Tuesday, June 21, 2016

CMS Chamber Music Encounters - on a perpetual quest for inspired music making

American cellist David Finckel and Taiwanese pianist Wu Han need no further introduction to visitors of “Chamber Music Encounters,” an intense 6-day educational chamber music workshop, and their latest brainchild under the auspices of  Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center. Culminating in a free concert performance at Alice Tully Hall, audiences shared the results of a dynamic coaching effort focused on communal mentorship between CMS’ Encounters renowned faculty and new talent. In the sessions, which implement paradigm-shifting coaching conduct based on workshops led by the late Isaac Stern, students are challenged to relate to multiple masters’ viewpoints while making the music their own. With live-streamed workshop sessions, CMS indulges even remote audiences with a behind-the-scenes peek into their chambers of music making, brimming with eagerness and motivation.

Wu Han and David Finckel (Photo credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)
David Finckel and Wu Han, the powerhouse couple of chamber music named “Musicians of the Year” by Musical America in 2012, have spearheaded artistic leadership at CMS since 2004. Chamber Music Encounters, presented in collaboration with The Juilliard School, represents yet another educational initiative in their ever-growing New York performance series. A blend of artistic excellence and savvy entrepreneurship, the secret of this series’ enduring success is not only found in the sauce: a meaty title of largest worldwide producer and presenter of chamber music, but in the spice, as the institution has gained substantial critical acclaim for its omnipresent high standards, and inspiring artistic verve and vision.
Together with Wu Han, his partner in life and music, Finckel began establishing a network of chamber music institutions during the early days of his busy touring and recording schedule with the eminent Emerson String Quartet, which he only just left in 2013. Educating young musicians has always front-lined the duo’s activities. Han and Finckel began their appointment as Artistic Directors of CMS at Lincoln Center not long after founding Music@Menlo in 2003 in San Francisco’s Bay area. Their beginnings at Lincoln Center in 2004 opened up the prospect of a dynamic bi-coastal artistic exchange.
When Han was approached in 2009 to bring the culture of chamber music to Taiwan and Korea, the infinite potential of leading international artistic and educational initiatives became apparent, and the pair set off. Backed by a grant-supported effort to provide performance culture and give back to its local music community, Chamber Music Today was established in Seoul in 2011 as an annual music festival with its own Chamber Music School supported by LG. With recent enterprises that include co-commissions of new works with London’s Wigmore Hall, and the latest addition of CMS’ residence at SPAC, the artistic summer retreat of New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Saratoga in 2014, a spider web of alliances continues to spring up throughout Europe and the US, solidifying the pair’s identities as engineers of chamber music education and collaboration. “We are chamber musicians and there is a whole new generation out there that needs to perform; that’s what we do. It’s a constant work in progress and to keep it in flux these ‘satellite’ venues, as we call them, are vitally important to the growth and emanation of the work,” explains Finckel.
Hands on approach: David Finckel during an Encounter session (Photo credit: Lilian Finckel)
To perform chamber music, musicians require not only the talent and technique to master great accountability for their own instruments’ parts, but they must navigate nuanced musical and inter-relational sensitivity to convincingly communicate their engagement with both the score and one another. Intimate settings showcasing each of the individual ensemble members demand immensely interpretative coherence and individual artistry.
“In its original definition thought of as music performed in a private group setting for pleasure by amateur musicians ‘in their chamber,’ one may argue that the profound interplay of diverse voices virtually defines the entire canon of Western music as chamber music,” remarks Arnold Steinhardt, renowned first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet and a student and later collaborator of Sternduring a spellbinding panel with the eminent CMS Encounters faculty. “I at least think of all musical interplay as chamber music,” he adds.

Session in progress, masters discussing details, from right: violinist Arnold Steinhardt, pianist Leon Fleisher, violinist Shmuel Ashkenazi   (Photo credit: Lilian Finckel)
To a great extent, chamber music’s mounting success in the United States has profited from concepts expanding on it as a communal experience, and it does not come as a surprise that most mentors involved in the Encounters workshops developed their love for this – up until recently - underappreciated art form at one point or another in their lives at Marlboro’s Chamber Music School and Festival. Incorporating novices and masters in collaborative rehearsals and performances, Marlboro is a unique educational environment, and Marlboro’s alumni play a huge role in cultivating America’s greater chamber music scene, infusing it with strong musical and personal relationships forged throughout weeks spent in Vermont’s summer hills.
Relating pianistic ideas: Wu Han in a workshop session at CMS Encounters, Photo credit: Lilian Finckel
Wu Han fondly remembers her days at Marlboro: “I was used to performing solo repertoire and big concerti as a soloist with an orchestra. But it’s a lonely road, practicing alone, travelling alone, and when I came to Marlboro, I fell in love with the whole idea of this intimate interaction. Having to match all the strings’ colors, study the others’ scores…it’s a different process and you are not just looking at your own part, but one gets to learn the entire concept of the music and to explore it together; I am so grateful for the discovery. Opening up your own sound world and being challenged to match the other musicians’ voices changes you every time anew, you become a different pianist each time, and that goes for performing as well as for teaching.”
Now with the inner-city efforts of Chamber Music Encounters, coined after the series of spirited chamber music workshops offered by the late Isaac Stern, CMS continues where Stern has left off, taking up his strategy to implement diverse artistic vision into the coaching process. Stern had commenced this path, with initial workshops held in 1994 in Jerusalem and at Carnegie Hall, and some exemplary sessions in Germany, Holland and Japan. Right up until his passing in 2001, Stern, the iconic violin virtuoso and musical activist whose personal crusade saved Carnegie Hall from looming destruction, passionately taught his workshops shoulder to shoulder with an illustrious faculty of colleagues and friends, tirelessly shaping and inspiring an entire generation of young musicians, including the attending Encounters faculty; most of the Encounters mentors have taught in collaboration with Stern; next to pianist Wu Han and violinist David Finckel, pianist Leon Fleisher, violinists Shmuel Ashkenasi, Ani Kavafian and Arnold Steinhardt, as well as Juilliard’s provost and dean Ara Guzelimian are partaking in the workshops at CMS.
Relying on the same pedagogical cross-pollination of interactive teaching and learning, students are coached by multiple faculty members in various groupings. Bringing differing opinions and solutions to the table allows each student to examine facets of his or her playing in a communal quest, focusing on varying concepts, but with the universal goal of learning how to learn, and how to develop their own artistic perspectives.
Close up investigation by Leon Fleisher during a workshop (Photo credit: Lilian Finckel)
While different input may be confusing at times, an investigative game plan that leads to the why - instead of blindly following one-dimensional instructions of how to – certainly engages creative responsiveness. Says Wu Han: “I wished something like this had existed when I was a budding musician.” Like Finckel, Steinhardt, Fleisher, Ashkenazy and Kavafian on the faculty of Stern’s sessions, she experienced the impact of the clever concept. “It is so helpful to include some open ended discussions during one’s studies. Sometimes you realize the fruitions of a suggestion only later on. There are so many choices and if one just listens to one teacher during weekly lessons, this curiosity of exploring different possibilities may not get sparked – and then, where is the searching for answers with this incredible ‘aha’ moment that brings one to the next level and makes for a true artist’s development?”
Arnold Steinhardt explains his view of what makes the experience different: “Just like in Stern’s workshops, where he was not only interested in getting to the finished product but rather looked for the kernel of truth that could stand for the general viewpoint of how to look at music, we are focusing on crucial musical elements in the students’ performance that would be easily glossed over in regular lessons, trying to cover a lot of repertoire. Here, varied outlooks can open different points of entry for further artistic exploration.”
“Inquiry was at the center of Stern’s spirit,” explains Ara Guzelimian, who, comparing varying approaches through historic recordings, lectures on the differences in performance styles over time. While working with Stern, serving as artistic director of programming and education at Carnegie Hall, he says he “was hugely influenced by Stern’s unique concept of wrestling with multiple approaches. Stern did not believe in the usual master class setting, promoting submissiveness. Exploring collective inspiration was at the core of his idea of life as a musician.”
Faculty and students at CMS’ Encounters   (Photo credit: Lilian Finckel)
This summer, 15 students were geared to experience inspirational encounters with their prominent coaches. Split up into their performance groups for four of the repertoire’s staples: Mozart’s quartet in D minor, K.421, Schubert’s Trio No.1 in B-flat major, Op.99, Beethoven’s trio in B-flat major and Brahm’s quintet in F minor, Op.34, students practiced and were coached together.
The atmosphere is generously friendly, with temperamental discussions and casual jokes varying slightly depending on the different combinations of faculty members and ensemble groups. When it comes to the serious efforts dispersed behind the music stands, doubled up scores and insights shared from heartfelt convictions forged during years of firsthand experiences, there is no business as usual. During a fiery discussion, these mentors, sometimes with hands on demonstration, wild gesticulations, whistling, humming or rhythmic stomping, can sudden upon any minute detail that may unhinge or open up a world of musical ideas.
The characteristic elements of Stern’s workshops continue to live on in these interactions, even during a tight schedule of coaching sessions: “Mr. Stern opposes the idea of the master class and prefers teaching with others. This is chamber teaching of chamber music,” writes Philip Setzer, violinist of the Emerson String Quartet, of his firsthand experience working with Stern in an article, published in 2000 in the New York Times.
Everyone working under CMS’ Encounters faculty has been influenced by decisive moments and prolific individuals in their lives, which led them to careers in music. And while each of the coaches brings their own differently-flavored personalities and viewpoints as well as specific instrumental expertise to the sessions, it becomes obvious early on that the success of the workshops’ structural dynamic comes through its reflection on chamber music’s own distinct platform - making music in intimate collaboration, keeping it fresh for the students and the faculty.
Students’ work is under scrutiny from different angles throughout the sessions. Pianists mixing into strings’ fingerings and violinists suggest the pianist’s singing tone does not project enough. Sound a little intense? Perhaps, but the insightful disagreements between coaches not only keeps the process colorful, but can lead to eye-opening realizations. 
Performance at Alice Tully Hall, Sahun Hong, piano; Stephen Waarts,violin; James Jeonghwan Kim, cello; page turner Daniel Colalillo - Franz Schubert Trio No.1 in B-flat major, D.898, Op.99
(Photo credit: Cherylynn Tsushima)
Final performance at Alice Tully Hall: Jenny Chen, piano; Petery Ilvonen, violin; Brandon Garbot, violin; Cong Wu, viola; Jiyoung Lee, cello; page turner Daniel Colalillo – Johannes Brahms Quintet in F minor, Op.34  (Photo credit: Cherylynn Tsushima)
A better balance between players, more expressiveness and fine-tuned changes in tempi, and coherence in color and rhythm are noticeable after each session, but the students’ most important lessons lie deeper than just surface improvements in their playing and collaboration. The students have not just been prepared to perform in a successful concert at Alice Tully Hall, which evidenced much of the sessions’ fruitful advice. They have not just partaken in a beautiful performance of a Schubert trio or a Brahms quintet. These students will remember the nods towards exploring further, and look to carry on the musical discussion they’ve become a part of in these workshops for years to come, and perhaps even inspire others in turn.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Evgeny Kissin’s Well-Tempered Departure

Pianist Evgeny Kissin, concluding the Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall’s 125th anniversary season – which also celebrated his illustrious pianistic solo debut here 25 years ago – wooed audiences once more with Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2, before taking a previously announced leave of absence from concertizing in the USA. The concert amounted to a farewell observation on the series’ narrative, revealing the artist’s uniquely personal artistic journey. Capture by Simone Massoni    
This article was published by the author on Blogcritics Magazine
Since that memorable Carnegie Hall debut, with people waving hundred-dollar bills to scalp a ticket on mobbed street blocks around the sold-out concert hall, New Yorkers’ enthusiasm for Kissin does not seem to have diminished in the least. Coming out of the Soviet Union as a prodigal talent with staggering musicality, his reputation had preceded his eagerly awaited appearances before both Russian and world audiences; and perhaps like no other, this pure Romantic has united them in an ecstatic communal sense.
It was Carnegie Hall’s centennial season, 1990-91, and Kissin, age 19, was – as in the current season – the notable opening act, one of the very few artists who had never had to ask, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” He simply arrived, and performed annually from then on.
“What makes a performance great?” I once asked him, and he simply remarked: “It has to be convincing.” Carnegie Hall initiated its Perspectives series in 1999 to further explore the complexity of what makes an artist great by showcasing leading artists’ individual interests and bringing in their musical friends. The previous pianist the series focused on was Sir Andràs Schiff in 2011-12.
This season’s in-depth close-up opened channels of discovery into Kissin’s enigmatic persona and vocation on stage, in five different programs.
Beyond bringing some of the musical milestones of Kissin’s career full circle, the series portrayed the artist who at 44, unabashed by the persistent trail of Wunderkind status, has proven he can carve out new paths of artistic growth and a remarkable personal departure. His choices of programs are always “a matter of love,” and it is the kind of intimate, sanctified love that does not warrant further conversation. Notwithstanding his free spirit he feels: “Talking about all kind of things including sex, is great fun – talking about music seems vulgar.”
Knowing how close to his heart his programs are – he usually spends a full touring season with each one – one had to wonder why Chopin, with whose concertos the pianist skyrocketed to stardom and who, as Kissin confesses when pressed on the subject, is the closest to his heart, would not appear in any of his featured programs. Bookending the series with two of the arch-romantic Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concerts, Kissin instead curated his classical solo recitals with works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms in conjunction with the Spanish composers Albéniz and Larregla.
Highlighting his extraordinary temperament en galore with the Spanish rhythmic idiom added a most welcome geographic twist to the Germanic precursors. The recital program, which was performed twice that same week in November, was legendary not only because his “Appassionata” was nothing short of a revelation, but because a repeat performance of the same repertoire, selling out the house twice in a row, had till then been a feat achieved only by Vladimir Horowitz, in 1979.
No one present at Kissin’s concerts, least of all the performer himself, would suspect that concert halls are scrambling to fill their seats at many other quality concerts. Least of all at the truly stirring season’s opening concert, with red carpets rolled out for the occasion all across 57th street.
                                                                                              Opening of Carnegie Hall’s 125th season. Photo: Ilona Oltuski

If Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic and its departing director Alan Gilbert was meant to be associated with one of Kissin’s own, most triumphant historic performances of the same concerto in 1987, given with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic when the pianist was just 16, Kissin certainly stood the test of time. While one can’t say if Gilbert was as touched by Kissin’s brilliance as was Karajan, who, according to Karajan’s wife was moved to tears by the genial talent of his chosen young performer, their engagement certainly carried its own merit of excellence, making it also one of Gilbert’s rather gallant collaborations to remember.
On the day following his evening of Yiddish music and poetry, Carnegie’s Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson moderated – at the associates’ level ticket price – a public tête-à-tête on stage, where Kissin appeared relaxed and personable. He humored the audience with anecdotes about Prokofiev and his first meeting with Karajan, as well as his strong-mindedness when it comes to conductors who don’t share his vision. He also recalled some of his earlier years, when his revered only mentor through all these years, Anna Kantor, moved in with the Kissins, following them on their path from Moscow to New York to London.

Turning 93 now, Kantor stays a vibrant member of Kissin’s family, and hers continue to be the ears he trusts the most; until recently she was an integral part of his concert touring entourage and it speaks for their deeply reverent relationship that the pianist continues to play new repertoire through for her.
Evgeny Kissin with Anna Kantor. Photo: Ilona Oltuski

A first was Kissin’s public opening up about becoming inspired and re-inventing himself: “As we live and develop we discover new things in ourselves, of which we were not aware earlier,” he says. “A few years ago, I would have never been able to imagine that I would be writing my own poetry in Yiddish and have it published…I have always hoped and continue to hope that I will always keep improving.”
Almost no trace remains of the admitted former “painfully shy” mannerisms of his younger years. No matter how long the line of beleaguering fans may be, he happily obliges with oddly composed courtesy and at times touching generosity.  

Evgeny Kissin swarmed by his fans at Carnegie Hall after Rachmaninoff concerto performance. Photo: Ilona Oltuski

Perhaps the least successful program of the series was Kissin’s much anticipated novel partnership with violinist Itzhak Perlman in a trio performance with Kissin’s longtime collaborator, cellist Misha Maisky. It was almost surprising that the performance lacked a persuasive harmonious flow of leadership and balance, given the great musicianship of all these artists individually. Perlman’s melodic lines especially seemed to get lost at times acoustically, flanked by Maisky’s and Kissin’s powerful virtuosity.
In contrast, Kissin’s Yiddish evening was in some ways the most significant program of the series. Kissin’s passion project of Yiddish poetry recitation and music by rarely performed Jewish composers illuminated the deeply personal context of his engagement with Jewish culture. The fascinating presentation touched audiences on many levels, highlighting Kissin’s capacity and courage to explore new artistic frontiers. This was the case with works by Ernest Bloch, Alexander Veprik, Alexander Klein, and Mikhail Milner, with which Kissin ventured into modernist and folklore-inspired tunes off the beaten path.
Carnegie Hall Green Room moment: the author with Mischa Maisky and Evgeny Kissin after their collaborative concert

With his nuanced and melodic declamation of poems in the Yiddish idiom of Yitzhak-Leybush Peretz, Kissin captured the lyrical elements and aura of the language with its particular humor and spirit, transporting the transfixed audience into the bygone era of the shtetl. Soulfully baring his heart in every syllable, the magnetic performer – stripped of all his virtuoso veneer – sufficed to fill the hall, momentarily halting time. As in Kissin’s own poem, the evening’s credo points to celebrating our intrinsic individualism, which, if painful to bear at times, brings fulfillment through truth to ourselves.

Ani maymin                                                                                Credo     Translation by Barrnett Zumoff
Shoyn Terekh hot gezogt zayn kleynem zun mit shrek:        After Terah* said fearfully to his young son:
"Far vos bist nit aza, vi ale?".                                                     “Why are you not like all the others?”
Un s'iz geven azoy in yedn kant un ek,                                      into which our brutal fate cast us.and it was so
vuhin di dolye undzere brutale                                                    in every nook and cranny                                              
flegt undz nit varfn. S'iz dokh undzer koved,                            It’s to our honor, after all,
vos tomid zaynen mir geven getray tsu zikh                            that we have always been faithful to ourselves,
un hobm ot di khokhme oysgekovet:                                         and have forged this wise saying:
"Ven ikh vel zayn vi yener, ver vet zayn vi ikh?".                     “If I am like the others, who will be like me?”
                                                                                                          *Abraham’s father 

This bent of Kissin’s talent was earlier introduced on a smaller scale at New York’s Yivo Institute and at his momentous debut at Charles and Robyn Krauthammer’s Pro Musica Hebraica series, at Washington’s Kennedy Center in 2014; but it was a first at Carnegie Hall, drawing New Yorkers into Kissin’s other personal passion. (See my article about Evgeny Kissin on a mission to celebrate his Jewish heritage.)

Evgeny Kissin at Pro Musica Hebraica. Photo: Ilona Oltuski

For the very first time in 2002, during Verbier’s prestigious festival in the Suisse Alps, the festival’s director Martin Engstroem encouraged Kissin to recite Russian and Yiddish poetry as an extracurricular presentation on stage. Kissin agreed, but only if other artists would participate as well. The ones who had confirmed, among them Zubin Mehta, had to pull out at the last minute leaving Kissin “to wet his feet,” as he recalled. What a happy coincidence it turned out to be, bringing his previously private predilection into the spotlight.
For Kissin, the Yiddish language represents an important cultural territory of the Jewish people. On a personal level it became a reminiscence of his childhood, and peaceful summer months spent at his Yiddish-speaking maternal grandparents’ datshka. During his childhood, Kissin was made aware of anti-Semitic sentiments; derogatory slurs were not unusual. Not yet aware of Israel's existence, Kissin envisioned himself uniting with his people, as a grown up, in Birobidzhan – the Russian territory with an official Jewish status, which became a center of Jewish culture at the time it was founded under Stalin, in 1934.
                                                                                Evgeny Kissin with Martin Engstroem in Verbier. Photo: Ilona Oltuski               

Kissin’s interest in his native Russian poetry and literature were closely followed by his interest in Yiddish culture and its language, which he had initially taught himself. Even though he grew up completely assimilated into Soviet society, he felt a strong connection to his ethnic heritage and always had a special place in his heart for Israel. After being in the public eye for a long time, he deployed his voice not only for numerous humanitarian causes, but also to protest a growing anti-Israel sentiment he observed living in London and Paris. In December 2009, his open letter to the BBC in protest of its perceived biased reporting made headlines. In 2010 he explained to me why he had spoken out: “I just felt that it was no longer possible to remain silent and not protest….my motivation came from the dramatic increase of anti-Israel slander.” (See my article, “The Artist as Citizen.”) His fan-website features a broad selection of sources in support of Israel.
When we met at his first solo concert in Jerusalem the following year during his commanding Liszt tour, he was engulfed in the topic. (In 1988 he went on his very first trip to Israel with the Moscow Virtuosi Orchestra.)
Performing in Jerusalem meant the world to him and he matched his sentiment with a dramatic biblical stance: “Im Eshkachech Yerushalayim Tishkach Yimini (If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten).”
Despite not living in the Promised Land himself, he initiated action to fully demonstrate his allegiance: in December of 2013 Kissin took on Israeli citizenship. His evolving sense of Jewish identity certainly plays a decisive role in his creative discoveries within its history, language and music and beyond that in Israel’s modern-day crisis. During one summer at the Verbier festival, Anna Kantor, concerned about this (to her mind) superfluous extracurricular activity, turned to me, remarking: “Ah politics, who needs politics…he should sit and play the piano.” I am certain the sentiment is shared by many, who would prefer an artist being removed from anything that could view the man and citizen behind the artist. Alas, despite his performance schedule of about 40 concerts a year worldwide, Kissin’s creativity obviously requires many different stimulating outlets, certainly feeding his extraordinary imagination at the piano.
Just some days after his Yiddish recital, we met over tea and he brought the newest chapter of his novel. In his steadfast timbre, Kissin read it out loud in one sitting. He did not touch his tea. He was excited to share his modern-day drama depicting an opera-inspired Russian heroine’s suffering with deep sentiment, in a pictorial and captivating style. Here is an excerpt:
From the novel by Evgeny Kissin, translated by Barrnett Zumoff
Book 1: Outside It Was Snowing
The smoke from the cigarette was beginning to mix with the emanations from the Indian aromatic sticks. There was no ashtray in the house, so the cigarette ash fell on the floor immediately after each light tap of her finger. She kept slowly and deeply inhaling the smoke, filling her entire body with the mild poison; oh well – the deed is already done, so relax and calm down.
Three thoughts kept drilling into her mind: “Sasha, my darling”…”I’ll get the money as fast as I can!” …and “Now I‘ve really become a whore – I’ve lived to see the day!”
“Man proposes and God disposes,” her wise grandmother Chana used to say. Her grandmother’s words had sounded convincing to her even then, though she was still a child and of course couldn’t understand what they meant. Now, in the past few days, she somehow understood them with her whole being, from the tips of her fingers to the depths of her soul, perhaps as never before in her life. When she was still a young girl and had just begun to discover the world of pleasure, she used to fantasize about taking money for love. For instance, a nice man she liked would come to her and propose to spend time with her, and she would answer him playfully: “If you pay!” Now, however, she didn’t get to choose only nice clients…
Five months did go by after the Russian heroine of his novel appeared, and reverberations of sentiments stirred by Kissin’s Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 slowly filtered through the hall.
Nothing less had been expected from a moving farewell concert by Kissin, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
For this final concert of the series, Kissin reunited with his longtime friend, colleague and frequent collaborator James Levine, who, as the Met’s leading force for 45 years, has just announced his final bow as music director. 
                                                                                                              Photo: NPR.org, Maestro James Levine
The eminent conductor, winner of 10 Grammy awards, entered in his wheelchair, elevated by a special mechanism onto a towering conductor’s podium.
Kissin – and Levine – fans had witnessed this somewhat involved process in the hall already in 2013 when the artists collaborated on Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, when Levine, returning to the concert stage after injury and two years of absence, was greeted with a standing ovation.
Kissin has played the world over with an extraordinary number of first-rate conductors, but Maestro Levine, the pianist once told me, is among those he really loves the most. For several years, Kissin and Levine were both at home in New York. Together they recorded Beethoven’s Second and Fifth Concertos in 1997. As a special highlight their all-Schubert piano duo program, recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 2005, speaks volumes of their alliance in temperament and artistic perception. It is also among Levine’s most favorite recordings, he told Kissin (even though for acoustic reasons and perhaps also to facilitate unrestrained physical motions, the music intended for one piano four hands was performed on two separate grand pianos).
While Kissin’s beautiful singing lines where at times marred just slightly by the piano’s dry acoustics, the strong personal connection was palpable in their take on Rachmaninoff, on a beautiful night in May for Kissin’s last concert of the series.
Familiar with Kissin’s 1989 recording of the concerto with Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra, I had never before heard this all-time favorite concerto played live by Kissin.
Rachmaninoff himself gave the premiere of the work composed in 1901, which established his fame and marked the end of a severe depression he had suffered.
While Gergiev’s recording is certainly notable, already the entrance, just so slightly off, speaks of a much less deeply rooted musical bond than that between Kissin and Levine. In the recording Gergiev paints – at times more daringly – with a bigger brush, but Levine is a master at bringing out all the hidden nuances. If his Spanish repertoire already was full of vitality and rejoicing in the intricacy of mischievous rhythmic skill, in Rachmaninoff the drama got taken further. But despite the constant shifts between tender palettes and multiple climaxes there was nothing mise-en-scene, only a profound myriad of fine-tuned dexterity.
If Carnegie Hall’s Perspective series set out to convey different angles of the performer’s aptitude with multiple genres and composers’ objectives, we witnessed it all. The blissful melancholy projected in this last Russian gem was matched only by his intimate poetry recitation, with a bared soulfulness that brought one closer into the world of this artist, and perhaps with one’s own humanity. With unrelenting inquisitiveness and willingness to challenge the status quo, Kissin does not rest on his laurels, which indicates there is much more to come; and how happy he looks, especially when conveying another scoop of news to me: Kissin is now also trying his hand at composing, and some of his installments, which include a chamber music work, have already acquired much interest among some distinguished musicians. Previously just something he dabbled with during his childhood, and put aside in favor of an exclusive focus on performance, composing has now taken solid hold, adding yet another facet to Kissin's opus of discovery. 
New York will feel the absence of this remarkable individual whose innermost workings can be found in his art. In the meantime, I am sure all his fans will join me in wishing him bon voyage as he spreads his artistic inspiration abroad.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Concerts and the City - Urban storytelling with Daniel Libeskind

There is a deeply affecting quality about star architect Daniel Libeskind's simple, elegant elucidations, which possesses an air of truth that never fails to inspire. Perhaps most essentially, they offer a glimpse into the deeply enthusiastic and positive worldview so inherent in all of his endeavors. "You have to bring hope," Libeskind tells Listen. "without a positive sense of the future, you can't build architecture, because you are laying foundations." 

All architectural photos courtesy Studio Libeskind. 

left: Master plan for Ground Zero in New York City. Photo right: one of the voids of the Jewish Museum Berlin. Underneath: Sketch H 3 Chamber Works.
This article was  published by "Listen -  life with  music and culture" April, 2016.

This sense of hope occurs in all of his major architectural work. In Berlin, for instance, stands the Jewish Museum  the award-winning design of which was accepted in 1989  and brought Libeskind world fame. its jarring curves, bold shapes, and unexpected voids gave form and shapes to the violent and complicated history of Germans and Jews further explored in the collection. 
But Libeskind's design also included cracks of light which penetrate that intimidating space, providing  literally – a glimmer of hope. the same idea occurs in his master plan for New York City's Ground Zero, where hope and commemoration manifest themselves as wedge of light.
In a recent BBC radio interview, Libeskind – once an aspiring accordion player – revealed  his diverse musical taste in a list of works that included selections from Mozart's Requiem; Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op.133; ancient Greek music; Giacinto Scelsi's Pfhat; and Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz. This colorful array is indicative of both Libeskind's own broad palette, and of the love for music that inspires and impacts his sense of design: "Even though I have given up performing music" – Libeskind played classical music, which  he transcribed for accordion  "I never gave up music at all. I am always listening to the sound of a space and to its vibrations."
Indeed, Libeskind sees much resonance between the fields of music and architecture. "How we listen to music, the physical, visceral experience...can never be experienced in the same way [by two people], and while perhaps nothing brings people together like music, its experience is linked to each individual human soul...the same goes for architecture." 
This belief has prompted him to undertake many cross-disciplinary projects, including a series of drawings published by the Architectural Association School of Architecture. The loose-leaf sketches, collected in a record box, were titled Chamber Works, and Libeskind calls them "musical scores of performances of a civic space."

As CNN Style's first guest editor, Libeskind also recently commissioned and curated a series of features which link music and architecture through the common thread of their emotional impact and communicative capacities. "The audience becomes a vital component of the performance. it is not passively sitting down and removed from the show," he says. in May 2016, Libeskind will further explore these issues in a twenty-four hour extravaganza of site- specific concerts called One Day in Life. (sketch for the event)

Set in Frankfurt at the invitation of the city's Alte Oper, One Day in Life opens up Germany's commercial and cultural hub with an odyssey through different locations and musical eras. each site and program identified by one of eighteen basic themes of human experience. One such performance, hosted in the
massive Commerzbank-Arena, will feature concert violinist Caroline Widmann and DJ Spooky as a contribution to the theme of "will." The program notes describe the event as "...a confrontation of two  musical worlds for the benefit of a shared retaliation. In a location where, at other times, sporting events mesmerize large numbers of people,music will exert its evocative power by presenting virtuosic violin
pieces or contemporary electronic sounds - music whose strong will makes it irresistible to the audience."

Photo: Commerzbank-Arena, Wolfgang Miguletz (One Day in Life, Alte Oper)

At the German National Library, Star pianist and Steinway Artist Pierre-Laurent Aimard will participate in a performance of Schubert's Sonata No.18 in G Major, D.894 - a contribution to the theme of "translation," letting the music speak for itself.
Many locations used for the concerts are spaces most people would not even have known existed, while others have never seen performances of the kind One Day in Life presents. Accordingly, musical offerings will change with the scenery, ranging from soloists and small ensembles to a full symphony orchestra.
In a recent press conference in Frankfurt, Libeskind said: "My project is to put music where it's never been played in that way. The idea is to open up the city, and how people listen to music." 

photo left: Imperial War Museum in Manchester, United Kingdom. 

photo right: Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto

Libeskind explained to Listen some of the essential factors at play in his vision: "Music is constantly in our lives; it reveals the rhythm of our lives, we are just not always...aware of it. One Day in Life brings a special unity to the dialogue between the audience, the place, and the music, and reveals new connections. Music becomes recognizable as the force of life it is  think of its already biblical power, bringing down the walls of Jericho  and of course as a source of bringing pleasure into one's life. People will suddenly realize that they can enjoy being in a hospital or at the bunker while listening to a performance of a work by Schoenberg, or by Nono. 
The music changes how we experience the place and the place changes how we listen to music."
Ilona Oltuski

One Day in Life will occur May 21-22 in Frankfurt am Main. 

Daniel Libeskind plans to attend the extraordinary event. 

Daniel Libeskind, photo: Wonge Bergmann, Alte Oper Frankfurt am Main.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Violinist Stefan Jackiw – “music connects you with humanity”

I am reconnecting with the slender, young looking 31 years old violinist, Stefan Jackiw, who impressed me deeply when I had heard him perform several years ago, at the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church. Home of the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players - just a block from Lincoln Center – less frequently performed repertoire is presented here in an accessible way, by musicians belonging to the former orchestral ensemble led by the late Jens Nygaard and upcoming talents of the New York classical music scene.
Already then, Jackiw came across as being an artist with an inimitably searching character and an utterly engaging musician with a maturity well beyond his years. He clearly dominated the stage in a literal sense, since there was not even a stage actually; Jupiter players just stand in front of their audience, which makes for a much simpler and more direct display of their skill. It also makes it more difficult for some performers to stand there in such proximity, rather intimately exposed, without the sanctification of the pedestal effect of a stage.
This was clearly not the case for Jackiw, who embraced the closeness with every one of his nimble movements and a soaring tone projection, pulling the audience into his music making with an almost uncanny optimism; not of the naively joyful kind, but rather a deep felt response of life affirming buoyancy with an emotional depth, only gained through some serious soul searching.
Since then, the highly accomplished violinist’s career has taken off to even new heights. When we meet at Indies, a café, often frequented by musicians thanks to its lighter fare and proximity to Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School, he had just made his debut at Carnegie Hall, performing Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto with Mikhail Pletnev, kick starting a tour with the Russian National Orchestra. He also completed a tour, performing Ives Violin Sonatas with the brilliant pianist Jeremy Denk, which included a well received performance at the 92Y. The New York Times called their collaboration an arresting account and a model of how performers can both inform and entertain an audience with a challenging program (Anthony Tommasini) photo Shiro Yuki NY Times
Jackiw had first collaborated with Denk in 2007, at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, and they had “clicked” from the get go:”Besides being a greatly informed and learned pianist with immense insights into the historical context and how to make strikingly clear, how a piece is put together, for me his playing is so special because of its emotional generosity. When he plays, he is the opposite of academic; filled with spirit, life and joy, he makes you fall in love with music all over again,” says Jackiw. They continued their spirited affiliation, performing several times over the years and their relationship has deepened into a strong partnership, further evolving their similar musical values, personal temperaments and ideas on interpretation. When it came to Charles Ives, a project Denk had mentioned to Jackiw a while back, Jackiw started learning all four Sonatas at once, for their shared performance. While Denk had been closely involved with the composer’s work for quite some time, Jackiw had only been somewhat familiar with some of his chamber music already, while the Sonatas were rather new territory for him. That’s why he hopes to repeat their Ives tour in the near future:”I feel the first time around, after you learn new repertoire, you have to put it away for a while. The second time you perform it, there is a very different understanding, and that’s especially true with a composer you don’t perform all that often. It is different when you play, say Brahms, whom you play all your life. Even if it’s a new or lesser played piece, its informed by how you play Brahms’ other works…I already look forward to revisiting Ives.” While much admired by Jackiw, Denk, is also a prolific writer on his thoughts on music – he is currently writing a book, built on a selection of entries of his successful blog “Think Denk,” a consummate and often witty outlook from his perspective as a musician – Jackiw, who is an excellent communicator himself, says he is rather shy when it comes to writing about music; though he did write the program notes for his Carnegie Hall debut. “It is important for me, to write down my thoughts that go into building a certain program, and my thoughts about a performance. Writing forces me to articulate my thoughts about music, deepening my own understanding and informs my commitment to then crystallize my thoughts in my playing and vice versa, “he says.
Jackiw often attends others’ concerts and likes to think about the experience, but also about his own role, as a performer. Photo credit: Sophie Zhai
“I believe that we (as performers) are re-creating a composer’s work, like an actor re-creates Shakespeare… and in that sense we are servants to the composer’s score. But within that, one could argue if it is our job to guide the audience in a controlled way, pointing out the path through the piece; or rather go on the journey with the audience together, in real time. As a listener, I find it always more compelling, when the performer and the audience are “taking communion” together, when there is this togetherness of experiencing the music. While giving yourself up to the music may be risky, and the willingness to relinquish control may be dangerous, this is – for me – the place, where music takes flight. It sounds a little indulgent, but the great, late Hanoncourt expressed it so eloquent:”Beauty exists at the edge of catastrophe.” Pushing to that edge, being in the presence of all that is expressed in the score, the torment, the joy, the emotional extremes….being vulnerable to all that opens you up to an experience, bigger than oneself and that connects the performer with the audience. As a performer you cannot keep the audience at an arm length. It may be more comfortable, you would be less naked, but that’s not what it is about. An actor like Daniel Day Lewis, for example, is totally amerced into his characters. He becomes the character, he is portraying, every time. “
Jackiw is inspired by other performers, who radiate this total commitment and honesty in their playing; some of his all time idols includes violinist Christian Tetzlaff, whose concerts he always aims to attend. The other one is Gidon Kremer, with whom he performed chamber music in Korea, last year. “It would be a dream to play together with him again,” he says. “Already in the rehearsals, this is an artist who is so inspiring with utter commitment and always so different in each performance. “
“After all, why do we go to museums, read literature and want to get a perspective on history,” exclaims the former Harvard psychology major, if not to connect with beauty, but also with the emotions expressed by others. I find it deeply comforting to discover that others felt like I feel. “One of the major conventions in psychology is “normalization,” which means to show empathy to a patient, by showing that whatever mental ailment patients are plagued by, they are not alone; there are others that have suffered this before and are now. And music really shows that too, through the works of composers, who have lived and suffered and lived seeking joy and beauty. It is difficult to go on stage as a performer, it takes some self-reflection and thinking about what matters and why we are here, as a musician, dedicated to express all that, it forces you to look inward too, and that’s what keeps us grounded and in our most blissful moments, connected to humanity.
In the following months, Jackiw is looking forward to several orchestral performances in Europe, including his Berlin Konzerthaus debut, as well as reconnecting with his Korea based ensemble “Ditto.”
For more info about the artist: www. stefanjackiw.com

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust – shtetl buoyancy re-invented


Soulful violist and composer/arranger Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin was featured in Ljova and the Kontraband’s Sunday afternoon concert at Brooklyn’s new home for the all-inclusive new music scene, National Sawdust. Going by ‘Ljova,’ the kindred version of his traditional Russian-Hebrew name, Lev, the artist and his Kontraband filled the room, which had been arranged cabaret-style, with tuneful energy. Folksy tango tunes with virtuosic viola passages next to Yiddish folk songs performed with great gusto by Ljova’s wife, singer Inna Barmash, pulled young and old alike into ethnic rhythmic soundscapes.
Says Barmash: “If you’ve been here in Brooklyn long enough, you have certainly heard Yiddish spoken by many of its Jewish, Eastern European inhabitants.” But while songs were sung in Yiddish, and some of the tango arrangements, especially those for accordion (virtuosic accordionist Julian Labro was sitting in for the band’s member Patrick Farrell), were reminiscent of Piazzolla, there was also something very different present in the compositions, giving the music a unique artistic characteristic of its own. As the program promised: “You will think you have heard it, but didn’t…at least not quite like this.
Quite far removed from the repertoire of his traditional classical music training, Ljova’s music stays alive through its own magic, fostered by intense rhythms of klezmer, tango, jazz, gypsy music and soaring melodic structures, many of which seem to originate in the eastern shtetl, rather than in Schubert.
The son of Russian Jewish émigrés famed Moscow composer Alexander Zhurbin, most renowned for his 1975 rock opera “Orpheus and Eurydice,” and poet Irena Ginzburg, Ljova always managed to stay closely connected to the nurturing roots of his heritage without being stuck in the generational gap.
Born into a Russian musician’s home, violin lessons with the renowned Galina Turchaninova, teacher to talents like Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin, were part of Ljova’s Moscow routine from age four on. He left this part of his life behind when he immigrated in 1990 at age 11 to New York, along with his parents. It may have been the influence of his uncle, Yuri Gandelsman, former principal violist of the Moscow Virtuosi and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra that caused Ljova to choose to enroll at Juilliard, where he became a student of the eminent Samuel Rhodes, violist of the Juilliard String Quartet. Ljova might have continued to follow this road if it had not been for his curiosity and willingness to try on other musical hats. Making music within “the other” non-classical world of music, whether at jazz gigs at nightclubs, weddings, or folk festivals, taught Ljova to improvise and compose, and opened a different worldview for him to absorb, first reluctantly, then eagerly, eventually making it his own.
Ljova’s first solo recording, World on Four Strings, released in 2006 on his own Kapustnik label, features the viola dominantly, yet with atmospheric multi-tracked recorded viola parts, gracefully departs from the classical genre.
An array of musical arrangements for artists like Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, Brooklyn Rider, The Knights, the Kronos Quartet and artists as diverse as rapper Jay-Z and Alondra de la Parra, among others, added greatly to Ljova’s exposure and experience. Composing for his beloved viola or his Kontraband or an entire Orchestra, Ljova has developed a varied and consistently unique voice of deeply felt, personal perception of musical delight. He came to realize that there are only two kinds of music, good – and bad.
Ljova’s musical ideas are flowing from a space within his very “normal life.” His persona does not present extravagancy, or any romantic ideal of an artist that seeks the stardom of a celebrated idol; his Viola strapped on his back, Ljova travels mostly by bike from his Upper West Side neighborhood. On occasion, he will leave himself a message on his cell phone with a reminder of a new musical idea that just came to him in that moment. His warm, unpretentious personality comes across as genuine to a fault: whether on stage or a broadcasted talk show, of which he has done several, or as a family man, a good neighbor and friend, he manages to stay relevant, doing whatever it takes to live a life that includes music on a daily basis.
Ljova is in high demand as a film composer. Some of his recent credits include scores to “Finding Babel”, a documentary about the Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish writer Isaak Babel and “Datuna: Portrait of America”, about the Georgian artist David Datuna, which just won a prize at Raindance Film Festival. Ljova has also composed music for documentaries produced by the BBC, and contributed music to documentaries by NHK and HBO. He has also scored nearly three dozen short-subject films.
Ljova also collaborates extensively with choreographers, including two ballets with Aszure Barton & Artists, as well as commissions from Parsons Dance, Ballet Hispanico, New Dialect and others.
The connections that Ljova makes with people are lasting and meaningful; his relationship with Brooklyn Rider goes back to 2008, when he shared the bill with the group at Joe’s Pub. It was the highly successful string quartet’s first year in existence, with violinist Johnny Gandelsman, violist Nicholas Cords and the two Jacobsen brothers, Eric on cello and Colin on violin. It was Ljova’s second year performing with the Kontraband. The lines between Ljova’s collaboration and friendship with the Brooklyn-based quartet, inspired by the “Blue Rider,” were blurred from the beginning. At their first performance, Brooklyn Rider performed several of Ljova’s pieces, including “Plume,” “Crosstown” and “Budget Bulgar.” The quartet also went with Ljova’s arrangement for Silk Road Ensemble, “Brîu,” a tune form the repertoire of Taraf de Haïdouks, originally composed for the project. “Plume” and “Crosstown” also appeared on the group’s debut recording Passport.
Eric Jacobsen says: “I can’t help but be inspired by Ljova. His imagination is fascinating and endless. He is one of those people, that when I see an opportunity for collaboration, I immediately think of him. He is true to his nature and creative spirit, however incredibly able to adapt to all situations and relationships.” One of Ljova’s new works in the making is a commission by Eric Jacobsen, who is currently starting to serve as conductor for the Orlando Philharmonic and the Bridgeport Symphony.
It is unsurprising that the afternoon at Sawdust had the intimacy of a family affair. Ljova aims for personal connection, as he laments: “Everyone has moved on into different neighborhoods. Even when planning concerts, it has become difficult to find an era that works for everyone..." it was therefore an important gesture that children were admitted to Sunday's concert for free. Ljova's cousin, Johnny Gandelsman - violinist of Brooklyn Rider, which had just performed at Sawdust the previous week, was in attendance with his animated kids.
But beyond the literal family connections - Ljova is of course married to his "Kontraband"'s vocalist - the familiarity with which the performers demonstrated their instruments, percussionist Mathias Kűnzli most intricately, or talked about their music, held an informal objective, whcih created an intimate, family-friendly milieu.

The artists, belonging to a generation of New York musicians who are grown up with families of their own, look to swap the musician’s ideal of the hip nightlife performance venue into one that allows their friends and fans to bring their kids. “So many performances I give cannot be frequented by many of my colleagues and friends, since they don’t have babysitting available,” he says.
The practical answer for Ljova is to perform in spaces conducive to bringing people together, uniting young and old and making the community grow a little closer together. Remarkably, this is exactly what his performance proved to represent. If smaller performance venues typically fill with the artists’ following to begin with, why not make it possible to include all of them? This is a valid question to which Ljova answers with low-key performances with communal character. Already, Ljova’s shtick has gained traction with new audiences, and major concert venues like Lincoln Center seem to be following suit. While composer and Artistic Director of Sawdust, Paola Prestini, has, in her own words, aimed to create a forward-thinking laboratory to explore unknown artistic territory, she has in the process established a communal hub that satisfies a popular demand and community need.