Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Andrew Litton, Brook Ferguson, Chad Cognata, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Courtney Hershey Bress, Edward Elgar, Janos Starker, Jason Shafer, Paul Watkins, Peter Cooper, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Yumi Hwang-Williams
Friday evening, March 14, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra presented an absolutely stellar concert comprised of a Suite from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66, the magnificent Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, by Sir Edward Elgar, performed by Paul Watkins, and finishing with Prokofiev’s Symphony Nr. 4 in C Major, Op. 112. All three of these works were performed brilliantly which clearly demonstrated, once again, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra is one of the best in the country.
Recently, I had occasion to write about Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, and there are several interesting facts about it. I will briefly quote from my previous article:
“Most scholars and musicologists regard Sleeping Beauty as the most perfectly crafted of Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) three ballet scores. Yet, when he was approached to write an overture, he could not decide what pieces to include, and, in addition, he could not decide whether to write two suites or one suite. He even consulted his friend, pianist and arranger, Alexander Siloti, to set the score of his Sleeping Beauty for piano duet, which he decided not to do. However, Siloti did give the score to his cousin, Sergei Rachmaninoff (who was seventeen years old at the time) thinking that Rachmaninoff was the better pianist. Eventually, Siloti himself did arrange the entire score for piano solo. Nonetheless, no orchestral version of a suite was put together until several years after Tchaikovsky’s death. In 1899, his publisher and friend, Pyotr Jurgenson assembled the orchestral suite. It included: Introduction: Of the Lilac Fairy; Pas d’action. Adagio; Pas de caractère: Puss in Boots; Panorama; and Valse.”
The reason that I quote from my previous article is that Tchaikovsky himself had difficulty choosing what parts of the ballet to include in a suite for concert purposes. Maestro Andrew Litton solved that problem rather neatly by making his own selections from the ballet to include in a suite. I also point out that Maestro Litton did not arrange them in order of Acts or Scenes, but rather, according to the program notes, arranged them in an order which would create more of a “symphonic” aura, and to point out that the music is quite capable of standing on its own without dancers. There are some purists who might consider Maestro Litton to be tampering with Tchaikovsky’s work by arranging his own suite from the ballet. However, since a suite from the ballet was certainly not compiled by its composer, it is by no means unusual for a musician of Maestro Litton’s ability and musicianship to compile a suite from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. His selections include: 1. Scene from Act II; 2. Panorama from Act II; 3. Waltz from Act I; 4. Pas d’action – Rose Adagio from Act I; 5. Dance of the Maids of Honor; 6. Variations on Aurora; 7. The Adagio from Act III; and 8. the Finale and Apotheosis from Act III. Eight sections in all. So Maestro Litton’s suite was considerably longer than the one created by Pyotr Jurgenson 115 years ago.
There is no question that Litton’s choices certainly provided each section of the orchestra to demonstrate its performance ability and musicality. In number four, Courtney Hershey Bress had a marvelous harp solo followed by some excellent work from Chad Cognata on the bassoon and the woodwinds as a section. In number six, Variations on Aurora, Concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams had a beautiful solo that was full of passion. In number seven, Peter Cooper, Principal Oboe, was truly exceptional. At this juncture I need to stress a point of view: the members of this orchestra are all exceptional musicians who have worked very hard and practiced very long hours to reach this point in their lives. The musicians I just named are exceptional in every way, but you must understand that everyone in the orchestra is truly superb. The CSO performed Maestro Litton’s Suite from The Sleeping Beauty with all the passion and lyricism that one would expect from Tchaikovsky’s remarkable ballet. The only criticism that I might have about this performance is that the dynamic level seemed to be at a fairly consistent fortissimo with only a few sojourns into the piano range.
At the conclusion of the Tchaikovsky, Maestro Andrew Litton addressed the audience and welcomed them to the concert. He also pointed out to them that the Colorado Symphony Orchestra is one of the “great unknown secrets” in the United States. I could not agree more. The audience was again sparse. There seem to be so many people in the city of Denver who think that to enjoy good music, one has to be trained in it. That is simply not so. There is much music being performed today (rock, hip-hop), that is a part of our culture but is not art. Serious music is art, and that is part of our culture as well, but in some instances, culture must be separated from art.
Following the Tchaikovsky, the CSO and a very remarkable cellist, Paul Watkins, performed the Elgar Cello Concerto. I will quote from the program notes:
“Acclaimed for his inspirational performances and eloquent musicianship, Paul Watkins enjoys a distinguished career both as concerto soloist and chamber musician. He performs regularly with all the major British orchestras and has performed with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony, Queensland Orchestra, Konzerthausorchester Berlin, and the RAI National Symphony Orchestra of Turin. A dedicated chamber musician, he has been a member of the Nash Ensemble since 1997 and he regularly performs with Menahem Pressler, Jaime Laredo, Lars Vogt, Christian Tetzlaff, and Vadim Repin. Future highlights include solo recitals at King’s Place, London, and the Wigmore Hall. He will become the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet beginning in the 2013-14 season. Recent releases on the Chandos Records label include Britten’s Cello Symphony, the Delius and Rosza cello concertos, Martinu’s music for cello and piano, and Mendelssohn’s cello sonatas. Future releases will include the Elgar and Lutoslawski concertos, and a series of British cello sonatas. Since winning the 2002 Leeds Conducting Competition he has conducted all the major British orchestras and in the 2009-10 season became the first ever music director of the English Chamber Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Ulster Orchestra. He studied with William Pleeth, Melissa Phelps, and Johannes Goritzki, and at the age of 20 was appointed Principal Cellist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Watkins plays on a cello made by Domenico Montagnana and Matteo Goffriller in Venice, c.1730.”
The minute Mr. Watkins began to play I was absolutely stunned. He opened the Elgar with an incredibly passionate but very sharp attack on the opening theme and opening phrase. It was the exact opposite of what, for example, one would expect from Jacqueline du Pré who performed this work beautifully but without the passion exhibited by Paul Watkins. Watkins precise attacks reminded me very much of Janos Starker, whose playing I’m quite familiar with. Both Watkins and Starker gave this magnificent concerto a searing and introspective atmosphere which at once was passionate and searchingly intimate. His technique is absolutely ferocious, but he never loses sight of the intensity inherent in Elgar’s writing. The second movement was a mellow and lyrical, and the opening recitative from the first movement was easily recognizable. The third movement is without a doubt one of the most passionate pieces of music that Elgar ever wrote, and Watkins was absolutely relentless in its exposure, and it was almost a relief from the intensity, when the fourth movement began without pause. I saw the score to this concerto several years ago, but I seem to recall that the last movement is marked Noblimente, which is interrupted by an Allegro non troppo on the part of the entire orchestra. As the end comes near, Elgar writes an extended and very moving reminiscence of several themes from the previous movements. Watkin’s passion for this piece was certainly noticeable, and the sound of his magnificent cello seemed to fit his playing extraordinarily well. I would invite all of you readers to seek out recordings made by Paul Watkins. You will not believe your ears.
The final work on the program Friday evening was the huge Symphony Nr. 4 by Sergei Prokofiev. Prokofiev wrote this work in Paris and completed it in 1930. Sergei Koussevitzky premiered the work with the Boston Symphony on November 14 of that year, but expressed great annoyance with Prokofiev because this Symphony made use of some material from Prokofiev’s Prodigal Son (a ballet). Koussevitzky complained that he had just performed the Symphony Nr. 3 which contained music from the Fiery Angel (a Prokofiev opera) and he wanted a Symphony with all brand-new music. Prokofiev reminded Koussevitzky’s that a decent portion of the music he had written for the Prodigal Son had not appeared in the ballet, and that Beethoven had used some of the music from his ballet, Creatures of Prometheus, in his Symphony Nr. 3. At any rate, Prokofiev’s Symphony Nr. 4 received only moderate success in Boston, and likewise in Paris, when it was performed by Pierre Monteux. Prokofiev was disappointed because he had omitted much of his usual dissonance, extreme rhythms, and the sarcasm (Prokofiev’s sarcasm comes from his use of unexpected orchestration, changes of direction of melodic lines, and disjunct rhythms) that appeared in his second and third symphonies. This symphony was revised by Prokofiev in 1947, and at that time, he enlarged it.
The Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed magnificently in this Prokofiev Symphony. It was expansive and sweeping, and the opening movement had an undeniable forward momentum from the driving rhythm. Jason Shafer, Principal Clarinet who is with the orchestra on a one-year replacement, was sensational in this first movement as was Peter Cooper, Principal Oboe. In the second movement, Brook Ferguson, Principal Flute, was equally outstanding, and even though this movement is marked Andante tranquillo, the entire orchestra gave it the sensation of monstrous scope. Throughout this entire work, the CSO and Maestro Litton emphasized the rhythmic undercurrent (even though the rhythms were not extreme) beneath the rising melodic lines. This is a huge work that encompasses many “moods,” if you will. Maestro Litton occasionally used the baton, and occasionally used just his hands to help remind the CSO of the details which were on their path through this work. At the end of this symphony, I was left with the very clear and very substantial impression that the CSO truly enjoyed performing this huge symphony. I can assure you that the audience enjoyed it as well.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Alix Corboy, Bernhard Heiden, Dianne Betkowski, Halsey Stevens, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Vivaldi
Thursday evening, December 13, cellist Dianne Betkowski, and pianist Alix Corboy, presented their recital at the Mortgage West Gallery in the Plum Building on South Pearl Street in Denver as part of the Eclectic Concert Series. This facility is excellent for this kind of recital, and it was also edifying to note that there was quite a good-sized audience to hear these two women perform.
Betkowski and Corboy opened their program with the Cello Sonata Nr. 6, in B flat major, RV 46, by Antonio Vivaldi. We know that Vivaldi wrote at least ten sonatas for cello, four of which have never been published, and we also know that the Sonata in D minor, RV 38, has been lost. It also seems obvious to speculate that Vivaldi probably wrote even more cello sonatas, based on his huge output. Every time I write about Vivaldi, I try to explain the RV thematic catalogue numbers, because in Vivaldi, more so than any other composer, it is a complex process. Rather than just one scholar establishing the chronological order of all of Vivaldi’s works, there are five musicologists and one publisher involved. To make a long story short, Mario Rinaldi catalogued much of Vivaldi’s output, but some works were not included or not yet discovered. The Danish musicologist, Peter Ryom began his own catalog of Vivaldi’s works and also included a Concordance with Rinaldi’s catalog. Ryom suggests using RV, wherein the V stands for the German word Verzeichnis, or catalogue (not Vivaldi as many suspect), and R can refer to either the Italian publisher Ricordi or to Rinaldi. I pray that you readers will trust me on the following comment, and that is: once the difference between all of the Rs is established then one can continue to the Pincherle Catalog, the Fanna Numbers, or the Malipiero Organization.
Two of the four movements of the Sonata, the fast movements, are really Baroque dance forms: an Allemanda (the second movement) and a Corrente (the fourth movement). These are relatively quick movements, while the first movement (labeled Predludio) is slow, as is the third movement, which is simply marked Largo.
As a whole, these six published sonatas by Vivaldi are very different from the rest of his output, and the Sonata performed Thursday evening is no exception. This Sonata, written in 1739, is really quite dark and moody, and it is almost as if Vivaldi is considering the cello to be a very special instrument in some sense or another. He takes full of advantage of the range of the instrument, and Dianne Betkowski certainly established that with her careful attention to tone, and her ability to highlight the contrasting of moods. In other Vivaldi compositions, there are contrasting moods, of course, but usually not so many in one single movement. In this Cello Sonata, Ms. Betkowski, is required to shift from very mellifluous and thoughtful melodic lines, to passagework that is virtuosic, and perhaps, what one would more readily expect from Vivaldi.
It was clear that Alix Corboy was thoroughly attuned to her partner’s moods, because she echoed the gravity of the slow movements and their warmth, while her playing was light and airy in the virtuoso passages. I was amazed at how the two were situated in the hall, because it seemed to me that the two of them would find it difficult to make eye contact while they were playing. Usually, the cellist is a little more centered in the bend of the piano. Betkowski seemed to be sitting more at the end of the keyboard, and thus, had to rely on Corboy’s eyes, rather than returning the favor for Corboy. However, there certainly did not seem to be a problem, and it was clear that these two had played quite often together. Corboy and Betkowski presented this cello sonata in a very personal and intimate manner, and they left no detail unturned. They answered each other’s phrases with grace and effortlessness, and it made me wish to hear the other five sonatas that have been published.
Following the Vivaldi, this duo presented a rarely heard short piece by the late composer, Bernhard Heiden, entitled Siena. He was a student at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik where he studied composition with Paul Hindemith. He immigrated to the United States in 1935 with his wife, and settled in Detroit, Michigan, where there was an art center. He began performing chamber music recitals, and composing incidental music for theatrical productions. He was drafted into the United States Army, and afterward entered Cornell University where he studied musicology with the well-known Donald Grout. In 1946, he was made a faculty member and Chairman of the Composition Department at the renowned School of Music (now known as the Jacobs School of Music) at Indiana University.
Siena is a wonderful short piece that was dedicated, as was his Cello Sonata of 1958, to his friend and fellow faculty member, Janos Starker. This is a delightful piece with somewhat thick textures which clearly shows the influence of Hindemith. I’m fairly certain that the year was 1959 when I first heard this performed by Starker and Gyorgy Sebok on a faculty recital. This is a delightful piece and Betkowski and Corboy brought back many memories of its performance. Even though it does contain thick textures, they presented it in a very playful manner with superb phrasing and attention to dynamics.
Halsey Stevens is an American composer that, unfortunately, we don’t hear too much of these days. He was born in 1908 in upstate New York. He graduated from Syracuse University, and then traveled to California where he studied with Ernest Bloch at Berkeley. His most important composition student was undoubtedly Morten Lauridsen.
Alix Corboy and Dianne Betkowski performed Three Pieces for Cello and Piano by Stevens. These are delightful pieces to do, and it seemed that Corboy and Betkowski really enjoyed performing them. They were full of life, and again, the detail work accomplished by these two musicians made these pieces all the more enjoyable. What was most noticeable in these three pieces was the truly wonderful sensitive ensemble these two musicians exhibited. They were so relaxed together that the performance of these three works seemed to unfold with great casualness. It really allowed the audience to sit back and enjoy this music of Stevens’ which is no longer heard often.
Following the intermission, Betkowski and Corboy performed the monumental Sonata in C major, Opus 119, by Sergei Prokofiev. The appellation “monumental” can be applied to many things that Prokofiev wrote. He was a virtuoso pianist of the highest level which was accompanied by one of the greatest musical minds of the 20th century.
This Sonata is full of the true sarcasm that typifies so much of Prokofiev’s work. He achieves that mood by contrasting hard-driving, percussive motives, with some of the most intensely lyrical writing of the 20th century. In addition, one never knows where he is going to go next with his harmonies. He uses recognizable chords, but he does not use them in a traditionally functional manner. This Sonata, Opus 119, is dark and moody, and yet, contains some of the most beautifully lyrical melodies Prokofiev wrote. In this work, one can tell by the spacing of the harmonies, and the wide ranging melodic lines, that Prokofiev had an orchestra in mind when he wrote the piano part. It was wonderful to hear how Corboy “voiced” the themes on the keyboard so that it was possible to predict which instruments would be used had Prokofiev orchestrated them. As I listened to Betkowski perform, I came away with the feeling that this was probably her favorite piece on the program. All three movements of the stunningly difficult work were absolutely immaculate, and it is a tribute to both of these women that they performed this piece without any visible sign to the audience of its immense difficulty. They simply did the job with true musicianship and great excitement.
I must say, at this point, that I was disappointed in the piano that was used. During the course of the concert it gradually went out of tune, and, from the outset, it was clear that it had not been properly voiced. One voices the piano by needling the felt on hammers: if one needles the felt excessively, the piano can sound muffled. If the hammers are not needled enough, the piano can sound brittle and harsh. It is a difficult thing to voice the piano properly, but one does try for an even tone across the full range of the keyboard. These musicians deserve a good piano that is properly prepared. They were giving this performance their full effort, and it is a shame that the piano technician did not do the same.
The concluding work on this program was by Felix Mendelssohn, and it was a composition specifically written for cello and piano, entitled, Song Without Words, and it carries the opus number 109. I say specifically for cello and piano so that it will not be confused with his set of solo piano works which are called Songs (plural) Without Words. These are short pieces for the piano written to “compete” with Chopin’s études and preludes. Mendelssohn did wish to imply an extra thought process when he wrote these pieces, because he wanted the listener to imagine what the words might be when they heard the incredible music. The cello work which Betkowski and Corboy performed was written with the same aesthetic in mind.
Corboy and Betkowski infused this piece with the kind of lyricism and passion which is characteristic of the solo piano works, and which is entirely called for in this piece for cello and piano. It is certainly not maudlin by any stretch, but it certainly reminds one of Mendelssohn’s famous quote, “The thoughts that are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words; but on the contrary, too definite.” And it is that mystery of what those words could be that make this piece so compelling. Betkowski obtains wonderful tone from her cello, and likewise, Corboy from the piano: this piece was a perfect match for them.
This was a very enjoyable performance, played in intimate surroundings which produced a wonderfully immediate connection with the performers and the rest of the audience. Of course, that is one of the joys of chamber music. It was very easy to see that Corboy and Betkowski were enjoying the performance as much as the audience enjoyed hearing it.
Filed under: News | Tags: Albinoni, Ars Nova Singers, Bach, Bahman Saless, Beethoven, Biber, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Claire Huangci, Cobus Du Toit, Diamond, Hummel, John King, Lindsay Deutsch, Max Soto, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Prokofiev, Rameau, Rossini, Saint-Saens, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Thomas Edward Morgan, Torelli
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Maestro Bahman Saless have announced their new concert season for 2011-2012. Each concert has its own title which reflects the general spirit of the compositions performed for that particular concert.
“Liberation” – September 30th & October 1st, 2011
Mozart Abduction from the Seraglio, Overture
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Lindsay Deutsch, violin
Beethoven Symphony No. 7
Concert 1: First Congregational Church, Boulder
Concert 2: Montview Boulevard Presbyterian, Denver
“Piety” – October 28th & 29th, 2011
With Ars Nova Singers
1st piece To Be Announced
Concert 1: St. John’s Cathedral, Denver
Concert 2: First United Methodist, Boulder
“Festivity” – December 16th & 17th, 2011
Rameau Suite in G/g (La Poule)
Albinoni Oboe Concerto in d, featuring Max Soto, oboe
Torelli Christmas Concerto
Bach Suite No. 2 in b, featuring Cobus du Toit, flute
Concert 1: First Congregational Church, Boulder
Concert 2: Jefferson Unitarian, Golden
New Year’s Eve Concert – December 31st, 2011
Waltzes and more (still working on details)
Note: This concert will be performed in the Glenn Miller Ballroom, UMC (?)
“Joy” – February 10th & 11th, 2012
Mozart Divertimento, K.136
Diamond Rounds for String Orchestra
Concert 1: Broomfield Auditorium
Concert 2: First Congregational Church, Boulder
“Reverence” – April 13th & 14th, 2012
Saint-Saens Piano Concerto #2, featuring Claire Huangci, piano
Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite
Prokofiev Classical Symphony
Concert 1: First Congregational Church, Boulder
Concert 2: Broomfield Auditorium
“Mastery” – May 11th & 12th, 2012
Rossini L’Italiana in Algeri, Overture
Hummel Trumpet Concerto, featuring John King, trumpet
Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3, Scottish
Concert 1: First Congregational Church, Boulder
Concert 2: Broomfield Auditorium
This is a very good series of programs. The title of the entire season is “Road to Mastery.” And indeed, even though several of the pieces could be included in the last program, which is entitled Mastery, there is a sort of natural progression. And I point out that the titles for each program are quite apt. For example, take a look at the concert entitled Reverence. Here are three works which are truly “revered” because they are absolute masterworks.
Lindsay Deutsch, a young violinist who has taken the United States by storm will be the featured artist for the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto on the first program of the season. Ms. Deutch received her Bachelor’s Degree, and continues to study at the Colburn Conservatory of Music, where she studies with Robert Lipsett. She has performed with orchestras throughout the United Statesand Canada, in addition to performing the violin soundtrack for the 2006 movie, The Good Shepherd.
In addition to her many awards and concert credits, she and her sister, Lauren, have co-founded a non-profit organization, Classics Alive (www.ClassicsAlive.org), dedicated to building classical music audiences. I think this is a fantastic idea that more young musicians who are on the concert stage need to become involved with.
Another young American artist will perform with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra this coming season. She is Claire Huangci of Rochester,New York, and she will perform the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto Nr. 2.
Born in 1990, Claire became a student of Eleanor Sokoloff, a piano professor of the Curtis Institute of Music. In 2003, she was formally accepted by the Curtis Institute with a full scholarship from the Hirsig Family Foundation and continued her piano study under Eleanor Sokoloff and Gary Graffman. From there, she went on to win the Philadelphia Orchestra Competition and performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Wolfgang Sawalisch, one of dozens of American orchestras she has appeared with. Several of her performances were aired on music radio stations in 2006 and 2007. In May 2007, Curtis Director Gary Graffman honoured her with the Most Promising Student Award. She is continuing her work with Professor Arie Vardi in Germany at the Hanover Hochschule für Musik as she continues to perform throughoutEurope.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra’s own Max Soto, principal oboe, will perform Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in d minor. Max Soto has a Masters Degree in Performance from the Lamont School of Music, and has performed throughout the United States. Max began his musical education with the Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil de Costa Rica which allowed him to study with Principal Oboist Jorge Rodriguez and helped to cultivate a passion for classical music and the oboe. Max arrived in the USA in 1996 at the Loyola University of New Orleans and received his Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance. Max began his professional career as the Assistant Principal oboist with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra.
John King, principal trumpet with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, will perform the Trumpet Concerto by Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Since moving to Coloradoin 2004 John has performed with all major arts organizations including Colorado Symphony and Colorado Ballet. Before moving here he was in the San Francisco Bay area for many years, and during this time he held the position of Second Trumpet in San Jose Symphony and was Principal Trumpet in Californiafor eighteen seasons. In addition, he worked extensively with the San Francisco Symphony including numerous national tours and recordings.
Another amazing musician from the BCO, Cobus du Toit, will perform the Bach Suite Nr. 2 in b. Cobus held the principal position in the National Youth Orchestra of South Africa which toured to Germany for the Beethoven Festival in Bonn. While in Germany, Cobus also performed at noted venues such as the Berlin Philharmonie under conductor Herbert Blomstedt. Other orchestral experience includes the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of South Africa, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, University of Pretoria Symphony Orchestra and the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
Certainly, no one will want to miss the October concert. Thomas Edward Morgan and the Ars Nova Singers will perform the Mozart Requiem. I have stated before, and I mean this in all sincerity, that the Ars Nova Singers is one of the best choral groups in the United States. If any of you readers have not heard them, you must come to this performance. The pairing of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and the Ars Nova Singers will be a performance that you absolutely must hear.
The artists involved, and the difficulty of the programming, are indicative of the quality of this organization. The Boulder Chamber Orchestra continues to set a new standard for itself. Maestro Bahman Saless has established a real criterion for this young organization which was founded in 2004. Their website says that they have become Boulder’s premier chamber orchestra. I truly think that should be changed to read one of the region’s premier chamber orchestras.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: André Hafner, Anna Arzumanyan, Arvo Pärt, Bach, Janis Sakai, Pablo de Sarasate, Prokofiev, Yumi Hwang-Williams
Sometimes, I will have people say to me, “Why are you reviewing a student, for heavens sake?” Or, sometimes they will say, “Don’t you think it’s a little unfair to pick on a student?” And, on occasion, I have even had them say, “A student? Students don’t play well! They are students!” My response to all of this is that I have worked with students all my life and I have taught for 53 years. I have worked with undergraduate and graduate students, so I think I have a pretty good idea of those who will succeed (though it is, of course, always difficult to make predictions, especially when you are dealing with future!), those who will not succeed, and those who play extraordinarily well. Janis Sakai, a violinist and a senior at the Lamont School of Music, is one of those students who plays extraordinarily well, and I see no reason why she will not succeed.
Ms. Sakai gave her senior recital Sunday evening, April 10. Her collaborative pianist was Anna Arzumanyan, herself a remarkable musician. Ms. Sakai was also joined by André Hafner, in a violin duet, and he is yet another remarkable musician. The point to this is that Janis Sakai is enough of a musician to surround herself with musicians of similar ilk. That is all part of the learning process. I have heard Janis Sakai play before, when she performed as concertmaster in Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. She was stunning then, and she was stunning Sunday night.
She opened her program with Fratres, by Arvo Pärt. Lest you have forgotten, Arvo Pärt (1935 –) is one of the most important living composers. He has devoted much of his time researching sacred polyphonic vocal music from the Renaissance, and he has established a new approach to totality and dissonance which he calls “tintinnabulation.” He is devout in his Orthodox faith, and has often infused his compositions with spiritual meaning. Pärt completed seven versions of Fratres, and I have always thought that the version for violin was demanding on several levels. Ms. Sakai demonstrated immediately that she has excellent tone while playing extremely softly, and (keep in mind that I am a pianist) it always amazes me when violinists play completely across the strings without their arm falling off. But that she did, while maintaining her tone and pitch, with only a few scattered squeaks. This is really a very beautiful piece, and most importantly, she made it beautiful, and so did her pianist, who has absolutely fantastic peripheral vision, and a wonderful intuitive sense.
Following the Pärt, Janis Sakai performed the Bach Partita in D minor, BWV 1004. The violin partitas represent some of Bach’s most amazing polyphonic writing for a non-keyboard instrument. They make huge technical demands on performers, their scope is huge, they are incredibly important to the development of violin technique, and their intellectual intensity makes them a real challenge to perform. None of this seemed to bother Ms. Sakai terribly much as she began with an absolutely full, almost gutsy sound. In just the first two measures however, there was the slightest loss of feeling the beat, but that disappeared almost immediately. The rest of the opening Allemande was full of confidence and very good voicing. I found myself thinking, and I have not heard this piece performed live for quite some time, that this is a good piece for a senior recital. It allows the violinist to gain a little bit of confidence because the Allemande does not have any double stops to speak of. And let’s face it, there has hardly ever been a senior, whether they are a violinist, a pianist, or a singer, who has not been nervous at one of their required recitals. The Corrente and Sarabande were extremely well done, though in the Corrente there were a couple of phrase endings that seemed to just disappear. Still, it was readily apparent that Ms. Sakai should be performing this piece even though it is excruciatingly difficult. The Sarabande has a coda which leads directly into the Giga, itself a wonderful movement, which was wonderfully done. My question of the day is why the monumental Chaconne, which is movement number five in this Partita, was not performed. I did not realize that it was optional. It could be because of time constraints, as it is one of the most colossal works that Bach has ever written, and is often performed as a solo piece without the rest of the Partita. Its length is at least fifteen minutes, which is as long as the first four movements combined. Nonetheless, my ear itched to hear it.
Before the intermission, Janis Sakai was joined onstage by André Hafner and the pianist Anna Arzumanyan to perform a piece of concert fluff by Pablo de Sarasate. Though I call this piece “concert fluff” I am being humorously cavalier, because, though I have never heard this work before Sunday evening, it has to be one of the most difficult pieces of “concert fluff” ever written. It has every known technical difficulty for two violinists known to man. Not only that, but the large portion of it is in the unspeakably high range of the violin where it sounds almost like flutes and sometimes piccolos – and I am not exaggerating. But it was great fun listening to two students who seemed to be equally matched in ability (how can the Lamont school have two violin students in the same semester who are so good?), and seemed to enjoy waiting for the other to get tired first. They were always in tune, and their ensemble was something to behold. You must understand that when a piece is as difficult as this piece is, ensemble (the ability to play and stay together in the minutest of details) becomes critical. Surely this piece must have been enough for her degree, because it was also very musical.
I have written before about the USSR’s Cultural Committee, and how they bullied the Russian composers, including Prokofiev, to bend to their dictates. And though he became known as a “bad boy,” he still became one of the great composers of all time. The opening of his Violin Concerto Nr. 2 in G minor is written in a 4/4 meter, but the opening theme, begun by the violin in solo, has five distinct beats. Sakai, again demonstrated her deftness in creating lush tone in these opening bars, and seemed to have no problem whatsoever in the ensuing abrupt changes in tonality and mood.
The second movement of this beautiful concerto is in E flat, and is lyrical and introspective. Sakai’s phrasing in this movement was as beautiful as the piece itself. How can one so young do all of this? Her performance in the third movement absolutely sparkled. Constant triplets and a fierce forward driving rhythm did not faze her at all. This was a very exciting and very musical performance. And, by the way, Ms. Sakai studies with Yumi Hwang-Williams.
I was also quite struck with the ability of the pianist, Anna Arzumanyan. She was rock-solid in her role as orchestra in the Prokofiev, while providing Janis Sakai with the ability to take rubato wherever she wished. She is a very sensitive pianist, not only in the music she was playing, but in listening to, and “being available” in, all of the difficult spots for Sakai. A terrific musician!
As I sat and listened to this recital, I kept wondering where this young lady will go next. Of course, to graduate school, but after that? Maybe the whole world.