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Tag: rachmaninoff

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the New York Philharmonic Think Outside the Box

It’s almost twenty years to the day that virtuoso Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. In another stroke of fate, he was playing a Rachmaninoff concerto, with a Scandinavian conductor on the podium, just as he will during his first stand as artist-in-residence with the orchestra, which starts tonight at 7:30 PM, featuring Rachmaninoff’s relatively rarely programmed Piano Concerto No. 4 and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.

In conversation with the Philharmonic’s Isaac Thompson at Lincoln Center last night, Andsnes revealed that he’s played New York more than any other city in the world – in that sense, he’s one of us, and he feels it. Yet another happy coincidence, Thompson revealed, was that this will be the first time in quite awhile where both the Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence and composer-in-residence will be represented on the same bill, in this case by a New York premiere by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Paavo Järvi conducts; Andsnes and the Philharmonic are back on Oct 13 at 11 AM, Oct 14 at 8 and on the 17th at 7:30. The most affordable tickets are in the thirty-dollar range and still available as of today

As a programmer, Andsnes isn’t satisfied with merely performing standard repertoire. He’s fresh off a world tour playing Beethoven concertos, but also served for seventeen years as artistic director of a Norwegian festival, a role that greatly influenced him, not only through the expected exposure to all sorts of different music, but also the need to think outside the box and celebrate lesser-known works from across the centuries. In some lively banter with the audience, Andsnes spoke of his fondness for the seldom-performed solo piano works of Dvorak as well as Shostakovich’s haunting, World War II-era Piano Sonata No. 2, a recent discovery for him. His latest album celebrates the solo piano music of Sibelius.

Andsnes animatedly reaffimirmed his advocacy for the Rach 4, a vastly different beast by comparison to the composer’s previous concertos. Famously, Rachmaninoff’s favorite pianist was the only guy in the world at the time who could play faster: Art Tatum. “Rhythmically, it’s very jazzy sometimes,” Andsnes explained, “The second movement begins like an improvisation by Bill Evans,” a confluence of jazz-informed harmonies and nostalgia.

“The harmonies are so juicy in late Rachmaninoff, with the Third Symphony, with the Symphonic Dance – truly heartbreaking. Rachmaninoff would always dismiss composers like Prokofiev, but in the final movement there’s a lot of Prokofiev along with the long, sweeping melodies Rachmaninoff was so famous for” 

The Rach 4 is also very hard to play from memory, Andsnes admitted. “Maybe this is the jazz influence: very few downbeats, very few obvious rhythms between the orchestra and the pianist. It’s very easy to get lost and for them to understand what I’m playing. I have a few scary memories with this piece,” he grinned, referring to his first live performances of it.

With his new album, Andsnes leaps to the front of an admittedly small circle of advocates for Sibelius’ solo piano music, which he admits is “much more uneven” than the composer’s orchestral output but is still full of rare gems. His wishlist for future recording includes Chopin preludes as well as Mozart and Debussy: he likes to focus on one particular composer at a time, to get a full sense of the diversity of their work.

As the interview went on, Andsnes offered plenty of insight into his own development as a performer, not to mention a sharp sense of humor. Which composer does Andsne find the most challenging? Bach. Surprisingly, Andsnes didn’t get much exposure to Bach as a young piano student: to Andsnes, Bach is like a language, best learned sooner than later in life. Does Andsnes ever get the urge to compose? No. “Not even once,” he smiled, “There’s already so much bad music out there, and there’s so much exciting music waiting for me to discover.”

What were his most dramatic moments at the keyboard? As a sixteen-year-old, headlining with the Grieg Piano Concerto on the final night of the annual festival in his native Bergen = he’d never heard the piece before, beyond its first few famous bars. He also mentioned a colorful, satirical Britten concerto whose big keyboard-length glissandos left the pianist bleeding all over the ivories.

And the night’s funniest moment was when Thompson asked Andsnes to talk about his frequent side gigs as a chamber musician. Andsnes got a kick out of that one. “Friends get together. We play music,” he laughed. “What’s so exotic about that?”

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The Greenwich Village Orchestra Celebrate 30 Years with Their Most Ambitious Season Ever

The premise of the Greenwich Village Orchestra, along with the other community orchestras throughout the five boroughs of New York, is that there isn’t enough room in the New York Philharmonic for all the first-rate classical players in town. This year marks the GVO’s thirtieth anniversary, half of that under the direction of maestro Barbara Yahr. And it’s their most ambitious season ever, in fact, arguably the most ambitious season of any orchestra in New York this year For example, their next concert, on Nov 6 at 3 PM includes the hauntingly immortal “Rach 2,” the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 with Imri Talgam as soloist, along with some highlights from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet as well as his Lieutenant Kijé Suite. Further down the road, they’re doing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, along with a more playful Broadway-themed program that will probably be heavy on Leonard Bernstein.

The opening concert of the orchestra’s 2016-17 season was similarly ambitious: an all-Dvorak bill that began with a tightly focused romp through the first of his Symphonic Dances. On one hand, it was a signal that the orchestra wasn’t going to waste auy time bringing the energy to redline. Yet, Yahr’s calmly unassailable direction gave the piece a balletesque precision in the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a more elegant take on a centuries-old folk tradition.

They followed with Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Adele Anthony. As the program notes alluded, this piece has a funny backstory. The composer wrote it for Joseph Joachim, one of the 19th century’s greatest violinsts…who refused to play it, probably because it isn’t flashy enough! And flash is the last thing in mind Dvorak had in mind for it: at its ravishing heart (to quote one particularly astute, veteran GVO supporter), it’s a love story. And it’s noteworthy for how contiguous and integral the solo violin is within the context of the whole lush picture. For what it’s worth, Anthony played her cards close to the vest, an appropriate choice considering how intricately her part is woven into the work’s lavish and lively exchanges.

The orchestra closed with the most dynamic performance of the New World Symphony ever witnessed by this blog – and if you stick around the New York classical scene long enough, you see a bunch of them. One thing that made this special was that Dvorak very likely wrote part of the symphony on the very spot – 17th Street and Irving Place – where the orchestra performed it. Dvorak taught for a couple of years at the conservatory which remained there until it was razed in the early 1920s. What was equally special was how Yahr and her ensemble pulled it off. She is passionate and meticulous about details, particularly the most minute ones that a composer will hide away just to see if anybody gets them. In this case, it was the momentary, surreal dream-state rondo of an interlude that flashes by in maybe forty seconds in the symphony’s final movement, a secret key that seems to resolve every previous theme if you listen closely. After going deep into the score, Yahr had it sussed out: “I think this is about memory,” she asserted. “ And maybe Dvorak remembering his life in Bohemia, and being homesick.”

And the orchestra responded. It would be facile to explain the vast expanse they tackled, and conquered, by saying that Yahr started everything out hushed and sotto voce to give the musicians as much headroom as possible later on. What came into clearest focus – another point that Yahr emphasized – was that as much as Dvorak seized on African-American blues and spiritual themes, this is an indelibly European piece of music. Everybody who had to be on his or her game was. Horns, first and foremost, scouts surveying the terrain and foreshadowing the bellicosity in their path, were absolutely flawless, along with percussion and the tight-as-a-barrel string section. Other NewYork orchestras release every performance: a grab bag, to say the least, including the Philharmonic’s own performances. For the GVO, this was one for the ages. .

While we’re at it, here’s an alternate interpretation, one that Yahr might or might not agree with. Dvorak was definitely in memory mode – memory of conflict, and fear, and maybe war. Repression was a fact of daily life in the Hapsburg Empire, something that might well have factored into the volleys and frantic retreats that provide an understatedly chilling contrast with the earthy themes that recall Swing Low Sweet Chariot – and which both George Gershwin and Paul Simon would rip off years and decades later. Dvorak might well have had an ulterior motive to take up a New York society matron’s offer of residency here: to stay out of harm’s way for a bit.

Marianna Prjevalskaya Rescues a Rachmaninoff Rarity

Let’s say you’re the world’s most famous classical pianist, or one of them, anyway. And you’re a real rock star. You’re riding an unprecedented wave of popularity, after having rescued your career with one of the most harrowing pieces of music ever written, namely the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2.

And you need an encore. Instead of coming up with another completely original work, you throw caution to the wind. Without a moment’s hesitation, you use a similarly haunting theme by Chopin – one of the world’s best-loved and most morose melodies – as a stepping-off point for an ambitious, dynamically gripping suite. That’s what Sergei Rachmaninoff did in 1903 with his Variations on a Theme of Chopin. Trouble was, it bombed.

Although considered by many to be the greatest pianist in the history of recorded music, Rachmaninoff’s surviving recordings – dating from the early 1900s through 1943 – do not include many of his compositions. Sadly, the Variations on a Theme of Chopin are one of them. Which is why pianist Marianna Prjevalskaya’s new album of that suite,  along with the vastly better known Variations on a Theme of Corelli, is so vital, and such a revelation. Thousands of artists have released versions of the latter, and we know how the composer played them – far more quietly, and broodingly, than most have since. And you can hear them on Spotify, along with Prjevalskaya’s album.

But other than a handful of recordings by famous pianists – Vladimir Ashkenazy probably foremost among them – we don’t have anything of the Variations on a Theme of Chopin. It’s one of the real rarities in the composer’s canon. The critics didn’t like it, and audiences responded indifferently, which explains why the thin-skinned, angst-ridden Rachmaninoff quickly abandoned it and never picked it up again. Which is too bad. In its own idiosyncratic way, it’s every bit as gripping as the Corelli variations. Why isn’t it better known? You’ll be asking yourself that over and over again after you hear how Prjevalskaya approaches these 22 variations on the iconic Chopin C Minor Prelude. Where other pianists play it either raptly, or go to the other extreme and make heavy metal out of it – and is it ever heavy! – Prjevalskaya plays the prelude sparely, and spaciously, and lingeringly.

And then completely flips the script and plays the first variation with a liquid, Bach-like legato. The contrast is stunning, and may have something to do with why the suite went over like a lead balloon. Clearly, fans of the music weren’t ready to hear that iconic, funereal piece sliced and diced and spun through a prism as Rachmaninoff did with it – and as Prjevalskaya does here.

She finally picks up with the stern, emphatic (some would say interminable) gravitas associated with the composer, and then follows the logical trajectory as it spirals up and out. Both far more ornate and colorful than the original, it’s sort of proto art-rock from 1903.

Contrast the composer’s own version of the Corelli Variations with Prjevalskaya’s and then ask yourself how Corelli would respond. One suspects he’d be more at home with Prjevalskaya’s dancing, lilting Italianate performance than Rachmaninoff’s Slavic gloom. In so doing, she skirts both the temptation to go grand guignol on them, or fall into the trap of lefthand-versus-righthand that becomes almost a shtick if you want to ramp up the underlying menace. While it’s certainly worth a listen on Spotify, as is the case with so many classical recordings, some of the segments are flittingly brief, and ads pop up at the most inopportune times. One suspects that an awful lot of fans of dark, troubled music will be adding this to their cd collection so as to experience its dips and swells and tormented flurries as an integral whole.

Haskell Small Takes a Harrowing Journey Inward with His Latest Raptly Mystical Suite

Pianist Haskell Small‘s work is a prime example of the rewards of finding a muse and following that inspiration to the deepest reaches possible. He’s carved himself out a niche as a composer and champion of quiet, mystical, often viscerally haunting sounds. His 2014 album The Rothko Room: Journeys in Silence is a masterpiece of spare, lingering, often chilling inwardly-directed themes. He’s also one of the world’s foremost advocates for the otherworldly, bell-like music of Federico Mompou. Last night at St. Malachy’s Chapel in midtown, the pianist played an unselfconsciously transcendent solo program comprising both his own suite A Journey in Silence: Reflections on the Book of Hours, along with the New York premiere of John Tavener’s Pratirupa. Small is reprising the program tonight, May 10 at 8 PM at the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession. 550 W 155th St. If there’s ever been music written for the spacious sonics of a sacred space, this is it. The concert is sold out, but if you’re in the neighborhood, it would be worth checking to see if there are any no-shows.

Introducing the program, Small – father to another individualistic, intense composer, Sarah Small – explained that as he saw it, silence doesn’t equate to the absence of sound. Rather, it’s an invitation to look inward, a proces that can be pretty scary. The new suite, due out later this year, follows the moods of a monastic day’s routine. It’s replete with moments of lingering woundedness, quiet torment and even despair, yet offers a surprising counterbalance to all that trouble. Small began it with one of his signature, poignant, plaintive belltone themes: Satie, and Messiaen, and Debussy in gamelanesque mode echoed vividly in the distance.. The music peaked with incisive cascades of eerie tritones. then receded back into uneasy, resolutely unresolved territory.

Small very cleverly cached a couple of catchy, unexpectedly upbeat motives – a muted fanfare of sorts that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cesar Franck epic, along with a brief cathedral chime – within its architecture, and then deftly inserted variations on each throughout the suite. This made room for an unexpected optimism throughout an often harrowing journey. Shostakovich does this, sometimes Rachmanininoff too. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but as Small finally reached an almost reluctantly heroic crescendo, the payoff was not explosive but mighty all the same. And then he descended toward stillness again, gracefully, until a few final, increasingly spacious, weightily suspenseful chords that ended with sn almost imperceptibly whisper.

The Tavener turned out to be considerably different. On one hand, there was a clear connection to the first part of the program, considering ite bell motives and stately, strolling, sometimes folksy hymnal passages. On the other, it was as if Small was reminding that he can also play fiercely when he wants. And was he ever required to here! But he gamely tackled its thorny thickets of chiseling, Louis Andriessen-ish righthand riffs over an exhaust cloud of lefthand rumble, each of those interludes kicking off with an almost droll upward glissando. That was when he wasn’t mining the composer’s pensive, Chopinesque prelude segments for as much rapture and wonder as he could conjure. But ultimately, it wasn’t up to the level of Small’s own magic. He encored with a Bach invention, a well-chosen benediction. After journeying so far inward with the rest of the program, the experience was akin hearing it for the first time, a richly gentle offering of comfort and joy.

Pianist Ian Hobson Plays a Robust, Smartly Thematic Program at Merkin Concert Hall

How’s this for meta? The theme of pianist Ian Hobson‘s ambitious monthly series of concerts is…themes. And variations on those themes. With this series, he’s been pushing himself as hard as any other pianist out there right now. There’s no better example than next month’s April 13, 7’30 PM program at Merkin Concert Hall, where he’s going to open with a Faure theme and variations, then Schumann’s almost sadistically difficult Symphonic Etudes and then Rachmaninoff preludes, whose iconically harrowing beauty requires similarly daunting technique. If Wednesday’s program there was any indication, Hobson is up to the challenge. Tix are $20/$12.50 stud/srs.

Last night’s concert there found Hobson opening with a student work of sorts by Chopin, the Variations on Der Schweitzer Bub. It doesn’t sound much like Chopin. Rather, it draws a line straight back to Beethoven – contented, ebullient, carbonated post-soiree Beethoven, like, say, the Leonore Overture. How did Hobson handle it? As the flashy proto chamber pop that it is, but also as a study in contrasts, an approach that would work like a charm throughout the rest of the program.

Then he raised the bar with Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Those familiar with the piece are probably used to choppy, severe Soviet interpretations. Hobson’s was 180 degrees the opposite: lyrical, conversational, and revealing. Rachmaninoff pairs achingly searching righthand melodies against coldly brusque, fatalistic, even macabre lefthand riffs so often that it’s almost a shtick. Hobson worked that dynamic as a dialogue rather than grand guignol. His approach to the tempo and overall pacing was just as minutely attuned, with a legato so liquid that he seemed to be meeting the keys at the millisecond they bounced up, rather than crunching down on anything before its time had come. Not a lot of pianists play so convivially: Nancy Garniez is one. There could be an influence here.

Next on the bill was the world premiere of a series of Yehudi Wyner preludes, completed just a month ago. How heartwarming to see that the now-octogenarian Wyner is absolutely undiminished, and what a fantastic segue they made wih the suite of Debussy etudes that followed. Dynamics were once again front and center as Hobson switched elegantly between gnomic Kurtag-esque minimalism, Debussy gamelanisms and otherworldly, echoing bell tones that brought to mind Frederic Mompou.

Much as piano etudes tend to be perceived as simplistic and less than desirable for public performance, they actually tend to be very difficult. The program notes quoted Debussy doing his best to put Carl Czerny (patron saint of boring practice pieces) in his place by writing a series of rigorous numbers that brought some actual fun to the struggle of mastering complex late Romantic repertoire. Much as there was plenty of repetition, deliberate emphasis on crosshand technique, tendon-tormenting octatves and such, there was no step down from Debussy at his usual self. Hobson made the bells chime, the cascades gleam, and uneasy, enigmatic journeys into as much cherry resolution as this composer ever possibly alllows. That, and the frequent droll flourish that drew chuckles from an impressive crowd for a crisp early spring night.

And if all this wasn’t enough of a workout, Hobson – who’d broken into a sweat by then – encored with a robust take of Ondine, from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. The concert had come full circle: in order to play this even more uneasy, challenging showstopper, you might need a few of the practice pieces Hobson had built full steam with.

A Sonically Thrilling, Disquieting North American Premiere For Karmina Silec’s Toxic Psalms

Last night at St. Ann’s Warehouse, the mighty but graceful Slovenian women’s choir Carmina Slovenica premiered their founder Karmina Silec’s breathtaking and equally relevant multimedia suite, Toxic Psalms to open this year’s Prototype Festival. It only makes sense that this work would come out of a part of the world which has seen so much trouble in the past couple of decades, yet it transcends national identity. Themes of absence and distant, implied horror were ever-present, as was a defiant feminist sensibility. The choice of music spanned the centuries and the globe and was all the more fascinating, and relevant, for the ambitious and striking arrangements of all but one of the older works. And while it wouldn’t be exactly accurate to characterize the movements of the choir as dance – Silec calls it “choregie” – the choreography was just as ambitious, and amplified the disturbing quality of the performance. The program repeats tonight at 8 PM as well as at 3 and 8 PM on Saturday, Jan 10, and at 5 PM on Jan 11. As of the wee hours of today (Jan 9), there are still a handful of tickets left for tonight’s and Sunday’s performances as well as a few more for Saturday’s shows. From the stunned reaction of the crowd last night, if you’re on the fence about seeing this, you’d better move.

The somberly clad choir opened with their backs to the rear wall of the stage beneath a black veil, justice depicted by a lone member gingerly balancing a couple of upside-down umbrellas on her head. The women massed and mingled apprehensively and took their time approaching what could have been a graveyard, yet in doing so they seemed to find empowerment and maybe closure. They walked in line through a field of lemons (what that was about was never clear) and managed not to make lemon zest out of them. Silec’s direction toyed with crowd dynamics on both the conformist and nonconformist sides with a coldly sardonic humor that offered momentary respite from the lingering bleakness of the music. The group artfully employed mirrors;, finally one of them broke the fourth wall in a flittingly comedic but ultimately chilling bit of narration.

Of the music on the bill, seemingly only the excerpt from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which concluded the program on an unconvincingly calm, benedictory note, was left more or less intact. Eerie Slavic close harmonies, from resonantly brooding to jarring and horrific, were everywhere, as was dizzying yet meticulously orchestrated counterpoint, from a sarcastic Karin Rehnkvist arrangement of a medley of Finnish folk songs through an aptly titled Lozje Lebic sound mosaic. Brief passages from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil and a plaintive more-or-less solo performance of a Syrian hymn offered a familiar, sheltering ambience before the storm that exploded at the edge of the crowd in Orwellian terror, a long excerpt from the Kalevala with music by Veljo Tormis. Some of the program’s early narration suggested that citizens of the current crop of democratic countries may be ill suited to overthrowing evil forces in power: this brought that idea full circle with an in-your-face intensity that would make Pussy Riot proud.

32 Concerts in 32 Days: Day 32, Breaking the Record

Bargemusic’s latest scheme to entice concertgoers is a clever if somewhat obvious one: give them a taste of future programming with free, casual afternoon performances of some of that material. This afternoon’s show began with the venue’s musical director, violinist Mark Peskanov, playing a memorably brief handful of solo Bach pieces. He may jokingly characterize himself as the boat’s handyman, but he’s a pyrotechnic player. He gave the Adagio and Fugue from the G Minor Sonata for Solo Violin a raw, intense edge, and then followed with a wildfire romp through two passages from another solo violin work – the Sonata in E, maybe? E flat? Without a program, and a memory like a warehouse with no room to spare, it’s hard to remember which it was. Peskanov said the bright, optimistic work was “like Bach creating the universe.” It was also like Bach discovering dancing: underneath all the perfectly precise metrics and pinballing off one string to another, there’s a bouncy, carefree country fiddle tune, and Peskanov worked up a sweat bringing that to the surface.

Pianist Olga Vinokur, another regular performer here, followed with equally powerful, precise takes on a couple of Russian Romantic favorites. She started with four segments of Tschaikovsky’s Seasons: unlike Vivaldi, there’s one for each month. In her hands, April held out hope; May looked forward to summer; August was a firestorm of intense, staccato riffage; and December had the feel of a sentimental overture, a fond postlude. Then she tackled five of Rachmaninoff’s Musical Moments, which she’ll be playing here on Oct 13 at 8 PM (tix are a steep $35, but she’s worth it). The gorgeous, Chopinesque plaintiveness of the first two didn’t hint at the fiendishly difficult downward cascades and torrents of the next two, but she had them in her fingers confidently, playing from memory. And then she encored with another that reverted to the feel she began with.

There was a brief Q&A afterward. Vinokur is Russian by birth; she earned her doctorate at Manhattan School of Music; she’s very personable and approachable. She’s also not phased by occasional sway of the boat when the ferries come in at the landing just a couple hundred feet away: it would be fair to say that this performance might have been the most rocking afternoon Bargemusic has ever experienced. It’s also worth mentioning that since most Bargemusic concerts take place at night (as a romantic date spot, this place is absolutely unsurpassed), the ferries come and go less frequently and the waves are less jarring than simply an enhancement of the kind of music that you can get absolutely lost in.