Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Do high scores in competitions equal playing it safe?

Carnegie’s Zankel Hall piano recital on December 5th
was part of the Mixon First Prize, granted to this year’s Cleveland International Piano Competition winner, the personable German pianist Alexander Schimpf. Aged 29, he was on the more mature side among a group of 28 competitors. His choice of repertoire, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4, the only offered classical-period work, may have helped to impress the
It certainly served him well in competing with three other
final-round competitors in Cleveland, gaining him the sought after credit with
the jurors, as well as some rave reviews from the critics.

Photo by Balazcs Borocz

At Zankel Hall, Schimpf’s general tone was ranging from
admirable to beautiful with, at times, filigree-like execution. He mastered his
all-German repertoire with all its nuances, from introspective to devout, with
reliable inner voicing.
It was in the more expressive passages that needed a larger
dynamic range, where Schimpf’s quality and power of tone was lacking. Failing
to build up momentum when approaching a crescendo, his delivery either sounded
harsh, because he arrived at it too sudden, or not powerful enough. The
somewhat monotonous character of his program choices did not help him here. I
would have liked to ask him whether it might have been the piano that gave him
a hard time, or the acoustics of the hall, which might have given him a false
sense of how his performance was perceived by the audience in the hall. It
almost appeared to me, as if he did not want to disappoint a teacher, who may
have once scolded him for ‘banging too loudly’: his ‘louder’ passages needed to
be fuller, played more freely and with more charisma – he seemed to hold back –
perhaps playing it safe?
Even in the contemporary piece, written for him by the young
German composer Adrian Sieber, “…und schon erglüht”(…and already in embers) and Sieber’s “Fantasie II”, there
seemed to be relatively little build-up of its dynamics. While this did not
seem completely inconsistent with the piece’s abrupt modes, it presented an
almost unforgivable holding back in Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major, D.960,
which could have been otherwise, quite refined.
Since Mr. Schimpf’s emotionally serious and sensitive
approach to the piano is quite obvious, especially in Bach’s English Suite No.3 and beatific Encore. One may wonder if
certain qualities like ‘playing it safe’ had been promoted for use during the stressful
rounds of a competition. Was there a misunderstood fear of sounding too
One may ask, if playing and winning competitions comes with
its very own set of rules, which might, very well, differ from those employed
when trying to captivate an audience. And what does a jury need to hear when
judging competitors, as opposed to a performance that captivates the audience’s
attention? But why would one differ from the other, if the ultimate reason for a
pianist taking on the taxing environment of a competition is to build a
reputation, attracting the attention of critics and the public, which, in turn,
leads to new opportunities to perform.
There may be many different answers to this question,
largely depending on who offers their point of view.

Photo by Joshua Gunter

There are also artists who
refuse to play at competitions, despite the opportunities this exposure might present.
For Mr Schimpf, winning a major competition not only brought
him to Zankel Hall, but it will offer him the opportunity to play 50 recitals worldwide.
For more information on Alexander Schimpf go to

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Easts meets West in Toronto - Julliard piano duo "Salute to the Phoenix"

Classical pianists Michael Berkovsky and Lang Ning Liu are both very insightful and sensitive pianists. Although from different corners of the world, they share the experience of having studied at Juilliard. Now they have reconnected again.After earning his Master’s degree at Juilliard, winning the school’s concerto competition, and performing at Avery Fisher Hall in 2008, Michael continued his musical studies at Peabody/ John Hopkins, and - made the performance prize again, which entitled him to a solo recital at the Baltimore Art Center and one with orchestra, under the baton of Leon Fleisher. I remember his solo performance a few years back very well, not only for the warmth and colorfulness of his interpretation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, but also for the fact that mid-performance, the concert hall suddenly turned pitch-black. Unfazed, Michael handled the situation audaciously, just as the legendary Myra Hess did, when she continued to play her concert despite the sound of the sirens during the London Blitz. Michael completed his studies at Peabody with a Ph.D. in music performance. His extraordinarily warm and generous personality does not allow for an extravagant ego – a fact that has been winning him many friends and supporters where ever he goes.As Lang Ning thought about ways to get her friends interested in her concert performances, she came up with the idea of integrating Chinese folk tunes and new classical repertoire. This allowed Michael and Lang Ning to not only address a young audience, but also to reach large new audiences, like Toronto’s Chinese community. Lang Ning’s concept clearly speaks to the ever-increasing entrepreneurial instincts of young musicians.Toronto’s Chinese community (the second-largest after the one in Vancouver) has a growing number of classical music enthusiasts, who are attending a multitude of recitals and performances. Their vigorous support of young talents is something to be counted on, and has fostered a special appreciation for classical music. Ever since Lang Lang’ s phenomenal success, artists of Asian heritage have become part of the international concert circuit in increasing numbers, showcasing also more and more female talent, and thus promoting the newfound gusto and artistic dynamism of the young Asian female performer.Already for the past decades, the number of students of Asian heritage among the students at American and Canadian music schools and conservatories has risen steadily, with highly talented musicians now growing up with the Western canon providing an interesting influx of Asian culture. Especially at internationally renowned institutions, like the Glenn Gould School in Toronto, or the Juilliard School in New York, a young generation of musicians, instrumentalists and composers has been able to establish themselves in the local and international classical music scene. (See my article about the young composer Huang Ruo Lang Ning Liu began her studies at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, making her orchestral debut with the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra at age 10. At age 17, she attended the Glenn Gould Institute at Toronto and then studied at Juilliard in New York from 2003 to 2008, returning to Toronto with a Master’s degree in piano performance. She is now in the process of establishing an international performance career and has been mentioned extremely favorably by the international press. This month she was the Toronto Concert Orchestra’s featured soloist when they performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 under Kerry Stratton, at the Toronto Arts Centre.The young pianist is not only renowned for her steely technique and musical competence, but also for her involvement in several outreach programs invested in classical music. She is the founder and artistic director of the Toronto International Piano Competition and the CCC National Canadian Piano Competitions, and she serves as a Youth Ambassador for the Chinese Culture Centre of Greater Toronto. For one of her recent music projects, she reconnected with fellow Juilliard graduate and pianist Michael Berkovsky, who now also lives in Toronto. What started out as a gig playing Astor Piazzola tangos - a favorite of Berkovsky’s - turned into a successful joint venture, named after the institution that connects the two pianists: The Juilliard Duo.At Juilliard, Michael and Lang Ning Liu both studied with Julian Martin. Even though Lang Ning started slightly earlier, this shared experience influenced the musical development of both pianists tremendously. Their new project involves the transcription of Chinese folksong material the two Juilliard graduates feel passionate about. "100 Birds Salute the Phoenix" by Wang Jian Zhong, transcribed for two pianos by The Juilliard Duo, currently exists as an enchanting Youtube clip, performed by Michael Berkovsky and Lang Ning Liu.“It is all about reaching out to a different audience, incorporating our own creativity,” says Michael in Toronto, as he tells me about the old folk story of the phoenix “100 Birds Salute to the Phoenix” is based on: The phoenix was a plain bird, hardworking and honest. She saved up food, unlike the other, more colorful birds that did not care and think to prepare for harder times. As times turned into a famine and the birds were starving, the phoenix shared her saved food and so saved them. Being very thankful, they each gave her a feather, and the plain bird became the most colorful and most beautiful of them all …the ‘one for all and all for one’ ideology comes to mind.”Michael is happily settled in Toronto and, for the first time since his family moved from their native Russia to Israel, and then on to the U.S. for his Master’s degree at Juilliard and his doctorate at Peabody in Baltimore, Michael feels he is establishing a home for himself. While he has performed internationally as a soloist, he also loves the idea of playing with another pianist: “The energy is different than playing chamber music, and there is great communication between two pianists … a great energy flow and mutual understanding, and it’s not as lonely as playing solo repertoire.”Right now, Lang Ning Liu and Michael are in the process of arranging “Yellow River”, a composition based on Chinese composer’s Xian Xiang’s 1939 cantata. Since its politicized premiere in 1969 during the Cultural Revolution, the Concerto has become popular in China and amongst overseas Chinese nationalists. It is noted for a difficult solo part. Berkovsky and Liu will re-create a two piano version. These days Michael and Lang Ning also work on preparing a concert tour that will take them to 5 cities in China, this coming summer to present these works.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Julian Rachlin – and friends; 'Facebook' concept of social networking revisited for classical musicians

Julian Rachlin Photo: Julia Wesely
When I had the pleasure of hearing the young violinist Julian Rachlin performing live and seeing him in action at this year’s summer festival at Verbier, it was clear that this performer had something more to offer than a beautiful tone-palette on the violin (and the viola for that matter, his second instrument of choice). His recent interest in conducting also must contribute to transmitting his widening spectrum of deep involvement with the classical music he loves.

Most definitely this artist has shown determination in establishing a powerful artistic communication on many different levels. For one thing, he integrated the classical music world with personalities from the film industry. This he tried and succeeded with at his own “Julian Rachlin and Friends” Music Festival in the Croatian Dubrovnik. James Bond film legend, Roger Moore, proved a fascinating lover of classical music getting involved with Prokofiev- readings of Peter and the Wolf, and the classical comedian team Igudesman& Joo, longtime personal friends of Rachlin, spoofed away at the festival and beyond on their you- tube gigs which have been followed by their millions of fans, since the festival’s inauguration in 2001.

“I fell in love with the medieval town, and at the time – I was 25 years old- the festival that had enjoyed a great tradition in the sixties and seventies before the war, was completely bankrupt and many monuments still lay in ashes. The revival of the festival was offered to me, if I was able to bring them even just two or three amazing musicians, like Vengerov, Bashmet or Maisky,” remembers Rachlin, about the beginnings of his involvement in Dubrovnik, after a performance there.

And sure enough even at his early age, Lithuanian born Rachlin, who has been based in Vienna since 1978, was able to rely on his good contacts and ability to connect– a talent in itself, which helped him build the festival into a yearly attraction, with financial support of the newly founded “friends of Rachlin and friends” in the US and Austria. It is now in its eleventh year attracting an array of world famous musicians, from conductor Zubin Mehta to Rachlin’s long -term mentor, pedagogue and chamber-musician, Boris Kuschnir.

Photo - Rachlin with Zubin Mehta at Dubrovnik's Festival "Rachlin and Friends"

In 2010, Rachlin was officially appointed UNICEF ambassador, raising money and awareness for projects, supporting underprivileged children all over the world.

“I have also started an intense collaboration with the soccer club of Barcelona, whose entire team is an ambassador for UNICEF as well. That allowed me to connect my love of soccer and bring this interesting alliance into the classical music arena. This connection just begged to be further developed into the UNICEF soccer -gala event at my festival in Dubrovnik, mixing ex-celebrities of the football team with musicians and football enthusiasts from the media. The children get inspired by the interaction of all their heroes.”

Inspiring is his whole viewpoint of bringing classical music to a new level of “coolness” for a younger generation of musicians and their audiences. He reaches out to the older generation of accomplished “greats” validating their high professionalism, as well as to the younger crowd, and so his circle of friends seems to be growing steadily in the process. The classical musician as a hero – on the same status as a football pro, or film star – nothing seems to be impossible for Rachlin’s admittedly contagious enthusiasm.

While building on the old and incorporating the new does not seem like an entirely new concept initially, Rachlin’s sure entrepreneurial instincts and personal integrity have proven successful in bringing people from all different directions together and has gained him stout support and a great following.

Without the “dumbing” down aspect of classical music, used by so many, through crossovers into other more popular music genres, he is guarding the integrity of classical music and its protagonists.

Julian Rachlin Photo:Julia Wesely

“Classical music will never die, but we have to find new ways of packaging it to warrant what it takes to achieve its highest quality, “says Rachlin quoting his old time friend, cellist Misha Maisky.”On a personal note, I recognize all the great individual efforts of some of the most prestigious agencies that went into building my professional reputation, even if now I have decided on a different approach.” Since this year, Rachlin has hired a smaller management’s representative, the entrepreneurial Alexia Blumenthal, focused to bring all of Rachlin's and his many friends’ endeavors under one umbrella. She is continuing to expand horizons for Rachlin’s outreach into North- and South America.

This Friday, October 14th, Rachlin will open the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new season under the baton of Charles Dutoit, in his final season as the orchestra’s chief conductor of thirty years, with Sibelius’s violin concerto.

Rachlin has performed with the venerable conductor, who will continue collaborations with the Philadelphia Orchestra as their conductor laureate during their 2012-13 seasons.

Further upcoming performances for Rachlin include engagements with: The Israel Philharmonic (Zubin Mehta); Orchestra Filharmonica della Scala (Daniel Harding); Leipzig Gewandhaus (Josep Pons); Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (Yannick Nézet-Séguin);Detroit Symphony(Leonard Slatkin); and the Orchestre National de France (Daniele Gatti). He will also continue his play/direct performances with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields,the Camerata Salzburg, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and the Moscow Virtuosi.

With his regular duo partner, pianist Itamar Golan, Rachlin will perform a series of recitals, including a Beethoven Cycle at the Beethoven fest in Bonn and a Brahms Cycle at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna. Currently composer Krzysztof Penderecki is writing a Double Concerto for Rachlin, to be premiered at the Vienna Musikverein in 2012 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Pianist/composer/poet/visual artist/ Lera Auerbach- surreal creativity!

Lera Auerbach Photo: F.Reinhold
Sure, she is a great and spirited pianist, but the piano is just one of the many outlets of her creative inspiration, part of the sheer endless facets of her artistic persona. She is widely in demand as one of today’s most convincing and versatile composers and her Russian poetry already qualifies as required reading in Russian schools and universities and has received the prestigious Pushkin Prize (1996) for Literature. She also posts an articulate blog called the trouble clef on the Best American Poetry website. And that is not all. She has lately created some impressive visual artwork, which will receive its first exhibit at Moscow’s gallery Sistema, this year. She describes her latest artistic impulse as therapeutic, especially after she had lost all personal belongings, including her beloved Grand piano to a devastating fire, two years ago on the day before her birthday. A collage of burned pieces belonging to that lost piano of hers has a dedicated, private place on her wall.
As to her music, her compositions that to some extent relate to the musical language of Shostakovich, range from the most intimate works, such as her moving 24 Preludes for Cello and Piano which I heard her perform with cellist Gautier Capuçon at the Verbier Festival this July, (she often performs her own work in the tradition of pianist- composers of the 19th and 20th century) to grand- scale works like her brand new opera Gogol. This work, performed in her native Russian language, will receive its World premiere at the Vienna Theater and der Wien, October 15th, commissioned by the Vienna Theater, with German subtitles. In Gogol, Auerbach tries to create a “dreamlike vision of {the writer’s} inner passions, madness and genius” and the 1973 Russian-born artiste, who has a definite ardor for the dramatic narrative, relates to the Russian element strongly from experiences within her own personal and cultural Russian-Jewish heritage. “Russian history is a nightmarish fairytale from which this country may never awake,” posted Auerbach on her April blog post, a belief that she artistically also explored in an earlier work of hers, Russian Requiem, in 2007.
As composer-in- residence of the Bremen Music Fest at the time (from 2006-8), in cooperation with the Bremen Gesellschaft (interestingly, once the commissioning entity for Brahm’s German Requiem), she was given the opportunity to create her dream piece. “With all the tragic events in Russian history of repression, the constant suffering,” she explains in her animated vibrant Russian accent, “I wanted to start with the dramatic effect, the sounds of bells – original bells – ringing and the orchestra joining in, not like in a normal concert performance but rather like during a mass. They dealt with all my crazy ideas, and made the impossible, possible. The great Cathedral in Bremen lets its bells ring only for a special mass or in case of emergency. So they created a special mass for the birth of my new work, finishing 20 minutes before the concert and thus letting the bells ring in the orchestra’s performance, with the doors of the orchestra hall wide open, allowing in the sound of the bells. It was quite a grand spectacle and the Russian Requiem travelled further to Cuenca (as co-commission by the Spanish festival of religious music) and to Riga.”

Lera Auerbach Photo:F.Reinhold

My meeting with Auerbach at her prewar New York apartment on the Upper Westside took place at a most busy time. She had just come back from giving piano recitals in Dresden and is in the middle of writing another Requiem mass for choirs, orchestra and soloists, commissioned by the Dresden Staatskapelle, where she is composer in residence this season.
The new Requiem mass is planned to premiere in February of 2012. But right now she is wanted back in Europe for another Premiere of a new A Cappella Opera – The Blind, for the Berliner Kammeroper on October 13, and her Ballet score for Cinderella, for the Finnish National Ballet in Helsinki choreographed by John Neumaier, October 14, which will receive a number of repeat performances in Moscow and Hamburg.

Auerbach likes to talk about the process of artistic creation, a theme she seems to constantly explore actively through her own creations as well as in her own contemplations and observation. In her works the narrative often centers on its aesthetic exploration. In Gogol, for example, the writer’s characters are torturing his existence. He feels tormenting guilt for creating bad characters which becomes a religiously haunting vision, leading him to burn his sinful work. Finally, his created characters hold judgment over their creator.
In Auerbach’s Mermaid, based on the Hans Christian Andersson fairytale, she also explores the relationship between creator and creation. Hans Christian Andersson, who wants to protect his creation, has to admit that the Mermaid has a life of her own, that she is free. That reflects Auerbach’s general attitude to art:”It is irrelevant how you feel, what matters is the work itself. You tune yourself to be the instrument of your creation, the work writes itself. I make a grand plan, but then I let it go, and very often the work turns out differently than I had originally perceived it and I allow it to be…” she says about her creativity. In a recent interview with the German press Auerbach confessed:” I believe that art has much power by creating an image of our presence, for future generations. Art can relate to the most difficult subjects, in the most personal and direct ways. If necessary, it can be on a completely abstract level. And it has the potential of reaching people’s emotions, of making them cry even without them realizing why.”


In her young life, Auerbach has gotten used to making hard decisions on her own. When she was only seventeen years old she had to make the choice of whether to stay on alone in the United States – following her Russian concert tour to America, an incredible opportunity for the young Russian pianist – or to return home to her family, but maybe miss the opportunity of a lifetime.
During the decisive telephone call home, her mother, who, in Russia would have protected her every step, encouraged her to decide for herself despite the unknown outcome of any results. It was the time of the Soviet regime’s restricted travel permissions, and this decision involved the selflessness of essentially giving up the hope of spending any time together any time soon, a hard task for the typically Jewish-Russian parents from a provincial region, who had especially guarded their child’s course of life every step of the way. Until her sudden arrival in New York, the sheltered Auerbach had never travelled without being picked up by her parents from the train station.
Growing up in the rather isolated Russian Chelyabinsk, near the Siberian border, Auerbach was strongly connected with her parent’s world of books and music. Her mother, a piano teacher at the local music school, remains her strongest inspiration. It took Auerbach five years, after receiving an artist visa, before she was able to travel back home with a guaranteed return to continue her studies abroad. Only upon the decline of Soviet communism, were her parents finally able to join her in New York, having essentially missed the ten most important years in the young artist’s development. Auerbach was especially happy that her mom was able to attend her Carnegie Hall debut recital in 2002, the only dream she had shared with many of her Western pianist peers. In fact, it was a double debut for her – she performed as a pianist and was the composer of her Suite Concertante for Piano and Violin performed by her with renowned violinist Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica.
The double sided activities of composer/musician are what create the biggest challenges in the logistics of planning out her life. “As much as it’s always important for me to have a piano close to me – and I compose partly at the piano, partly without it – I had to cut down concertizing significantly within the last three years. I have to have longer stretches in between concertizing, to concentrate on composing. The biggest conflict comes, when I am on tour and have deadlines of new works to meet.”
How does her composing influence her piano performance? “I do perform standard repertoire, but I do hear it in a different way and I play only pieces, where I feel I have something new to say. For example I have a very personal way of playing Pictures of an Exhibition by Mussorgsky; I like to take a lot of liberties, typically like the performer- composers of previous generations. There is no such thing as a good piano sound. There is only the magic of making the piano sing in another voice, taking on the characteristics of other instruments. In the hand of a great performer it becomes a psychological means to hypnotize an audience into accessing their imagination in the best possible way.”
Auerbach does not experience her being a woman as a decisive factor in her career. “It is a question of perception. I for myself see no difference, and you choose to be above those limitations, “says Auerbach, acknowledging that double standards still do exist to a certain extent. But she feels as though “she doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody,” and the young, married artist, who does not see children in her life, simply replies: “My opuses!” to that question.
Besides her studies at the Manhattan School of Music and at Juilliard, where she studied piano with Joseph Kalichstein and composition with Milton Babbitt and Robert Beaser, she also spend time with Beethoven specialist, the Norwegian Einar Steen-Nokleberg in Hannover, reporting it to be a very worthwhile experience. Essentially she views a truly engaged self examination, the willingness and curiosity of wanting to continually grow, as the conditions for any successful outcome in the learning process. “When the student is ready, the right teacher will appear” she smiles knowingly.
Named “Young Global leader” by the World Economic Forum in 2007, Auerbach’s Renaissance-style Omni creative presence is fully recognized by her contemporary artistic environment internationally. In Germany she was awarded the prestigious Hindemith Prize and, at the Pacific Music Festival, the Tokyo String Quartet and Sapporo Symphony joined forces to perform her Fragile Solitudes. New York’s Chamber Music Wu Han and David Finckel brought Auerbach’s work to Lincoln Center. Auerbach relies on long time colleagues to keep her works alive, beyond the works’ premieres, such as the Borromeo String Quartet who have performed her entire selection of string quartets and recorded them on an archival recording. She also recognizes the efficiency of the Music Accord Organization, which was formed by different concert organizers, who work together to extend the life of a Lincoln Center premiered work, by taking work on to tour different concert venues.
In the near future, the composer plans to concertize with an artist she admires and has performed with at the Verbier Music Festival recently, Boston based violist Kim Kashkashian, for who she wrote a transcription of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes for Cello and Piano, arranged for Viola.

Lera Auerbach / Verbier Photo: Aline Paley

On November 15th, violinist Leonidas Kavakos will bring a selection of Lera Auerbach’s Preludes for Violin and Piano, Op. 46a, to Carnegie Hall.
Audio and Video:
Her website:
Her blog:

Friday, September 9, 2011

Evgeny Kissin conquers down under

After an invigorating summer, filled with concerts at the Verbier Music Festival , some preparations for his London apartment’s renovation, and of course some intense practicing in his flat in Paris and on his stopover in Los Angeles, Kissin expands his musical reach to Australia. (Laser light show over Brisbane Photo: Jon Baginsky)
Rather distraught by constant schedule changes due to hurricane Irene and extracurricular distractions, he was getting antsy to return to the piano and prepare for this undertaking. Only once was he willing to converse light heartedly with me about his upcoming trip, and only after he had practiced a good, uninterrupted seven hours at the Los Angeles Disney Hall, located in immediate proximity to his hotel.
Kissin was looking forward to this trip, but not everything was advancing as planned. And nothing is left to chance with this artist. A lot of considerations, like the weather conditions - Kissin does not like extreme heat – practice possibilities, distance to travel without breaks, etc., enter the planning stages of a concert tour around two years before the actual tour begins. A lot of things can change between the planning and the outcome, and his former manager at IMG Artists, Edna Landau, who still keeps in touch with Kissin, always understood the importance of his particularities. She expressed her excitement about the news of his Australia tour to me:”I am quite fascinated to know that Zhenya is going to Australia. When I worked with him he refused to even contemplate such a tour… I wonder what the deciding factor was.”
Whatever the reasons for his initial hesitations, they seem all but forgotten. Most of all, this speaks of a more open and easy going disposition, a change within Kissin himself. It’s a sure sign of his developing some elasticity, an eagerness to stretch and expand the cocoon that has so tightly enveloped this performer, since his early prodigal years.
“I like expanding the geography of my tours in all possible directions – except for non-democratic states. That was the decisive reason for Australia; to play in a country where I have never played before,” said Kissin. When I asked, if he would sightsee while there he said that while nothing concrete has been planned at this time, “I hope that someone will show us around. I always love that, and there will be time for it.”

Evgeny Kissin in rehearsal Photo: Ilona Oltuski
The tour is a combination of Kissin’s partaking in the Brisbane Festival at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre along with three performances at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, following an invitation of Sydney’s Symphony‘s Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ashkenazy just prolonged his post to 2013 as the orchestra’s Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor. He has been there since 2009.
In a Limelight interview with the maestro in April, Ashkenazy explained: ” how his performance history with the orchestra goes back more than 40 years, to 1969, when he first toured Australia, performing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras…Now, in 2011, as the Sydney Symphony approaches its 80thbirthday and Ashkenazy his 75th, there is a real feeling of an orchestra that has come of age.”
Ashkenazy and Kissin also go way back and have performed a lot of different repertoire together, such as Beethovens’ Third, Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, Brahm’s First and Second Concertos, Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto as well as Prokofiev’s Second and Third Piano Concerto. Kissin remembers clearly when he first got to know this six-time Grammy winner. “We met for the first time in Moscow in November of 1989 when Ashkenazy came to the Soviet Union for the first time after his emigration. A few weeks later, we both went to Japan and connected over dinner-- Chinese. “
In 2010 their Prokofiev’s Second and Third Piano Concerto recording also received the coveted Grammy Award. Kissin admires his Russian landsman as the extremely fine musician he is:”Being a great pianist himself, he is a superb accompanist.” Kissin’s senior by twenty four years, Ashkenazy took on citizenship of Iceland in 1972 and is currently a resident of Switzerland.
Ashkenazy describes Kissin as a fantastically gifted musician with a distinctly personal voice at the keyboard:”He possesses an enormous natural gift that’s beyond description. There ‘s more to his astonishing mastery of the instrument than a powerful technique and generous tone- when Kissin plays, the piano is his voice, drawing you into the music.” And Peter Czornyi, Sydney Symphony Director of Artistic Planning adds:”For Kissin, music is language, and performance is about communicating meaning. He can conjure a world of imagination - reflective and insightful - even as he dazzles with his astonishing mastery of the instrument.”
On September 11, Kissin will perform at the Queensland Performing Arts Center in Brisbane, among a variety of premiered events, including a nightly laser show shining over Brisbane’s South Bank arts precinct. Kissin will perform his much admired Liszt program, including highly demanding works such as Ricordanza , from Transcendental Etudes and Liszt’s monumental Sonata in B minor, which made Chicago Tribune’s critic John Rhein swoon over Kissin’s “soaring magnificence and superb fusion of virtuosity and poetry” when Kissin was touring his all-Liszt program during the 2010/11 concert season.
The booking of Kissin is described by the Festival’s Artistic Director Noel Staunton, via Katherine Feeney at the Brisbane Times, as a “real coup” for the city. Other “firsts” include more contemporary fare, like the premiere of Elena Kats-Chernin’s Symphonia Eluvim (Symphony of the Floods) influenced by the great floods that weighed down on Brisbane eight months ago, Israeli composer Avner Dorman’s Variations without a Theme and Pulitzer Prize winning American composer John Adam’s Grand Pianola Music, which will all be performed by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under the baton of American conductor Asher Fish.
“Kissin coming to Australia for the first time is a long-anticipated and very exciting event for the local pianist population,” says pianist Therese Milanovic from Brisbane. When at first only the Sydney performances were announced, she had considered making the long trip there to hear him play. One can imagine how thrilled she was to find out that he would be doing a Solo recital in Brisbane as part of the Brisbane Festival. “Every serious pianist, piano teacher , and lover of piano music will be there, and she also reports that Kissin has generously offered to informally meet with students of the Brisbane Conservatory.”

Sydney Opera House photo: Haymarket News
Audiences in Sydney will get their chance to witness Kissin’s All-Liszt Solo -program on September 15 at the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall, followed by Kissin’s performances of Grieg’s high spirited concerto in A-minor under Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on September 22 and then on the 24th., the two maestros will continue their collaboration with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, performing Chopin’s First Concerto.
This Chopin concerto became one of Kissin’s trademarks, when Kissin performed both Chopin piano concertos at age twelve, in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory with the Moscow State Philharmonic under Dimitri Kitaenko. The live recording of this performance in 1984 by Melodia and the LP-release a year later is what helped launch Kissin’s reputation in the West as an astounding pianist.
Not only is Kissin expanding his performances geographically but he is also venturing into more contemporary repertoire which will include for example the Barber sonata, in future performances. With his embracing ever new adventures, in a field Kissin has only just attempted in a somewhat cautious manner -- Kissin enters a new invigorating and vitalizing stage in his career.
The journey goes on. Following their Australia performance, Ashkenazy is taking the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on an eleven-day tour to Japan and Korea, joined by Kissin. They will also be joined by the Russian cellist Misha Maisky, who just performed with Kissin in Verbier and the young Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji, performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and together will be celebrating his 40th birthday in Japan.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pianist Julien Quentin: Internationally growing a reputation

When talking to the young and talented pianist Julien Quentin, it became obvious to me that this generation of young, classical musicians - at least the successful ones-- have definitely adopted something of a jetsetter lifestyle.

I had just met him at Verbier, where he performed for his 5th summer in a row, at the prestigious music festival. Two years ago he had performed at their special celebration “Night of Pianists” that featured different generations of accomplished pianists, Emanuel Ax, Nelson Goerner, Yuja Wang, among others. The festival’s artistic director Martin Engstroem had spotted Quentin, when he had heard his 2004 recording with clarinetist Julian Bliss.

Quentin confirmed the positive impressions I had brought back from Verbier myself (see also my article Musicerati at Verbier):”Verbier is really special in that all the star- artists are all happy to play the game… old and young, everybody is sharing the stage together and there are such musical fireworks.”

Born in Paris, Quentin grew up in Geneva, where his parents opened the “Librairie Quentin,” a connoisseur’s bookstore specializing in rare manuscripts and art books.

He attended both the local High School at Thonon to receive the French baccalaureate and the Conservatory at Geneva, where he studied with the Russian Piano Pedagogue Alexis Golovine.

It was through his teacher that Quentin met with Martha Argerich, who, at the time was residing in Geneva.

He describes listening to the recording of Golovine playing two-piano repertoire with Argerich and how that inspired him tremendously.

Quentin became friends with Argerich’s daughters, two of whom, Stephanie and Lyda still reside in Geneva, while Argerich herself lives in Brussels now.

He describes the most fascinating meeting with one of Argerich’s close friends and an important musical figure, Nikita Magaloff. “One time, as I visited Nikita's home, who let me play for him. He gave me some advice but, most importantly, he acknowledged that I had enough talent to make a life in music. That was a defining moment for me, giving me the self-confidence, to continue on the road I had always felt, was meant for me. It is a wonderful feeling if you know what you want in life. Growing up, a lot of my friends did not know what they wanted to achieve, they had to find themselves. I had a normal upbringing with sports, art and literature all around me. If my parents pushed me, they did that more for my general studies, than for music. I only had my first serious concert at 12, in Thonon. Then right after this in evian at the Rostropovich Auditorium and since then the sirens of the stage haunted me.”

Julien Quentin at Verbier Photo: Marc Shapiro

Quentin went on to continue his studies in the United States receiving his Artist Diploma with Emile Naoumoff, at Indiana University and then his Graduate Diploma in New York, under György Sándor, from Juilliard in 2003.

He shared a lot of his insights, such as why it is so important to understand the individuality of each pianist and what works for him personally: “Every pianist has certain abilities and experiences things differently, learning in unique ways. A lot depends on your individual preference but also on things like your discipline, for example. Also everybody is physically built in ways that influence their particular abilities and ways to function better. For me personally, I could sight read music for hours on end, but the physical playing at the instrument was not as easy to handle for several hours in a row as some others can,” says Quentin. He remembers how he once talked with Argerich about how she accomplished so much in such little time, and he quotes her saying:”Whether you take a week, a day or a minute, what counts is the result.”

“At the end it is really about what you can do and what makes you do it,” says Quentin.

“ You need the will for it since it is solitary work, otherwise you can forget any kind of great music making. But whether it is one or two focused hours or ten hours, which I rarely have the tolerance for physically or mentally, it differs for each pianist, or in pedagogue’s Heinrich Neuhaus’ words:”You can practice at the piano with the score and with the score without the piano, or you can practice without the score and without the piano,” which I do a lot, actually. This mental kind of practicing works really well for me, it gets you a better understanding of the musical scope of the score. It is a very abstract way of learning but it really makes you picture in your mind an ideal line or singing phrase, which you are sometimes too busy to do, while working things out physically. If you think about conductors and composers…that’s how they often figure out the bigger picture.”

Julien Quentin

The development of the so called inner ear, which this method certainly favors, is certainly an inherently important enhancement of musicality and the understanding of a score, and it is clearly helpful with memorization and in generally developing the musical imagination.

Quentin, whose technique has been deemed as “flawless” by the press, tries to follow, what he describes as the natural approach of the so called Russian School, which his first teacher brought to his attention and which, in his esteem in a nutshell, enables one to do more, with less.

This technique encourages the pianist to lead from the forearm, rather than from the fingers themselves, moving effortlessly and efficiently. One can support a particular singing quality of the melodic line, by weight distribution of the forearm.

Great Russian teachers traveled a lot to Europe and America, especially with the fall of the Iron Curtain, but even before that. It may be that with the virtuosic Russian repertoire of the 20th century itself, which he feels at home with intimately, (besides his Russian teachers, his mother’s roots are Polish-Russian, Jewish) influenced a tradition that could be traced back to the great pedagogues like Neuhaus.

But Quentin is also a child of his environment and time. He absorbed French Impressionism and embraces New Music, especially since his time in New York.

After his American years at school, Quentin was no stranger to the club-scene of his generation. “Turntables, weekly shows in bars and lofts, jam sessions and electro jazz were on the agenda at all times; mixing music, inviting other musicians to play together was a very social experience. I enjoyed it tremendously. It was an eye and ear opener for me, just to see how our friends in the audience would react. This was a fresh experience, where we generated crossovers between two worlds. Supporting new composers is almost a duty of a young performer. These are compositions of today’s life, just as it was the case a century or two ago. I am always interested in connecting different works and in collaborations of different techniques and art forms. “

Berlin became Quentin’s latest place of choice, which he loves for its active musical life, allowing him to experiment with new combinations of paired recitals of classical and new music. He likes to use live effects with the piano and add loops and electronic backgrounds and beats to it, developing his own musical blend, which can easily involve improvisation at the piano, with the laptop getting into the picture as well.

For all its possibilities, but mostly for its particular charm, he loves Berlin and for its slightly slower pace. “No rush, wherever I go I have friends who perform and by now I am really lucky, since all work is coming to me via email or phone. “ This youtube video shows Julien with an avid collaborator of his, the violinist David Garrett having fun with Rimsky-Korsakov's " The Flight of the Bumblebee"Flight of the Bumblebee.

His next gigs are in the planning: He would like to produce his own electro tracks and therefore is in touch with the likes of American composer/producer Justin Messina & British producer Martin Wheeler (aka Vector Lovers) to collaborate on future productions. Other jam and studio sessions are also scheduled in the next few weeks in Berlin with various artists from the electronic music and jazz scene.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

In the hands of genius - Musicerati at Verbier with Pianist Evgeny Kissin

In its eighteenth year now, Verbier has its own Festival Academy, Chamber Orchestra and Orchestra, providing young, gifted musicians with the chance to learn from the world’s most noted musicians. Along with this, the musicians and audiences have the wonderful opportunity to be exposed, at this small French-Swiss resort, to an array of world-class performances by the most internationally renowned music superstars.
Thanks to the immense production capabilities of and their sponsors, concerts are transmitted in partly live Internet streaming broadcasts, allowing for virtual worldwide participation. Year after year the artists arrive to partake in an intense program of presentations, master classes, concert performances, as well as to socialize and enjoy the pleasure of being who they are, with the rare chance of being among themselves.
Founder and director Martin T:son Engstroem, as well as a generous network of music loving supporters, make sure of the artists’ enjoyment, by providing lavish dinners for the artists and their entourage at their chalets or restaurants.
Thanks to an invitation from the extraordinary pianist Evgeny Kissin for an interview at this year’s music festival at Verbier, I was able to partake as a member of the press, in an incredibly exciting stay at the festival. While putting together my portrait for the interview, I was especially thrilled to get several firsthand comments from some of the fellow artists Kissin has performed and interacted with over the years.
While all of the concerts presented at the Verbier festival are nothing but first rate, the one of the 26th of July in particular, presented an experience unlike any other. The performance started out with obstacles. Violinist Gidon Kremer was supposed to join in this concert but opted out of performing at the last minute, and famed singer Thomas Quasthoff was unable to perform. This all resulted in what might be considered the best spontaneous improvisation ever.
The sheer star power and massive number of internationally renowned artists, who appeared that night, was simply astounding. Various groupings of paired up artists provided an exhibit of talent that was just astonishing, and as Kremer judged it, not completely unjustifiably, the whole concert carried some of the elements of the high-exalted Hollywood glitterati effect. However, no artistic facet was missing.
There were certainly some gorgeously attractive artists and sexy wardrobes to admire, the limber Yuja Wang who graces – not unlike LangLang- the Rolex’s advertisements throughout Verbier, for example, changed outfits several times during her performances. This did nothing to mar the exceptional talent filling the stage, projecting the raw emotional power of the music. In fact, the charismatic interaction of the performers with each other enhanced the highest possible delivery of what it’s all about – the music.
Joshua Bell, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Ivry Gitlis, Leonidas Kavakos,Roby Lakatos, Julian Rachlin, Vadim Repin, Yuri Bashmet, Mischa Maisky and Gautier Capucon on strings and Denis Matsuev, Yuja Wang, Khatia Buniatishvili, Evgeny Kissin, and the one and only Martha Argerich, with their piano-performances, made sure of that.

Ensemble photo:Aline Paley
The program consisted of shorter selections of musical interludes and included selections of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Kreisler and Shostakovich, as well as some special surprises like Monti Csardas, whose characteristic gypsy resonances added to the incredibly high energy-charged atmosphere in the hall.
Touching and meaningful in forging a personal connection between life and music was Kissin’s dedicated impromptus performance, with Yuri Bashmet, in honor of Bashmet’s father who had passed away the previous day in his native Ukraine. As Bashmet described to me later, Kissin’s supportive gesture of performing the composition of the Czeck composer, Benda, from music Kissin had never seen before (it was faxed from Moscow that same day and both artists were sharing one score) meant the world to him. They had only a couple of minutes before the performance to go through it. The selection spoke highly of Kissin’s support and friendship with the grieving, yet performing, Bashmet.

Bashmet/Kissin Photo: Aline Paley

Bashmet, who had been an acclaimed violist in Russia when Kissin burst into stardom, had been exhilarated when first hearing Kissin’s recital as a 12 year old, performing both Chopin concertos: “It was a revelation, unheard before, like the sky had opened up.” Lovingly, he pointed out Kissin’s timid and modest nature leads him to usually underplay his superior talent and that Bashmet had been struck not only by his own high esteem of Kissin’s genius, but that this estimation was shared by everyone on stage that night.

Repin/Kissin/Bashmet/Maisky Photo: Aline Paley

At Verbier, the audience was able to absorb Kissin’s and Bashmet’s mutual estimation, both in a most touching performance and also from their body language. One could literally feel the sympathy Kissin felt for Bashmet, as he devotedly escorted him off stage, after their performance.
A little bit of the unexpected always brings the audience closer to the mysterious character of a musician’s life. Until the last moment it was unclear whether Martha Argerich - Martha, as she is simply called with iconic admiration- would show as a performer that evening.

Kissin/Argerich Photo: Aline Paley
But alas, she did and she gave – despite her famous nerves and her initial hesitation to perform again right after her tremendous concert just four days earlier- the most stunning of performances in the finale of the evening. Thundering applause acknowledged the extraordinary virtuosity and sheer breathtaking tempi, which she presented with Evgeny Kissin in Lutoslawski’s Pagagini Variations for two pianos. Her sensitive side and charming generosity, though, showed as she shared the stage with legendary old master violinist Ivry Gitlis. Alternatively accompanied by the young pianists Khatia Buniatishvili and Yuja Wang,

Gitlis/Wang Photo: Aline Paley

the old master at age 89, captivatingly demonstrated that true musicianship knows no age.

My biggest wish however was to be present once while Zhenya – as his friends and fellow musicians call Kissin - practiced at the piano. This wish came – if not entirely - to a close realization on the day of that memorable concert.

photo: Kissin in rehearsal

The mere insights gained from witnessing a master musician’s efforts at the piano, how he enhances the secure reliability of memory retrieval, quality and facility in his playing, are instructional and insightful beyond words. To observe how he tries out personal methods of pronouncing different subtleties of touch to produce the ‘right’ tone in a certain passage of the music score, and to just witness the procedure of routine or its diversity would be as fascinating to watch as to take a glimpse into a magician’s toolbox of magic tricks.

While Kissin declined politely, but firmly, my wish to watch him practice, explaining that it would be impossible for him to work while someone else was present, he most generously allowed me to accompany him to his rehearsal before the big night’s performance, provided the other partaking musicians would not object.
Rehearsals had already begun the evening before and continued throughout the day of the concert, at different times for each particular group of artists performing together. Kissin had one rehearsal in the evening before and one that started at noon, which I was able to attend.

A special Verbier moment

The rehearsal was supposed to start with Johannes Brahms’ piano Sonata op. 120, no.2, , in E flat major with Bashmet on viola, running a bit late. Zhenya, who swiftly sat down at the piano, after hanging his leather jacket on the piano’s corner, started to run through sections of the piece. Like me, he loves Brahms, and I was able to share this love from an intimately close distance.
The huge and empty tent structure of Salle des Combins was filled instantaneously with Kissin’s crisp sounding runs, which he attacked from different angles. He started at one place, including a place from a further starting point, then integrated the run in its following passage. He sometimes, but rarely, concentrates on separate hands in a section at a time, and then puts them together. He tries different attacks, faster into the keys, then slower, achieving endlessly breathing phrases that seem to make time stand still, and then he switches to effortless cascading runs that have the natural power of waterfalls. Particularly in chord progressions he seems to use a rather high wrist position, assuring a strong alignment of fingers, hand and forearm, which must be responsible for the total control of his well-balanced shaping of the continuous line of melody.
As Bashmet entered, they conversed in their native Russian and Kissin gave him the internationally understood A to tune his viola according to the grand-piano’s pitch. There will always be this element of mutual communication in music. Since they played mostly through the entire piece without many halts, picking up with a varied pronunciation of a particular upbeat, or the slightest adjustment of tempi, the rehearsal proceeded along speedily. At one point Kissin glanced over in my direction, but maybe he was really directing himself closer to Bashmet to listen more attentively, but for a moment it felt to me, as if he played for me alone.
While some crew people adjusted microphones quite noisily and Bashmet seemed a bit irritated, Kissin lived, at least at this instant, only with Brahms. Bashmet played most softly, only slightly elevating into crescendos, except at the highest climaxes. At the end of the most beautiful Appasionata, ma non troppo allegro movement, I couldn’t help but applaud even though I realized they were not through the entire piece yet. Bashmet smiled because of my enthusiasm and announced they were not finished, but bowed politely thanking me in good humor anyway.
Kissin thanked the page-turner, who had told me while we both waited for him to arrive, how excited she was since this was her first time turning for Kissin.
Kissin continued to review some of the sections again and then threw himself into the ravishing and notoriously difficult piece that would close the evening’s program, preparing for his rehearsal with Martha for the Paganini Variations.

Kissin in rehearsal

And just as I was recovering from my emotional state of my Brahms experience, in walks Martha herself -- the statuesque, grand diva of the festival and a legend in the music world. At seventy, she has not lost any of her youthful appeal, her great spiritedness or her temperamental attitudes. Kissin rose to greet her, they hugged warmly and the two giants of the keyboard were set to deliver a most memorable meeting of the spirits from their respective facing-each-other pianos. Martha generously did not object to my presence and so I was in awe as Kissin fiercely opened the dialogue, as Martha delved into the subtlest sonorities, adding a completely different timbre with the result of combined musical expression that nears the answer to one’s prayers.
Martha was easy going. They leisurely discussed the timing of a certain entrance point and continued through. Martha asked into the audience, which now included another couple of people, “C’etait bien?” Unbelievably to me, she was asking whether this breathtaking performance was working well, so I couldn’t suppress my response “Merveilleux!”
She debated with Kissin whether or not they should do it once more and, to my utmost happiness, they did. “We are safe?” she asked Kissin; “Yes we are safe,” he smiled at her. They are two full-blooded musicians, no question about that. They kissed and I left for a breath of fresh air. Even though I had seen Martha on several occasions during the festival’s concerts from a distance, I had never approached her directly. She joined me on the benches outside the hall, and as she lit a cigarette, we struck up a short conversation. She is easy to talk to and has a very giving personality, which, I believe, is representative of the general atmosphere between the artists that makes for the festival’s success. She herself helps to create an ambience of friendship and connection between the artists, making it possible for them to really feel at ease and actually enjoy a bit of a vacation-like retreat, even though they need to constantly prepare themselves for their ambitious programs.
As she sat relaxed, enjoying her cigarette and greeting passing artists, she portrayed the energy and liveliness of a teenager. We spoke in a mix of French, English and German, and she told me how fond she is of Kissin. “You know, I heard about Zhenya the first time through Daniel Barenboim. I heard his Chopin-concerto recording; unbelievable! I think he was just 12 at the time. And then in the late eighties I met him in Moscow, backstage at one of his performances, when I was there to perform with Gidon Kremer. He asked me for an autogramme, she says smiling. I love Zhenya, there is no one else like him… and I am not just talking about his musical abilities, which are just out of this world, but also as a person. We played together for the first time here in Verbier; I think it was in 1997. He is just so extraordinary. He asked me to come and celebrate his fortieth birthday with me, which is October 10th and he will be on tour in Japan.”
As she got up she asked me what my horoscope is and I told her that I am Taurus. She did not indulge me with what clues that gave her, or which of my characteristics she was curious about, but she smiled mysteriously, as we both returned to the hall for the next round of Kissin’s rehearsal of Brahm’s Piano quartet Op.25, no.1. in G minor. He and Bashmet were joined by violinist Vadim Repin and the equally forever-young and cool cellist Mischa Maisky. Another beautiful Brahms was rehearsed by this all-star Russian band, which in the actual performance during the evening somehow gained quite a bit in speed.
When I later talked with violinist Vadim Repin, who resides both in Vienna and Moscow, he told me he only regrets that destiny does not bring them together more often. But, he said, when it does, it’s a happy moment. Kissin and Repin initially met when sharing the bill at a Moscow recital when they were both aged thirteen. Their friendship formed, growing up together and sharing many good times and chess games during mutual concert tours. ”Personally, as well as in his music making, I think of him as one of the most uncompromising, strong personalities. I would trust him with my life and that extends to the life on stage. He embodies the perfect balance between sensitivity and capable leadership. Beside myself, my whole family adores his personality.”
Cellist Mischa Maisky remembers how he had performed with Kissin for the first time in 2001 here in Verbier, playing a demanding program that left a strong impression upon him. Again in Verbier, two years ago, they performed the Tchaikovsky trio together with Joshua Bell. As he tries to describe what he likes best about performing with Kissin, he mentions that it is actually the perfect balance of all the ingredients required in great music making. “Of course he has great technical facility, heart and sensitivity, but he is also highly intelligent. Everything is there in perfect balance. He is also a perfectionist with extremely high standards, and he knows what he wants. Yet his devotion is inspirational and raises the bar and it’s great to rise to the challenge.”
A common trait that both Kissin and Maisky share is the strong conviction that musicians who stand in the public eye also carry the moral obligation to engage themselves against injustices and for causes they believe in. As Maisky relates: “While one voice alone may not be heard strongly, common efforts can have a cumulative impact. Therefore one should not stay passively, thinking one can’t change anything anyway. At least one must try and believe in its success.“
Just last month, together with Martha Argerich and Gideon Kremer, both of them participated in a concert, held in Strasbourg demonstrating against anti-democratic practices in Russia.
Verbier’s environment offers unique opportunities to forge new, and renew, old friendships that go beyond the bond of music making especially at some of those famed after-parties.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Israel Chamber Orchestra in Bayreuth – A Conversation with Principal Conductor Roberto Paternostro

On the occasion of his forthcoming concert in Bayreuth, Robert Paternostro comments on the problematic relationship between Richard Wagner’s notoriously famous anti-Semitism and bridges being built between Israeli musicians and German culture.

Wagner in Bayreuth (Photo)

In 2009, Paternostro became Artistic Director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the last in a long list of renowned artists, such as Luciano Berio, Rudolf Barshai, Shlomo Mintz and Philippe Entremont.

In 1978, he had been appointed as assistant to Herbert von Karajan; before that, he had studied with Hans Svarowsky in Vienna, as well as with György Ligeti and Christoph von Dohnanyi in Hamburg. Today, Paternostro is not only renowned for his international and very diverse slate of symphonic performances, but also for his well-received new productions of works by

Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and Strauss.Photo: Roberto Pate


His frequent appearances with youth orchestras and up-and-coming artists, and the many television broadcasts of his concerts have cemented his reputation as an artist with a very special flair. A lot of recognition is also based on the good sense for interesting and challenging projects this Viennese conductor with Venetian roots is known for.

Just back from his successful American debut in June, Paternostro is now preparing for the forthcoming concert of the Israel Chamber Orchestra in Bayreuth.

Israel Chamber Orchestra
Works by Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and the contemporary Israeli composer Zvi Avni will be complementing Wagner’s music.

The concert, scheduled for July 26 in Bayreuth’s Stadthalle (town hall), is part of „Lust auf Liszt“, a series of events celebrating the 200th birthday of Bayreuth’s famous son, Franz Liszt.

The Wagner Festival on the “Green Hill” starts on the eve of the Israel Chamber Orchestra’s Bayreuth performance and lasts until August 28, 2011.

Ilona Oltuski: Maestro Paternostro, how did the concert in Bayreuth come about?

Roberto Paternostro: I love, and I have been conducting Wagner’s music for many years now, and I also feel very connected to Israel. Not only professionally, through my work as a conductor, but also personally; many of my relatives live in Israel. When I took up the position of principal conductor in Tel Aviv, I was hoping to be able to somehow combine the two. I was very well aware of the fact that it still is very difficult to play Wagner in Israel. But I wanted to find a way to break the ice.

Ilona Oltuski: It appears that Katharina Wagner, in particular, displays a very refreshing and open-minded attitude …

Roberto Paternostro: Yes … and I have known Katharina Wagner, as well as her father, for quite some time. Serendipitously, her new concepts and ideas for Bayreuth coincided with what I had in mind. I talked with her, and she was very excited about the idea right away; as patron of the concert, she supported me a lot. The city of Bayreuth also offered an incredible amount of support.

Ilona Oltuski: What made you stick with your decision for a concert in Bayreuth, despite all opposition?

Roberto Paternostro: Even before my decision to play the Bayreuth concert I felt a certain curiosity and an openness to take on Wagner’s music in many of my conversations with musicians in Israel. I have to add that for me, above all, this was an artistic decision. I am not a politician.

And I want to again state very clearly that I understand the reservations of people who are opposed to this concert. I do not want to hurt anyone, and I have also discussed the matter with my family – a family in which we are mourning many victims of the Shoa. We do not force anybody to listen to this music. And it was totally up to the musicians in the orchestra to decide if they wanted to go and play, of course. But all of them are going …

I very much agree with the whole discussion, but not if it’s used to score political points, as has happened just recently. On another note, and irrespective of my activities, the first Wagner Association was founded in Israel. This is also a very interesting development.

Ilona Oltuski: Does the performance by the Israel Chamber Orchestra in Bayreuth contribute to coming to terms with the past?

Roberto Paternostro: That’s a very difficult question. The relationship between Israel and Germany is very good, isn’t it? We do not need to elaborate further on the exchange taking place in many areas here. At the same time, I think we can best deal with this past if we come together; also, everything has to be done so that Auschwitz and Birkenau will NEVER be possible again. Perhaps music can contribute to that.

Ilona Oltuski: Artistically speaking, which level of importance would you assign to the Bayreuth performance?

Roberto Paternostro: To speak about the significance of Wagner’s music is pretty much superfluous. Yet, in Israel it has become a symbol for some people. A symbol for everything that is horrific and which can – rightly so or not – be associated with this symbol.

There were composers who were very active in Hitler’s Germany – Carl Orff, for example, or Lehar – and there doesn’t seem to be a problem. Richard Strauss was a very specific case. He had a Jewish daughter-in-law – I knew her personally – and he distanced himself from Nazism.

I have attached a lot of importance to including works of a contemporary Israeli composer, as well as works by Mahler and Mendelssohn in the Bayreuth program. For us, it’s a great joy to do all that.

Ilona Oltuski: Is it, or should it be possible to separate Wagner, the musician, from Wagner, the anti-Semite?

Roberto Paternostro: Yes, because a piece like the very tender and gentle “Siegfried Idyll” which we will be playing – is that anti-Semitic?

Ilona Oltuski: From today’s point of view, what can be said about Wagner’s essay, “Judaism in Music”?

Roberto Paternostro: Terrible. I cannot understand that this man deemed it necessary, for whatever reason, to write such a thing. There’s nothing to be glossed over here.

Ilona Oltuski: Thank you for this conversation, Maestro Paternostro.

Roberto Paternostro (Photo)
Perhaps one can best fight the spirit of an anti-Semitic pamphlet like Wagner’s “Judaism in Music” by a strong Jewish presence in the music business. This is also a position shared by Israeli composer Tzvi Avni who will perform at the Bayreuth concert.

And perhaps one should hope for a time when artistic talent – in this case Wagner’s genius – can be granted a free and open space, to be judged and enjoyed independent of the artist him-/herself.

In the context of this long overdue discussion, the recent announcement that the Wagner archives will be released by Katharina Wagner und Eva Wagner-Pasquier is of particular significance.

Excerpts of this article have been published at Juedische Allgemeine Zeitung (in German) 7-21-11

Ilona Oltuski@getclassical

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pianist Matan Porat finds new perspectives in Berlin

Three times is a charm, but to be invited for a fourth time this summer to what Alex Ross calls “the classical world’s most coveted retreat,” the Marlboro Music Festival, requires some extraordinary talent.
And talent, the young native Israeli composer/pianist, Matan Porat, has in abundance. What had started for Porat as a 4 hands piano stunt with pianist Alain Planes three years ago at Marlboro continued, even while being busy alternating with Franck Krawczyk in the piano accompaniments for famed British director Peter Brook’s innovative, scaled down “Magic Flute” Lincoln Center debut production.
This production was first presented at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris last year, which the avant-garde inclined Brook had taken over in 1974 partially because of it its rubble appeal. Planes himself bailed out on last minute of the scaled down Paris production which suited Porat, who has a weakness for unusual projects, just fine.
I met Porat the first time this summer, as he improvised a piano accompaniment to Buster Keaton’s “The General” silent film, arranged at the downtown Parkside lounge. This idea was actually inspired by Richard Goode, when, at one of the Marlboro summers, Porat entertained with brilliant improvs on the piano during a screening of the movie “Metropolis.”

Porat at Marlboro 2009

Porat‘s career as pianist started out unusually, for he only began formal piano lessons when he was enrolled at the Tel- Aviv University. Here he began studying composition. Beforehand he had only focused on piano, with his first teacher Emanuel Krasovsky at age 18, whom he describes as a huge artistic influence. He also started to participate in workshops for Daniel Barenboim’s famed West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 2002 in Spain, playing in chamber groups. After his Bachelor’s, he met Portuguese star pianist Maria João Pires at a master class in Paris, who invited Porat to follow her to her farm in Belgais, Portugal as her personal pupil. This was an intense period of artistic exchange, he said, playing for several hour lessons, listening to the world class performer play for him, and interacting with four hand playing sessions. The experience was of a very special nature.
“There was also a children’s choir, for which I composed. It was a unique collection of characters and quite an experience,” remembers Porat, and he goes onto explain how he, after that year, was ready for a completely different experience, namely his two years of studies for his Master’s degree at Juilliard, under Joseph Kalichstein. His New York summers were spent at Marlboro, which he remembers fondly, as well as other renowned festivals, such as Verbier and Ravinia. Equipped with references, he had an opportunity to perform for Murray Periaha, in New York – it was Schuman’s Davidsbündler Tänze, which convinced Perahia, who at the time was suffering severely from the consequences of a hand injury, to invite the talented Porat in 2006 to continue his studies with him in London. At the same time, Porat continued his composition studies with George Benjamin.

Matan Porat

His biggest struggle seems to be how to divide his time between both of his passions: composing and performing. He plays a lot of solo piano as well as chamber music and gets at least a good handful of commissions, as he says, without having to look too hard for any of it.
But one thing is clear: both performing as well as composing have become equally essential for Porat.
“I do not usually like to perform my own works,” says Porat, who likes to think about the recital experience in a creative manner, away from the traditionalist concert setting.
“The recital should be an experience, in which the performer can take his audience on a real journey. There is no need of stifling the performance through the expectations of the program. I value the excitement and spontaneity that becomes possible, when the audience is to trust and follow the performer, similar to the situation during a rock concert.
“The program should be building up through the momentum of its performance, not by the programmed schedule.
“For example: During my concert next season in Montreal, I will start with a Scarlatti Sonata, creating variations on it by playing similar pieces by other composers from Couperin to Boulez, which creates a spectrum of possibilities. This happens by relating Scarlatti and each of the proceeding pieces by motifs or characteristics, rather than by trying to create stylistic coherence. “

The always original Porat

Every couple of months Porat likes to return to visit his family and friends in Israel, often connecting his stay with performance- or composition opportunities. In 2007 he created an operatic project for Tel-Aviv University based on “Animal Farm” and he is thinking about another opera production he has in mind, but does not want to elaborate on at the moment.
For the 8th year, he will partake in the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, directed by Elena Bashkirova, second wife of Barenboim. Porat has had many occasions to work with Barenboim and describes him as perhaps the most inspiring musical figure in his rather broad spectrum of influences.
Bashkirova, a renowned pianist who performs internationally, just commissioned two pieces by Porat, “Night Horses” and “New Requiem”, for her recently founded Berlin Metropolis Ensemble.

Matan (sketched by Roman Rabinowich, friend and pianist)

Berlin has become the ideal environment for Porat, who enjoys the creative vitality of the Metropolis. He compares Berlin with the exciting, vibrant and artistic atmosphere of Paris during the 1920s or London in the 60s and yet Berlin has kept its quaint, not overbearing characteristics such as with New York or London. A bonus is that the city attracts a lot of artists with, as well as without, talent -- it’s still affordable

Friday, July 15, 2011

Reflecting on works in progress:

New Music Now at the River to River Festival

Known for its variety of innovative cultural events productions, this evening’s fascinating program for the River to River festival was realized by Beth Morrison. River to River promotes cultural life, particularly in downtown Manhattan, and the Beth Morrison Project put its creative initiative into this event’s planning. This evening’s program enveloped me with candle light and surrealistic backdrop video installations, as a sampler of the fantastic collaboration and exchange between the attending musicians.
Paola Prestini, one of the vibrant composers who shared the bill together with Missy Mazzoli and Nico Muhly (whose works were solemnly performed by the Trinity Choir conducted by Julian Wachner at the festival) took the time to bring me closer into the performance of her House of Solitude -A Poet’s Labyrinth. ” The work is still in progress” she explained, “and the completed version will premiere at the Krannert Center in 2013. The KBOW, which is Neil’s bow, was invented by the famed Keith McMillan, triggers sound files and effects but will eventually trigger lighting and film. We are working on that and expanding the piece now… Keith invented Zeta instruments and Neil is endorsing the KBOW.” With intoxicating motions, that seemed to make sound waves emerge beyond the bowing of his violin, the luminous Cornelius Dufallo (see also my article ) performed Prestini’s work in conjunction with a conceptually surrealist and amorphously mood-altering video, designed by Carmen Kordas, which was shown on a back dropped screen.
Mazzoli, on keyboard, performed with the expressive violist Nadia Sirota, to videos by Jennifer Stock as well as Alice Lovejoy. The interplay of this duo had been feelingly explored before. And Mazzoli too, reflects on progress as a constant in her life; making life itself a conscious work in progress.
“Never knowing what is going to happen tomorrow, the adventure of performing, composing, educating, producing…” are her ideas of having a great time with music.

“I am constantly developing and changing my own voice, it is always influenced by new genres, by new and old composers and by visual arts. Inevitably that’s going to change my writing. For example in the moment, I am fascinated with the visual impact of Sol Levitt or the music of John Luther Adams; I am struck by how one can create a piece out of these patterns and create those collages,” says Mazzoli. That does not exclude her fascination with Beethoven’s classicism.
The best thing that happened according to Mazzoli was having had the opportunity to spend time in Amsterdam at 21, on a Fulbright grant, where she studied with Louis Andriessen, who incidentally was named Musical America’s composer of 2010. She describes that period as a powerful life experience, performing in clubs, putting on shows, and traveling with her first band hills not skyscrapers. Upon her return and receiving her Master’s degree from Yale, she held several music related positions, ranging from personal assistant of Meredith Monk to an executive position running the Philip Glass founded MATA festival, where she started as one of the performers. Everything is connected and it is about exposure and cooperation with performers who become friends and a network that leads constantly to bigger and better things.

Recording producer Judd Greenstein, a good friend of Mazzoli, also recorded her first album Cathedral City that was released with her all- female performers band Victoire last September and was ranked one of the best classical CDs of 2010 by NPR, the New York Times, as well as by New Yorker’s own Alex Ross, naming Mazzoli as “a leader of New York’s young moderns.”
Even though she describes it as accidental,that all the performers at Victoire are female, she welcomes the opportunity, in a field still somewhat dominated by male composers as well as instrumentalists, to work with women. The quintet, performing Mazzoli’s electrically amplified works, was founded in 2008. Mazzoli does not typically perform her own works much; instead she is commissioned by artists around the world. The Kronos Quartet, Eight Blackbird and the American Composers Orchestra are among many of her regulars.

Before Mazzoli, who actually owned up to a bit of stage nerves, got ready for her performance that evening at Trinity Church, the festival’s venue, we talked about the medium of opera that seems to dominate musical exploration of the moment. While the news of Nico Muhly’s grand production Opera-debut in London just made the headlines, Mazzoli is similarly looking to expand the medium of an orchestra piece or a song cycle for one of her new projects. Inspired by a theme, based on the life of North- Africa explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, which she feels requires a larger staging, multiple voices and more time expansion, she plans on producing an opera that will be a scaled down version of what is usually known to be an opera production, with all the key ingredients intact.

“People will realize that the definition of opera is flexible. You don’t need millions of dollars for a full cast of divas and the MET. My opera will consist of a 5 people orchestra, 5 soloists, projections, video production and it will manage to tell the story with multiple voices, librettos and so on…and full staging. Supported by a Jerome Foundation grant that recently others have shared in, it will be a ca.70 minutes performance at The Kitchen, a black box theater with full set design.

Beth Morrison Project is currently planning an elaborate program with the same participants to celebrate Philip Glass’ seventy-fifth birthday.

For Paola Prestini:
For Nico Muhly:
For Missy Mazzoli: