Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players: musically devoted to the beauty found in “caviar” as well as in the “potatoes” of music repertoire.

Now in their 10th season, the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players have earned their special place in New York City music lovers’ hearts. A stone throw from Lincoln Center’s main venues, the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church on 152 West 66th Street provides a modest but intimate setting for the chamber music series, commemorating the powerful legacy of the founder and conductor of the Jupiter Symphony Orchestra, Jens Nygaard, who had performed for audiences at Alice Tully Hall, as well as the homeless and victims of natural disasters alike. His passion for music not only glorified already celebrated works, but he sought out lesser known and neglected works or composers whose names had been forgotten, which he presented with great appeal. This charismatic personality in teaching and music-making touched many lives before he passed away in 2001. The Emmy Award winning documentary “Life on Jupiter,” has accounts of Nygaard’s highly spirited and relevant impact, told by his friends and colleagues. Run by private funding, the enthusiastic efforts of the Chamber Players’ manager and Nygaard’s widow, Mei Ying, as well as former first bassoonist and now music advisor, Michael Volpert, the series is dedicated to continuing Mr. Nygaard’s artistic quest for beautiful music and interesting performance. It also keeps on providing performance opportunities for some of the former orchestral musicians as well as talented guest artists. A small but loyal and informed audience follows this quest on a very low budget. Tickets are not expensive. The performances are held on twenty Monday afternoons (2pm) and evening (7.30pm) programs. Besides playing some of the standard gamut, the performers who come from a roster of first rate, internationally performing artists, notably explore a handpicked, highly selective repertoire. This means of course intense rehearsal times for the musicians who often have to learn little known music and put it together, within the same weekend. Those rehearsals typically take place at some of the actively engaged volunteers’ homes. Providing support on a regular basis are Leslie and Harmar Brereton, MD. As one of the loyal benefactors the Jupiter musicians can count on, Leslie, an amateur pianist herself, enjoys sharing her fine Steinway Grand piano and music room with the hard working musicians, who will never have to leave her house hungry. Her generous hospitality extends to her offering her home across from Lincoln Center to some of the Jupiter musicians who travel from out of town to perform. This particular Saturday three of the regular Jupiter players, cellist Inbal Segev, former Jupiter principal clarinetist Vadim Lando and former Jupiter principal horn player Karl Kramer, were joined by guest artists, pianist Roman Rabinovich and violinist Dmitri Berlinsky, to prepare a challenging program. The musicians form an international crowd; the mood is friendly – and the music is stirringly beautiful. Sometimes the Russian violinist Berlinsky is on the same page with the Israeli cellist Segev, when Kramer from Norway, argues tempi. Later Kramer mitigates between the Russian Lado and Rabinovich, the other Russian at the piano. The impression is that the music can only be so alive, because of people like these devoted musicians who choose to spend the bigger part of their weekend, arguing over its nuances in a never ending quest for perfect beauty and harmony. There is yet another rehearsal necessary which will take place at the cellist’s home on Sunday. And then of course the performance itself on Monday will bring out new perceptions, inspired by the different acoustics and the presence of the audience in the church. “The critics will come in the afternoon,” proclaimed Mei Ying, who remained busy sorting piles of index cards, containing notes on the repertory of the Jupiter Symphony Orchestra, during the entire rehearsal. Her tiny physical stature does not give away her sheer endless energy, when it comes to taking care of her agenda: keeping the music going. The program of Monday, March 28th, offers a truly varied selection that the clarinet virtuoso Vadim Lando charmingly introduces: “As if we did not have enough music to play, we were asked to still include this piece by Weber, The Variations on a theme from “Silvana” Op.33 (1811).” Robert Kahn’s Serenade in F Minor for piano, clarinet & horn Op. 73 (1923) is one of those fantastic pieces that is hardly ever heard performed elsewhere. It does exist in a variety of arrangements for different combinations of instruments. Kahn was born in Mannheim (1865) and, as Michael Volpert, who now turned pages for pianist Rabinovich explained, Brahms offered to take Kahn on as a pupil when he heard his music. But Kahn, who was in awe of Brahms, as is quite audible in his composition, was too modest to accept the offer. He did however become president of the Prussian Academy of the Arts in 1914 and the amazing pianist that he was had two famous pupils: Arthur Rubinstein and Wilhelm Kempff. He escaped Germany in 1938 and emigrated to England. The talented pianist Roman Rabinovich, winner of the 2008 Rubinstein competition and the superbly softly voiced violinist Dmitri Berlinsky, lead in Mozart’s Piano Trio K.548, which anticipates his “Jupiter” Symphony. After the intermission where cookies are served, Karl Kramer gets the opportunity to shine in 4 octaves of horn playing mostly to himself in a Haydn Divertimento a tr’e for horn, violin and cello. But the absolute highlight of the program is the last one performed: Schoenberg’s “Verklaerte Nacht” (Transfigured night) Op. 4 (1899) transcription by Eduard Steuermann in 1932 for piano trio. The transcription of the original String Sextet was permitted by Schoenberg, even though he never got to hear the finished piece of his talented student, Steuermann. He would have loved it, is my guess. Cellist Segev convinces with assured, yet soulful lines, her beautiful deep tones intertwined with Berlinksy’s heartfelt dialogue, who takes the unfolding drama to its melodic heights. Pianist Rabinovich unites the most sensitive moments with his utmost pianissimo and seemingly expands time until he creates virtuosic turmoil with all the power of his well balanced hands, over the keyboard. Based on a romantic poem by Richard Dehmel, the piece was performed, together with original works by Schoenberg, by Steuermann at a private music society founded by Schoenberg and frequented by the circles who surrounded Berg, Webern and himself at that time. According to Michael Volpert, critics were not allowed. Alfred Brendel has been a pupil of Steuermann. Michael Volpert, the raconteur, loves to involve the audience and his highly informed and low key way of explaining interesting details, makes me wish to hear more of the background of every piece performed. Volpert had worked with Nygaard in the Jupiter Orchestra and had grown close to the man he describes as,”an extraordinary figure, whose charisma just drew people in.” He continues to share how he became involved in programming for the Jupiter series:”I loved the fact that Jens performed unusual works, we shared that passion. At this point we probably try even more to keep that balance.” So how does one pick the program, and which piece for which artist? It seems to be a process that has no definitive rule, but gets there as circumstances evolve:”First we make a roster of dates, establishing who is available when. Once we have the musicians, we choose the style accordingly. Every artist has a personally different approach, different preferences and different things to offer. One may have the more stellar technique, while the other may offer a better tone. One is great in romantic repertoire, others prefer modern or classical. Usually I choose one larger piece, and build the program around it. Sometimes I look more for variation within a program; sometimes the pieces are historically related or the program becomes thematic. “But most importantly, we do what we do because we love the music and being with the musicians. Some are here every other week; some twice a year and we are all fans. The musicians must enjoy making music with each other. In that sense we are a community, by now a lot of friendships have developed.” But while the musicians must be on their highest level, the music has to be interesting, but not every piece has to be a masterpiece. In fact, that would be undesirable, according to Volpert:”You can’t just have caviar! Every good meal must be balanced; you want to have some potatoes as well.” correction of the name: Michael Volpert

To read more about the Jupiter Chamber Music Players go to their website: http://www.jupitersymphony.com/ The next “out of this world” program on April 11th, 2011, will host guest artists: CMS pianist Alessio Bax; Cynthia Phelps, principal violist of the New York Philharmonic and violinist Stephan Jackiw, winner of the 2002 Avery Fisher Grant.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

WQXR’s Green Space discourse: Salonen deserved more echo

  • Jerome L.Green Space

    Having the opportunity to listen in on a live-broadcast conversation with Esa-Pekka Salonen, the internationally renowned composer/conductor and curator of the Lincoln Center’s festival “Hungarian Echoes” (taking place March 10th -27th), sounded like a wonderful proposition to me. This was a presentation of WQXR’s Green Space on Tuesday, March 7th.
    I would have just wished that the energetic moderator, a driving force in the New Music scene, Nadja Sirota, had let the conversation really take off to higher grounds. Sirota is a successful Juilliard graduate violist and faculty member at Manhattan’s School New Music department, as well as a performer and interpreter of the new new music scene, so she certainly neither lacks the knowhow nor the charisma to engage her subject in a meaningful discourse.
    The Q2 production at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space at WQXR, which accommodates a small audience to experience the process of radio broadcasting, is an ideal multi-media performance space that could be the cultural platform for New York and beyond. This could have been true in this case, had Salonen been given the chance to get in more lines.
    Esa-Pekka Salonen

    Instead, there he was, the current leader of the British “Philharmonia”, whose vocational career has catapulted him, even though he is on the younger side, into the internationally recognized top league of enigmatic conductors, hardly being given the opportunity to share much of his insights with the audience.
    He was the undisputedly most interesting guest one wanted to hear from, as he sat next to Sirota while pianist Conor Hanick performed Ligeti on the harpsichord. And there he remained sitting silently, while pianist Marino Formenti filled in for Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the piano with some Bartók pieces and while musicians of the New York Philharmonic offered a somewhat awkward potpourri of different movements of works by the three featured festival composers: Bartók, Haydn and Ligeti.
    Even if the pieces represented the composers of the festival, the characteristics of Ligeti on harpsichord, or the tender piano pieces of Bartók’s “Hungarian Dances,” had little in common with the symphonic festival and they certainly did not help answer the question thrown out by Sirota to Salonen and pianist Formenti: “What makes them Hungarian? “

Nadia Sirota

The only information I really took away from the conversation which gained lively momentum through the emotionally charged, but a bit chaotic, Formenti was the fact that the Hungarian thread was to be understood somewhat loosely, since Hungarian geographical territories continuously shifted according to political alliances within the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Culturally, what was really thought to be Hungarian was often rooted in Gypsy music.
However the music of Hungarian-born Bartók and Haydn, who had worked at the Esterhazy court in Hungary, and Ligeti, born into a Jewish-Hungarian family from Transylvania, remains fascinating. Their music was highly innovative for its time and therefore captivated the interest of Salonen, the true modernist spirit, to curate the festival.
As far as Salonen’s personal input about the festival, he volunteered one important fact, namely that he finds himself at a stage in his life where he now has free choices of performances. Luckily for us, he obviously likes the Bartók, the Haydn and the Ligeti. This was even clearer when I heard his Bartók rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic that same morning. He was really fantastic at it. Demanding yet devoted, he negotiated with the already excellent and capable Philharmonic players several nuances of tempi, dynamics and coloration. He stopped and started them, even stopping them mid-bar where they immediately picked up fluidly. Sometimes he did this with a little humor: “We managed to bury the trumpets…twice…”, sometimes with firmness, but always making sure of getting his way, in a compelling manner. Concert master Glenn Dicterow sat to his left with the violins, opposing the violas on the right hand side of the conductor – a relatively new seating arrangement, agreeable with Salonen and Alan Gilbert ( compare with my concertmaster article: http://getclassical.blogspot.com/2011/02/first-fiddle-glenn-dicterow.html )
Esa-Pekka Salonen

The atmosphere stayed always friendly, but there was also a tremendously focused concentration in the orchestra, as they conformed audibly to the energetic, modern dance-like movements of the Finn. It was an exciting way to listen to Bartók’s inventive themes that actually seem so much less confrontational as we get more and more familiar with them over the years. He really – as Dicterow remarked on the way to rehearsal, is not at all that “avant-garde” anymore. As wonderful as this rehearsal was, I felt that at the Green Space performances, “Less is more” would have worked better.
I went there for Salonen’s vision and how it connected to works at his festival, as well as to get to know something about his personality. The incredibly important fact that he had worked closely with Ligeti, before his death in 2006, was only briefly mentioned, but never elaborated on. A world of influences on a potent composer and conductor could have been brought to light, by the talented performer and radio show host known to champion New Music of this high caliber, so why didn’t Sirota do it? She had the space, the time, and the man right with her.
Salonen, who had not even taken the time to change since the rehearsal must have felt similarly, after beating traffic all the way to 160 Varrick Street, even if he did come by limousine.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Evgeny Kissin plays his Liszt - program at Carnegie Hall

The Concert : Tonight -that's Kissin !
Finally, Evgeny Kissin's Liszt-Tour reached Carnegie Hall. Not only was Kissin at his very best; Liszt himself was presented at his very best.
The hall's wonderful acoustics carried full bodied resonances of Liszt's overtones, overpowering even the most stubborn coughs around me. Lyricism was presented in abundance without being artificially sweetened into any kitsch, just blissful and delightful play. Liszt, the virtuoso composer, who established the piano-recital as we know it with his famed "The concert, that's me" came across as the master composer, finally receiving the appreciation he so fully deserves. Kissin delighted with absolute keyboard mastery, bordering wizardry. An unforgettable evening.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Evgeny Kissin: Jerusalem at Heart

Photo:Tomer Appelbaum

Even though the pianist’s ‘Liszt – Recital Tour’ did not actually start out, as originally planned in Jerusalem, and instead started in Madrid, playing in Jerusalem for the first time was of great moment to Kissin’s heart. As he put it, “ Im Eshkachech Yerushalayim Tishkach Yimini ...” Douay-Rheims Bible(If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten)
I could not even begin to imagine the impact of this literal transcription.

Kissin performs concerts in Tel Aviv on a regular basis, but this concert, held on February 16th, (instead of as planned on January 8th) was the first of its kind, his first Solo recital here and had a locally invested objective: to help raise funds for the Jerusalem Music Center.
The initiative for the concert, as Kissin told me, was based on his wish to perform in Jerusalem itself and, looking for this welcomed opportunity, he approached his friend, Lady Annabelle Weidenfeld.
As a member of the Center’s Advisory Board, Lady Weidenfeld, in conjunction with the Jerusalem Foundation and renowned pianist Murray Perahia, the organization’s president since 2009, obliged enthusiastically and the concert was planned as part of Kissin’s 2011 world tour.
The concert, to honor Liszt’s 200th bicentennial was held at the International Convention Center ’Binyanei hauma’ in Jerusalem to accommodate as many people as possible. This was part of a Liszt recital tour which put Jerusalem on the classical music map along with the usual venerable venues including Carnegie Hall, the latter on March 9th, 2011.
Situated within the picturesque neighborhood of ‘Mishkenot She’ananim’, near Jerusalem’s Old City, JMC was founded in 1973, inspired by the vision of legendary violinist and mentor to many great artists, Isaac Stern and Teddy Kollek, then eminent mayor of Jerusalem.
As an advanced training center for Israel’s young musical talents, JMC’s mission - as executive director Hed Sella in an interview with Sarah Carnvek explains, is not geared to discover the next prodigy, but is rather invested in helping talented young people to become all-round musicians.
Says Sella:”From the JMC point of view, we try to be apolitical and invite only those with the best musical quality. We are involved in several projects that see Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs playing together. We believe in coexistence.”
Without being a school, JMC provides a most formidable education, like the ‘Perlman Music Program’ that makes it possible for students to play in an orchestra under the baton of Maestro Yitzhak Perlman, as well as study chamber and classical Arabic music; and also sing in a chorus and receive individual lessons from a world class faculty.
Kissin agreed to donate proceeds from his Jerusalem concert to support the JMC training programs for young pianists at the center. According to Sella, “It was a solid reaffirmation of high esteem for Jerusalem’s culture.”
It most certainly was a gesture to honor Jerusalem, which had honored Kissin before. In 2010, Kissin was the recipient of an honorary doctorate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Conferment of the honorary doctorates

Kissin has increasingly made public notice of his heritage, with the intent to ideologically stand by the Jewish people and halt anti-Semitic tendencies.
A written interview with the Jerusalem Post in January 2011, depicts Kissin’s strong sentiments, towards his Jewish identity: “…In spite of the fact, that I… grew up in an assimilated family and knew nothing about Jewish history, let alone religion…when I was a child, I wrote a will (yes!) The content of which, I believe, reveals a lot. It read as follows: ‘when I die, bury me in a forest…with the following inscription: Here lies Evgeny Kissin, a son of the Jewish people, a servant of music…See, that’s how I identified myself already as a child.”
When living in England, Kissin was exposed to rising anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiments. He felt an obligation, being in the public eye, to come to Israel’s defense.
My article examined his public outrage voiced in his open letter to the BBC.
His fan site incorporates a library that he describes with statements like these....”Authors who are mainly non- Jews, many of them Arabs, giving interviews in support of Israel….I started to speak up in public, in order to counter the raging anti-Israel hysteria in much of the world.Since I was well known and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world were coming to my concerts and buying my recordings, I felt that I had to tell them:”If you like my art, this is who I am, who I represent and what I stand for.” Kissin explains his convictions to his fans on his website with essential historic facts about Israel, in an attempt to counteract anti-Israel propaganda.
While I was very familiar with Kissin’s commitment of speaking out in support of Israel’s democratic rights and obligations, I became only recently aware of his heartfelt love of and proficiency in the Yiddish language.
Doomed by the threat of extinction, Yiddish was the vernacular language of Jews living in Eastern and Central Europe before World War II, and has become a national treasure of Jewish culture. In an interview in Yiddish, with Dr. Max Kohn on the video channel of the “Forverts” (the Yiddish version of the Forward), Kissin explains how he taught himself the ‘Alef Beis’, the Hebrew letters necessary to read Yiddish in its “Urtext.” He also promotes his CD, ‘On the Keys of Yiddish Poetry,’ featuring poems by Yiddish poets which Kissin recites in Yiddish. The interview (in Yiddish as well), is available on Youtube. He also has done live presentations in Yiddish at Verbier and Montpelier.
Not unlike the American people, Israelis are bound to a multitude of ethnic presences, even though Israelis are only one generation removed from their ancestors’ cultural heritage.
At the Jerusalem concert, the Russian keyboard master played for a practically sold out hall, despite the short notice change of date. The prevailing language heard, besides Hebrew, was Russian. As I sat next to an older lady, who was muttering comments in Russian, I gathered she was a piano teacher. We were sitting in the front row, and she watched every move on stage critically. She might as well have been an acquaintance of Kissin’s own great teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor.
The great school of Russian-Jewish musicianship prevails in Israel after a significant wave of Russian Jew emigration in the Seventies and Eighties. This is made evident, for example, by the large percentage of Russian descent musicians within the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Kissin was celebrated throughout the performance, with young and just as enthusiastic older fans approaching the stage and handing over one bouquet of flowers after the other.
Immediately following the concert, a flock of admirers, music students and all, followed Kissin to the make shift Greenroom, of the Convention Center. One could think this was a scene from a Rock concert; fans hovered around Kissin, struggling to get a glimpse, an autograph, a photo from their idol.
At the Greenroom, a very friendly and courteous Kissin, greeted his fans, including myself. We had been in touch over email, but it was the first time we met in person.
His affable and responsive salutation :”Shalom Ilona, at last we meet,” after having him heard perform the most remarkable concert , with the most definitely ideal rendition of the Schubert –Liszt - transcription‘ Soiree de Vienne Valse Caprice No.6’, was just the perfect encore for me, personally.
Article first published as Evgeny Kissin: Jerusalem at Heart on Blogcritics.