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).

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 www.colburnschool.edu; in addition to the Faculty Recitals they offer an excellent Chamber Music Series as well as other concerts throughout the year.

Apprenticeship

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Nov 302012
 

Amedeo_Modigliani_-_The_Young_Apprentice_-_Google_Art_Project x256Recently a friend, a lapsed subscriber to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, asked me whether he should hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct the orchestra. “By all means”, I answered, “but you have to adjust your expectations”. I added this qualification because Dudamel was talented and fortunate enough to rocket to the leadership of a major orchestra without really having gone through an apprenticeship.

As I told my friend, I was reminded of a DVD I saw recently about the career of the conductor Günter Wand (Günter Wand: My Life, My Music). In addition to the first part of the DVD, which is an informative introduction to a major conductor who is not well known in the United States, there is a second part which consists of a long interview with Wand’s biographer, Wolfgang Seifert. As the interviewer and Wand reviewed his career two things stood out to me:

First is the place, length, and character of his apprenticeship. From 1934 to 1938 Wand went to work as the “assistant conductor for Operetta” in the provincial theater in Allenstein, now Olstyn in the northeast corner of Poland, separated from the rest of Germany at that time by the “Polish Corridor”.

It’s hard to imagine the equivalent conditions for a young conductor today. Part of this is fortunate: Wand’s prospects were limited because he was not a Nazi Party member. But he clearly made the most of the adversity: in the interview he speaks with real fondness of his work in the provincial theater, where the repertoire consisted of Operetta and Spieloper (light opera with spoken dialog) and where he had only about 25 professional musicians to work with; the orchestra was supplemented by military musicians from the local garrison. But, as he says, “it was possible to make very decent music“ there and he earned a reputation because he was “smitten with theater work”.

Second is the time Wand spent in Cologne during World War II. He describes a life of musical asceticism: “there was no radio as we know it today and there were no recordings to buy”; “I had to work out Beethoven’s symphonies as well as Mozart and Bruckner – everything by myself  . . . from the scores.” Again, it’s fortunate that young conductors are not subject to wartime conditions. But there’s no doubt that Günter Wand benefitted from close study of the scores in relative isolation under circumstances which would tend to concentrate the mind.

In Los Angeles Gustavo Dudamel is on a major stage under bright lights when he might otherwise be spending time as an apprentice. It’s to be expected that it shows. In spite of such grandiose offerings as the “Mahler Project” and in spite of his exuberance and that of his audience he really is a work in progress.

Out of the shadows: the Andante of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7

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Jul 282012
 

This week I watched the DVD of Grigory Sokolov’s live 2002 performance, which ends with Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7. Our attention as listeners is always drawn to the explosive last movement, for which there is a generous number of examples on YouTube, including Sokolov’s (Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7, Precipitato). It’s really almost impossible for a professional pianist to play this movement badly – the only performances that are at all questionable are those that misread the marking “Precipitato” for “as fast as possible”.

But there’s more to this sonata than this justly famous and irresistible last movement; in particular the second movement, “Andante caloroso”, deserves attention as a substantial counterweight to the last movement. There are a number of performances on YouTube – not nearly as many as there are of the “Precipitato” – among which Sviatoslav Richter’s (Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7, Andante caloroso) convincingly renders the middle section (“Poco piu animato”, “Piu largamente”, “un poco agitato”) as an extended quotation from Rachmaninov. In contrast Glenn Gould (Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7, Andante caloroso) is particularly interesting exactly because he finds a way of attenuating the gravitational pull of Rachmaninov.

It is Gould’s sense of space that loosens the grip of Rachmaninov and gives weight to this movement. By playing the middle section more slowly than other performers, a minute slower than Richter, for example, but arguably closer to the markings in the score, he gives himself time to linger over dissonant intervals, sometimes even allowing them to decay into silence.

Gould emphasizes the startling modernity of this movement and prepares us for the driving force of the “Precipitato”. The weaker the shadow of Rachmaninov in the second movement, the more modern and substantial that movement sounds; the more substantial the second movement, the less it stands in the shadow of the last movement.