Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Noam Zur conducts Daniil Trifonov with the CSO at Chautauqua Institution

Daniil Trifonov, Noam Zur
“You can’t always convince,” young Israeli conductor Noam Zur said at his North American debut, “but every performance has to make a statement.”
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.
Chautauqua Amphitheatre photo:Eric Shea
Chautauqua’s unique and exemplary educational role supports an endless variety of learning experiences in a congenial atmosphere. At times, Chautauqua’s performances are also brought to a wider public through PBS and NPR broadcasts, bringing together the new, the noteworthy, and the extraordinary, and projecting it to all who care to listen.
Chautauqua- Zur- Trifonov Photo: Eric Shea
Noam Zur’s effervescent demeanor and his ability to connect with both the orchestra and the audience made for a fantastic season-closing concert at Chautauqua last week. Zur opened his show with high-energy, uptempo repertoire that included a traditional rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Johann Strauss Jr.’s Fledermaus Overture. The show was the last in a lengthy series, so the technical execution was less than perfect at points, but nonetheless the orchestra achieved nuanced ‘picture-perfect’ moments during Ravel’s orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition, managing to expertly convey the miniature scenes’ suggested sound-worlds. Zur’s demands of both the orchestra and the audience were persuasively articulated at all times; his undeviating directorial approach completely exemplified a conductor’s ability to form connections between the visual and audial occurrences that make up the energy of a live concert.
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.
Noam and Uri Zur
As the First Prize winner of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in 2011, Daniil Trifonov was offered several performance opportunities by Uri Zur of ArtPro- Management (Noam Zur’s father), who has been handling Prize winners’ concert performances since 2003. Former First Prize winner Alexander (Sasha) Gavryluk‘s 2005 performance at Chautauqua is still remembered by its music-loving audiences. It was a feature concert like this taking place in Tel Aviv which brought Trifonov to the Kulturwald Festival in Germany’s Bavarian Forest last September to perform with Noam Zur for the first time. Noam Zur had become Principal Conductor of the Frankfurt Chamber Philharmonic, and had been chosen to direct a production of Die Zauberflöte at Kulturwald. It did not take long for the festival’s director and Uri Zur to realize that this dynamic could easily translate into a performance with Trifonov, Zur, and orchestra.
Trifonov and Zur in rehearsal
Uri Zur, who has covered a lot of professional ground in the music industry including managing Naxos’ record distribution in Israel, and of course founding his artist management company ArtPro, is always in close contact with Marty Merkley at Chautauqua, but he had not intended to promote his own son for this concert season. Nevertheless, when Trifonov expressed interest in performing at Chautauqua at a time when CSO was without a conductor, there was no reason not to look to Noam for the position, given his substantial merit as a director.
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.”
Noam Zur Photo: Ch. Gamble
Even though Trifonov had concerts lined up after taking gold at the 2011 Rubinstein, which is a notable marathon of pianism, and an extremely draining experience, he decided to see if he could continue his winning streak at the Tchaikovsky competition, as he was already enrolled. Uri Zur, noted that Trifonov “did not have the highest expectation, having just completed the Rubinstein, but he was going to give it a shot anyhow.”
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.
Daniil Trifonov
For the 2013 season, Trifonov is preparing a great deal of new repertoire for even more performances under Gergiev, including Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto, and Prokofiev’s 2nd, which he will perform at the White Nights Festival in St.Petersburg. “I am also going to learn some Schedrin. It’s modern, for a change. I am very interested to explore more of the modern repertoire, which I did not have had much of a chance to do yet,” says the 21 year-old virtuoso pianist. “The Russian School of Piano concentrates on the Classical works, some Bach and the Romantics,” he says.
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.
Daniil Trifonov and Ilona Oltuski
The young artist says that he aims to continue studying for an artist diploma with Babayan even though he only studies about 15 percent of the time, as he still feels like he has much to learn. Trifonov realizes that he must come to learn the music of each new composer in his own time. He sees himself tackling Beethoven at a later point in his career. “Even Schubert was a challenge for me,” Trifonov admits modestly, playing Schubert’s last Sonata in B flat-minor, “though the Mozart concerti have always been a special experience for me.”
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.
Chaim Zemach's last rehearsal with CSO- CH.Gamble
Thanks to performance opportunities at festivals like Chautauqua, young talents like Trifonov and Noam Zur can begin to instill in audiences an ever-expanding sensibility for the beauty of music and life, and continue in a longstanding tradition of talent that permeates the international concert scene. While this concert was Noam Zur’s North-American Debut, it was also a touching curtain call for the eminent CSO lead cellist Chaim Zemach, who exited the stage at Chautauqua in a revelatory state of mind after 45 concert seasons. As Chautauqua moves forward, I am sure we can continue to expect excellence and innovation on its stage.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Real Pianists of the Hamptons

The Real Pianists of the Hamtons
Judging by the great number of reality TV shows observing real time happenings ranging from anxiety-inducing restaurant kitchens, to the glamorous on- and- off-the-dance floor drama in Dancing with the Stars, it was only a matter of time before someone would come up with the idea of televising a behind-the-scenes look into the real life of pianists.
Photo: pianofest artist 2012
Sharing the daily experiences of the young pianists attending East Hampton’s Pianofest, Konstantin Soukhovetski, pianist/actor and host of the new reality web series The Real Pianists of the Hamptons, conveys his deep sentiment for the genre of classical music, and the emotions and events experienced within this particular institution with panache.

The show’s trailer includes scenes from last year’s summer session, shot on location at Pianofest’s home in East Hampton, which houses eight pianos and all of the participating pianists. One gets a voyeuristic kick from peeking into the students’ intense practice for their weekly concert-performances, as well as the personal interactions between the young musicians as they work and play.
Photo:Igor Pancevski,Makiko Hirata, Christopher McKiggan,Elisabeth Strickland
The viewer is invited to observe the emotional states of these kids as they pursue and discuss their daily practice routines, which include focusing on the challenges of their repertoire, instruments, and expressiveness in their music. Yet the key element of the show lies in the coverage of the students’ social interactions, giving us an intimate view of the performers as peers who eat, drink, love, and party.

By revealing the musicians outside of their usual concert hall setting, the show’s intimate perspective bridges the distance between the private personalities of these artists, and their polished on-stage personas. This revelation is perhaps a natural outgrowth of the featured generation’s exposure and involvement through social media networking. Young performers now feel the need to share their passions, hopes, and fears with their audiences, most of all with their peers. These talented musicians, whose careers have already introduced some of them to illustrious, international concert stages, have often had to put their studies ahead of their social lives at a very young age. This web series provides them with a chance to reconnect with others their age, and share both their art and personal experiences with the world.

This reality show offers an opportunity for a global audience to get a glimpse into the current state of classical music, and provides insight into the motivations of young and often entrepreneurial musicians, like Soukhovetski himself.

The choice to use Pianofest as the setting for The Real Pianists was a mutual decision of Soukhovetski and pianist and eminent ‘Cleveland Institute of Music’ educator, Paul Schenly. Pianofest, the East Hampton summer residence for young pianists, is the brainchild of Schenly, who acquired the East Hampton cottage searching for a summer locale close to New York. Pianofest is now moving into its 25thseason, and Schenly’s cottage has come to represent the ideal place for glorious, yet inconspicuous music making. Great musicians and music lovers have orbited the institution throughout its existence, and have helped to develop it into a place of vibrant artistic expression, and a resort of comfort for budding artists, not unlike Rachmaninov’s domain, where the master collected his pupils around him to live and study.
Paul Schenly, Kerina Chang

“Paul always managed to create a friendly ambience, where his students could advance, play together and socialize at the same time, without feeling the need to compete against each other. There is no prize to win, being there is the prize,” says Soukhovetski, who is now the festival’s artist-in-residence. During his early formative years, as well as his time at the Juilliard School, Soukhovetski spent many summers at Pianofest. “I understand the nature of Pianofest, its mission and dynamics. With Real Pianists, I am telling, in essence, its story. Paul supported my idea and encouraged me to get involved. Paul Schenly explains: ‘Pianofest is focused on supporting music and musicians in a way that helps to ensure that they achieve their greatest potential and then present their talent for the enjoyment and inspiration for their audiences.’ Our summer seasons have shown that our goal of having the audience form a personal bond with the student performers provides an important, motivating source in building a growing audience, and inspiring the performers in turn. We hope to show the other side of music: its inner workings, and that there is a talent for living as well as for playing the piano.”

Soukhovetski is greatly motivated to reveal just that, and puts to use his many performing talents to do so: “I have spent enough time on the movie set to have a framing vision, and be able to choose which cut is conducive for a particular angle I am looking for, and I think I know how to visually tell the story. As an instrumental key component, helping him to translate his vision onto screen, he names his co-producer Sasha Popov of Popovmedia, considering him the ”good cop”, making sure all bases are covered in achieving a good product.
But no product without inspiration:”it was Paul, who had always pursued the dream of creating a safe haven, where musicians could be just themselves, genuinely enjoying each other and the music, without the usual competition. This has been achieved at Pianofest to the highest degree, and thanks to the community’s reaching out and appreciation for the music, in great style.”

Paul Schenly, Konstantin Soukhovetski
Soukhovetski hopes to expand his endeavor by initiating interest via the Real Pianist trailer, which was shot during the summer of 2011, and collected an impressive 1000 views on its first day on YouTube this June. It now has close to 7000 hits on YouTube, and is set to air its first episode this weekend on YouTube and the Real Pianists Facebook page. Soukhovetski feels at home in many worlds, including piano performance, theater, TV, film, and fashion, but his main agenda with Real Pianists is to create a loving vision of a particular cultural milieu he holds in high esteem. Real Pianists has the ambition to prove that, despite their serious approach to music, classical musicians are cool, too!

Presented as “Rock Star Pianist” by New York City Chamber Festival at Symphony Space on September 7th (6pm), Soukhovetski challenges the compartmentalization of theatrical and musical aspects of performance in his presentation of his original transcription of the final scene of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio, in a theatrical context. The program will also include Franz Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann from Années de pèlerinage, and the St.Sulpice scene from Jules Massenet’s Manon (arranged for piano by Soukhovetzki).

One more part of the personal presentation: his shoes, designed by Konstantin, himself.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Destined for greatness

Research has indicated a genetic link between autism and the prodigiously gifted.
Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University, Joanne Ruthsatz, is currently heading a comprehensive study that is investigating the fascinating aspects of such an autism-prodigy connection. Enthralled with its implications, the Southampton Arts Festival, brainchild of pianist Elena Baksht and violinist Dmitri Berlinsky, integrated this aspect of musical heritage to this summer’s classical music Festival that takes place in Southampton, now in its third year.

“I knew that so many musicians, who had made it to an elaborate level within their music careers, started out as child prodigies. When I heard that 70 percent of the current study cases are music prodigies, it made perfect sense to lend our full support to the cause and at the same time offer performance possibilities for these gifted musicians,” says Baksht. “In addition, our support also ends up helping the less fortunate side of the prodigy/autism equation.”

The festival offers concerts, performed by acclaimed and award-winning musicians at a variety of locations, including the Southampton Cultural Center and some unique private estates. This year, the festival's musicians play in cooperation with some of the prodigies, brought to the festival by Ruthsatz.
Their fruitful collaboration has already brought on board Nobel Prize Laureate Jim Watson of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, who now supports Ruthsatz’s research efforts. In addition, the festival will donate a portion of its August concerts’ proceeds to the research.

But Berlinsky and Baksht have many more plans for the future, including a teaching program that reaches out to the Hampton community and continues to build on the Festival’s effort of promoting greater exposure to and knowledge of classical music. “The proximity of the festival’s location to New York offers incredible opportunities for us to attract the greatest musicians performing here and Dmitri and I both hope to expand our reputation over time.”
Dmitri Berlinsky/Elena Baksht
Co –founder and artistic director of the festival is Baksht’s former husband, violinist Dmitri Berlinsky, with whom she continues to share the stage and the many organizational logistics. ”The festival was both of our dreams come true at a time when it felt right to move ahead, despite our personal life,” Baksht says and Berlinsky adds, via email from his current concert-tour in Italy: "Many, many close friends are involved and we owe so much to some of the festival’s supporters” and mentions in particular the President of the Board, Roger Samet, as well as David and Julia Koch and Anneliese Soros. “We could not let anything stand in the way.”

“Many things came together in perfect synergy,” says Baksht, marveling about the musicianship of some of the prodigies – and she is not alone. Renowned Juilliard Professor and pianist, Jerome Loventhal, called 9 year old William Chen’s playing “of astonishing artistic authority, perfectly shaped and voiced.” (On the occasion of his winning First Prize at the Crescendo International Competition, William Chen will perform at the festival on August 19th. (Southampton Cultural Center)
William Chen


So how does it all come together? According to Ruthsatz, the research based on data collected from young music prodigies turned out to hold a possible key to understanding the cause for autism, as well as helping to provide a viable cure. As she looked further, she discovered “that both the first degree families of individuals with autism and the first degree families of prodigies in her sample displayed three out of five common traits of autism: impaired social skills, impaired ability to switch attention and heightened attention to detail.”
“This intrigued her so she decided to look for autism in her current sample of prodigies,” wrote Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. in “The mind of the Prodigy” published by Huffington Post. In her study, published in the journal, Intelligence, Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach, a child prodigy himself, involved eight other musical child prodigies, who were eager to help investigate further clues. Ruthsatz administered the Stanford-Binet IQ test to the prominent child prodigies who have been featured on national and international television programs, and most of whom had reached professional level performance in their domain by age ten. Interestingly the results of the testing showed that it was not necessarily an elaborate IQ value they had in common, but rather a superlative working (long-term) memory and a high attention to detail (a trait prevalent in autism). In this month’s article, published in Slate, “Do child prodigies owe their talents to autism?” Katy Waldman picks up on Ruthsatz’s premises that prodigies may have autism (or at least autism-affiliated traits) to thank for some of their remarkable feats.

“Autism runs in the family of many child prodigies,” says Ruthsatz. “It is thrilling to see how willing they are to undergo DNA analysis, to possibly help solve the puzzle. We think that there is a genetic modifier at work with prodigies that brings out their talent and lets their artistic personality shine through, and not the deficit. It may provide the genetic clue for autism, preventing the autistic traits to surface.” To the daring suggestion that this testing will also highlight the disabilities associated with autism and perhaps impact the world- view of prodigies, most of the child prodigies just say: “Why wouldn’t we want to help?!” “Most of the child prodigies are really social and love the interaction of the Festival,” adds Ruthsatz.

Prof. Joanne Ruthsatz
It is the following aspect that seems to explain the ‘natural’ connection between fundraisers for the arts and the prodigies: “The child prodigies as a group has advanced moral development,” says Ruthsatz. Future research will investigate the underpinnings to such benevolent behavior (Studies by Ernst Fehr in Switzerland pointing to a scientific, genetic linkage to the ability of being sensitive to the needs of others).”


This year Baksht also approached international superstar pianist Evgeny Kissin (a most famous child prodigy himself) who agreed to be mentioned as ‘Honorary Artistic Advisor' to the festival. Baksht remembers Kissin’s performance at Moscow’s famed Gnessin School for Gifted Children, where she heard Kissin perform at age 8. She approached Kissin with: ”I remember you since I was 5 years old – performing 2 Chopin mazurkas and a Waltz… and we laughed about this ”shared” performance and he acknowledged encouraging: “It’s probably a lot of work on your shoulders to put this all together.”…And how right he is,” says Baksht.
Festivals are not created out of thin air: Berlinsky shares that he developed much interest in the launching of the Southampton Arts Festival with the help of supporters of his musical artistry and his personal friendships, forged during the past twenty years.

“While it’s a great passion, it also takes the greatest effort and we really hope that the community will give us their full support. Everyone – except the artists- works on a pro-bono basis, so far, but in order to grow, there needs to be an operating budget,” Baksht continues. Coming from a cultural environment where the arts were supported by the government, the fund raising aspect is something the thirty-something young pianist has had to adjust to. Her 8 years old son endorses her efforts:”Mama, you have courage and you never give up.”

A vital correlation to promoting classical music, is added by connecting the dots to the gene pool that holds the secrets of our culture’s talent and can potentially make a huge difference in people lives with autism.
Hampton’s visitors will be able to not only support this important research but also celebrate the gifted musicians.
By Ilona Oltuski, PH.D.


The Wolffer Estate Vineyard, will host a benefit concert for Southampton Arts Festival
-catered by award winning prodigy chef, Greg Grossman-
on August 22.nd, at 7.30 PM.
139 Sagg Road, Sagaponack, NY. 11962

For further dates and locations see the Festival’s website: www.southamptonartsfestival.org
or the South Hampton Cultural Center 631-287-4377 – www.sothhamptonculturalcenter.org

For interviews with Joanne Ruthsatz about her study call Terre@917-8334911
Elena Baksht's website is : www.elenabaksht.com
Dmitiry Berlinsky's website is: www.dmitriberlinsky.com