Thursday, April 17, 2014

Gary Graffman – keeping fascinated with discovery

When the esteemed pianist Radu Lupo fell ill and a replacement had to be found for his People’s Symphony Concert recital at Town Hall, on January 12th, 2014, the series’ presenter, Frank Solomon chose Kuok-Wai Lio, a young pianist largely unknown to New Yorker audiences, in lieu of the legendary maestro. Lio came equipped not only with a formidable stylistic approach to the romantic repertoire, not unlike Lupo’s own, lucide pianism, but with recommendations from presenters of his previous recitals as well; Lio’s performances, especially his Schubert and Schumann interpretations had gained him high regards. The fact that Lio was a talented student of Gary Graffman was certainly another worthy credential, the kind that opens doors to the pianistic performance stage. After all, Graffman; President and Director of the Curtis Institute of Music for over two decades with a famed reputation as pianist and pedagogue, under whose tutelage some of today’s international pianistic super-stars: Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, and Haochen Zhang have emerged, may very well intersperse his magic in the making of yet another prodigal pianist.
Photo: Gary Graffman  Ilona Oltuski-GetClassical
Lio’s performance, albeit starting out a little timid, gained increasingly in momentum as he took the historic town hall stage and its audience with his lyrical and eloquent interpretations of Franz Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D.935 and Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündler-Tänze, Op.6. As he admitted winningly, he had “giant shoes to fill,” substituting for the much admired Radu Lupo- the  distinguished poet of the keyboard-  whom he described with reverence as a ‘pianistic god’, on a short time notice.”I grew up listening to, and loving his recordings,” he said, and while Lio did not, as he explained, have ample time to prepare mentally – he was called upon just two days prior to the concert – he offered:”In a way you have to be always ready.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                             Photo: Kuok-Wai Lio  Ilona Oltuski-GetClassical
His bi-monthly lessons with Graffman, Lio describes in comparison with his previous experiences in his native Hong Kong, as a different, but formidable learning experience. “While it was all about discipline in Hong Kong, it became all about freedom at Curtis,” he says and describes Graffman, as “one of the most supportive and encouraging teachers, one could imagine,” stressing the fact that Graffman does not imply that his ways are the only possible truth to consider. Rather, Graffman instills a confidence in his pupils, giving them the tools to develop their own voice and the courage to trust their judgment. This approach is supported by introducing them to a variety of teachers, and different methods and styles. “Still it’s hard to find a balance, sometimes,” says Lio, as he remembers his last year at Curtis, when he worked excessively and Graffman saved him from pushing himself too hard, by saying:”You don’t have to play as if you perform it tonight.” Equally important for the successful learning process is the fact that Graffman himself is a superb pianist, whose authority comes from the greatest of the pianistic tradition, seemingly interwoven with his persona. A prodigal student of Curtis’ own Isabella Vengerova and later Vladimir Horowitz, Graffman had befriended a slew of musicians, examining the traditions of the Golden Age of the piano first hand, and attended concerts by the likes of Hofmann, Rachmaninoff and Kapell. What stands out in Lio’s descriptions of Graffman is his joy de vivre; his enthusiasm for anything new and different and his uplifting spirit and optimism:”These are essential qualities an artist and mentor should have,” says Lio, “he personifies that boundlessness of spirit, and if you let him inspire you, you feel as if there is nothing you cannot do” – in the hands of great talent no small thing to empower.
As Gary Graffman and his wife, Naomi, come backstage to see Lio after the concert, it becomes clear how personally involved the Graffmans are with Gary’s students’ lives, beyond their careers. Graffman continuously keeps in touch with all of his students, past and present, keeps up with lessons and attends many of their concerts. Remarkable is the loyalty some of his star- pupils maintain, which includes his close connection to Lang Lang, who, irritated by the fact that his great mentor was out of sync with the latest technology, had just recently provided him the latest cell phone model. “They all call, text or email,” he says. The Graffman’s elegantly curated residence on West 57th Street, houses an expansive art collection, boasting a conglomerate of Asian artifacts of varying geographical regions and historic provenance, and equipped with a professionally grade bar, often hosts ‘his musicians’ and visiting performers after a concert performance across the street, at Carnegie Hall, including Yuja Wang and artists like Evgeny Kissin. Quite the charmer, Graffman, while mixing drinks behind the counter of his bar, shares some anecdotes about his family’s heritage, his pianistic legacy and his worldwide travel- and teaching experiences that kept his spirits high, even after his performance career had come to an abrupt halt. Similarly to his colleague, the esteemed pianist, turned conductor and pedagogue Leon Fleisher in 1964, Graffman, in 1979, suffered an affliction to his right hand’s extensor muscles with the ring finger and the two small fingers weakening and curling with uncontrollable spasms, which prevented the continuation of a pianistic career based on two-hand repertoire. The condition also generally known as focal dystonia became a major game changer within the pianist’s life, when it became clear that merely changing fingerings within scores would not suffice and Graffman had to adjust his life, affording a great deal of courage, vision, and humility, and his ability to see the positive in things:”At that point it looked like it was the end of the world, but it turned out it was ok,” he says. “Otherwise I would have never become the head of Curtis,” he adds; and he certainly would not have established one of the greatest legacies as a mentor for the next generation of pianists, many of whom do not only admire him for giving on the treasures of a great pianistic tradition but for opening their minds for the significance of culture in our civilization in general. Yuja Wang was impressed how much she was able to absorb from Graffman’s great knowledge about her own, Chinese culture, coming as a young girl to Curtis. (see my article about Yuja Wang )
In his auto-biography Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story Lang Lang describes in great detail, how Graffman’s mentorship was always geared to address and inspire the whole person, not just the pianist in him; an experience he truly treasured and that stayed with him. Graffman especially fostered individuality in his students, avoiding the pitfall of sameness in sound or manirism, as a result of rigid teaching formulas. To him, each of his students plays unique, with a distinct expression recognizable as their own. Graffman’s own fascination with Asian culture may have been – as he calls it – an innate interest. “When going to a museum, they would always loose me in one of the Indian, Japanese or Chinese Galleries, “he recalls, “I literally got lost there – they had to come back for me. Later, when we moved to this apartment, my good friend the pianist Julius Katchen, who lived in Paris, married to a Vietnamese-born French woman, had started collecting Asian art during his concert tours and had put me on to it. At the time, there were only 3 major antique shops in Paris, dealing with Asian Art, it was inexpensive and I bought and bought. After my hand problems had started, I got more involved and wanted to learn more, taking courses at Columbia University. In 1981 I went for the first time on a Far East group excursion. At that time the Chinese started to welcome such groups, and we would go to remote areas within the Hunan and Szechuan provinces. When a good friend of mine became the director of Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, I would visit and get tours with the experts, seeing the best pieces, not just what was on display in the windows,” says Graffman, who does not seem to have lost any of his great sense of a worthy find – discovering something special that may be worth one’s while, interest and dedication.
Honoring his pianistic legacy, Sony has released the complete recordings of Gary Graffman in October, 2013, on the occasion of his 85th Birthday.
Ilona Oltuski - GetClassical

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ursula Oppens – Thinking of the next note

Upon entering Ursula Oppens’ modestly furnished, yet comfortable Upper West Side apartment with a view of the pedigreed patina of the historistic cupola belonging to Columbia University’s campus building, one is immediately taken by the vibrant aura that surrounds the eminent musician.
The personable pianist speaks softly, yet animatedly, in a welcoming way; her reputation is linked to an astonishingly vast array of distinguished contemporary composers, some of whose prominent works were dedicated to Oppens. Unsurprisingly, Oppens has in turn become one of their most incisive promoters.
photo credit: Ilona Oltuski - GetClassical
Oppens was recently celebrated by her long standing fans on the occasion of her 70th Birthday with a concert at Symphony Space. The show was a collaborative project by several of her students: Winston Choi, Ran Dank, Soyean Kate Lee, and Anthony Molinaro, honoring her work and legacy. Oppens’ pianistic career has been particularly impacted by her collaboration with the legendary American composer Elliot Carter, who remains a tremendous source of inspiration for her.
“One summer I came to Marlboro, nervous, young and easily impressionable. I had not had formal music lessons during college, but there I was. Carter was visiting that summer, and they spontaneously decided to play some of his music. There was little time to prepare and I ended up volunteering. I had heard his music before in Aspen, and also had heard him speak about it. I remember when I started reading through the score for the first time, and practice for its performance, I had played a wrong note, intuitively sensing its wrongness. There was a very strong sense of understanding the text and its coherence, and I discovered a very important relationship,” explains Oppens.
The performance of his Sonata for flute, oboe, cello, and harpsichord that she had prepared for went well. When Oppens experienced a similar situation with Carter’s double concerto at Tanglewood, it was clear to her that this was meant to be an ongoing relationship: “the rest is history,” says Oppens, as she describes working with the sophisticated composer. Carter’s masterpiece Night Fantasies was  co-commissioned and funded by Oppens.  photo: Ursula Oppens with Elliot Carter, A.Addey
“He always was extremely kind, but insisted firmly on all the expressive indications of the phrasing and on what stands out,” she explains, “I always felt a bit tongue-tied in his presence, admiring his enormous command of languages and memory but most of all his gregarious personality: To me he represented the ideal of the educated creator, and I love teaching his music to my students, giving on his legacy.” Oppens’ success with her students at CUNY’s Graduate Center and the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College , where she holds teaching positions as Distinguished Professor of Music, brings her great personal joy, as well as the satisfaction of continuing the modernist tradition, some of which had started out in her own hands.
“I am very lucky that there are a number of wonderful pieces that have been written for me,” she says, while she shows me an old membership card to the ‘International Society for Contemporary Music’ that had belonged to her father, Kurt Oppens. “The society is still functioning today, and I guess part of my interest in contemporary music is simply inherited from both my parents.” Oppens’ parents were both part of the music world “and great modernist enthusiasts,” she says. She herself, a Radcliffe graduate, spent a lot of her time at the society. Radcliffe did not have its own music performance or composition department at the time, and it was at the society where she forged relationships with other musicians, some of whom she still considers close friends. Only after attending Juilliard, and studying under reputed pedagogue Rosina Lhévinne, did Oppens actively seek out a pianist’s career, which included some partaking in the competition-cycle; she became a first prize winner at the Busoni competition, and a recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1976.
Over many years, Oppens gained an unparalleled reputation for her access and attention to music that was challenging, by composers like Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, and Charles Wuorinen. She has gained four Grammy nominations for her recordings of both romantic and contemporary repertoire. The widely praised album Winging It: Piano Music of John Corigliano, released in 2011 on Cedille Records, put her up for her latest nomination to date for “Best Classical Instrumental Solo” in 2012/13.
photo: courtesy of Hemsing Associates
“When you are with musician-friends, you want to make music together,” which is something she appreciates in her ongoing partnership with the distinguished pianist and Juilliard professor Jerome Lowenthal: “we play four-hands repertoire all the time together, and never run out of things to talk about.” One of the results of their intimate pianistic exchange is captured on their recent two-piano CD on Cedille Records, devoted to Visions d’Amen of Olivier Messiaen, and Debussy’s En blanc et noir.
Previously Oppens had been married to the late composer and avantgarde jazz- saxophonist Julius Hemphill, whom she had met on a 1983 New York States Council of the Arts tour.
In a musician’s life, befriending other musicians often forges the path to a career. Some of the first composers Oppens met at the International Society, and approached for works she could perform, were Peter Lieberson and Tobias Picker. Not long thereafter, a grant from YCA, which supported the young pianist, allowed Oppens to receive a new commission by the Washington Performance Art Society in the form of a work written for her by Frederic Rzewski, who now resides in Brussels (only a phone call away, says Oppens): “I did not expect an hour long piece, and did not know what the public’s reaction would be- for all I knew, they could have booed,” but The People United Will Never Be Defeated became one of the cornerstone works she became renowned for in her long lasting, and still active career.
“I was always willing to take chances, and was curious about works I had not heard before,” says Oppens, who spent many of her formative summers backstage at the Aspen Music Festival. This credo remains at the essence of who she is, a free spirit. Oppens also appreciates performing on occasions that demonstrate her humanistic and democratic worldview. A riveting experience for her was partaking at the 37th.anniversary of Portugal's Carnation Revolution in Lisbon , on April of 2011, commemorating the overthrow of the authoritarian Estado Novo regime. She performed the Portugese national anthem as part of her performance of Rzewski's The People United Will Never Defeat, at the highly emotionally charged celebration of national liberation.
In 1971, Oppens co-founded Speculum Musicae, a new music chamber group, with some of her closest friends and associates including cellist Fred Sherry, percussionist Richard Fritz, and oboist Joel Marangella. “Rolf Schulte and Virgil Black were also members,” says Oppens, “it was such an exciting time. Like now, many groups were formed by students who did not need to gain approval by the conservative institutions. There was a lot of support available and new venues to perform opened up.”
“One of the main aspects of our particular group was Elliot Carter. He held us together, and is one of the reasons we are still working together closely,” she says. “We all loved his music; his passion connected us, and his kindness towards us kept our friendships intact, even long after we went our own ways.”
The New York Times praised her recent performance at a Carter tribute concert in 2013, which captured the “fevered anxiety and poetic reverie” of Carter’s Night Fantasies, written for her, with an “unfailing sense of drama and almost cinematic color.”
While Carter holds a special place in Oppens’ heart and performance career, from about 1975 onwards, she furiously championed an array of different composers. Their collective conglomerate reads like an encyclopedic list of the contemporary idiom and includes composers as varied as John Adams, Julius Hemphill, Frederic Rzewski, Conlon Nancarrow, John Corigliano, John Harbison, William Bolcom, Anthony Braxton, Tania Léon, Tobias Picker, and Charles Wuorinen.
She has also excelled in performances of works by European modernist masters like Luciano Berio, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Witold Lutoslawski. But as she says modestly: “I can only learn so and so much new music, before every concert, every recording, I am just thinking of the next note.” Next to her recordings and recitals of many of the works of her contemporaries, she equally loves the traditional, classical repertoire, which she also practices every day.
“I feel the necessity to play and practice both, tonal and atonal music. You have to stay open-minded, going to the notation as if you have never heard it before, which is also very important for performing older music. But it is new music that has made me love the translation from the notation to the sound.” She offers the following piece of advice to students: “You cannot un-hear a piece of music you have listened to on a recording, that’s why I suggest listening to more than one, to see a range of possibilities of interpretations. It’s very much about the human factor and the surprise of the outcome, the ambiguity of transition.”
One of Oppens’ interesting projects, which she began a while back, is the collaboration with pianist Bruce Brubaker in a compilation of Meredith Monk’s works for solo piano and piano-duo, titled: Piano Songs; the CD will be released on the ECM label in May of 2014. This will coincide with Meredith Monk’s composing residency at Carnegie Hall, during the 2014/15 season.
”Bruce and I knew each other from Juilliard, and he performed a lot of some of the same composers’ work, I had too, but we had never performed together until we were brought together by Meredith’s music, performing in a celebratory concert of the composer at Zankel Hall, in 2005. A lot of the energy to make this recording happen came from Bruce; we kept adding on pieces until we had a complete disc. We gave a concert in Boston and then recorded at the exquisite Jordan Hall, at the New England Conservatory, where Bruce is the chair of the piano department,” she explains.
“Some of the pieces started out as scores for voices, or voices and other instruments, and transporting these into another world gives us all the wonderful opportunity of hearing the music afresh,” says Brubaker in the disc’s liner notes. “The pieces are based on works from 1971 to 2006.”                 Photo credit: Ilona Oltuski - GetClassical
“Meredith Monk’s music is extremely interesting,” adds Oppens, “because it seems to come from simple parts, but becomes very intricate – I would kind of compare it to Mozart, in that you think the recapitulation of his sonatas are just like the exposition, except for the key signature; but then you notice all the subtle differences; it has a perfect balance, but it keeps on changing, going forward,” she says. Brubaker also comments on the “intriguing balance” in Monk’s piano music, “between simplicity and a kind of music you’ve never really heard before.” On writing for two pianos, the composer notes: “I delved into different relationships and the possibilities between them…In some pieces, I emphasized the individuality of each piano, writing for one player as the ‘singer,’ the other as the ‘accompaniment;’ in other pieces, I wanted the two pianos to make one large sound.”
In November of 2014, Brubaker and Oppens will perform a program drawn from Monk’s Piano Songs at LePoisson Rouge.
"During the last few years, I have been doing more recordings than expected," says Oppens, "it may have to do with my age: You feel like you need to   recapitulate pieces that you learned over a long period, and there is definetly something to be said about wanting to summarize things."
Upcoming projects for the 2014/ 2015 season will include a Bernard Rands disc in the fall, a William Bolcom recording for Naxos,  and a re-recording project of The People Reunited , complete with an improvised cadenza by Oppens.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Pianist Xiayin Wang – The building of a career in New York City

On Tuesday, April 15th, 2014, Xiayin Wang will perform at  SUBCULTURE with the Highline Chamber Ensemble.
Since October 2010, when I published my article Pianist Xiayin Wang – celebrating her new life focusing on the formidable pianist’s New York beginnings, Ms. Wang has become a household name on New York’s stages.
During the 2012/13 season, Ms. Wang recorded her American Piano Concerto disc for the Chandos label. The compilation, praised by Fanfare, features the Barber, Copland, and Gershwin concertos; the CD shows congruency with Ms. Wang’s previous repertoire choices inspired by the late Earl Wilde, whose own compositions in addition to works by Gershwin, whom the young pianist admires greatly, had previously appeared in Ms. Wang’s concert repertoire and recordings to much acclaim.
Beginning in 2014, Ms. Wang Wang performed Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with the National Gallery of Art Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and received high praise from The Washington Post: “Ms. Wang’s finger work was precise and strong… Her drive was unrelenting and her concentration intense. It was clear that she was in command and that Lande and the orchestra were to follow, which they did well…she was great to watch.”

This March, Ms. Wang, presented the world premiere of Richard Danielpour’s The Celestial Circus at Alice Tully Hall. Ms. Wang was joined on stage by pianist Ray Wong and percussionists Lisa Pegher, Andrew Beall, and Joe Kelly for Danielpour’s suite in five movements for two pianos and percussion, inspired by ancient mythological creatures from various cultures.  She and pianist Ray Wong pulled off a ravishing two-piano version of Ravel’s LaValse, displaying their stellar technique, which never disappoints. This is not the first time Ms. Wang has come into touch with Danielpour’s work.  In fact, her 2011 recording of his Enchanted Garden (Preludes book I and II) for Naxos is a sensitive rendition of the composer’s dreamy soundscape.
Ms. Wang’s communicative and subtle work is particularly impressive in her chamber music performances, in which she has been partaking more frequently since connecting with the Fine Arts Quartet and the Escher Quartet. Wang had started a five-concert series at Merkin Hall last November, performing excerpts of Brooklyn-based composer Sean Hickey’s acclaimed Clarinet Concerto with clarinetist Alex Fiterstein and the Washington Soloists Chamber Orchestra; that performance was recorded on the Naxos label. Ms. Wang will return to Merkin Hall with the Fine Arts Quartet to premiere a work by Hickey under the Baton of Vladimir Lande.
Ms. Wang’s career has been consistently driven by the affection of her longstanding fans and supportive colleagues, which has resulted in continuously successful collaborations with many artists; Wang has built long-lasting relationships, which is the best way to build a New York career, or anywhere else.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Musical talent runs in the family – Gerard and Julian Schwarz

When raised to become one of the next generation’s masters, young musical talents born into families of professional musicians are often faced with an especially challenging route to maturity. Some of the great privileges, like constant exposure to musical life and the imprint of musical inspiration on early childhood, are undermined by the need to separate from both parental and musical authority figures in an effort to find one’s own voice.
Photo-credit: Steve Sherman
While searching for his own identity, Julian Schwarz, a talented young cellist, was faced with the question: “How much do you want to be defined by your family, especially your father, the renowned maestro?” It was something “I had to work through,” Julian says. He speaks passionately about his journey to explore what difference he could personally bring to the musical world and a way of life he always had the highest regard for. “I always felt proud of my background and the musical life I shared with my family: My mom, my grandparents, my aunts, and many of my cousins are musicians. My parents actually met through my mom’s father, a gifted violinist, when my father was principal trumpet at the New York Philharmonic. It’s not just my father – music is a family affair.”
 photo: Julian Schwarz , by Amélie Gagné
Growing up, Julian loved the excitement of attending concerts and skipping school for rehearsals. It was when people started to make comments about “preferential treatment” that Julian realized that people judged him by his family’s pedigree, some holding back praise out of fear of appearing preferential, others simply behaving jealously. He felt vulnerable and tried to distance himself from his musical identity, sometimes trying to hide the fact that his father was Maestro Gerard Schwarz.
Julian began building an active performance life in high school. Participating in various community orchestra competitions and chamber music performances for local musicians, he was able start feeling secure in his music and to sense that “something clicked.” He ultimately chose to go to Los Angeles’ Coburn School to continue his music education. It was not long before management became interested in Julian’s career and began launching concert tours, but Julian felt he was not fully able to connect his schooling with his budding professional life as yet.
Julian and his siblings grew up in Seattle, where their father Gerard Schwarz, the trumpet player turned conductor, had started his long-lasting partnership with the Seattle Symphony. As one of their key figures, Maestro Schwarz helped to shape and educate Seattle’s artistic community: “It was always my goal to build a community, and my motto was – we have to play great concerts, then the audience will come.” Under Gerard’s leadership, the Seattle orchestra built its new concert hall named Benaroya Hall.  The street leading up to it, became Gerard Schwarz Place.The conductor, whose portrait graces the hall’s vestibule, devoted himself fully to the five-year project, which resulted in a hall with acoustics fit for a world-renowned orchestra, which, he proudly says, “sounded great, at least when I left just a few years ago.”
When Julian’s parents moved back to New York City in 2010, he felt it was time to make a new home in the city he feels is the ideal place for musicians. It was around this time that he felt he had “found himself,” musically speaking. In 2010 he premiered a cello concerto written with him in mind by composer Samuel Jones, who held a residency at the Seattle Symphony. At the Symphony’s opening Gala that year, father and son shared the stage, and Julian, for the first time, felt like the soloist he was. He managed to impress his father who,  a little nervously, called for a brief run-through of the piece at home before the evening’s performance. “He tested me a bit and when he offered me a music stand to play parts of the piece through, I declined. I had memorized the entire piece, made it my own, and my commitment was clear – to both of us,” notes Julian.
Photo: Courtesy Julian Schwarz
Being his father’s son is hard to overlook when talking about the young cellist, since his charismatic father boasts a vast recording catalogue of around 350 works collected throughout his long-lasting career. Julian speaks highly of his father: “I enjoy playing with him. In many ways, he is the person I learned from the most. I admire my father – it took me discovering that we actually agree on many things musically and in life, but I had to come to it on my own terms. The more I felt personally accomplished, the less I resented his great influence and realized I was lucky indeed for all the insights and great moments he brought into my life.” Such experiences between Julian and his father include summers spent in Liverpool, when Gerard conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, or in New York, when in 1982, Gerard Schwarz became the first music director of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart, a position he held for 20 years.
The relationship between these two illustrious talents begs the question, when did you notice, as a father and conductor, your child’s talent at home? “Right from the beginning,” Gerard says, “when Julian was taking piano at age 5. You could tell he had a wonderful musical gift, and when he started the cello, certain things came easily to him, like the intonation, improvising, playing by ear.” Growing up in a large family with a big musical contingency – 11 members of the Schwarz family attended the Juilliard School – Julian played many instruments, but showed continued interest in the cello. Having talent and going towards a career, however, are two different things. “We never pushed too hard,” Gerard explains, “but we made music lessons a requirement of his general education.” Julian was also attending summer music camps, where “you had to practice, or you had nothing to do,” says his father pragmatically, who also admits to having liked the idea of one of his kids – there are three siblings who are non-musicians –becoming a musician: “I thought I actually might be able to help him. But I know how difficult it is to make a career as a musician, and I only encouraged him to pursue a life in music if he felt it was something he absolutely had to do.” Gerard cannot put a date on it, but indicates that those who listen to Julian know that he has it: “Whether at 11 or 21, there were always those who said he only got a chance because of our relationship, until they heard him play. And in the end, getting the opportunities even out, with the ones he won’t get precisely because he is my son.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                                     photo credit: Seattle Times 
Just recently though, both musicians were able to link their professional career paths through Gerard Schwarz’s latest project, All Star Orchestra, which highlights his driving force in the orchestral world and also afforded Julian a televised ‘coming of age’ performance as featured soloist in a televised orchestra production. “This is the most important thing, I have ever done,” says the elder Schwarz, which is of note considering his long and eminent career. He expresses a passion for broadening the audience for classical music against all odds: “We have to accept that not everyone is going to appreciate great music, but we have to create a bigger platform to provide opportunities, to expose a greater part of the population to it."
The project is presented on public televisiontion to it.”, contradicting the old prejudice that classical music is only for the elite. Now available for free and from the couch, the series is planning to grow by adding segments annually. So far, it offers eight hours of traditional masterpieces in combination with nine works by living composers, including Phillip Glass, Brite Chang, Ellen Zwiliech, Augusta Reed Thomas, Bernhard Rens, David Stock, Joseph Schwantener, Samuel Joans, and Richard Danielpur.
Besides the live-recorded performances by handpicked musicians from America’s orchestras, is an educational website available that includes information about the performed works. In addition, there will be filmed footage presenting an in-depth analysis of each piece, as well as partial performances of orchestral sections and insights into the principal player of each section. All in all, the combined materials will provide viewers with an observation and understanding of the orchestral workings far beyond any detailed description available until now.
In co-production with the National Association of Music Education, the All Star project will reach millions of interested viewers, including many children, through streaming, broad distribution of the Naxos-released DVDS, and international TV viewings. And now there is talk about producing accompanying textbooks and of the Asian and European markets coming on board. The recordings are all done without an audience, and actually without any full rehearsal, by the experienced orchestral players conducted by Maestro Schwarz; this way, the cameras can go anywhere without disturbing any viewers in the concert hall. “Nothing like this has been done since omnibus, the pedagogical series with Bernstein, produced in the 50s,” says Schwarz. “We did not do anything but play for the cameras and microphones, the musicians literally playing for each other.”
For Julian, playing next to violinist Yevgeny Kutik and pianist Xiayin Wang, the only other young soloists, featured on the recordings was: “probably the most nerve-racking thing I have ever done. Here was the crème de la crème of orchestral players, and I had to prove myself. But I also was excited – there was no rehearsal, everyone knew from the first moment that every note counted. There was electricity, usually only found in more intimate chamber music.”
And from the maestro’s point of view: “I knew all players extremely well, and gave them latitude. Rehearsals were practically unnecessary and that saved a lot of time, which is essential for such a recording effort (which took place at New York’s City Center). All edits were worked out in advance, but we hardly used any, with a few exceptions. There was almost nobody who believed that we could get everything done in the extremely short time available, but we managed.”  For updates on national broadcasts visit:
The father-son cooperation continues: The pair is off to Australia to record the legendary Elgar Cello Concerto with the Brisbane Queensland Symphony for the Master Performers label.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Pianist/Composer Gregg Kallor – Musical Frames

A recent talk with composer/pianist Gregg Kallor yielded insight into his sensitive music writing and the well-thought-out choices he makes when performing and creating music.
All photos: courtesy of Gregg Kallor

Kallor’s widely praised and original work: “Espresso Nirvana,” from the 2013 recording of his New York City-inspired piano suite, A Single Noon, which he premiered at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall and performed at New York’s downtown music hub SUBCULTURE, led us into a vivid discussion about the labeling of musical works. How much of a work should the title reveal without becoming a blatant description; how much should it facilitate the crossing over between the different channels of music and literary imagery? Does the title come first, or the music?

“I like it when the title opens a window into the music without imposing a specific narrative,” says Kallor, who explains that in most cases, the titles to his compositions are picked at a later point. “But a title can also help define a piece during the writing process. It’s interesting how much a title can help establish or define the parameters of a piece, which can then be stretched or broken or whatnot. Once I’ve found what a piece is about - whether it’s a musical idea or a programmatic element - everything sort of fits into place.”

Literati have inspired Kallor’s album Exhilaration. Released on his own label in 2008, it’s based on his debut concert performance at Weill Hall, presented by the Abby Whiteside Foundation in 2007. Kallor’s cycle for voice and piano pays tribute to literary masterpieces by Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats. In Exhilaration, Kallor renders artful glimpses of singular musical impressions, or moments, which in Dickinson’s oeuvre appears as a metaphor for the essence of being: “And it is the moment to which she so compellingly calls our attention… she illuminates these fleeting sensations with exquisite nuance urging us to savor them before they vanish forever,” describes Kallor persuasively in his CD’s liner notes.

Inspired by Yeats’ lilting rhythms and strong cadences, Kallor aimed to capture the sound of the poet’s words, and the vulnerability that transpires in his poems. But his inspiration to compose was ignited no less by his collaborator on the Exhilaration disc, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala. “…She seeks a very personal connection to what she is singing and makes these songs come alive in a way that I had hoped for when composing them, but couldn’t quite imagine.”

Thematic ideas often suggest themselves as titles to Kallor during the composition process; as he mentions, associations that come up while creating a musical soundscape of a new piece, and certain narratives within that musical content, tend to stand out to him. Kallor’s inspiration from Dickinson’s allegory of the loss of a “single noon” as instantaneous, arrested present - nothing but essence - is an important leitmotif in Kallor’s work, and ultimately transformed itself into his last disc’s title: A Single Noon.

Most importantly, Kallor recognizes the direct impact of artists’ performances on him. A certain voice or way of a performer with his instrument, and the performer’s personal connection with the audience (which includes the composer) are important stimuli for Kallor’s creative process. “I get excited when I have someone in mind; I hear the sound of that person playing or singing in my ear. It makes it real.”

This inspiration is of great importance to Kallor as he explores chamber music collaborations for his new recordings and performances: “I look for superb musical instincts in a collaborator, because another musician’s interpretation can change the way I approach one of my own pieces. And I look for someone I’d like to have a beer with. I find that the two often go hand in hand.”

Some of the material for his recent pieces, including Short Stories for violin and piano, was conceived while Kallor was in his awarded residency at Copland House. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Hands down. I woke up before dawn every day, watched the sun come up with my morning coffee, and sat down to work. No distractions. No other responsibilities. Just me and a piano.”

The grounds, complete with great hiking possibilities for the avid hiker in Kallor, offered an ideal solitude, which enabled a total absorption into working, without any of the usual concrete distractions of life, and in particular life in New York City, where Kallor currently resides.

Among other projects, the fruit of Kallor’s intense experience at Copland House was a concerto for piano and orchestra, he reveals as he describes those weeks in February of 2012 spent surrounded by sublime nature at the Copland estate.

Kallor also thinks about the interplay of freedom and structure within his compositions and in its combination of freestyle improvisation and composed (notated) music. In his recording of A Single Noon, both disciplines shape the musical narrative, though the suite may be performed without improvisation, as well. “I wanted to give pianists the option to improvise on the themes in a few sections of A Single Noon if that’s their thing, but I designed it to be performed both ways.” Growing up, improvisation came naturally to Kallor, who trained as a classical as well as a jazz pianist. Six-time Grammy nominee, pianist/composer Fred Hersch, one of Kallor’s mentors, paid tribute to Kallor’s work, describing it as: “the work of an extraordinary pianist, a composer of great distinction, and a true conceptualist.”

Kallor usually programs a combination of his own music and works by other composers, mixing genres and incorporating some improvisation in concerts. “I often have an impulse to change something in my music during a performance, and I always follow it. I won’t do that with another composers’ music, but with my own it gives me a sense of freedom and alertness that, I think, carries through an entire concert. I want it to feel both uncertain and inevitable. Like with Argerich - you know she’s going to nail it, but you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time, even with pieces you know! It’s like you’ve never heard it before and have no idea what’s coming next. I love that.”

In May, 2014, Kallor will perform A Single Noon at London’s “The Forge"

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Cypress-Quartet at SUBCULTURE - presented by the 92nd Street Y

The Cypress - Quartet takes its name from the set of twelve love songs for string quartet, The Cypresses, by Dvořák. Sounds imaginative enough - will hear tonight if they live up to this expectiation at SUBCULTURE.

They also just released their AMERICAN ALBUM. I am especially curious to hear more from them about their SALON SERIES - a concept I embrace. Perhaps this will be a good fit with GetClassical - Salon events.
This is their sales pitch:

- Exquisite Music, Intimate Spaces - Indulge your senses and immerse yourself in the luxury of great chamber music with the Cypress String Quartet. Three remarkable programs. Three unique and intimate Bay Area venues. Each program features the music of Eastern European composers and those influenced by the soundscapes of the region. Salon Concerts run approximately 2 hours including intermission and are immediately followed immediately by chocolates & wine receptions hosted on-site by the Cypress String Quartet, featuring San Francisco-based Tcho Chocolate – “America’s Best Chocolate” – and wine from Liquid Sky and Chatom Vineyards. Before each piece on the Salon programs, Cypress members will provide spoken introductions to help contextualize the music in a unique and personal way. Program booklets will include detailed notes on the music performed, and Cypress Quartet CDs will be available for purchase. - See more at:

Sunday, March 30, 2014

GetClassical at India House - Classical Salon Concerts that go under your skin

photo3GET CLASSICAL at INDIA HOUSE  2 Yamaha Grand pianos + 3 pianists - 6 Hands = Magic

On March 25th, 2014, Masterpiece Caterers hosted GetClassical’s presentation of an intimate evening of classical music, at India House’s historic Landmark location at 1 Hanover Square. Doors open at 6pm for an ‘Aperitivo–hors d’oeuvre’-reception’ (full bar service available throughout the event) and concert performances by pianist-duo Vassily Primakov and Natalia Lavrova and Pianist David Aladashvili. Yamaha Artists Services New York  supports GetClassical events.

India House eventThank you all for coming out and contributing to the success of GetClassical's artist's concert at India House!

Video from Get Classical by award-winning documentary producer Hilan Warshaw soon to come.

Watch a video of GetClassical series' launch on