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An extraordinary recording entitled The 20th Century Concerto Grosso has been released on the Chandos label, and it is a must for all those who treasure brilliant playing and rarely heard compositions of high craftsmanship and originality. Quite a bit of the music here even reaches “catchy” status and should be included on one’s playlist for perennial listening. With today’s technological trends in music streaming, featuring many options such as Spotify, Pandora and ITunes, the memorability factor is what general audiences care about most. In other words, will they listen to it again and again or only once?
Although these lesser known works aren’t officially given the Baroque title ”Concerto Grosso” by their composers, like Bloch did with his famous Concerto Grosso No. 1 of 1925 of the same period, they serve the same purpose as the Concerto Grosso musical form did by producing an engaging dialogue between an intimate solo group with a larger ensemble. These works were all written in the 1920′s by three talented Europeans- Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, Austrian Ernst Krenek, and French composer Vincent D’Indy. These composers have more than a time period and a musical conception in common; they were all unfortunately affected by the Third Reich or anti-Semitism. Schulhoff perished in the Wülzburg concentration camp in 1942. Krenek was frequently labeled as Jewish by the Nazis and his work branded as Entartete Musik. He immigrated to the United States in 1938 after the Anschluss. D’Indy, on the other hand, was a confirmed anti-Semite who actively promoted Richard Wagner’s ideology.
D’Indy, like Wagner, was a despicable person whose music transcends the man. Even though D’Indy’s character makes him the odd man out here, his music belongs with the other concerti on this album. His Concert, Op. 89 (1926), for Piano, Flute and Cello with String Orchestra is not only unique and of a high compositional level, but its Neo-Baroque strands are very accessible to those who want tunes to linger in the musical memory, as it pays more homage to the 18th century form than the other two composers on this recording. Stravinsky’s earlier Pulcinella (1920) or Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances (1917 and 1923) immediately come to mind. The music’s humor is palpable, and one walks away humming the tunes with real joy. This composition belongs in the standard repertory alongside the famous Stravinsky and Respighi works. The second most memorable composition here is Schulhoff’s Concerto doppio, WV 89 (1927), for Flute, Piano and String Orchestra with two horns. There is more 20th century dissonance here a la Stravinsky, Bartók, Bloch and Prokofiev. The work is at times danceable and consists of greatly contrasting moods. One can’t help ponder about what might have been had his life not been tragically cut short.
Ernst Krenek is not unknown in the music world. His popular opera Jonny Spielt Auf, which premiered in 1927, made him a star in Europe. It is most inspiring and original, employing jazz elements and multi-cultural influences. His Concertino, Op. 27, written in 1924, is most original in its use of harmony, phrase and rhythm, but has angular, expressionist melodic material that sometimes feels random and uninspired. There are still elements to enjoy, such as the energetic interplay between soloists and orchestra, and the high quality of the playing here.
The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner is amazingly polished and energetic in this unknown, difficult material. Pianist Maria Prinz plays virtuosically, devotedly and poetically in all three works. Flutist Karl-Heinz Schutz plays with remarkable beauty and precision, and violinist Christoph Koncz and cellist Robert Nagy play with extraordinary passion and refinement. The acoustic sound of this recording is first rate-natural and brilliant at the same time. One feels as if they are present in the hall with the players.
Kudos to Ms. Prinz and Sir Neville for bringing this music, and the links regarding these three composers, to our attention.
In the category of failed experiments, the chromatic harp escapes complete ignominy by virtue of the many compositions which were commissioned to celebrate its invention. On the second disc of her recently released three disc set, the fine harpist Suzanna Klintcharova features three of the very best of those compositions. Two are by acknowledged masters, Debussy and Ravel, and the third is by André Caplet, brilliant orchestrator of several of Debussy’s works, and a venturesome creator in his own right.
Conte Fantastique, a musical realization of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is a vivid representation of Caplet’s gifts. Both the harp and string writing employ non-traditional techniques and a harmonic language that projects further into the twentieth century. Ms. Klintcharova’s technical facility in this, as in everything, is beyond reproach. Her rhythm is infallible, and her tone is clean and resonant. In addition, the stringent demands made on the strings are handled quite well, which is no mean feat.
Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro and Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane are two cornerstones of the French repertory and both are given excellent treatment here by Ms. Klintcharova and the Sofia Soloists Chamber Orchestra. While both works contain extended solo passages and some meaty challenges for the harp, the Ravel is more intricate and interwoven amongst the players, while the Debussy, by its nature, is a more blended, harmonious composition. Though I found the tempi in the Ravel somewhat on the conservative side, the playing was distinctive, most especially from the flutist Andrash Ajordan. Ms. Klintcharova, a generous and intelligent collaborator, chooses her partners well.
These impressions of unity in musicality and expression amongst the players were only strengthened in the final disc of the recording. In Debussy’s Sonata No.2 for Flute, Viola, and Harp, I was particularly impressed by the violist Ognyan Konstantinov, whose beautiful tone quality and intonation were a pleasure to hear. Both Ms. Klintcharova and Mr. Ajordan employed a wide color palette to produce some magical effects. The Sofia players’ approach did not work quite so well, however, in Carlos Salzedo’s arrangement of the Ravel Sonatine for Piano, renamed Sonatine en Trio, for flute, cello and harp. This may be attributable to the weaknesses of the transcription. I missed the pristine delicacy of the original, and found that in some passages, choices in articulation and dynamic did not reflect the spirit of piano version. In general, it suffered from over interpretation.
The finale of the third disc, Roussel’s Sérénade for Flute, String Trio and Harp, Op. 30, was a revelation, and a rollicking finish to this recording. By far the most modernistic composition of the group, it has a rhythmic drive and metric complexity that proved exhilarating. Quoting freely from French folk song, and incorporating the flavor of early jazz, this chamber work occupies an unusual niche in the French repertory. Once again, Ms. Klintcharova and her partners were at the top of their game. This CD set is a consistently rewarding addition to the catalogue of French harp music.
MidAmerica Productions has a long history of presenting talented artists in venues around the globe. The honor of the 1200th concert worldwide was given to the Brazilian pianist Aleyson Scopel in a program featuring Mozart, Schubert, and his countryman, Almeida Prado. Mr. Scopel dedicated his performance “To Alys Terrien-Queen, the first to believe in me.” Terrien-Queen may have been the first believer, but after this performance, he added countless others, including this listener, as those “in the know.”
Opening with Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511, Mr. Scopel demonstrated his mature understanding of this highly introspective and melancholy work. He played with refinement and sensitivity, but without superficiality or glibness that lesser players sometimes display in Mozart. His control was excellent, the voicing clear, and contrasts rendered decisively. His was the playing of an artist, pure and simple.
The world premiere of Cartes Celestes XV (Celestial Charts XV) by Almeida Prado followed the Mozart. José Antônio Rezende de Almeida Prado (1943-2010) composed eighteen sets of pieces he called Cartes Celestes , works depicting the sky and universe, using a harmonic language the composer called “transtonality.” Cartes Celestes XV was finished in 2009 and dedicated to Aleyson Scopel. Subtitled “The Expanding Universe”, it is divided into six movements. The opening GRB090423, a musical depiction of a supernova 13 billion light years from the earth, was played by Mr. Scopel with harrowing effect, from the rumbling of the unstable stars to the brilliant explosion of light. The other movements (Eskimo Nebula, Pictor Constellation and Extrasolar Planet, The Bird of Paradise Constellation, Planetary Nebula NCG 3195, and Solar Wind) were further examples of the genius of this composer and his visionary conceptions. Almeida Prado pays tribute to his teacher Messiaen in Bird of Paradise. One can also detect some intergalactic Debussy (imagine La cathédrale engloutie in outer space!). The use of tonality without a tonal center, which the composer called his “pilgrim harmony”, was highly effective. Mr. Scopel took the listener on a tour of the stars in a spellbinding performance full of power, passion, and lyricism. After he had finished, Mr Scopel pointed to the sky in tribute to the composer. It was a touching gesture, and I am confident that Almeida Prado was listening with joy from somewhere in the vast universe he loved so much. Given that Mr. Scopel has recorded other of the Cartas Celestes, it is a reasonable hope that he will, at the very least, add this set to the mix, but I would very much like to see him record all eighteen Cartas Celestes. It would do honor to both Mr. Scopel and Almeida Prado.
After intermission, Mr. Scopel offered Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959. This Sonata, completed only months before Schubert’s death, is a monumental work that is majestic, pathos filled, and nostalgic (especially in the finale’s look back to a theme from his Sonata in A minor, D. 537). Mr. Scopel continued to share his artistry with a well-considered and executed performance of this massive work. His playing was crisp and accurate. The contrasting moods were dynamically realized, the laments were moving in their simplicity, and the finale had unflagging energy. One must also contend with the virtuosic elements throughout, and Mr. Scopel was more than capable of dealing with those as well, which he did in an unpretentious and understated way. This was fine Schubert playing, and would have served as an excellent example to students on what constitutes a reference performance.
Aleyson Scopel is a first-rate pianist. Anyone who values substance over style should make it a point to hear him in performance. I look forward to hearing him again.
Greek-born Dinos Constantinides is the head of Composition and Music Director of the Louisiana State University. He is presently Boyd Professor, the highest academic rank at LSU. Mr. Constantinides has composed over 250 works, including six symphonies, two operas, and music for a wide variety of instruments and voices. His writing style is all-encompassing, from the simplest of forms to the ultra-complex, and from the strictly tonal to the acerbically atonal and serial. He is especially adept in his use of Greek influences, such as Greek poetry from both ancient and modern sources, and Greek modal harmony. With the help of six exceptionally talented colleagues from Louisiana State University, his audience was privy to a broad survey of his varied style, including two world premieres, in ten works.
Pianist Michael Gurt led off the evening with the Sonata for Piano, LRC 49, a work that could be described as a journey through a post-apocalyptic world. It is not for the faint of heart, and Mr. Gurt was heroic as he wended his way through the nightmares and the desolation in a riveting performance. Mr. Gurt was stalwart all evening in his work with colleagues, demonstrating fine and attentive playing as a collaborator.
The lyric playing of saxophonist Griffin Campbell, especially in the Four Songs of Epirus, LRC 264 (World Premiere), was also outstanding. Oboist Johanna Cox handled all technical obstacles with apparent ease, and when her sister, violinist Lenora Cox Leggatt, a formidable talent in her own right, joined her with Mr. Gurt in Reflections V for Violin, Oboe, and Piano, LR 108, the effect was magical. It was the highlight of the evening to this listener. Brett Dietz displayed his amazing dexterity with his stick technique in the Moto Perpetuo for Marimba Alone, LRC 263 (another World Premiere) – it was a performance worthy of Paganini! Finally, soprano Penelope Shumate closed each half with performances filled with passion, charm, and coquettishness.
There is something apt in the saying about having too much of a good thing, and I am of the opinion that it would have been judicious to have shortened the program. Mr. Constantinides is at his best in his Greek-influenced works, and a program devoted to those works would have been most effective.
At the end, Mr. Constantinides joined his colleagues on the stage to offer them his congratulations, shaking hands with each performer. All joined together for a final bow to the appreciative audience.
In the first of three scheduled concerts at the SubCulture Arts Underground, the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation presented sixteen-year-old pianist, Anna Han, the first-prize winner of their 2012 New York International Competition. The foundation should be commended for looking beyond the usual concert halls in selecting this unconventional venue for classical music. In this day and age, anything that can be done in order to capture new listeners, who might not otherwise attend, should be explored.
A few words about SubCulture Arts Underground are in order. As its name implies, the hall is in the basement of a larger facility. It has the feeling of a club, with a small stage and intimate seating for the audience. For more casual events, a full-service bar is open throughout the performances. Lest anyone think that “underground” means somewhat less than savory environs, let me state that this hall is a place in which even the fussiest person would feel comfortable. While perhaps not a place designed with traditional classical artists in mind, it is nonetheless suitable for classical soloists and small ensembles. My sole reservation was with the piano, of which I will speak later.
Anna Han sports a resume of competition victories and concerto performances that is quite impressive for such a young musician. What interested me the most was how this young player was going to handle her varied and eclectic program. Was this going to be a display of sheer technique, which so many young players seem to have in abundance, or was it going to be something more? The answer was forthcoming almost immediately.
Starting her program with the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B minor, BWV 855, Ms. Han showed the sensitivity of a real musician. She gave this work a performance with meticulous control, restraint, and attention to voicing. After this fine start, Ms. Han took on the Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35, Book 1, of Brahms. These fourteen variations of the famous 24th Caprice are unabashedly virtuosic, giving the performer ample opportunity to display her technical prowess. Ms. Han certainly has the technique, but the larger variations seemed to lack something in power and projection. While I found the lighter variations to be done with style and wit, I never had the sensation of the intensity this work possesses. I do believe that this can be accounted for by the piano, which was not a 9-foot concert grand, but a much smaller instrument. This unfortunately somewhat undercut Ms. Han, who I do believe would have made a huge splash on a larger instrument. That being said, it was still an excellent performance.
Suite for Piano, a four movement by Michael Brown (b.1987) was commissioned by the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation and given its World Premiere by Ms. Han. It is a work filled with moments of both playfulness and poignancy. The second movement, Chant, was moving in its simplicity, while the third movement, Fugue, was a hilarious contrapuntal rendering of a theme that could be called “Bach Goes the Weasel”. Ms. Han played the former with the right amount of somber introspection, while the latter conveyed delightful wit and whimsy. Mr. Brown was in attendance, seeming to approve wholeheartedly of Ms. Han’s interpretation. Ending the first half was the Liszt transcription of Liebestod, from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. I have mixed feelings about this work, as I find that the “accepted” performance practice of it is overwrought, overly loud, and a brutalization of the piano. The hall piano was probably a blessing here, as any ideas of blowing down the walls with sound were not going to happen. Ms. Han did a commendable job, but I prefer that the pathos and lament be the focus, with less emphasis on the heaven storming.
After intermission, Ms. Han played a set of pieces also commissioned by the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation, Three Etudes, by Avner Dorman (b. 1975). The three etudes are all modeled in the style of György Ligeti. Snakes and Ladders is “Ligeti meets Boogie Woogie”, Funeral March is a study of tonal despair in a deceptively simple form, and Sundrops over Windy Waters, a shimmering and hyperactive display of velocity. These three pieces, much like those of Ligeti, call for a player with not only a great technique, but an uncommon intelligence that probes for hidden meanings. Ms. Han is such a player, and when one stops to consider that she is only sixteen years old, one must marvel at such musical maturity at such a young age. It was exceptional. Beethoven’s Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 31, No. 3 was next, and Ms. Han continued to show the fine sense of style and architecture in her playing, a joy from the opening of the Allegro to the end of the Presto con fuoco. The Beethoven was the high point of the recital. Ms. Han is a sensitive and poetic player beyond her years.
Ending the recital was the Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op.28 of Prokofiev. It was well played, but the issues of projection were once again problematic. The crowd was less sensitive to this issue, and gave Ms. Han a justly deserved ovation. She offered three encores, a lyrically played Etude No. 4, based on Gershwin’s “Embraceable You”, by Earl Wild, a quicksilver “Flight of the Bumblebee” that wowed the crowd, and Rachmaninoff’s Lilacs as a final note of artistry.
As part of DCINY’s Artists Series program, Ensemble: Périphérie (EP) was invited to perform at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in what was their New York debut. Established in 2010 by composers Joseph Dangerfield and Luke Dahn, EP consists of a core group of performing artists based in the Midwest. One of the primary goals of EP is to bring greater exposure to composers and works that are underperformed and neglected, or on the periphery, so to speak. They cite a quotation of Henri Dutilleux: “For me the only new music would be music that a composer of genius successfully created on the periphery of all the movements of our time and in the face of all current slogans and manifestos. Generally speaking, whatever the intellectual movements in force, not enough attention is paid to matters of temperament and originality…”.
This declaration reminds one of those ubiquitous pharmaceutical advertisements: WARNING! The music you are about to hear might cause momentary discomfort to persons accustomed to more traditional musical idioms. Side effects may include confusion, aural disorientation, and feelings of anger. Persons who do not well tolerate Dodecaphonical are advised not to listen. Make no mistake: EP is not interested in conventional popularity. Their repertoire is not music for the masses; they are all, however, superb musicians as individuals and have a musical rapport as an ensemble that truly believes in their mission.
Opening the concert was the New York Premiere of Cadences by Luke Dahn (b. 1976). A four-movement musical homage to Alexander Calder, scored for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, and piano, Cadences uses four Calder structures (The Crab, La Grande Voile, Lily of Force, and Three Up, Three Down) for inspiration. Mr. Dahn skillfully captured the essence of these works; the quirky nature of The Crab, the brooding qualities of La Grande Voile, the delicate lines of Lily of Force, and mobile-like aspects of Three Up, Three Down. I suspect Calder would have heartily approved of both the music and the exceptional performance from EP.
Four Songs on Poems of Seamus Heaney, also having its New York Premiere, from composer Louis Karchin (b. 1951) followed. Mr. Karchin set to music four poems of the 1995 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, poet, playwright, translator, and lecturer, Seamus Heaney (1939-2013). The poems are Lightenings iv (misspelled in the program as Lightnings twice, but correctly in the program notes), The Rain Stick, Lightenings i, and Settings xxiv. Scored for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, and soprano, this work is not easily appreciated immediately, but does have many moments of beauty and import. However, balance issues overshadowed many of those moments, as the ensemble obscured soprano Michelle Crouch. I also noticed many audience members with their heads buried in the program struggling to follow the text, which meant they were focused in the wrong direction. Quite simply, either the singer must project more consistently or the ensemble needs to play more softly. As a whole, I was disappointed in this performance, not necessarily in the quality of the playing, singing, or composition, but in the overall effect.
After intermission, the second half commenced with I Hear the Sound That Has Fallen Silent by Irina Dubkova (b. 1957). Scored for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, and piano, this work is part of a larger composition entitled In the Soft Moonlight. Filled with rhythmic vitality and momentum-building intensity, this is one of EP’s signature pieces and was played with power and assurance. It was an outstanding performance of an interesting piece, and it got things back on track. Next up was Butterfly Dance by David Gompper (b.1954). Based on a Hopi Indian tune of the same name, Butterfly Dance is a two-part work scored for violin, viola, cello, clarinet, and piano. The composer conceived (in his words), “the first (part) as a preparation – although aesthetically removed but motivically based on the second part, a more straightforward rendition of the tune itself.” Clarinetist Yasmin Flores was the star of this work, from the soaring sounds of the opening section to the jaunty dance of the second.
The Wild, the New York premiere of the chamber version of the first movement of the Piano Concerto of Joseph Dangerfield (b. 1977), based on the Barnett Newman painting of the same name, ended the concert. It is a work of raw, untamed qualities and was played with a practiced edginess by the complete forces (excluding the soprano) of EP. A lesser ensemble would probably have allowed these ideas to deteriorate into amorphous cacophony, but EP made it all work. The audience left knowing that the musically unheralded and underplayed have a worthy champion, and that champion is Ensemble: Périphérie.
Recital debuts can be a dicey proposition in New York, depending on what other concerts and events are scheduled. Learning that a young Croatian pianist would be giving his New York debut in Weill Hall the same night as the much-heralded and fashionable Yuja Wang would play next door at Stern Auditorium, I imagined that a half-empty hall might await him. How wrong I was! Mr. Bracic’s sold-out house left a virtual mob swarming around the box office, hoping for tickets from last-minute cancellations. As the evening progressed, it became clear why: Javor Bracic is a pianist who possesses a deep, genuine musicianship and an outstanding technique that serves the great music he chooses. He honors both listener and composer with his intelligent, committed interpretations, and he offers a thoughtfully constructed program with elegance and humility. It was heartening to be reminded that such an artist is still a draw and that the “competition” for listeners is not always a zero-sum game.
Mr. Bracic began with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major, WTC II (BWV 870), which was at once noble and sensitive, with not a note out of place. Moving on to Haydn’s Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI: 42, he sustained musical tension and interest through its rather long Andante con espressione, right through to the last note of the Vivace assai. Occasionally I wanted ornaments to be more singing in the first movement, and less subservient to the meter, but that was about the only quibble one could have – and a very personal one at that. The delicacy and precision were outstanding.
Moving to later style periods, Mr. Bracic tied his first half together to the Bach and Haydn by performing Debussy’s underplayed Hommage à Haydn (1909) and the even less well known Hommage à Bach (2001) by Croatian composer Davorin Kempf (b. 1947). In between old masters and homages came a World premiere of a work entitled Entwined, Disquiet (2013) by Rosalie Burrell (b. 1988). At times searching and at others explosive, the two movements explored a tonal world that verged on orchestral, bearing hints of Messiaen and even Scriabin, though without being derivative. Ms. Burrell is still quite young, but already emerging as quite a colorist. I would have enjoyed some information on the piece, but Mr. Bracic, playing from score, appeared to meet this new work’s challenges beautifully, with considerable expressiveness.
As far as the homages go, I’ve never completely grasped the Haydn connection in the ever so brief Debussy work, apart from some tenuous structural likenesses and passing elements of humor and surprise, but it is immediately appealing and was played convincingly by Mr. Bracic. The Bach tribute by Mr. Kempf is far less elusive. Crisp mordents, preceding impassioned scalar writing, hearkened back to Bach’s Toccatas (notable the BWV 565 Organ Toccata in D minor), while quieter counterpoint and sequential episodes were set ingeniously amid some highly adventurous, clearly twentieth-and-twenty-first-century composition. Virtuosity abounded, and Mr. Bracic was on top of it all with dash and drama. Hints of the B -A-C-H theme by Bach himself (based on the tones B-flat, A, C, and B-natural) emerged amid dissonant writing that at times resembled a Bach festival recalled through a dream, all brought to an end with a nod to Bach’s characteristic Picardy close. It is a work I’d like to hear again, especially thanks to Mr. Bracic’s superb performance.
The program’s second half consisted of the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5, a feast of some of the noblest, warmest, richest piano writing in history, and Mr. Bracic was well suited to it all. Some minor glitches arose – as happen to almost all pianists – but most seemed here to stem from over-straining for power against the piano’s somewhat resistant treble register at climaxes. If those moments can be conquered with the majesty shown elsewhere, Mr. Bracic will have one of the best Brahms F Minor Sonata performances around. As it is, I would hear him again in a heartbeat. His audience seemed to agree, earning an encore of a small Ravel work – you guessed it!- Hommage à Haydn.
-Rorianne Schrade for New York Concert Review; New York, NY
Suwon Civic Chorale from South Korea performing at Alice Tully Hall
Now in its 30th year, The Suwon Civic Chorale from South Korea was invited by Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) to perform at Alice Tully Hall. In a program featuring traditional Korean music, modern Korean music (including two commissioned works written especially for this occasion and given their World Premieres), and American favorites, it had all the makings of an interesting and educational evening.
The Suwon Civic Chorale filed on stage in traditional Korean dress. Before starting the concert proper, conductor Dr. In-Gi Min requested that the audience stand as the Chorale sang the national anthems of South Korea and the United States – a thoughtful and respectful gesture that I very much appreciated.
The first half was dedicated to the music of Korea. Arirang is to Koreans what Finlandia is to the Finnish, a much-loved, unofficial national anthem. Composer Sung-Hyun Yoon used the traditional theme with modern Western compositional technique, a musical East meets West that was given a heartfelt performance and approval from the appreciative audience. Following this setting, Jung-Sun Park’s Kyrie from the Arirang Mass was expertly performed, reflecting traditional Korean harmony and an ornamented singing technique that would be difficult for those without training in Korean singing tradition. As throughout the entire concert, Dr. Min led in an attentive and restrained manner with no showboating – the music was always first and foremost. When a work was finished, Dr. Min would retire stage left and gesture to the Chorale before taking any bows of his own, demonstrating a humility I would like to see more conductors emulate.
Four traditional songs, the Stephen Foster-like Gagopa (Wishing to Return), the three-note based Saeya, Saeya (Blue Bird), the charming Sae Taryung (The Bird Song), with the four soloists singing bird calls in antiphonal style, and the work song Mokdosori (A Song of Pole Carrying), which was sung with gusto, all served as a introduction to the folk music of Korea. The joy of the Chorale members sharing their traditional melodies was apparent, both from the visual and aural aspects of the performances.
The two commissioned works were by highly accomplished Korean composers. The Dona nobis pacem by Keeyoung Kim (b. 1963) is complex, with extensive chromaticism, Korean pentatonic modes, and using a circle of thirds, instead of the traditional western circle of fifths. The Chorale gave this demanding and intricate work a praiseworthy performance. Miserere by Jeeyoung Kim (b. 1968) is a powerful work, from the quiet opening with Tibetan bowls to create what is considered the sound of Heaven in Korea, to the two solos sung in a traditional style called Jeong-Ga, to the bold middle and ending sections. The Chorale realized all of Ms. Kim’s musical ideas in what must be called a simply dazzling performance. Both composers were in attendance, and took richly deserved bows.
The Chorale returned to the stage after intermission with the women dressed in evening gowns and the men in tuxedos with tails. The second half opened with two works by the highly popular American composer Eric Whitacre, Lux Aurumque and Little Birds.
Lux Aurumque is one of Whitacre’s best-known and most frequently performed works. Anyone who is familiar with the YouTube sensation Whitacre’s Virtual Choir has seen and heard this work. The Chorale mastered the tight harmonies with precision, often with the SATB parts dividing into two, and the sopranos even into three. The balance, as the title suggests, was “golden”. Little Birds uses verses written by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. The composer suggested in his performance instructions that the singers research real bird calls and whistles, and it seemed from the sensitive performance that his instructions were heeded. There was a feel that the sounds of the birds flowed organically and did not ever overshadow the vocals. The effect was enchanting in a nuanced way.
After the Whitacre works, it was time for something completely different, and that was the entertaining Kecak Attack. This work is based on the Indonesian monkey dance of the same name. The chorus separated into smaller sub-sections and used the sound cak-ka-cak in rhythms of various complexities, with snapping fingers and choreographed gestures in an attack-counterattack manner between the divided forces. The sense of play brought much laughter; even Dr. Min got into the act by an exaggerated “push back” of the ever-bolder faction of tenors moving forward in a mock menacing fashion. The incongruity of this spectacle and the elegantly attired performers added to the hilarity.
After this “play”, it was time to get back to serious work with Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei, an a cappella arrangement of his masterpiece, the Adagio for Strings. The arrangement retains all the beauty of the original as well as the challenges of voicing and intonation. Both must be precise throughout, or else the entire effect is destroyed – there simply is no margin for error. Using an interesting repositioning of the singers (male-female alternating in all rows), the Chorale met the challenges and delivered a very moving performance. If I had one reservation, it was that the tempo was a bit too fast for my taste, but this was a personal preference. To end, two traditional Americana songs, Shenandoah and The Battle of Jericho were given solid readings. The full house responded with a prolonged ovation and was rewarded with three encores, the highlight of which was a nod to the Big Apple by way of the highly stylish New York, New York, complete with ballroom dancing and Rockette-style kicks. It was a huge hit.
Having reviewed pianist Sarah Chan in Schumann’s A Minor Concerto just this May (hers being just one of several concerti in a packed program), I wondered how the same pianist would fare in a calmer setting; five months later, Ms. Chan’s own intimate solo recital this week gave this listener (and the pianist herself) just that opportunity. Holding the reins firmly, she emerged as a confident young soloist, with solidity, strong projection, and a winning stage presence.
In a program of essentially Spanish and French music (if France is allowed to claim the Polish-born Chopin for the occasion), Ms. Chan chose mostly short works, the longest lasting from seven to nine minutes. It was an appealing array seemingly designed not to tax the layperson’s attention, so to this veteran listener it seemed to be over in a flash. I liked, though, that Ms. Chan resisted the gargantuan programming that so many young pianists’ recitals display. I also liked that Chan followed her preferences and did not feel compelled to offer a survey course on each style of the piano literature from Bach onward. There was still plenty of contrast.
Enjoying the sheer variety among works, one almost missed the fact that there was sometimes not quite as much variety within a work as one might want. The opening work, Claude Debussy’s “Bruyères” (Prélude No. 5 from Book II), was louder throughout than what I’ve usually heard, and I missed the nuance that makes small dynamic ranges colorful (the composer’s own markings for this piece ranging only from pianissimo up to mezzo-forte, aside from effects of timbre, register, and pedaling).
In Debussy’s “La Soirée dans Grenade” from Estampes, the range was greater, but I still wanted more nuance in the melodic inflection, without which the singing Spanish lines sound stiff. More rhythmic bending could also have helped to convey the feeling marked as nonchalamment gracieux. While Debussy was known as a pianist who avoided histrionics, he would still enjoy pushing and pulling a phrase, as demonstrated in his 1913 piano roll recording of this very work.
Maurice Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso” from Miroirs, made a great pairing with the Debussy, and served as a virtuosic backdrop for the Spanish music to come. Ms. Chan expertly handled Ravel’s many challenges, among them her admirably rapid repeated notes. More of a final burst would have capped the piece off perfectly (and perhaps planning the earlier dynamic pacing accordingly), but maximizing each thrill seemed a lower priority than momentum throughout the evening.
Closing the first half were Joaquín Turina’s “Seguiriya” from Danzas Gitanas, Op. 84, Isaac Albéniz’s “Asturias” (“Leyenda”) from Suite Española, Op. 47, and Albeniz’s “El Albaicin” from Iberia, Book III. All three showed Ms. Chan to be a pianist of ample technique and solid command. She also has the resources to achieve a large palette of colors, which I hope she will exploit more and more. Her Iberia selection has markings ranging from ppppp through fff, so moderation can be checked at the door. For some reason the middle register of the concert grand seemed unusually heavy, eclipsing important chords in the outer registers, but Ms. Chan was unruffled.
The entire second half of the concert consisted of the music of Frédéric Chopin. Opening with his Barcarolle, Op. 60, the pianist seemed much more comfortable than in the first half. Clearly this pianist knew the repertoire inside and out. There was also more of the savoring of harmonic resolutions that I had been craving earlier. A string of six Études (from both the twelve op. 25 and the twelve Op. 10) followed. The Étude in A-flat major, Op. 25 No. 1 (“Harp”) opened the group, a gentle choice, though still too fast for my taste and again at the mercy of a dominant middle register. The best was yet to come in the Étude in G-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 6 (“Thirds”): it sparkled brilliantly as one of the gems of the recital. There ought to be a special award for a performer who can make this devilishly difficult Étude a highlight, as it is the nemesis of so many pianists! Also quite well executed was the Étude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7 (sometimes called the “Cello” Étude). Though it is a slower, more melodic Étude, it should not be considered any sort of “breather” – it is tremendously difficult to pull off the pacing and balance, and Ms. Chan did extremely well. In the Étude in B minor, Op. 25, No. 10 (“Octaves”), the pianist surprised us with a ferocity that had been largely hidden up to this point. At moments where many pianists grab a chance to relax, she stormed ahead, and her fearless finale was refreshing. She should keep playing these pieces to the hilt.
The Étude in C minor Op. 10, No. 12 (“Revolutionary” – mistakenly listed on the program as C-sharp minor), came off as a bit glib for this listener. Heroic gesture became efficiency and dispatch, as if the end of the recital loomed too closely to resist racing. Also, by following it (without pause) with the buoyant Étude in G-flat major, Op. 10, No. 5 (“Black Keys”), its dramatic impact was further undercut. These pieces cease being mere “Études” the minute they are played in concert, so they need to be treated as any delicate works of art.
All ended with the much-loved Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47. Despite a not-quite-ready left hand at the start, it closed the program overall with warmth and triumph, boding very well for things to come for Ms. Chan. She already holds an impressive list of accomplishments, academically and musically, and one expects similar achievements in her continued career. A good-sized audience gave warm ovations and received Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum as a parting lagniappe.
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