Known as an important educational and recreational center for the performing arts, as well as a place of spirituality, Chautauqua originated as a Sunday school, and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra (CSO) became a professional performance ensemble in 1929. Chautauqua draws its mostly long-time members out for nine weeks, employing them for an intense schedule of 21 concerts. Part of Chautauqua’s charm in music making is that these shows craft an intimate communal experience.
Performing Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto under Zur’s baton for the second time, Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov had many towering expectations to fulfill as the anchor of this featured piece. Trifonov’s honors precede him, as he has recently won awards at three major international piano competitions, and his talents have been endorsed by superstar musicians, including Martha Argerich, who said she had “never heard a touch like his” (Financial Times 2011).
What brought both Zur and Trifonov together at Chautauqua speaks to the dynamics of international concert culture, and how friendships are born on the competition circuit.
Vice president and Director of programming Marty Merkley manages Chautauqua’s program office’s annual budget of $8 million. This generous endowment allows the ensemble to invite reputable and up-and-coming guest artists, including many young First Prize winners on the international competition circuit. Merkley, having been involved with several major projects in the music market like Michael Tilson Thomas’ New World Symphonyin Miami, is able to actively engage with competitions, and the artists that they endorse.
The festival’s extremely chaotic schedule only allowed Zur and Trifonov one rehearsal before their live performance, so the team decided to reprise Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto, and attempt to recreate the captivating performance that Zur and Trifonov had presented in Germany. Asked about rehearsals, Noam Zur commented that “conductors never feel they have the right amount.” He says, “it’s either: ‘I don’t know what to do anymore, and we still have three days left,’ or ‘there is so much to do and we only have three days left!’ Especially in Opera, it happens a lot that you get no rehearsals.” He says that sometimes, performers need to get by on very little rehearsal, or even just ‘wing it’: “I know the piece, you know the piece, let’s meet in the evening.”
Noam Zur assisted Pierre Boulez at the Lucerne Festival’s academy orchestra from 2006 to 2008. Inspired by the great Maestro’s style, he embraced an ambitious, yet relaxed attitude. He still recalls conducting for Boulez in an open master class at Lucerne. As Zur shook in his shoes and dripped with sweat, Boulez stopped him saying: “this was very, very good…now do it again, and this time do it fantastic!” Zur recalls that, “in all the animated music discussions we had, he never tried to impose his opinions. Yet I learned to be discerning and critical enough not to let people get away with everything.”
As a former trombonist, Zur says he looks at the score from the point of view of an orchestral musician. “It’s not choreography,” he says. “In this measure I stand still… it’s important how it looks, it should look beautiful still, but only because you want a certain sound. The movement is the impetus that gives the performing musicians the meaning and phrasing – the philosophyof what it should sound like.”
Trifonov’s superior rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, in the last round of the competition with the Mariinsky Orchestra under Russian conductor Valery Gergiev won him yet another gold. Gergiev did not hesitate to support his young compatriot, whom he had awarded the competition’s Grand Prix prize. Gergiev brought Trifonov on board for several concert events, at times he even trafficked Trifonov across the hemisphere from performance to performance in his own private jet. “Once he dropped me at a performance rehearsal, then went on to conduct his own concert and made it back to my performance. [They were] in different countries.” Trifonov smiles at this memory, thankful for the generous attention that the artist he calls “one of the most towering [and] busiest musicians worldwide” extended towards him. This past season alone, Trifonov performed with Maestro Gergiev in multiple concerts, tackling repertoire including Prokofiev’s 1st Piano Concerto, Gusonow’s 2nd and Liszt’s 1st.
Two days prior to his own performance in Tel-Aviv, Trifonov had a chance to attend a performance of Chopin’s 1stConcerto with the iconic Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin under the baton of Zubin Mehta, the Israeli Philharmonic’s Music Director for Life. Trifonov was always a big admirer of Kissin’s artistic individuality. Both musicians attended Moscow’s famous Gnessin School for Gifted Children, which Trifonov describes as lacking the wonderfully equipped practice rooms he now uses at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he is about to enter his fourth year. “At Gnessin-School I played on an upright, old, banged up Bechstein,” Trifonov recalls. Having access to modern, well-maintained Steinway Concert Grands makes a tangible difference in practice and performance according to Trifonov, especially when conquering ‘large’ repertoire like Rachmaninov, which he only started to explore this year. At the Cleveland Institute, Trifonov studies under Armenian pianist and conductor Sergei Babayan. Trifonov’s repertoire was always heavy with Chopin, but his recent studies with Babayan have opened him up to a whole new understanding of the idiosyncratic microcosm that constitutes Rachmaninov’s body of work. “He showed me a very different approach than the one I learned in Russia. Even though ultimately everyone goes back to Neuhaus, there are very different approaches within. Babayan opened my mind without taking away what I had. With him it’s all about the touch! He added an enormous dimension to my playing,” Trifonov says. When asked about how he learned his otherworldly pianissimo touch, Trifonov describes how students hold their breath during Babayan’s studio performance classes in an effort to hear his impossibly quiet tones. It seems that it is a combination of the Russian School’s principles and Babayan’s ethereal, yet calibrating modes of touch that brings these pianists’ pianissimo to the next dimension. I personally have heard Babayan perform and it is true- one hears the echo of the master's touch in a personally processed nature.
The collaboration between Noam Zur and Trifinov was a resounding success. “It ended up a spellbinding and hair-raising experience. The audience did not dare to move in order not to miss any sound in this fantastic ‘Chopin at the barn’- like atmosphere,” Zur recalls. “We really connected not only musically. We definitely became friends. I am so happy to be together again this year with Daniil, and I really have to thank him for this one here.” To no one’s surprise, Trifonov delivered pure lyrical lucidity in his piano playing, and Zur expertly supported even the most delicate pianissimo that Trifonov extricated from the piano with his delicate, almost magical caress. Their synergy was never more evident than in the concerto’s strikingly poetic and extremely affecting Lhargettomovement. Zur and Trifonov indeed managed to yet again reconstruct some of the most magical moments of their first performance together.