Friday, November 7, 2014

Quintessentially Russian: Philippe Quint’s new Tchaikovsky/Arensky recording

This September, Avanticlassic released yet another account of Tchaikovsky’s much performed Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35, revealing the stylistic versatility and technical brilliance of Russian/American violinist Philippe Quint. In this recording, Quint, whose “lyricism, energy and devotion,” was lauded by the LA Times, pairs Tchaikovsky’s “war-horse” of the violin-repertoire, with Anton Stephanovich Arensky’s String Quartet No.2 in A minor, coincidentally his Op.35 as well. This line up makes for Quint’s first all-Russian recording, and there is something of a full circle coming about within this youthful thirty-something violinist’s successful career, which has led him from his native Leningrad to Moscow’s Central Music School for Gifted Children, and then to an illustrious mentorship at Juilliard when he was just 17.
Quint’s earlier discography, which includes Grammy-nominated recordings of Bernstein’s Serenade and violin concertos by American composers William Schuman, a former Juilliard president and Erich Korngold, as well as Ned Rorem, speaks to his affinity for his new American domicile and his assimilation within his immediate surroundings. Two contemporary composers who Quint champions - John Corigliano and Lera Auerbach - are Juilliard alumni, like Quint.
(Photo credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)
In 2005, Quint recorded for David Grubin’s film, Marie Antoinette, which led to Quint’s performance of the lead role in Grubin’s 2011 film, Downtown Express.  Quint plays himself, a violinist at Juilliard, adding his dramatic talent – coached by Sondra Lee – to his musical virtuosity, featured on the film’s soundtrack.
Everything in Quint’s performance style speaks of his highly personal relationship with the music he performs, revealing his passionate drive to “own” and live it. The late Andrej Korsakov, Quint’s teacher and one of the great pedagogues of the Soviet Union at the time, features prominently in Quint’s recollection of his first rendezvous with Tchaikovsky’s famous concerto: “Korsakov assigned the concerto to me as the next ‘big’ step. I must have learned the concerto over a few days and brought it for my ...disastrous…lesson with him, the following week. Korsakov was furious with me that I was taking so many liberties with tempi and interpretation…” Quint says, noting that he had barely looked at the score, but mostly “performed” the notable concerto, which could be heard on TV, radio, and concert stages all around at the time, by ear, longing eagerly to perform the all-time favorite work with orchestra. Recognizing his young student’s euphoria, Korsakov allowed Quint to continue working on the concerto under the condition that he would start from scratch, adding proper methodical craftsmanship to his enthusiasm. (Photo credit: Jeff Gerev)
Quint’s persistence panned out. At this point, he has performed the concerto over 200 times, re-evaluating the work’s possibilities without losing his fascination for its ingenious writing and historic context. In the recording’s liner note, Quint describes Tchaikovsky’s “fire of inspiration,” when composing the concerto. In personal correspondence about writing the concerto, a process that took less than a month’s time, Tchaikovsky described his progress, saying: “Everything I have written today will have the power to enter the heart and make lasting impressions on it.”
Tchaikovsky was personally inspired by violinist Iosif Kotek, a student of Hrimaly and Joachim, whom he met at the peaceful lakeside villa retreat in Clarens, Switzerland after fleeing Russia. “I could never have done anything without his support,” he wrote, but he worried about causing gossip about his relationship with the virtuoso and eventually dedicated the concerto to the eminent performer Leopold Auer, professor at the St. Petersburg conservatory. Auer’s famously critical stance towards the concerto and its outright “bashing” from critics such as Eduard Hanslick, who depicted its dramatic finale as “leaving a stink in the ear,” led to numerous edits, including revisions of its solo part and cuts in its finale. According to Auer, these changes were made with the consent of Tchaikovsky, who is rather known for accepting alternative suggestions concerning his work.
Jascha Heifetz, one of Auer’s famed students, favored the edited version, although the original version was favored by some protagonists, including Bronislaw Huberman.
Quint offers both versions here with great gusto, acknowledging the choice and difference of opinion, and letting the listener make up his own mind as to which version is preferable. Quint is supported by the Sofia Philharmonic under Martin Panteleev, making for an enthusiastic musical rapport, despite the less than ideal acoustics at Bulgaria Hall.
Pairing the concerto with Arensky’s quartet puts further attention on the background, which ties these composers and their works together historically.
Arensky shared his great admiration for Tchaikovsky’s work with his students, including Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Gliere.
Intended as a memorial to Tchaikovsky, Arensky’s quartet, Op.35, includes themes of the master’s Chansons Enfantines, Op. 54 in the variations of the quartet’s second movement, adding Russian patriotic themes, like the hymn Slava Bogu no nebe slava, which draws from an ancient funeral mass and was also used in the ceremonial tradition of the crowning of the Tsar, turning Tchaikovsky, as Quint observes, into “the Tsar of composers.”
Supportive of his fellow musicians, Tchaikovsky had personally vouched for Arensky’s “forgotten” work to be performed –even instead of his own, at least in one instance, as an 1887 letter to Rimsky-Korsakov reveals, asking Rimsky-Korsakov to program Arensky’s work instead of his already famed Romeo and Juliet Overture.
In place of the usual habit of quartet literature, Arensky’s second violin is replaced by a second cello, giving a soaringly mournful quality to the music’s already melancholic character. On this track, Quint collaborated with Lily Francis, Nicolas Altstadt, and Claudio Bohŏrquez, recorded at the concert hall of the Siemens-Villa in Berlin.
All in all a great historically inspired addition to one’s library, from a versatile and charismatic artist, we will certainly hear much more from in the near future.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Music and Film - Touching the sound

    
 “The main ingredient is still a powerful story to tell…” -Peter Rosen ( all photos courtesy of Rosen Productions and Close Encounters with Music festival)
In addition to its concert series, the yearly Berkshire festival’s Close Encounters with Music, lead by charismatic cellist and conversationalist Yehuda Hanani, explores the multi-faceted themes of classical music’s culture.
As part of this year’s festival, Peter Rosen presented his emotive documentary Touching The Sound on blind Japanese pianist and 2009 Van Cliburn gold-medalist Nobuyuki Tsujii.
“This is a film about the human triumph, as well as artistic triumph,” comments Hanani. “One thinks of Beethoven overcoming adversity. A deaf composer and a blind, virtuoso pianist… The way Peter spins the story from early childhood…all the way to the Van Cliburn competition is an inspiring crescendo,” offers Hanani, whose weekly Classical Music According to Yehuda airs on WAMC Northeast Radio’s Round Table Discussions.
In our conversation about the latest release in his longtime career, Rosen, the New Yorker documentary film maven defines “storytelling” as the essential ingredient of any film: a challenge that does not differ with respect to the message in a film on music.
“Every project has a different theme and constellation of how the film came about and how its production developed, however, the same structure of the traditional story development – its characteristic three-act partition – basically applies to all my movies,” explains the filmmaker, an architect by education.
Whether Rosen portrays Arthur Rubinstein’s life or the Van Cliburn’s International Piano Competition, he never aims to show one’s technicalities as they master their instrument, which in effect – as important as those details may seem – would be quite boring to watch. Except in taped live recordings that show a performance in its entirety, like in Tsujii’s Live at Carnegie Hall, Rosen rarely shows a full-length piece of music performed on film. “It is always a fine line to define how much music you can actually use without disrupting the flow of the story. We always get letters from people who had wished to hear more of the pieces performed, but the average attention span only allows for uninterrupted music to be played for 2-3 minutes without losing the thread of the story,” says Rosen.
That is also the case in Touching the Sound, which trails the gold-medalist from his mother’s touching descriptions of the first moments that his blindness, as well as his exceptional musical gift became clear, to his winning hearts and gold: “Nobu,” as his fans lovingly call him, asserting himself on the concert stage.(Nobu and his mother Itsuko)
Blind from birth, Nobu at 23 shares his inspiring, heroic journey and his prodigal gift for the piano, portraying facets of his identity as an international performer and cultural ambassador of his native Japan. His sincerity comes through as much in his art as in footage shot during various concert tours that portrays his happiness and eager excitement to experience different locations, people, and culinary surprises. Considering that he overcomes such extreme adversity, judging his pianistic achievements in comparison to his ‘seeing’ peers seem even more arbitrary, than the already debatable and subjective decisions of any competition’s jurors.
The Van Cliburn’s jurors, who included the distinguished pianist Menahem Pressler, admitted to having to work extra at their “objectivity-gage” to award their prestigious approval, solely on the grounds of the artist’s pianistic excellence. Nobu himself admits that he would prefer to be rather known as a great pianist rather than ‘the great blind pianist,’ whose astonishing gift is a curiosity over which people marvel.
With the help of translations by Nobu’s constant travel companion and manager, Nick Asano and Nobu's childhood piano teacher Masahiro Kawakami, the film expresses much of the artist’s sincere love for sharing his innate musical talent, his modesty, gratitude, and openness, with which he meets life’s challenges and cheerfully embraces its pleasures. The film focuses lastly on his actual mastery of the keyboard. Set against a backdrop of the music of Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Beethoven, and Mussorgsky, Rosen’s camera always focuses in on the angle of human sentiment: Nobu’s heavy breathing with restless desire to conquer the stage, right before his Carnegie Hall debut, followed by the release of all the built up tension in the teary-eyed, sobbingly-performed encore, consisting of his own composition, written in honor of Japan’s Tsunami victims.
Rosen seeks out his film’s characters according to the drama they convey. He looks for storylines created by individuals’ conflicts, their relationships with others or their own artistic personality, and most importantly by their redemption: overcoming their individual challenges – that’s the story he tells, amidst each project’s own, particular soundtrack. Rosen chooses to rather‘show’ than ‘tell,’ guiding the camera’s focus on his characters’ emotional reactions, which form the arc on which he builds the story.
Rosen started his film career with USIA projects directed at enhancing America’s cultural reputation overseas in the late seventies. One of these assignments – a portrait of Leonard Bernstein – became the landmark for Rosen’s passage into the classical music business.
“I am not a musician, myself. I resentfully survived 12 years of piano lessons, without any results – I can read music, but can’t play a thing,” he volunteers. “Of course, I knew of Bernstein’s immense persona in music, but I did not approach his personality from the standpoint of a musician – I did not have that kind of ‘highbrow’ perspective.” This was, as he convincingly relays, Rosen’s recipe for success: “While films on music are generally pitched to an already knowledgeable audience with a musical background, I intuitively get what the general public wants to see and relates to,” he says.
This certainly holds true for those films in Rosen’s copious filmography that I had the opportunity to watch. A good example would be his tour de force, The Maestro, about the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, in which Rosen strays from depicting the maestro’s actual musical career, focusing instead on how the conductor used his prominent status as a vehicle in his ideological battle against fascism.
Of course it is the music, the fundamental soundtracks of these documentaries on musical figures, which provides the stories’ intrinsically sustaining feature; their developments’ accompaniment, enunciating their climaxes. The essential messages that Rosen’s films convey with astute perspective, transcend his explorations of human nature through his characters’ struggles under intense conditions, expressing their growth and individual geniality, and highlighting their supreme heights of artistic achievement.
And that is the kind of emotional connection, in music- as in film-making, audiences react to with applause.