Lost and Found

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Feb 122013
 

525px-LostThis season I’ve heard a fair amount of chamber music, including concerts at the UCLA Clark Library, Cal Tech, the Colburn Music School, and all of the concerts in the Chamber Music Series of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

What strikes me at mid-season is just how hard it is to get the balance right between the instruments, especially when it comes to the viola, an instrument which to my ears is frequently underplayed.

As often happens it is the exceptions that lead to insights. Lawrence Dutton of the Emerson Quartet in the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 12 at Cal Tech and Dana Hansen of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Bartok String Quartet No. 1 both played with an assertiveness that kept the viola parts, even in an accompanying role, from fading into the background. Their playing enfranchised the viola so that it could stand its ground between the more piercing quality of the violins and the more substantial sound of the cello. Without this assertiveness in the viola a string quartet sounds top-heavy and the opportunity for an interchange of equals is lost.

On January 27, 2013 I went to the Honors Recital at the Colburn School in Los Angeles (www.colburnschool.edu). The school already puts on an excellent Chamber Music Series with faculty (including visiting artists such as the Ebène Quartet) and advanced conservatory students but the Honors Recital is different in that it features pre-college age students in a mixed program.

Because the selections were so interesting and the level of playing was so high I am including the entire program:

Brass Quintet No. 1, Op. 5 in b-flat minor (1890) by Victor Ewald

Eli Brown, trumpet (age 17)

Sean Whitworth, trumpet (age 17)

Steve Harmon, horn (age 18)

Liam Wilt, trombone (age 18)

Jon Forsander, tuba (age 17)

 

Sonata in d minor, Op. 27, No. 3 “Ballade” (1923) by Eugène Ysaÿe

Geneva Lewis, violin (age 14)

 

Cantabile et Presto (1904) by Georges Enesco

Michelle Sung, flute (age 17)

Roberta Garten, piano

 

Sonata, Op. 26 (1949) by Samuel Barber

Nicholas Mendez, piano (age 13)

 

Concerto No. 3 in b minor, Op. 61 (1880) by Camille Saint-Saëns

Mina Hong, violin (age 18)

Anton Smirnov, piano

 

Concerto for Viola (1928-29; revised 1961) by William Walton

Benjamin Penzner, viola (age 17)

Roberta Garten, piano

 

Preludes 1-3 (1926) by George Gershwin

Ho Joon Kim, piano (age 13)

 

Caprice basque (1881) by Pablo de Sarasate

Kristina Zlatareva, violin (age 19)

Sarah Yong, piano

 

String Quartet in F major (1902-03) by Maurice Ravel

Adam Millstein, violin (age 17)

Anna Vosbigian, violin (age 17)

Benjamin Penzner, viola (age 17)

Dustin Seo, cello (age 17)

I’m reluctant to single out a single player but if I return to the viola I’ve got to say that the young man, Benjamin Penzner, who played the Andante comodo of the Walton Viola Concerto is already at age 17 an accomplished violist. His playing had the qualities I’ve recently been straining to hear.

As I mentioned in my previous post, The Double, it is very worthwhile to follow the Performances page of the Colburn School’s website. In fact, there are even more events that you can learn about by subscribing to their email update service. For example, here’s an excerpt from the latest email; it announces a performance by the Colburn Community School of Performing Arts piano trio, which includes Geneva Lewis, who played the Ballade for solo violin by Ysaÿe so marvelously in the Honors Recital.

The Colburn Community School of Performing Arts piano trio, Geneva Lewis (violin), Rochelle Lewis (cello) and Katelyn Vahala (piano) placed second in the Junior Chamber Music Competition and will be performing at LACMA on Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 6 pm.

You can see the official notice of the event under the Programs page of the website for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (www.lacma.org).

Bach lives in Southern California

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Oct 042012
 

Gedenktafel_Markt_18_(Weimar)_Johann_Sebastian_BachGreat musical experiences are not limited to major venues, major orchestras, major soloists.

This is not to denigrate high-profile concerts, which give us a chance to dress up and spend a festive evening out, and which sometimes come with with huge musical rewards – but there are gems of a different sort out there in the local musical community.

Here in the Los Angeles area we have the Southern California Junior Bach Festival (www.scjbf.org) for students of strings, woodwinds, voice, organ, and keyboard, which takes place every year in three adjudicated stages between April and October. The Keyboard category, for students under age 19, attracts the greatest number of entrants.

The final stage, which for 2012 took place on Sept. 30, 2012 at Cal State Long Beach, is called the Complete Works Audition. Students who reach this stage are of course highly prepared and highly motivated. It is often possible to see and hear the influence of ambitious teachers and overbearing parents but you will also hear some students who are far from being wind-up toys or robots under remote control, students whose irrepressible innate musicality has been both nurtured and guided.

The Complete Works Audition lasts an entire day, and because the various categories, e.g. French Suites, WTC Book I, WTC Book II, etc., run in parallel sessions, it is not possible to hear everything. Except for the quite pleasant Daniel Recital Hall the closely-connected venues can be spare but admission to all sessions is free and you will hear often competent, sometimes even moving performances.

Since this a competition there is a great deal at stake for the students, parents, and teachers. But regardless of the final results (see my post about the Truncated Competition Society) it can be very rewarding, even uplifting, to talk to the students and parents and to let the students know that they have actually communicated with their audience. For the students this can be something of a surprise or bewilderment since their entire focus has been on practice and performance in a world circumscribed by parents and teachers.

The first-place winners in the various categories play in the Complete Works Audition Awards Concert, Covenant Presbyterian Church, 607 E. Third Street (at Atlantic Ave.) in Long Beach on October 13.

It is well worth spending time to hear these young students before they go off in other directions or are polished into uniformity by the conservatory system. The way they play now in the Bach Festival is at least evidence of the health of classical music education and at most an inspiration.

The Truncated Competition Society

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Aug 302012
 

800px-Closeup_of_protesters_at_Ginowan_protests_2009-11-08In any music competition our attention is focused on the announcement of the winners and just before that on the final round which leads into the jury’s deliberations. Of course the results are of extreme interest to the competitors who made it into the final round – their placing can give them wished-for and needed exposure.

But to a member of the audience who wants to hear talented and well-prepared young musicians there is a better way: go to the first round, hear all of the competitors, and then go home. Some competitions encourage deviations from this pattern: the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition (http://gina.bachauer.com/) and the Cleveland International Piano Competition (http://www.clevelandpiano.org/), for example, give all competitors a chance to play in both the first and second rounds, a structure much favored by the competitors themselves. But it is more common to start with about 25 to 30 competitors in the first round with a single cut to each subsequent round until there are six remaining in the final round (for example, the Cliburn Competition, the International Tchaikovsky Competition, and the Queen Elisabeth Competition are all this way).

From a musical point of view the advantage of hearing all of the competitors should be clear: you can’t expect to agree with the judges’ selections anyway (they certainly don’t agree with each other) so you’re better off hearing everyone. In this way you just might hear someone whom you consider to be interestingly eccentric or poetic but who would never fit the consensus mold of a competition performer.

There are downsides: it takes more time to hear 30 competitors, in piano competitions you’ll hear a lot of Liszt and very little Mozart (Liszt being the safer choice since it’s almost impossible to play his music in bad taste), sometimes you’ll know after 30 seconds that someone is unmusical, misguided, or immature. But advantages are overwhelming: in addition to those mentioned above the first rounds are typically much less expensive than the subsequent rounds, they are lightly attended and so offer fewer distractions, and there is always an opportunity to meet the competitors and complement someone you think has played exceptionally well.