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 ergl├╝ht”(…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.