring was a fluent and colorful encore.
-Emily White for New York Concert Review; New York, NY
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