Thursday, May 30, 2013

getClassical-Salon event at the Gramercy Park Hotel Rosebar mentioned on the Harper's Bazaar Hot List - Classical is getting hot!

Harper's Bazaar Hot List has long been trickling out of traditional concert halls and into cooler, more contemporary watering holes. Hosted by the music blog Get Classical at the Gramercy Park Hotel, this concert series hits a sweet spot in the art-filled Rose Bar with a feel that’s downtown Manhattan by way of 19th century Paris salon. This time around, the series features Israeli pianist Elisha Abas as the main act on June 9, but its variety show atmosphere is known to draw audience members to the stage. (And quite a variety show that can lead to, given that the last installment’s couches were filled with musicians ranging from arty Juilliard students to Carnegie darling Evgeny Kissin.)Photo: courtesy GetClassical

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Alexander Fiterstein: All-around clarinetist

Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein
Immersed in conversation with the very personable Alex Fiterstein at a popular hangout near Lincoln Center, I learned more than I ever knew about clarinet repertoire. “The clarinet is the last of the woodwind instruments to have joined the orchestra,” explains the renowned clarinetist, and recipient of the 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant, who has since been praised by the press in impressively unique unison.

"Mozart's Clarinet Concerto K 622, from his later period of writing, opens the instrument’s exposure within the grand classical repertoire; before this piece, the clarinet appeared in more intimate Mozart chamber works, like the Kegelstatt Trio K.498, rather than in larger works, like a concerto. Mozart also uses the clarinet prominently in his wind serenades." explains Fiterstein.

I became curious to learn more about the clarinet’s historical background, and read up on it. According to the publishers at Floricor Editions, a publishing company that specializes in reed repertoire, “the unusual combination of instruments in the Trio, which was commonly composed for violin, cello and piano, was perhaps inspired by Mozart’s fable for the instrument, by way of his Viennese friend, clarinetist Anton Stadler. He was a fluent and gifted performer of ‘Harmoniemusik,’ a genre that consisted of arrangements for a pair of oboes (or clarinets), one or two bassoons, and a pair of horns, geared to entertain during stately dinners, hunting parties and the likes. Most fashionable became the partita, a suite of three to eight short movements, ranging from very modest compositions to the Six Symphonies by J.C. Bach or the Serenades K.251-253 by Mozart.”

Fiterstein, of course, plays all clarinet music. Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No.1, written in 1811, stands out as a gem within the instrument’s repertoire. It was inspired by dedicatee Heinrich Baermann, a German virtuoso clarinettist who had a great influence on Romantic clarinet repertoire. Many composers of the time wrote for the clarinet with him in mind; numerous works of Webern, Felix Mendelsohn, and Giacomo Meyerbeer stand out among the pieces from the period. Mendelssohn’s Konzertstücke (Concert Pieces), Opp. 113 and 114, were written for Baermann and his son, Carl, to play together.
“It seems like once a composer got it, they were hooked,” says Fiterstein enthusiastically; as happens so often, suddenly music history seems very personal!
“Within the 20th century literature, Debussy, but also Messaien and Copland stand out for the clarinet and jazz influences become increasingly apparent and from there true jazz improvisations takes off, independent from classical writing," explains Fiterstein.
Technically speaking, throughout the 19th century, the world of the clarinet split into a German/Austrian sector, and the French clarinet, each evolving with a different fingering system and a different combination of clasp and ring positions. The body of the German instrument is slightly slimmer. Apparently, the instruments and performance methods are so different that a French clarinet player (which is to say any clarinet player except for the German/Austrian players) cannot just pick up a German/Austrian clarinet and play.

Since age 8, Fiterstein had a fascination with the instrument he considers the most versatile and intimately connected to the player: “There is a strong physical connection with this instrument through one’s breathing, like with the other woodwinds. Everything happens in quite a direct way, the imagination of sound and then its transference into breathing; one can achieve quite a big volume in sound but can be super soft as well. One has to understand every note and how it fits in with everything else in a particualr piece, to really play well,” Fiterstein explains.

His choices and expertise within the clarinet repertoire are vast:“The repertoire is actually much larger than one thinks; I did not know half of what exists and the styles and moods are endlessly varied.”

His new recording of American composer Sean Hickey’s Clarinet Concerto will be released on May 28th on the Delos label, along with Hickey's Cello Concerto, performed by Dmitry Kouzov. Recorded in St.Petersburg with teh St.Petersburg State Symphony under the baton of Vladimir Lande, this piece marks Fiterstein's latest visit to contemporary territory, with which he feels equally at home in comparison to classical repertoire:
"It's a beautiful and witty piece that showcases the lyrical qualities of the clarinet, in dialogue with the strings,"Fiterstein says about Hickey's work, describing his first all-orchestral recording.
The event in St. Petersburg was Fiterstein's first time performing and recording in Russia. Hickey and Fiterstein spent a substantial amount of down time together, roaming the Eremitage as tourists, and bonding over dinner at the elegant Hotel Europa, across the street where their concert took place. Both composer and soloist describe the experience as extremely pleasant, despite the lack of adequate heating at the Melodyia recording studio, which exists within a small church; Fiterstein remembers that some of the musicians kept on their coats while performing.

In 2001, Fiterstein won the Carl Nielsen Competition in Denmark with a performance of Carl Nielsen's “Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra,” op. 57, and he performed the concerto again last season with St.Paul’s Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Thomas Dausgaard. Next year, Fiterstein will bring the concerto back with Isaac Stern’s son, the conductor Michael Stern, performing with the Iris orchestra in Memphis, Tennessee.
This summer, Fiterstein, who also teaches at the University of Minnesota, will spend some time with Mozart’s clarinet quartets at the Toronto Summer Music Festival, performing with the Pacifica Quartet.

Growing up with listening to music ranging from Beethoven to Jazz and Klezmer, Fiterstein was exposed to how much fun one can have with music. When he started playing the clarinet, he was often accompanied by his father on the accordion in the family’s living room at home in Israel. Later, his classical training at Juilliard and the Marlboro Chamber Music Festival, initially supported by an AICF sponsorship, allowed him to pursue his extraordinarily successful career in the United States and abroad.

In 2002, Fiterstein became familiar with the music of Iswaldo Goligov, Jewish-Argentinean composer-in-residence at the Marlboro Chamber Music Festival, which Fiterstein attended. Many years later, Fiterstein picked up his “The dreams and prayers of Isaac the blind,” written with a strong Klezmer influence and Fiterstein began to approach other Ethnic Jewish music, “where different styles come together,” like in Ronn Yedidia’s contemporary-ethnic compositions. In 2011, Fiterstein recorded works by Yedidia with the composer for the Naxos label, released in March of 2012.
The nineties music scene, particularly in New York, highlighted the clarinet within differing parallel movements of Jewish Art Music. Composers like André Hajdu (b. 1932), Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960), Robert Starer (1924–2002) and Ofer Ben-Amots (1955 b.) experimented with new improvisations inspired by Klezmer style.
The roots of these works date back to the so-called “School of St.Petersburg” of the turn of the 20th century, which became a form of national Jewish emergence, brought about by Zionism. Through this movement, several pupils of the composer Rimsky-Korsakov aimed to find a new expression of their Jewish identity, based on traditional Klezmer, Folk, and Cantorial musical materials.
The Zimro Ensemble, a sextet founded in 1919 consisting of Clarinet, Piano, and String Quartet, focused on these works under the leadership of its clarinetist Simeon Bellison (1881–1953). Zimro’s goal had been to collect funds during a European concert tour in order to establish a center for Jewish Music in Palestine. One of the most famous works written for the Zimro Ensemble is Prokoviev’s Overture on Jewish Themes, Op.34, which was commissioned by the ensemble in 1919.
Bellison, who later became first clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, never made it to Palestine; instead he became one of the most influential figures of the clarinet in the United States. “Most every clarinetist of the time had something to do with him,” says Fiterstein, and yet he tells me that: “[Bellison] never forgot his dream: he left his entire music collection to the Rubin Academy in Israel.” In conjunction with the research that explores this material, Fiterstein will partake in a concert, supported by Pro Musica Hebraica: “The idea is to bring Jewish experience, feeling, and history 'Jewish soul,' if you like, as expressed through classical music,” says Charles Krauthammer, co-founder of Pro Musica Hebraica, which was established in 2004. In conjunction with Washington’s Kennedy Center, the organization brings neglected works by Jewish composers to the concert hall.
This December, Fiterstein will perform together with The Zimro Project, a chamber music group he started, at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The concert will feature Russian Jewish chamber music , some of which has not been performed in public for close to 100 years.
Also named Co-Artistic Director of the new Sedona Winter Musicfest, taking place in January in Carefree, Arizona, New Yorker's will be able to hear him, upon his return to New York in April, with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Emerson String Quartet' s members are getting ready to climb new mountains

The original Emerson String Quartet
(from left to right)Eugene Drucker, Lawrence Dutton, David Finckel, Philip Setzer

Yesterday, May 6th at the WQXR Greene Space, the iconic Emerson String Quartet said goodbye with a small nod to New York audiences and listeners on the radio, before heading off to Washington’s Smithsonian’s Baird Auditorium for the final performance of their fare-well-tour.
The quartet’s Journeys recording is set to be released May 20th, and the Greene Space performance offered selections of the CD’s works, including Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, both of which are pieces for two violins, two violas, and two cellos. The quartet performed and recorded these works in conjunction with violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr.

The last piece, Schubert’s melancholic C-major String quartet, was performed by the Emerson group in the formation for which they have become renowned over the past 34 years or so, during which time they have together garnered 9 Grammys, and lived through 40 recordings. The quartet has seen many wonderful times, yet year after year, performing 100 concerts annually and traveling on 100 trips, even the best of teams can undergo many challenges.
The melancholic melodies, despite the cheerful key of C-Major, were appropriate for the mood in the room where questions loomed: why now, and why at all, did David Finckel, the group’s cellist, decide to leave? He had only recently broken the news to the other members of the quartet. When asked by WQXR’s radio host Jeff Spurgeon, to relay his reasons for leaving the quartet after such a long time, given a mere thirty seconds to answer, Finckel’s utterings about still having mountains to climb did not really seem to tell the whole story; his plate seems to have been quite full for a while now.
An energetic powerhouse of a cellist, and obviously a great steering force, together with his wife, pianist Wu Han, Finckel operates a record label called ArtistLed and is co-Artistic Director of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and founder and co-Artistic Director of Music@Menlo. Finckel is also co-Artistic Director of Chamber Music Today, as well as The Mendelssohn Fellowship in Korea; he acts as Professor of Cello at The Juilliard School, and also Visiting Professor of Music at Stony Brook University. Compared to the other members of the touring quartet, it seems as though Finckel has had to juggle many more roles outside the group, even as he acted as a significant energetic catalyst for the group’s enormous success.
While Finckel was the group’s latest edition, having in 1979 replaced Eric Wilson, the cellist of the original 1976 quartet, he has become a pillar of the Emerson as we know it: the Emerson that’s about to split up now.
Violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, who take turns playing first and second violin, and violist Lawrence Dutton, are wonderful musicians, all of whom have been mentored by old school master Menahem Pressler of the Beaux Arts Trio. Their choice of Watkins points to a succesful future of the Emerson String Quartet and its generational continuum.
The 43-year-old Welsh cellist and first music director of the English Chamber Orchestra, Paul Watkins, is slated to replace Finckel.
Paul Watkins, Photo:Washington Post
Finckel’s last performance with the Emerson Quartet in Washington will be a shared bill featuring Watkins in his new position. Apparently Watkins was just a phone call away, even if via London, according to Setzer’s description of their meeting through Pressler, as he told it in the Greene Space interview. Setzer had already mentioned to his wife that Watkins would indeed make a wonderful addition to the Quartet even before Finckel had ever given his official notice.
One cannot help but think that the drama portrayed in the recent film, A Late Quartet, touches on all possible personality conflicts between the different egos in a String quartet: these intimate colleagues who must strive for harmonious balance in light of constant contrast, but also passionately follow their own callings, and allow their individual voices to be heard.
Well, perhaps it’s just simply time to move on, but whatever the reason or reasons may be, the Emerson will be missed. Long live the Emerson.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Virtuosity matters: Evgeny Kissin in between the bar line


By Ilona Oltuski
Sketch (on iPad) by Roman Rabinovich (pianist, visual artist)

“Pure obsession!” commented a stage manager at the Berlin Philharmonie, when he almost had to escort Kissin off the stage, so it could be prepared for the concert later that night. “You would think he practiced enough by now.”  Such perplexed responses to his intensity when working at the piano are nothing new to Kissin; as a young boy coming home from school and rushing to the piano with his coat still on he already displayed the same kind of compelling drive: “I made it clear to my Mom even then that I was not to be held back,” remembers ‘Zhenya’, as those close to him call the 41-years-old Kissin.
It might well be that this passion for the piano, in combination with his indomitable spirit have contributed to making Kissin into the person he is today: an exceptional artist and virtuoso pianist who, undeterred by any potential for negative fall-out, neither shies away from calling his own shots, nor refrains from speaking his mind on a range of issues some would consider not fit for a pianist to comment on.
It could be argued that the different facets an artist displays beyond the confines of artistic expression are what provide her or him with the necessary depth to take virtuosity to a deeper level of artistry. A willingness to take risks would certainly be part of this.
Many critics, and certainly his fans, would very much agree that Evgeny Kissin is a virtuoso who, from an early age,  ‘pushed the envelope’ in many ways. This might explain the effect he already had on his audiences when performing as a prodigy in his native Russia. “It was as if the heavens had opened up and one could hear the angels,” enthuses internationally renowned violist, Yuri Bashmet, about Kissin’s first recorded performance at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1984.  And for Professor E. Lieberman, back then Assistant Professor at Moscow’s Gnessin Academy of Musicthere was no doubt that “… we are confronted with profound, forceful, dramatic and deeply lyrical and optimistic playing demanded by the original.” He continues: “The young artist’s extraordinary technical ability allows him to give utterance to his innermost thoughts, to every movement of his artistic soul.” Evgeny Kissin - the album’s cover shows him with a red Soviet Young Pioneer scarf - was all of 12 years old at the time.
To Lieberman, the connection between young Kissin’s technical ability and his ‘artistic soul’ providing greater depth to the pianist’s virtuosity was all but obvious. But there have always been voices that do not value such virtuosity as the highest form of artistic expression, and remain critical of the ‘virtue’ in ‘virtuosity’, which they dismiss as a mere display of technical skill and prowess.
Violinist Nicolò Paganini is an example of a musician whose virtuosity attracted a good amount of condescension and disbelief, as writer, pianist and radio personality David Dubal explains in his “Essential Canon of Classical Music”: "Unfortunately, a certain element of charlatanism has always tainted Paganini's name, and since this day, the musical world has been divided over the concept of ‘musician’ versus ‘virtuoso’.” Likewise, Kissin’s effortless facility at the piano has not only met with admiration; describing it as ‘a blessing and a curse’, critics have questioned the interpretative qualities of his musical presentations time and again.
For others it holds true that any performance is interpretive by its very nature, and that the compositional score solely serves as the blueprint for a performance. To them, it is the performer who crafts his or her unique approach to a musical piece, an approach which eventually culminates in an act of artistic creation on stage, and must be judged on its very own merits.
The great pianist, Martha Argerich, agrees with that view when she points out that Kissin’s compelling interpretations stand entirely on their own. During the 2011 Verbier Festival in Switzerland the two of them rehearsed Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations for Two Pianos. “I love him dearly,” says Argerich, “both as the wonderful sincere human being and the brilliant artist that he is.”
Kissin during rehearsal at Verbier. (Photo: Ilona Oltuski)
For Kissin, “… a great performance of a piece is always its most convincing one.” He is, of course, fully aware of the fact that the term ‘convincing’ can mean different things to different people, and he clarifies that, in his mind, the term has to transport one simple and powerful truth: “Music speaks directly to the heart,” he states, and it is exactly that very direct and unadulterated rapport with his audiences that keeps moving them to tears during his concerts.
Not long ago, Kissin told me that he believes in his capacity to also convey strength to those present at his live performances. Many of his fans have told him so in person and by writing to him. Others have mentioned the sense of solace his work at the piano has evoked for them. I must admit that my own experiences add to these sentiments:  When listening to Kissin’s Liszt concerts in Jerusalem and New York a few years ago, I felt ‘elevated’ by the transcendence of his renditions, while his 2011 New Years Eve Concert with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle in Berlin provided me with further evidence of the fact that every performance is a unique work of art, and not just a mere display of virtuosity. I had been present when Kissin rehearsed Grieg’s work for the concert, and expected to be listening to that same interpretation during the actual performance later that day. Yet what I witnessed was an all-new and fresh version, offering a different and again unique interpretation. I could sense Kissin pouring his soul into the performance and inhabiting a state of truly ‘being in the music’ - an artist fully engaged in the creative moment.
The main purpose of music is “that it elevates us into the world of the sublime,” Kissin feels, and this sentiment was palpable that night despite the slightly dry acoustics of the Berlin Philharmonic. Yet it was not somber severity that transported the music, but a distinctly life-affirming joie de vivre, which Joseph E. Morgan’s in his Boston Intelligencer review of Kissin performing the same Grieg concerto in Boston several months later called “contagious and exhilarating.”
“Of course it is different each time,” affirms Kissin when I commented on the varied nuances he brought to his recitals of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op. 58 at Chicago’s Symphony Hall, and again to his December 2011 performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, in E minor op. 11 with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta in Tel Aviv. Looking back on a lifetime of working with different pianists, Maestro Mehta stated after the concert: ”There are very, very few artists in the world that can do what Kissin does; he can play between the bar line, prolonging the beat with just enough rubato, so the phrasing becomes completely fluid.”
Kissin is also known for playing virtually note-perfect. When we talked about mistakes during live performances, he clearly remembered a particular incident where his perfection failed him: “I think it was when I was playing with a fever and got lost, in June 1991 in Vienna, during Brahms’ Intermezzo, Opus.116. No.6. But,” he divulges, “if a mistake happens, I just continue to play. I never memorize music deliberately: It always happens by itself.”
Commenting on the performance process, Kissin also remarks on the utmost importance of consciously listening to how the music projects. That is why he considers it crucial to always rehearse in the very venue he is going to perform in.
Says Charles Hamlen about Kissin’s credo in action: “I had met with Kissin at the Schleswig Holstein Festival in a dumpy hotel. We went to the decrepit ballroom, and when Kissin started to play, I just wished everyone could be there and hear him. There was just so much in the music, it was so elevating.” And when Kissin was rehearsing for a benefit concert to support the “Michael Palm Series of Classical Action” in support of AIDS victims, Hamlen observed: “While most pianists would have only warmed up, Kissin came two days in a row and practiced several hours; a tribute to how seriously he takes every performance.”
The ever-changing influences surrounding a live concert, like the acoustics, the emotional engagement of the audience, his own emotional state and his perception of the piece’s voice at that very moment are all relevant components which have been obvious to Kissin ever since he started his existence at the piano as a child, barely able to reach the keys. For him, audiences play a significant part in the process: “During the performance, the audience inspires and encourages natural creativity,” he says, and he humbly admits: “Of course, I don’t always succeed, since it’s difficult while you are emotionally involved in the performing process.”
Humility is not necessarily what one would expect from a pianistic superstar. Yet, it is exactly that quality that surprised shooting star pianist Yuja Wang when she first met Kissin at the Verbier Festival in 2009. Kissin had attended one of her recitals, which prompted Wang to finally summon the courage to ask her childhood idol if she could play for him. “I grew up listening and watching his Chopin concerti and his Tokyo recital when he was 16,” she remembers. “I really wanted to play Prokofiev 6th for him, since I love how he played that piece.” Not only did Kissin make time for Wang, he also generously shared his musical insights with her: “What strikes me [most] is how articulate he was,” Wang says. “He had such profound and vivid ideas of every detail. Not only did he evoke the general mood [of the piece] to open up my imagination, he also revealed a deeper level of understanding.”
But then, Kissin’s concept of being an artist has always included being supportive to his colleagues. Says Russian violinist, Vadim Repin, who started his Moscow career as the same time as Kissin: ”Since our first time performing in Russia, I knew I could rely on him, as if my life depended on him – on stage and in real life, as well.”  And when Florida impresario, Judy Drucker, fell on hard times, Kissin remembered that it was she who had brought many musicians, including himself, to Florida for the very first time. He reciprocated with a free performance at Drucker’s “Great Artists Series” at Miami’s New World Center to support his friend.
And Susanne James, creator of Kissin’s fan site, affirms:”He is the most genuine person, so humble, generous and kind. He tries to send a response to every message fans send to him. There are no other ‘superstars’, who would spare their precious free time to do such a thing, and this, is Kissin’s strength: He treats all of humanity with respect.”
‘Zhenya’ facing his fans (Photo: Ilona Oltuski)
If one believes his former neighbor and family friend, Maryana Arzumanova, Kissin always had a lot of empathy for others. She recalls an occasion where some neighborhood kids, including little Evgeny, entertained their families at the piano. But despite being light years ahead in his piano playing, young Kissin complemented everyone’s performance with great enthusiasm.
His ability to feel connected to others and to care about what happens in a wider context, and actively respond to it, might explain his long list of playing concerts in support of causes he considers important. It all started with the first-ever benefit concert at Moscow’s Russia Concert Hall, on September 25, 1987, which was held to raise funds for the renovation of the church where Pushkin married Natalya Goncharova in 1831. He even remembers what he played back then: Mozart’s D-Major Rondo, K.382.
Kissin has not stopped throwing his pianistic weight behind different issues ever since, and in 2011 it again was a Russia-related topic he was concerned about. This time, however, it wasn’t about the preservation of a building, but rather about the preservation of the democratic process in his country of birth: Together with Gideon Kremer and Martha Argerich, he played the 2011 “Musica Liberat” - concert in Strasbourg/France which demonstrated against the Russian regime’s imprisonment of Russian liberals and prisoners of conscience, Platon Lebedev and Mkhail Khordovsky.
Not afraid to publicly express his political views beyond the concert stages of the world, Kissin also addressed the BBC in December 2009, in an open letter criticizing what he took as anti-Semitic views expressed as part of the BBC’s report on blood labeling in Israel.

‘Zhenya’ with his mentor, Anna Pavlovna Kantor (Photo: Ilona Oltuski)
“Politics, schmolitics! He is a pianist and should concentrate on that,” fumes his one-and-only mentor, Anna Pavlovna Kantor, when talking about Kissin’s fervor to show face with regard to world affairs. But not even his close relationship with Kantor and the deep respect he has for her can stop him from speaking his mind. His dynamic spirit prevails, just as his fervor for engaging in the unexpected cannot be subdued. Evgeny Kissin’s version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” on the video wonder wall of “Guitar Hero” serves as an example of the latter.  Reports Kissin’s goddaughter, Julia Flatto, daughter of long-time Kissin friend, Olivia, about the pianist’s playful side: “He does not have any inhibition to have fun. He can be very comfortable with letting loose and he does not care; he does what he wants to do.” And remembering some of her childhood encounters with Kissin, she remembers: “He was so genuine with me – nothing was beneath him. Sitting down with me for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, I always felt that he respected me and brought me joy.” Flatto concludes: “To me, he is a fun person and a humble friend. If I ever had an emergency, he would be one of the people I would call.”
One may ask where someone who lives his life performing, while, at the same time, remaining accessible to family, friends and fans, gets his inner strength from. The answer to that question may surprise:  “As a child I used to spend summers with my maternal grandparents in our country house outside Moscow, which they had built with their own hands,” Kissin recalls. “They often spoke Yiddish to each other, so I retained a nostalgic feeling for that language since then, and as the years went by, I decided to learn it.”  Many years later, it would be Verbier Festival founder and Executive Director, Martin Engstroem, who further promoted Kissin’s love for the Yiddish language and Yiddish poetry by facilitating Kissin’s first-ever poetry reading during the 2002 Verbier Fesival. “Martin Engstroem asked me to try reciting in public for one season, by integrating poetry recitation into the musical offerings of the festival,” recalls Kissin. “I accepted under one condition: that the other musicians do the same. … Zubin Mehta, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Itamar Golan agreed to participate in the project. … Unfortunately, just before the beginning of the festival, Zubin's father fell gravely ill and died, so Mehta declined to continue with the project. And at the last minute, just a few days before her concert, Kiri Te Kanawa cancelled. Only Itamar and I were left. I was the first to get my feet wet.” More recently, Kissin has recited Yiddish poetry as part of an event honoring Yiddish writer Boris Sandler, at the Center for Jewish History (YIVO) in New York*, and is performing there again on May 7th.

Beyond Yiddish language and poetry, a small volume of aphorisms by Leningrad Conservatory piano teacher, Natan Perelman, and brought to his awareness by Anna Pavlovna Kantor, serves as another source of inspiration; Kissin always keeps it at the piano. One of the quotes he regards as quintessential, states: “A musician gets inspired by legends, but music should only be cut out of the marble of music." His own attempts to create a mantra for himself involve a short text he cobbled together as a little boy. “There is a country that is not found on any geographical map,” it starts. “This country is called music.” And in the complexity of that country, virtuosity matters, as do all the elements that feed Kissin’s creative soul.
There was another – a real - country that played a big role in the formation of Kissin’s identity. "I had first learned about the State of Israel when growing up in Moscow, in a house built in the 1960s, one of the so-called ‘Chrushtiov's houses’, which were separate flats as opposed to communal flats,” recalls Kissin. “As a child I played in our courtyard and was often harassed by other kids in the neighborhood. I recall many anti-Semitic incidents that profoundly affected me. There were only two Jewish families, our next-door neighbors and my family. One teenager asked me if I knew where only Jews lived; that's how I heard about Israel for the first time.” To Kissin’s young mind, the place associated with Soviet Jewry was Birobidzhan, a region near the Chinese Border in the Far East of the Soviet Union, which was officially created in 1934. “I thought that place must be Israel,” he remembers. “I identified myself strongly, telling my parents I will move there when I grow up.”
Kissin and the author during an interview at Verbier/Switzerland
Short of being able to move to a place where being Jewish was the norm rather than the exception, young Evgeny found his solace with his instrument: “And where is the piano?” he asked according to his mother when first entering the grandparents’ apartment. Evgeny was two at the time. And when taken to a neighbor’s birthday party, where he felt uncomfortable due to the noise and unfamiliarity of the place, he only quietened down after his mother told him that there was a piano at the neighbor’s place. “I walked all the way along the corridor like a somnambular, sat down at the piano and didn’t leave it until the end of the evening,“ he retells his mother’s recollections. “I live for playing piano, as much and as good as possible,” he says today. Which is what he always did, but in a dynamic and ever-changing manner.
Charles Hamlen who, together with Dan Danieli, brought Kissin to the attention of American audiences, and eventually arranged for Kissin and his family and mentor to come to the United States, sums up why he remains excited about Kissin: “What keeps him so compelling is that he is always growing personally and musically, always questioning and digging deeper. There is no cheapness, it all has integrity.” To which Kissin dryly remarks: “I have never set out to be Evgeny Kissin, but I can’t complain.”

On Friday, May 3rd, 2013, Evgeny Kissin will perform a solo recital at Carnegie Hall featuring Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob.XVI:49; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op 111; four Schubert Impromptus D.935 No. 1 and No.3; D.899, No.3 and No. 4; and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 12 in C-sharp Minor.
On Sunday, May 19th, 2013, music director James Levine will return to Carnegie Hall, leading the MET Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, with Mr. Kissin as soloist. They last performed together on April 10th, 2011.
The Forward Association issued a CD compilation of Kissin’s recitals of contemporary Yiddish poetry in 2010.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Guest Posted on JDCMB- Jessica Duchen's Blog - In the Right Hands

Jessica Duchen's Classical Music & Ballet Blog. Novelist/journalist JD writes for The Independent, London


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

In the Right Hands: A guest post about Dorothy Taubman

In this rare and special JDCMB guest post, Ilona Oltuski from New York pays tribute to the late Dorothy Taubman's work in seeking to help pianists avoid injury at their instrument.
In The Right Hands – Music-Pedagogues Save Musicians From Injury
By Ilona Oltuski

“Life does not end with injury – you can get out of it!” Alexey Koltakov, pianist

Thanks to the late Dorothy Taubman’s essential body of work whose convincing insights convey the underlying principles of a ‘natural’ piano technique, there are no more secrets in today’s world of music to how pianists can avoid getting injured at the keyboard.

Based on physics and physiology, Taubman’s “natural” approach, which includes an understanding of all kinds of tension-related, repetitive-motion-syndrome injuries, and can be applied to other instrumentalists as well, identifies where personal limitations can be overcome by avoiding tense and restricting movements. Her theory encourages musicians to avoid bending fingers in--or rather out--of shape, with over-exerting exercises, and detrimental, endless repetitions, of inherently wrong movements.

And yet, it still happens all the time! Young musicians get caught up in intense training at their instrument without heeding serious warning signs, and as pianist Alexey Koltakov puts it, end up “taking a course towards the iceberg!”

The Ukrainian pianist felt his first symptoms of problems while partaking in the 2001 Van Cliburn competition. “I felt some sort of limitation in my right hand – compared to my left. I could not play octaves as freely, but at first it was just minimal. I was told to practice more by my teacher, Viktor Makarov, who used special training methods to build a faster technique and better endurance, and who had a good track record of other competition winners. Some years later, I was supposed to perform at the Arthur Rubinstein competition and three days before the supposed performance, I found myself unable to play any octaves at all. I had not wanted to face the fact that something was really wrong; but I could not control my right hand properly. I came to Veda (Kaplinsky) and she had a pretty good idea right there – focal dystonia – later also diagnosed by a neurologist. I had let things go too far, and the only recovery possibility was that I had to re-learn my motions for playing the piano. Where I had been curling my fingers with excessive pressure and tension before, pulling the fingers from the key, I had to consciously regain a tension-free approach. After a five-year period, I now retrieve an enormous amount of pleasure from playing the piano, again. Now I need around 3-4 hours of daily practice and I get much better results. I feel much more secure in my music making, able to express nuanced sound, in the way I choose to. My octaves are strong and there is none of the previous tension in my forearm. It’s a completely different, effortless touch,” says Koltakov, who gives testimony to the fact that Taubman’s principles, when well-applied by specialized pedagogues, can make all the difference. Koltakov shares his experiences with other musicians freely, hoping they will avoid undergoing his hardship. He wants to get the word out that there is help available and reassure them that, “life does not end with injury – you can get out of it!”

“Alexey went into denial and started to compensate, never questioning what he was taught. He had to retrain his muscles, - not unlike a stroke victim, and it took a lot of perseverance on his part and almost three years. But when I listen to him play today his hands are completely healthy, and I am moved to tears,” says Veda Kaplinsky, Chair of Juilliard’s Piano Department.

“Taubman changed my own life and put me on the course, that I am on today,” Kaplinsky continues, “Until I met her, I was under the assumption that you were either talented or not, and that there were no “technical problems”, only technical deficiencies. One had to practice blindly to overcome them and only later did I understand the importance of examining how you move and approach your physical contact with the instrument. Understanding Taubman’s approach, I was confident and able to explain to my students the reason behind it all. That made a huge difference in my ability to penetrate walls of resistance which I sometimes encounter, when introducing sometimes drastic, necessary changes. Of course, I have an average of 30 students a year and you develop your own way of imparting the information and every student needs something else. I can’t separate anymore where Taubman ends and I begin, but some of the basic principle images and expressions I use up to this day. I remember how the title, for the planned but never published book about her approach, inspired me: ‘The piano plays you,’ got me thinking: that brilliant concept of using the mechanics of the piano instead of fighting the instrument is so foreign to what I was used to, yet worked so well. It was rebellious to many things we did intuitively, and were trained to do. It was predominantly her diagnostic ability that impressed me. She could look at a pair of hands and immediately know what’s wrong and what needs fixing.” Kaplinsky herself claims to have developed a bit of that x-ray vision, which allows her to quickly recognize the causes of pain and tension, even if the artists themselves ignore their symptoms.

“Physical discomfort prevents you from controlling the instrument in a way that enables you to express yourself musically,” she says. An artist’s physical habits at the piano become very much part of their perception of how expressive they can be. If something goes wrong, the whole essence of the musician’s well being is endangered. It’s important for people to realize that changing their injurious physical habits will not endanger their ability to express. On the contrary, freeing one’s hands enables them to explore greater possibilities and to be more consistent. Discomfort leads to loss of control and motivation to practice. But ultimately this knowledge hast to become so ingrained, like second nature. Moving correctly means removing all harshness and roughness from your sound, balance well and avoid all glitches from your finger work; in short, it is to achieve everything from pearly articulation to powerful projection,” which is, of course, a pianist’s dream come true.

In some cases, Kaplinsky will refer some of her students to Taubman specialist Edna Golandsky, who was Dorothy Taubman’s close protégé, assistant and co-lecturer for many years. Golandsky, co-founder of theGolandsky Institute, which offers its annual summer residence at Princeton-University, teaches out of her studio in New York.
Photo: Dorothy Taubman(left), Edna Golandsky(right)Kaplinsky, who knew Taubman before she recently passed away at the age of 95, had initially heard about her work from Golandsky, who studied with her “already 45 years ago,” says Kaplinsky, who initially was critical of what she had heard. Accompanying her college roommate in an attempt to “save her” from falling into the “cult” of Taubman, Kaplinsky changed her mind the moment she was “greeted by this very warm and sweet lady, who was not at all what I had envisioned.” Kaplinsky says, “I remember, how the sound of my roommate at the piano changed immediately, after Taubman was touching her elbow slightly. I was in total amazement – asking her, would you listen to me too? – That’s when I started studying with her.”

Even though Kaplinsky did not publicly announce Taubman training as part of her specialty, it was always a well-known fact that she believed strongly in the Taubman principles, and integrated them into her teaching. Kaplinsky was recorded at the Piano World Conference, talking about her personal relationship with Taubman, and embracing her method. That recording is now out of circulation, but there are a number of recordings that have been released by the Golandsky Institute that are a great starting point for familiarizing oneself with Taubman’s principles; some are also available on the Naxos library website, and are accessible through music colleges and public institutions.

What counts are true results! Alexey Koltakov performed in a concert this week at Juilliard's Morse Hall, and announced on his Facebook page: “Tonight I had my first ‘controlled’ public performance after five years of focal dystonia in my right hand!"

By Ilona Oltuski,