Boston Early Music Festival, Day 3: Escales

The biennial Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF), which ran June 9 through 16 this year, is an annual cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I covered it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), which had its annual conference this in conjunction with BEMF.

Day three (Saturday, June 15) involved less dashing about than the previous day, which gave me a chance to wander about the exhibition rooms at the Revere Hotel. As you can see by the picture gallery at the end of this article, makers of a wide variety of historical instruments were well represented: viols, recorders, harps, Baroque flutes and violins (along with appropriate bows), and (of course) many varieties of harpsichord, clavichord, and organ—even old-style fortepianos of the sort Mozart and Beethoven used. All were clearly the work of master craftsmen (and women)—with appropriate price tags.

Jordi Savall

My first concert (2:30 PM at Jordan Hall) was one I’d been looking forward to: Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI (a group whose makeup, according to a fellow critic, consists of “whoever Jordi Savall is working with at the moment”) with “Istanbul: Dimitrie Cantemir’s ‘The Book of the Science of Music’ and the Ottoman, Sephardic, Greek, and Armenian Traditions”. Cantimir (1673-1723) was a noted virtuoso on a long-necked lute-like instrument called the tanbur as well as a composer and scholar. “The Science of Music” is both a treatise on music theory and a collection of 355 compositions which, according to Mr. Savall’s notes, “constitutes the most important collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ottoman instrumental music to have survived to the present day.”

About this genre (to quote Tom Lehrer in a different context) “I am knowing from nothing.” But it didn’t require an expert ear to appreciate the virtuosity of Mr. Savall (playing vielle and lyre) and his fellow musicians, who were: Hakan Güngör on kanun (a zither-like instrument played with metal finger picks), Yurdal Tokcan and Driss el Maloumi on oud (essentially a Persian lute), Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian on ney and duduk (recorder-esque woodwinds), Dimitri Sonis on tanbur and santur (relative to the hammered dulcimer), and David Mayoral on percussion.

[Mr. Mayoral’s battery included a dumbek, a hourglass-shaped metal drum that I’ve been playing around with myself, so I was watching him especially closely in hopes of picking up some tips. I wasn’t disappointed.]

This iteration of Hespèrion XXI produced an array of exotic sounds that brought ancient Istanbul to vivid life in the hart of contemporary Boston. You could almost smell the spices, feel the hot sun, and taste the thick, black coffee. This was music that was sensuous and joyful, and the BEMF audience—which seems to be less uncritically enthusiastic than most American classical music audiences—awarded them with a standing ovation rivaling the one that greeted “Almira” Friday night. The group responded with an encore consisting of three different versions of the same tune: Greek, Sephardic, and Ottoman. As an illustration of the rich multicultural stew brewing in Istanbul at the end of the 17th century, it couldn’t have been more perfect.

Seven PM found me back at Jordan for a double bill of chamber operas written for the court of Louis XIV’s unmarried cousin, Marie de Lorraine, by Marc Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704): “Le Descente d’Orpheé aux Enfers” (“Orpheus’s Descent into Hades”) and “La Couronne de Fleurs” (“The Crown of Flowers”). The score for “Orpheé” is incomplete—only two of the presumed three acts survive—so director Gilbert Blin created a kind of “Charpentier sandwich”, placing “Orpheé” between the second and final scenes of “Couronne.”

That’s not as odd as it sounds. The plot of “Couronne” (such as it is) has a chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses engaging in a contest to see who can come up with the most poetically beautiful paean to the magnificence of King Louis (Charpentier knew what to kiss and when, as they say). The judge is the goddess Flore and the prize is the titular crown.

The Orpheus story, in this context, is performed by the rustics as a way to demonstrate that even the ancient stories of the gods pale in comparison to Le Roi-Soleil. When the company gets to the end of Charpentier’s score, Mr. Blin has Louis XIV’s notoriously dictatorial court composer, Jean Baptiste Lully, walk on stage and invoke his royal privilege of restricting public performance of operas to his own works (which, historically, he did). The company then concludes by deciding that, since no mortal can adequately praise the king, the only solution is to divide the crown among all the contestants, wish Louis eternal life, and call it a day.

Charpentier’s score is, without a doubt, finely wrought and beautiful stuff. It was all magnificently sung and, like “Almira,” acted and danced in historically appropriate style. But even the remarkable Mr. Blin and his music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs—the team that scored such a hit with “Almira”—could not, in my view, overcome the dramatic inertia of this material. I also found it hard to stomach all the fawning praise of a particularly wretched monarch, but that’s just me.

That said, the audience appeared to love it all to bits and gave it a standing ovation.

Stephen Stubbs

Saturday’s late-night concert (11 PM at the Jordan) took us to an entirely different world. The early music ensemble Tragicomedia “and friends”, directed by Mr. Stubbs, brought us “Singen, Spielen, Trinken, Tanzen: Hamburg in Handel’s Time.” As the title indicates, this was a neat tie-in with “Almira” (which Handel composed for Hamburg) and, in fact, the program included a couple of scenes from the opera for which Handel was conducting the band from the harpsichord when he got the “Almira” commission: Johann Matteson’s “Cleopatra.” They were pretty silly stuff and went a long way towards explaining why the opera has fallen into obscurity.

But then, “silly stuff” characterizes most of what went on in this concert. This was nothing if not good-humored music-making and a reminder that guys like Telemann, Lully and (especially) Heinrich Schütz liked to have a good time a much as anyone. There was, for example, a slightly rude madrigal “Scherschliep! Messerschliep!” (“O shear-grinder! Knife-grinder!”) by Sebastian Knüpfer (performed with gusto by Jason McStoots, Zachary Wilder, and Christian Immler); a rudely rebuffed seduction scene played out with songs by Telemann; and a performance of Monteverdi’s lively “Chiome d’oro, bel Tesoro” (“Hair of gold, beautiful treasure”) from 1619 followed by Schütz’s satirical German translation from around 1650. It’s a reminder that parody lyrics didn’t start with Weird Al Yankovic.

Throughout the evening Harlequin, danced by Caroline Copeland, provided comic bridges between numbers and silently led everyone in a Knüpfer drinking song at the end. If there were any doubt that early music can be great fun, this would have dispelled it. I took the Green Line subway back to the hotel in a very cheerful state of mind.

Photo gallery: BEMF exhibition rooms.  Not too bad for iPhone snaps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boston Early Music Festival, Day 2: Manic Friday

Running June 9th through 16th this year, the biennial Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) is a biennial cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I covered it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), which had its annual conference this in conjunction with BEMF.

Day two of the festival and conference could have been called a Manic Monday, except that it was Friday. MCANA members had a 10 AM session on Baroque opera in general and the festival’s production of Handel’s “Almira” in particular, followed by lunch, followed by a Q and A session on early music. Both of those sessions were interesting enough to deserve their own blog posts, so I won’t go into detail on them here.

Gli Incogniti

The first concert of my day (at 5 PM) was at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, site of the majority of the BEMF concerts. It featured four members of the Italian ensemble Gli Incogniti (Amadine Beyer, Baroque violin; Baldomero Barciela, viola da gamba; Francesco Romano, theorbo and Baroque guitar; and Anna Fontana, harpsichord and organ) in “Viennoiseries: Austrian Music in the Stylus Fantasticus from the 17th Century.” Stylus Fantasticus, according to program notes by Ms. Beyer, is a compositional approach associated with the Austrian Hapsburg courts of the latter half of the 17th century and is characterized by “a flamboyant and original style not found in other music of the period.” If what I heard at Jordan Hall on Friday was any indication, this is also music that demands considerable virtuosity—which it certainly got from this group.

Ms. Beyer was particularly stunning in von Biber’s “Sonata violino solo representativa,” in which the soloist is called upon to imitate a variety of birds and beats (including Musketeers!) as was Francesco Romano in a Toccata from Johannes Heironymous Kapsberger’s 1640 “Libro Quarto”, but all four members impressed me with their skill. I’m told Ms. Fontana, who worked with a harpsichord stacked on top of an organ console, thereby enabling her to elegantly play both at once, had a terrific solo of her own towards the end of the program. Alas, I missed it, because I had to dash across town to the Cutler Majestic Theater to make the 7 PM curtain of Handel’s “Almira.”

Almira and ladies in waitingPhoto: classical-scene.com

“Almira” was the first operatic hit by the 19-year-old Handel, who got the commission to compose it because, essentially, he was in the right place at the right time. The libretto by Friedrich Christian Feustking is a preposterous romantic comedy set (more or less) in medieval Spain and revolving around what appears to be a star-crossed romance between the newly crowned Queen Almira (Ulrike Hofbauer) and her secretary Fernando (Colin Balzer). All difficulties are eventually resolved via a ludicrous plot twist worthy of W.S. Gilbert, but not before we’ve had nearly four hours of impressive arias da capo and some lavish set pieces (demanded by the Hamburg audiences), including a Grand Procession of the Continents (Europe, Africa, and Asia; America didn’t count yet).

A four-hour youthful Handel opera might sound like a bit of a slog but in BEMF’s production it was anything but. Director Gilbert Blin and music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs treated both the music and the audience with respect. The production was a scrupulously historic re-creation of the original, complete with forced-perspective sets that looked exactly like the ones I’ve always seen in the history books, period dances, and a historically appropriate acting style that relied on precisely choreographed gestures (hands spread wide to appeal, had extended and finger ranged to admonish/repel, etc.).

And it worked, both as music and drama. Every performer was thoroughly invested in his or her character, each was perfectly cast, and every one sang beautifully.

Ms. Hofbauer and Mr. Balzer were exceptional all the way through. Amanda Forsythe, as Princess Edilia, had what must be the best revenge aria ever in the second act. Jason McStoots got his share of laughs as the comic servant Tabarco. Others in the uniformly fine cast were Christian Immler as the buffoonish Consalvo, Zachary Wilder as his social climber son Osman, Tyler Duncan as the disguised King of Mauretania (who seems to be on board only to make the triple betrothal at the end possible), and Valerie Vinzant as Princess Bellante (ditto).

Áine Ní Dhroighneáin

The orchestra, which used instruments appropriate to the period, sounded glorious. The production received a wild ovation and multiple curtain calls. Alas, I had to rush out while they were still going on to make an 11:15 performance of “My Small Dark Rose: Early Irish Songs and Harp Music” at Emmanuel Church a few blocks away.

Siobhán Armstrong

The titular song and fifteen other traditional Irish songs and instrumentals were performed with consummate style by singer Áine Ní Dhroighneáin and early Irish harper Siobhán Armstrong, although Ms. Ní Dhroighneáin’s singing did not always do justice to the strong emotions in some of the texts—most notably in “Táimse im’ Chodldh” (“I am asleep and don’t waken me”) with its open call for violent rebellion against the English. It was a program of delicate, intimate music—the early Irish harp’s metal strings don’t create a very big sound—that was poorly served by the church’s vast, echoing acoustic. The artists deserved better.

And on that note, I reeled (puns intended) into bed, another day of remarkable music in the offing.

Boston Early Music Festival, Day 1: Medieval stories, Baroque dances

 

The Newberry Consort

It’s been a chilly, soggy day today in Boston, but that didn’t stop a large crowd from swimming their way into the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall to hear a pair of sharply contrasting concerts as part of the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF).

Running June 9th through 16th this year, BEMF is an annual cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I’m covering it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America, which is also having its annual conference this week.

The evening started with a joint performance by The Newberry Consort and the vocal ensemble Exsultemus of “Rosas das Rosas,” a collection of songs and dances from the “Cantigas de Santa Maria”

Exsultemus

“Cantigas” is a collection of four hundred and twenty-seven pieces extolling the virtues of (and inventing stories about) Mary. It may or may not have been written by the prolific Alfonso X, King of Castile, León, and Galicia around the middle of the 13th century. Listening to the lyrics, it’s impossible not to be struck by just how much the medieval Mary resembles the goddesses of pre-Christian religions. She demands loyalty from followers, rewards the faithful with magic, and generally carries on like something out of Bullfinch. If, as is often suggested, the cult of Mary was a conscious effort by the early church to co-opt existing goddess cults, it clearly succeeded.

The performances were hypnotic and entertaining. Some of the poems are comical and whimsical in their view of Mary’s miracles, others deeply reverential. English translations of the texts were projected on a screen above and behind the performers, as were scans of the illustrations that accompany the stories in their original manuscripts. Twenty-first century technology helped bring this 13th century music to life.

BEMF Orchestra

Next was a program of (mostly) theatre music from the 17th century, performed with great style by the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra. Highlights of the program included a suite of dances from Lully ballets (accompanied by dancers executing period choreography) and suites by John Blow and Georg Muffat. The combination of Baroque-era tuning (A=392 Hz instead of 440 as is the case today) and reconstructions of period wind instruments produced a transparent sound with considerable bite. It’s a different from what most of us are used to hearing from a modern orchestra and rather refreshing.

Tomorrow: 17th century Austrian music by Gli Incogniti, a fully-staged production of Handel’s “Almira”, and Medieval Irish music for voice and harp.

 

The Cliburn Report 17: Les Adieux

Fort Worth, Texas

The 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is now history and I’m winging my way home, using the flight time to record some post-competition thoughts.

First, I want to congratulate the Cliburn organization and the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau for making our delegation from the Music Critics Association of North America feel so welcome and for doing such an impressive job of catering to our every need.

Our Cliburn contact, Maggie Estes, was unfailingly helpful, as were all of the volunteers back in the pressroom. How helpful? Well, on Sunday night, a button popped off my sports coat on the way to the awards ceremony. Not wanting to look like a slob at the black tie reception afterwards, I asked a volunteer if she could locate a sewing kit for me. Within minutes, one of the mangers had located a lady identified as the “backstage mother” who repaired the coat for me in time for the ceremony. That, I think, it going above and beyond the call of duty.

The Cliburn organization also threw one heck of a party for everyone Sunday night at the Worthington Hotel.

CVB’s Jessica Dowdy also threw a great party for us at the Zoo, bought us a first-class dinner at Reata, and gave us a chauffeured tour of the Fort Worth museum and stockyards districts. She even took my wife and I to CVS. I’d heard great things about Fort Worth’s hospitality towards journalists in advance of our trip. Clearly, they were all true.

Fort Worth itself proved to be a fascinating city. Their downtown comes to life after dark with restaurants and bars, and we all felt completely comfortable walking back to our hotel after the concerts. Bass Hall is an excellent concert space, with good sight lines and acoustics, and conveniently located. My wife, the naturalist of our family, also had a great deal of praise for the city’s botanic garden and nature areas.

Seen outside Bass Hall on Sunday

The Cliburn is a great source of pride to Fort Worth, and understandably so. It brings the world to Texas every four years and is one of the highest-profile piano competitions on the planet. That said, I found myself wondering what impact it and other competitions have had on the larger concert world.

A Cliburn medal, as Joseph Horowitz pointed out in his 1990 book The Ivory Trade, is no guarantee of a concert career. When asked at the Friday symposium whether or not he would offer a concert engagement to the Cliburn gold medalist, for example, Maestro Leonard Slatkin said he would not—but that he might make an offer to “one or two” finalists. Indeed, if you look through the list of prior winners in the Cliburn’s fat press information book, you can’t help noticing that most of them have not achieved particularly high-profile careers, and many left public performance altogether.

To a certain extent, that’s unsurprising. There’s no reason to believe the Cliburn jury is any better at predicting the future than any other group of professionals—including those who make their livings at it (economists, for example). But I think it’s also possible that piano competitions don’t prepare their participants for concertizing so much as they prepare them for entering piano competitions. In much the same way that our public school system seems to be creating generations of professional test takers, piano competitions may be creating generations of professional competitors, many of whom go on to careers teaching the next generation of competitors. It starts to look like a keyboard circle game.

That’s not to say being a Cliburn winner (or finalist, for that matter) isn’t important. It provides international exposure, and the medalists get three years of valuable career guidance. I just can’t help wondering whether or not the concert piano world is better or worse off for the many competitions that take place every year. It’s an unanswerable question, of course, but that doesn’t stop one from asking it.

Cliburn Final Round, Fourth Concert: Vadym Kholodenko, Tomoki Sakata, Sean Chen

Beatrice Rana, Vadym Kholodenko, Sean ChenPhoto: Fort Worth Star-Telegram

If you’ve been following the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, you know that the big three awards went to Vadym Kholodenko from the Ukraine (gold), Beatrice Rana from Italy (silver) and Sean Chen from the USA (crystal). I’m happy with that, in part because I feel they deserved their awards and in part because the judges’ ranking exactly mirrors my own. Alas, I didn’t have enough confidence in mine to make it public beforehand (via Twitter I predicted in advance that the those three contestants would get medals without specifying which ones) so I can’t claim bragging rights for my prediction.

It probably doesn’t matter now, but here are my thoughts on the fourth and last final round concert with the Fort Worth Symphony under Leonard Slaktin, which concluded yesterday at 5:30 PM. I didn’t have time to post anything yesterday since the awards ceremony and reception started at 7 and I had to walk back to the hotel to change into my suit.

Mr. Kohlodenko opened with a very neat Mozart Concerto No. 21 (once known as the “Elvira Madigan” after a popular 1960s film that made extensive use of the second movement). It was stylistically on target, smoothly played, and featured two cadenzas that Mr. Kohlodenko wrote on the flight to Fort Worth. The first one had some impressive fugal passages and showed off Mr. Kholodenko’s abilities without being overly flashy. As in his Prokofiev 3rd Friday night, Mr. Kholodenko’s concentration and involvement with the music were unshakable.

Tomoki Sakata (the youngest finalist, at age 19) had some rather unfortunate episodes during a generally decent Tchaikovsky 1st. Some were his fault (flubbed and/or smeared notes) but some (apparently) were Mr. Slatkin’s (most noticeably a botched entry by the trombones in the first movement). The orchestra also played less well, to my ears, than it had for other soloists. They just did the Tchaikovsky back in February, so perhaps they overestimated their preparation.

Sean Chen brought everything to a rousing close with a Rachmaninov 3rd that had the crowd not just standing (which they did for every performance) but cheering loudly. Mr. Chen got five curtain calls and deserved every one. I had good things to say about Fei-Fei Dong’s Rach 3 on Thursday (a minority view among the critics, as far as I could see) but Mr. Chen’s was clearly the superior performance, with volcanic power and finesse—and none of the banging that showed up in his “Emperor” concerto Friday night.

If you want to see what the medalists looked and sounded like, by the way, the Cliburn organization is making all of the concerts (including the final four) available as on-demand video at their web site.

‘Whenever it comes to song writing, my second line is always the most important’: An Interview with Taj Weekes

Photo courtesy of Jatta Records

by Michael Kuelker

St. Lucian reggae artist Taj Weekes and his band Adowa return to St. Louis with a performance on Saturday, June 15 at 2720. KDHX’s Mr Roots will be spinning tunes that evening, too. Mr Weekes is one of the most compelling and original artists in roots reggae today, and I spoke to him by telephone on May 28, 2013.

KUELKER: Your new live album, Pariah in Transit [Jatta Records 2013], is a remarkable piece of work [reviewed here].  And it feels like a capstone on this first phase of your career, encompassing seven or eight years and three studio albums. One wonders, then, what comes next?

WEEKES: You said exactly what it is, the live album captured the last three. So we have moved on past that. What I am thinking of doing for [the next] album is a different studio. I produced everything on the last four albums so I would like to let somebody else come in and let them direct a little bit. Just a different vibe. I’ve done the last four albums, I have produced every one, it’s been my point of view. I would like to alternate points of view on the next album, so we can move into a different phase – not too different, still me and the band. And the idea is to bring other guest musicians in. It will still be roots but we’re gonna tweak it a little bit.

One of the strongest tracks on Pariah is a brand new composition, “Jordan,” and I wanted to ask you about the inspiration behind it.

‘Jordan’ is a song I made up on the spot. We had played some venue someplace and they had some issues with the equipment, so by the time the equipment came, the show was 45 minutes late and it wasn’t our fault. I pride myself on always being early, and we were as usual. When the show was done – when I thought the show was done – the promoter asked if we could play for an additional 45 minutes. But I had played for over two and a half hours and I had run through all the songs that I wanted to play that I thought were appropriate for the setting. So I just said to the guys, ‘hold two chords and follow me and we’ll do something with it.’ So I held two chords, the brothers followed me and ‘Jordan’ came out.

After it came out and I sang it a few times as I liked it. I recorded the song on my phone, and it’s become a staple ever since.

 

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The Cliburn final round, third concert: Nikita Mndoyants, Fei-Fei Dong, Beatrice Rana

Tonight was the third of the four concerts in the final round of the Cliburn Competition. All concerts feature the Fort Worth Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

It occurs to me that I should note the large differences between the experience of a competition concert like the ones I’ve been reviewing for the last few days and the sort of concert one hears as part of the regular season of an established orchestra.

As Maestro Slatkin noted in his Friday morning symposium, Cliburn contestants are, in many cases, playing concerti that they might never have performed with a live orchestra before, so they might not be used to listening in quite the same way as an experienced concert performer.

Rehearsal time is much more limited for a competition as well. Mr. Slatkin has only one fifty-minute session with each pianist, which means there is barely enough time to run through the concerto once, much less do any polishing. Normally a visiting soloist will have a day or two to work with the orchestra and conductor. This means that competition performances are, inevitably, a bit “rough and ready.”

I try to take all that into account in my reviews. Ultimately, the question I ask myself is: did this performance work, musically and dramatically? If the soloist made a good case for his or her interpretation, I don’t think the occasional glitch really matters that much, as long as they’re neither large nor frequent enough to take me entirely “out of the moment.”

Saturday’s concert was, in my view, the strongest of the bunch so far.

Nikita Mndoyants (who made a bit of a hash of the Prokofiev 2nd Thursday night) gave us a very solid Mozart Concerto No. 20 in D Minor (K. 466). He didn’t appear to always observe the score’s dynamic markings and his second movement Romanze was a bit on the slow side, but overall he did what felt like a credible job to me.

In keeping with period performance practice, Mr. Mndoyants created his own cadenzas. They were more harmonically modern than anything a pianist would have improvised in Mozart’s day, of course, but the difference was not particularly jarring and I thought they worked well.

Fei-Fei Dong, blinged out in a striking cream and silver gown, gave us a somewhat idiosyncratic Beethoven Concerto No. 3 in G Major (Op. 58). Her entrance in the first movement was, perhaps, a bit too dolce to be effective and she added tempo variations to the second movement that felt a bit exaggerated to me. Still, it was a performance that radiated joy on her part, and that went a long way towards making it more acceptable than it might have been, at least for me.

Beatrice Rana gave what, in my view, was the best performance of the evening with a very exciting and (to my ears) precise Prokofiev Concerto No. 2 in G Minor (Op. 16). When Mr. Mndoyants did this Thursday, the result (as I wrote back then) felt monochromatic. Saturday, under Ms. Rana’s hands, it sounded like an entirely different concerto. She played with the tremendous power Prokofiev requires without ever descending into the “banging” that has marred some other contestants’ work. She was a human perpetual motion machine in the second movement scherzo and threw off the glissandos and arpeggios in the third movement with an easy grace that was impressive.


The orchestra played well throughout, as they have since Friday night.

The last concert of the final round is this afternoon (Sunday, June 9) at 3. It will feature Mozart’s 21st (once known as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto, after a film that made prominent use of the second movement) with Vadym Kholodenko, Tchaikovsky’s 1st (one of Van Cliburn’s signature pieces) with Tomoki Sakata, and Rachmaninov’s 3rd (also a Cliburn specialty) with Sean Chen. The award ceremony takes place at 7, so I might not be able to post a review until tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Cliburn final round, second concert: Tomoki Sakata, Sean Chen, and Vadym Kholodenko

Tonight was the second of the four concerts in the final round of the Cliburn Competition. All concerts feature the Fort Worth Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

The Friday concerts were marked by generally strong playing all the way around. Thursday night we had, in my estimation, two good performances and one disappointing one. Tonight we had two that were very good and one that was so outstanding I had to stop taking notes and just listen.

Tomoki Sakata (Japan) got things off to a fine start with a very persuasive Mozart Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466. Mr. Sakata and the orchestra adopted a brisk pace in the first movement that made the most of its drama (although his first entrance was a bit hesitant) and included a fine performance of the Beethoven cadenza. The second movement Romanze was elegantly played but a bit too slow for my taste and never quite took flight, but the final movement flowed along nicely. Overall it was a well-proportioned reading and neatly played.

Mr. Sakata is not a demonstrative performer (a rarity in this group, it seems), choosing to express himself entirely through his music.

Sean Chen (USA) took on the Beethoven Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major (Op. 73), known as the “Emperor.” His performance was marked by extreme dynamic contrasts and, at one point towards the end of the first movement, a bit of banging away at the keyboard that distorted his sound. For the most part, though, this approach worked well for him and enhanced the work’s grandeur. Tempi were a bit slow, but not so much so that the music ever lost energy, and the second movement (Adagio un poco mosso) was quite lovely. As with Mr. Sakata’s Mozart, this was not a flawless performance, but quite a fine one nevertheless.

Unlike Mr. Sakata, Mr. Chen is not shy about playing to the audience. This is neither good nor bad as long as it serves the music, which (mostly), it did.

Judging from his Prokofiev Concerto No. 3 in C Major (Op. 26), Vadym Kholodenko (Ukraine) is a powerhouse of a pianist who is also capable of great delicacy. His concentration was intense and he seemed to be entirely caught up in the music. The Prokofiev 3rd is the music of youth, with ample wit, nose-thumbing cheer, and some ridiculously difficult writing for the soloist, especially in the final movement. Mr. Kholodenko captured all of that, and did it with precision and flare. There seemed to me to be a real joy in his playing that communicated itself to the highly appreciative audience. It certainly won me over.

The third concert of the final round is tomorrow night (Saturday, June 8). It will feature Mozart’s 20th again (with Nikita Mndoyants), Beethoven’s 4th (Fei-Fei Dong), and Prokofiev’s 2nd (Beatrice Rana; I’m very much looking forward to that one).

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