Concert Review: Hamelin Pinch-Hits for Lang Lang, Belts Home Run

Marc-André Hamelin

Two nights ago, Marc-André Hamelin stepped up to the plate in Seattle to pinch-hit for an ailing Lang Lang, who is reported to have been sidelined since last April with inflammation in his left arm.  Not an easy assignment, filling in for the Chinese superstar.  How did Hamelin do?  Quite simply, he hit it out of the park.  He hit it a country mile.

The first half of the program was devoted to the music of Franz Liszt, but notably absent were Lisztian warhorses like the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, “Funerailles”, “Un Sospiro”, and the monumental B minor Sonata.  Instead, Hamelin favored us with three lesser-known works, and showed us a side of Liszt we seldom see, one that is deeply personal and startlingly profound.

First on the program was the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13.  Not as well known as many of Liszt’s rhapsodies, the 13th reminds us that not all gypsy tunes are brilliant, up-tempo dances.  The Andante was suffused with a vague melancholy, while in the concluding Vivace, Hamelin’s legendary technique was much in evidence, with fleet-fingered passagework alternating with fortissimo passages of great power.

This was followed by Liszt’s “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude” (The Blessing of God in Solitude).  The opening to this piece is perhaps the most reflective thing Liszt ever wrote, and Hamelin made it a very personal statement.  The second movement is simplicity itself, and in Hamelin’s hands, nothing was rushed.  He gave the music space to breathe, and in so doing, let it speak to us.  The third movement is as profound as anything in Liszt.  It is Liszt looking deep within himself.  I’ve never heard anything like it.

The last piece on the first half was Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H.  This is not an attempt to compose in the style of Bach, but rather an homage to him, based on the four notes that correspond to the letters of Bach’s name.  We learn from flagmusic.com that,

In the German system of key spellings, the lettering runs from A through H, rather than A through G.  Our B-flat is the German B, and B is denoted H.  This allows one to spell the name B-A-C-H on the keys, thus:”

This is a very dark piece.  Where the “Bénédiction” is the ultimate in introspective reflection, and might be described as a soul at peace, this is an impassioned cry in which we seem to have a soul in torment.  At its climax, Hamelin created a volume of sound such as I have never before heard from a piano.  The effect was overwhelming.  At its conclusion, the audience gave Hamelin a standing ovation, even though it was just the end of the first half of the program.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.

The first piece after the intermission was the Sonata No. 4 by Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962), whose music was entirely unknown to me prior to this recital.  Feinberg has been called a musical heir to Scriabin, and like much of Scriabin’s music, this sonata is mysterious, dark, and impassioned.  From the first notes, it created such tension and suspense that I almost felt the need to hold my breath.

Throughout his career, Hamelin has made it a point to program and record lesser-known works.  Several years ago, he introduced me to Medtner, and now to Feinberg, so I’m particularly grateful for his dedication to lesser known composers.  He’s planning to record the first six of Feinberg’s twelve piano sonatas, and I’m eagerly looking forward to that release.

Next on the program was Debussy’s Images, Book I.  No one could paint pictures with music like Debussy, or coax such lovely sounds from the piano.  The first two pieces, Reflets dans l’eau and Hommage à Rameau, felt very improvisational.  Hamelin allowed these pieces to whisper to the audience in a way that held us in rapt attention throughout.  By contrast, the third piece, Mouvement, was a welcome expression of shared joy.

The final work on the program was Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Wine, Women, and Song after Johann Strauss.  This kind of pianistic tour de force is meat and potatoes for Hamelin, and despite its complexity and technical difficulties, offered the audience some delightfully tuneful interludes.

This was a recital one might wish would go on and on into the night, but as Chaucer reminds us, “All good things must come to an end.”  Hamelin gave us two encores.  The first was Godowsky’s “The Gardens of Buitenzorg” from the Java Suite, and the second was one of Hamelin’s own compositions, a toccata based on the old French song, “L’homme armé”, which he wrote for the recently concluded Van Cliburn Competition.

Hamelin does so many things well, he is impossible to classify.  Just when you think he’s a Liszt specialist, he plays Debussy like no one else you’ve ever heard.  Then he plays a Strauss waltz in an absolutely captivating manner.  If you have the chance to hear him in person, you mustn’t let it pass you by.  You will almost certainly hear something new, and you will without a doubt hear piano playing that you will never forget.

As for me, this was the second time I’ve heard Hamelin in person.  The first was in 2010 when I heard him play Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.  This was, however, the first time I’ve heard him in recital, which is the best way to appreciate the range of his talent.

I hope it won’t be the last.

Derrick Robinson

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Published in: on September 30, 2017 at 10:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Concert Review: Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall

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Yuja Wang and Leonidas Kavakos at the post-concert reception, Feb. 10, 2017.

Earlier this month, Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang gave their first joint appearance in Seattle in a recital that will long be remembered by those fortunate enough to attend.  Their recital happened to fall on Ms. Wang’s birthday, but it was the audience that received a present: a program of music that, while by no means esoteric, was certainly lesser known, and just as certain to expand and enrich the musical lives of everyone in attendance.

I had lingering reservations about attending this recital, reservations that had nothing to do with the program or with Leonidas Kavakos, whom I had heard perform with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2006, and whom I featured on this blog two years ago in a performance of the Korngold violin concerto.  My concerns were related solely to Yuja Wang, who, while she possesses a virtuoso technique, seems often in her programs to emphasize style over substance, and whose attire seems inevitably to distract the viewer from the music and overshadow her musicianship.  For an in-depth discussion of the style vs. substance dichotomy as it relates to Ms. Wang, I refer the reader to this article from the Sept. 5, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

My concerns about Ms. Wang’s attire vanished the moment she appeared on stage, wearing an elegant, floor-length, off-white gown that would have passed muster in even the most conservative of concert settings.  Relieved that I would be able to focus all my attention on the music, I settled back to enjoy the first piece on the program: the Violin Sonata by Leoš Janáček.  This is an exceptionally passionate work, one that both challenges and rewards the listener.  The second movement is especially tender, and was the high point of the sonata for me.  Mr. Kavakos and Ms. Wang clearly see themselves as servants of the music, and surely won many new friends for Janáček with this performance.

After the passion of the Janáček, I was grateful for the peaceful opening of Schubert’s Fantasie in C major.  In the playful second movement, Wang and Kavakos demonstrated ensemble playing of the highest order.  The song-like third movement reminded us once again of Schubert’s unsurpassed gift for melody, and filled the concert hall with the same spiritual ambiance one might feel in a cathedral.  Despite the diverse character of the four sections of the last movement, it felt unified from beginning to end, and the main theme of the Allegro vivace conveyed a surpassing joy.

The second half of the program began with Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor.  Composed in 1917, this sonata was Debussy’s final major work.  Unlike the other pieces on the program, all of which deserve a wider audience, this sonata has been a staple of the violinist’s repertoire from the beginning.  When Ms. Wang played the two soft chords with which it begins, and which carried beautifully all the way to my seat in the third tier, I was struck at once with the thought, “What a touch!”  Later, reflecting on the performance as a whole, I noted, “Just wonderful playing!”

The final work on the program was Bartok’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in C-sharp minor.  This sonata was composed in 1921, and I cannot hear it except as a reaction to the horrors of World War I.  The first movement, marked allegro appassionato, burns white-hot from the very first notes.  Both players need a huge technique to carry off this piece.  The second movement, adagio, conveys utter desolation.  All is lost.  Kavakos and Wang adopted a more relaxed tempo in this movement than one sometimes hears, which added to the sense of desolation.  The third movement, marked allegro, is simply breathtaking: a 19th century friska in 20th century garb, building to an overpowering climax as it speeds to the finish.

The effect was overwhelming.  The audience loved it, and gave Kavakos and Wang an enthusiastic standing ovation.  In return, they gave us one encore, the graceful Andantino from Schubert’s Violin Sonata in A Major, D. 574, which, coming after the Bartok, may have been as necessary (for audience and performers alike) as cooling out a horse after a race.

All in all, it was an extraordinary recital, notable both for the artistry of the performers and the seriousness of the program.  There were no Kreisler transcriptions, no Carmen Fantasy.  Even the encore was not your typical crowd-pleaser.  There were no lollipops anywhere.  Instead, Kavakos and Wang gave us a four-course feast for the musical soul.  I look forward to their next appearance here.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on February 28, 2017 at 11:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review: Compagnie Marie Chouinard Performs Chopin and Stravinsky

MarieChouinard

Last Friday, January 25, I went to a concert at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall that was unlike any I had ever attended: a performance by the Compagnie Marie Chouinard of music by Chopin and Stravinsky that demonstrated, even to a neophyte like me, how thrilling and emotionally satisfying modern dance can be.

The troupe consists of 10 dancers: 6 women and 4 men.  The first piece on the program was 24 Preludes by Chopin, and featured UW doctoral student Brooks Tran on piano.  I was already acquainted with Chopin’s preludes, and with the very first notes, I recognized the powerful dimension that dance added to the music.  As choreographed by Marie Chouinard, every single dance brought to mind words like “creative”, “inventive”, and “imaginative”.  To give just one illustration, at one point a single dancer held center stage while six others lay on their stomachs at the sides of the stage, hidden behind curtains except for their legs and feet, doing a swift flutter-kick.

The highlight of the Chopin was the turbulent “Raindrop” prelude, Op. 28, No. 15.  A single woman stood alone and motionless at the center of the stage, looking forlorn and desolate, reciting the notes of the musical scale in French, while another danced a lengthy, improvised solo in a tight pool of light upstage to her right.  The first woman was repeatedly interrupted and whisked offstage by the rest of the troupe marching determinedly across the stage, only to run back at once and continue her recitation.  The dance ended with both the speaker and the soloist being embraced by other dancers and escorted tenderly offstage.

This was the emotional climax of the entire piece.  In it, as in all the preludes, the choreography attempted no story or narrative, but when it ended, the feeling lingered of something very human.  At the conclusion of not just this, but several of the dances, the patron to my right breathed a hushed “Wow” to herself.  She spoke for many of us.

Throughout the 24 preludes, one’s attention was so focused on the dancers that it was easy to overlook the contribution of the pianist, Brooks Tran.  Mr. Tran played with great flair and understanding, and as the performers were taking their bows at the conclusion of the piece, the audience reserved its most enthusiastic applause for him.

Following the intermission, we were treated to a performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with the University of Washington Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Pasternak.  As was the case in the Chopin preludes, Marie Chouinard made no attempt to follow any narrative in The Rite of Spring.  Rather, Stravinsky’s magnificent score was transformed into a series of set pieces involving one or more dancers in which the drama was in the movement alone.

A production so abstract, so free from story-line, begs the question, does The Rite of Spring suffer from this absence of narrative?  Does it feel like something is missing?  The answer is straightforward: If the story-line of the “Rite” is important to you, then this production may not be to your taste.  My guess is that very few people who love The Rite of Spring could tell you much about the story-line anyway.  The music is what we know and love, and this collaboration featured not only excellent musicianship but superlative dance as well.  The choreography was painstakingly fused to the music, and the musical climaxes were thrillingly rendered.  Ultimately, though this was not The Rite of Spring I was expecting, I would not have traded it for any other.

If you have a chance to see the Compagnie Marie Chouinard, you owe it to yourself to go.  I was fortunate to see them perform to live music, but if you are not so lucky, you should go anyway. Check their webpage http://www.mariechouinard.com/2013-410.html for their schedule.  Put it on your own personal bucket list.  I know I won’t pass up the chance to see them again.

Derrick Robinson

Concert Review: Gerard Schwarz Conducts The Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Toradze – Pianist

Under the baton of Conductor Laureate Gerard Schwarz, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra gave a concert last night at Benaroya Hall that was a joy and a revelation from first note to last.

The music ranged from the brand new to the altogether familiar. First on the program was the world premiere of Five Sky Interludes by Daron Aric Hagen.  These five pieces are all orchestral interludes from Hagen’s opera Amelia which premiered in 2010, though they would not have sounded out of place a hundred years earlier.  An American composer previously unknown to me, Hagen’s Five Sky Interludes has a distinctly American sound.  It is a dramatic, imaginative piece of music, easily accessible, yet certain to reward repeated hearings.  Having heard these excerpts, I would eagerly seek out the complete opera, and look forward to hearing more of Hagen’s music.

The next piece on the program was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring the Georgian-American pianist Alexander Toradze.  The Third is the most often-played of Prokofiev’s concerti.  The brilliance of its piano writing and its lush melodic content have made it a favorite among pianists and audiences alike ever since Prokofiev himself gave its premiere in 1921.  I confess to feeling some apprehension prior to this performance: I’ve been listening to this piece, off and on, for forty-seven years.  Surely I’ve heard it all before, right?

My concerns were laid to rest by the opening notes, rising from the first clarinet to greet me like a old friend.  How could I have worried?  Prokofiev is endlessly inventive, and even his best-known melodies retain their originality.  In addition, Toradze has a refreshingly individual approach to this piece.  His performance was studded with unexpected emphases and retards.  Perhaps his most dramatic departure from the routine were the expansive tempi he employed to good effect during the second movement.  The climax to the lyrical central section of the third movement was especially moving.

Overall, Toradze emphasized the dramatic and lyrical as opposed to the virtuosic and percussive.  His approach clearly resonated with the Seattle audience, which gave him an enthusiastic and well-deserved standing ovation.

Following the intermission, Mr. Schwarz led the orchestra in a stunning performance of Shostakovich’s monumental Symphony No. 8.  This symphony was composed in 1943, in the middle of what in Russia is still called The Great Patriotic War.  While it is usually risky to ascribe programmatic intent to a piece of music, it is impossible to separate this symphony from the circumstance of its composition.  At the very least, it was conceived during that horrific time, and it is impossible not to see it as a reflection of that conflict.

Certainly, the scale of the symphony mirrors the scale of the war.  The Symphony No. 8 is a full-blown epic, encompassing many different spectrums of expression: from playful to tragic, lyric to martial, heavenly to hellish.  One must admire Shostakovich’s daring in writing such an ambitious work.  Did he not fear that the critics would scold him for its length?

Personally, I think its length is one of its best features.  Music this personal and profound must be allowed to go its own way and reach its own conclusion.  Throughout all five movements, Mr. Schwarz exhibited brilliant, precise conducting, and the orchestra responded in kind.  The greatest credit, however, must go to Shostakovich himself; I am in awe of what he achieved in this piece.  During the ineffable final bars of the last movement, one particular phrase suggested itself to me, “the peace which passeth understanding.”  The audience’s prolonged ovation was well-earned and certainly to be expected, but it would have felt more fitting just to depart in silence.

I cannot conclude this review without giving you, the reader, an opportunity to see and hear this extraordinary work for yourselves.  What follows is a video of another, earlier performance of this symphony by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.  This one took place in 2006, and was originally broadcast on PBS.

Derrick Robinson

Concert Review: Pianist Valentina Lisitsa Returns to George Fox University

Valentina Lisitsa

The internationally acclaimed Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa returned to George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon on Friday, September 30 to give her second recital at Bauman Auditorium this year.  She opened her program with five pieces by Rachmaninoff: the Etude Tableaux, Op. 39 No. 6 (“Little Red Riding Hood”) and four preludes.  In all of these pieces, Miss Lisitsa demonstrated an astonishing assurance and technical command, together with a gorgeous singing line and exceptional delicacy.  She has an unmistakable affinity for Rachmaninoff, and is the ideal interpreter of his music.

This was followed by Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, the justly famous “Appassionata”.  One of Beethoven’s best-known sonatas, the Appassionata is a work of sharply contrasting moods.  Full of Sturm und Drang, it also has its light-hearted and noble moments.  Throughout the shifting moods, Valentina put every musical idea into proper perspective, and overlooked nothing.  She succeeded beautifully in unifying the disparate elements of this work into a coherent and compelling whole.

Following the intermission, in honor of the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, Miss Lisitsa played no fewer than 16 of the Polish master’s works: three waltzes, six etudes, and seven nocturnes.  The “Black Key” etude never sounded more effervescent, while Op. 10 No. 12 sounded more revolutionary than ever.  Her renditions of the “Winter Wind” etude and Op. 25 No. 12 were perhaps the best performances of those two pieces I’ve ever heard.

For me, however, the high point of Miss Lisitsa’s Chopin lay in the seven nocturnes.  The uniqueness of Chopin’s voice is nowhere more striking than in his nocturnes.  From one to the next, as well as within a given nocturne, they are full of changing moods.  Op. 27 No. 1 at one point sounded unmistakably like a polonaise, while Op. 9 No. 2 was distinctly waltz-like.  Miss Lisitsa’s performance of this nocturne so completely captivated the audience that, at its conclusion, no one wanted to break the spell of the music by applauding.  Miss Lisitsa let the final chord fade away into utter silence, but not until she was about to begin the Liszt rhapsody that followed did anyone dare to clap.

The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 with which Miss Lisitsa concluded her program has been sending audiences home in a state of happy excitement for more than a century and a half, and it didn’t fail in its purpose this night.  Valentina certainly made that piano thunder!  My only hope is that the memory of the Liszt rhapsody didn’t make people forget the Chopin nocturnes.

If you love the piano, and have the chance to hear Valentina Lisitsa, you must not let the opportunity pass you by.  Everything she does has been carefully considered; there are no careless passages.  In everything she plays, she keeps in mind the big picture.  “Her keyboard technique is preposterously complete,” wrote a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle.  This is certainly true, but what is more important is that Valentina always searches out how to put her technique at the service of the music she plays.  It is this quality that makes her such an important and unforgettable artist.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on October 2, 2010 at 10:48 pm  Comments (5)  
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