Chamber Music In Baden-Baden

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May 062013

I was standing in the snow and wind on top of the local high point, the Merkur (2192 ft.), looking down on the resort town of Baden-Baden, listening while a hiker from the area gave me a geography lesson about the various rock formations and the geothermal activity that keeps the town clear even when the mountain and the surrounding area are covered in snow.

The attraction of Baden-Baden during the week before Easter 2013 was certainly not the weather – the fact that the town was clear of snow didn’t help with the air temperature, the wind, or the unchanging cloud cover – nor was it any of the other reasons the town appeals to tourists: the hot-spring spas, the casino, the picturesque setting in the Black Forest, the history of the town as a resort for the Russian aristocracy, the haunts of Dostoevsky and Turgenev. It was instead the first appearance of the Berlin Philharmonic as the resident orchestra for the Easter Festival.

The premier events in the evenings were gala affairs marked by media presence, luxury busses from 5-star resorts, and flamboyant displays of PETA-defiant fur coats. The brochure included its share of hyperbolic copy – one concert was billed as “Two Titans”, the pianist Krystian Zimerman and the conductor Simon Rattle presumably battling it out over the Brahms First Piano Concerto.

Musically of equal interest to the monumental offerings in the Festspielhaus – the Mahler Second Symphony, the Bruckner Ninth, the Magic Flute – was the Chamber Music Series. Members of the Berlin Philharmonic gave 14 concerts in all, for the most part two concerts each day, each lasting approximately an hour. The concerts took place in various small venues about town: the Stiftskirche, the “Florentine Hall” in the casino, the Frieder Burda Art Museum designed by Richard Meier, the 19th century theater for which Berlioz wrote his opera “Béatrice et Bénédict”, the “Orangerie” of one of the big resort hotels. For the audience these concerts were a chance to hear first-rate instrumentalists up close, for the members of the Philharmonic, different for each concert, they were a chance to put musicality and individuality on display. The musicians were uniformly at ease: from the delight of the violist Máté Szűcs, who smiled throughout his entire performance, to the charm of the violinist Alessandro Capone, who directed the “Melodie” of Tchaikovsky to two sisters, 6 and 8, sitting in the first row in their Easter ribbons.

Even though the level of musicianship was very high throughout – I heard all of the chamber music concerts in what amounted to a festival within a festival – some players especially were in their element in chamber music. Their freedom in a more intimate setting was striking in its contrast to the uniformity called for by their roles in the orchestra, brilliant as it is under Simon Rattle. Particularly noteworthy were:

The lyricism of the cellist Christoph Igelbrink in the Larghetto of Dvorak’s “American” Quartet in F-major, Op.96.

The flexibility of cellist David Riniker in the Mozart Divertimento in E-flat, K563, particularly in the Adagio, one of  Mozart’s most profound and forward-looking slow movements.

The virtuousity of bassist Edicson Ruiz, a young man from Venezuela who is a product of El Sistema. He played a knotty and brilliant contemporary solo piece written for him by Heinz Holliger.

The purity of tone and perfect blending of four trombones in the Dowland “Book of Songs”, which Christhard Gössling, Olaf Ott, Thomas Leyendecker, and Jesper Busk Sorensen played in the historic Stiftskirche.

The otherworldliness of the duet between the first violin, Daishin Kashimoto, and the clarinet, Wenzel Fuchs, in the Adagio of the Schubert Octet.

The expressiveness of the clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer in the Brahms clarinet quintet in b-minor Op. 115.

As a bonus to those of us who are annoyed by the various and numerous disruptions in the concert hall, in these chamber music concerts, which were attended by an international audience, no one came in late, there was no clapping between movements, no talking in the audience, and only one cell phone incident in the entire week – even without any of the customary hectoring reminders.

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 ( 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 (

The Double

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Feb 052013

Double_sens 512Recently I heard the Brahms Piano Sonata #3 in f minor, Op. 5 twice in the same week. The contrast between the two performances and between the general atmosphere in the two concert halls could not have been more stark.

On Wed. Jan 30, 2013 Yefim Bronfman led off with the Brahms Sonata in his recital at Disney Hall. At the end of the first movement someone in the Orchestra section of the already restive audience broke into a coughing fit. Bronfman paused for a moment without looking up from the piano but then turned towards the audience when the coughing did not stop. The audience misread Bronfman’s gesture as a “pause for applause” and delivered a response that was widespread but desultory. This pattern of unenthusiastic applause repeated itself after every inner movement even though Bronfman never again looked up from the piano. I thought the audience should have expressed a lack of enthusiasm at the end of the piece also, as such a response would have been more in keeping with Bronfman’s thoroughly perfunctory performance, but the technically formidable last movement inspired the predictable outburst.

Two days later I heard John Perry, Professor of Piano at the Colburn Conservatory of Music and also at USC’s Thornton School of Music, play the same Brahms Sonata in a Faculty Recital in Zipper Hall at the Colburn School, diagonally across the street from Disney Hall.

Everything about this recital was inspiring. The audience included many past and present students of Prof. Perry, faculty members from the Colburn School, and music teachers from all over Los Angeles. The audience was wildly enthusiastic, particularly at the end of the concert, when they only grudgingly let Prof. Perry make his final exit. Between the movements of each piece – silence – which I take as an endorsement of what the performers in the audience would want for their own recitals. Prof. Perry played the Brahms with a rare combination of musicality and insight; the Andante espressivo was model of balance between patience, as he generously let the sonorities sink in, and forward motion.

It’s hard for me to confine myself to the Brahms. It was a privilege to hear Prof. Perry play Ondine from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit as an encore. As a technical display this piece can be quite boring; in Prof. Perry’s hands Ravel’s imagination for sound and structure came alive.

This memorable concert is another example of the excellent music making that can be heard in Los Angeles outside of the major venues. I have already mentioned the Southern California Junior Bach Festival in another post. I would also recommend the Events calendar of the Colburn School at; in addition to the Faculty Recitals they offer an excellent Chamber Music Series as well as other concerts throughout the year.

Respect for Chamber Music

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Dec 222012

400px-RESPECT_Bus_manchesterHere is a copy of a letter I recently sent to the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times:

After the most recent concert in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Chamber Music Series this past Tuesday (12/11) I looked for a review in the Los Angeles Times. When I didn’t find one it occurred to me none of the concerts in the series has been reviewed. I wonder why not.

The people who plan the programs at the LA Philharmonic rightly regard chamber music as an important component of their offerings at Disney Hall. Beyond the fact that the music is significant in its own right, the series offers members of the LA Philharmonic a chance to perform in a setting in which their individual contributions stand out. Variety is built into the format: different orchestra members perform each piece of a given program.

From the level of concentration and preparation that the musicians bring to these performances it is obvious that they take the opportunity to play chamber music seriously. These concerts deserve the recognition that comes with a review.

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 ( 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.