On the other hand

Photo: Joanne Savio

The history of pianist Leon Fleisher’s career is one of the great comeback stories in American life.

His genius was apparent as early as age 9, when he became the youngest pupil ever to be taught by the great Artur Schnabel. By age 16 he was appearing with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux. When he signed a deal with Columbia/Epic in 1954 to record every major piano and orchestra work from the standard repertoire with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, it was a bit of musical history in the making—and he was only in him mid-20s. The recordings he made for the label between 1954 and 1963 are still considered classics.

Then, at the height of Fleisher’s career, disaster struck in the form of focal dystonia of the right hand in 1965. Undaunted, he continued to record and perform, concentrating on works for the left hand alone. There’s more of that than you might think thanks, in part, to the many works written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (older brother of famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), who lost his right hand in World War I.

By the early years of the 21st century, though, Fleisher began to recover the use of his right hand as a result of botox injections and the system of soft tissue manipulation known as Rolfing. In 2004 he made his first two-handed recording in forty years and continues to concertize today. In a review for 88.1 KDHX of his performance of Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand” with the St. Louis Symphony last April, I described his playing as “both powerful and elegant.” “Mr. Fleisher may walk like an octogenarian,” I wrote, “but he doesn’t play like one.”

In recognition of Fleisher’s fifty-five year career, Sony Classical (which now owns the Columbia/Epic library) is issuing a 23-CD set titled “Leon Fleisher: The Complete Album.” It’s scheduled for release on July 16th, in anticipation of Fleisher’s 85th birthday on the 23rd. Fleisher himself will observe his birthday year with a concert tour that will include a performance with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival on July 28th.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously claimed that there were “no second acts in American life.” Leon Fleisher is one of the more famous examples of how wrong that assessment can be.

A league of their own

The view from the stage

If the rest of the League of American Orchestras conference here goes as well as the special St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert they saw tonight did, it will certainly be a week to remember. Maestro David Robertson conducted a very full program (two and one-half hours with intermission) that showed off the orchestra’s versatility: arias and overtures by Mozart and Wagner (with powerful performances by bass-baritone Eric Owens) along with Sibelius’s 7th symphony (which still sounds strikingly original nearly 90 years later) and John Adams’s flashy but (to my ears) rather empty “Doctor Atomic” symphony.

There was heroic work by the brass and percussion in the Adams and fine playing all around.  The string sound in the Sibelius was particularly striking.

After a week in Fort Worth for the Cliburn Competition and another week in Boston for the Boston Early Music Festival, it was nice to settle back with the home town band at Powell Hall—even if I am more aware of its acoustic shortcomings as a result of my travels over the last twelve months.  It’s still a lovely space and, to quote a Tom Lehrer lyric, “what the hell, it’s home.”

Boston Early Music Festival, Day 4: A Mighty Wind

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.

The fourth and last day (Sunday, June 16) was a one-concert day for me, but it was a good one: “Angeli, Zingare e Pastore: Symbols and Allegories in Italian Renaissance Music” by The Royal Wind Music, a recorder ensemble created by Paul Leenhouts, the director of early music studies at North Texas University and a professor for recorder and historical development at Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam. The program apparently draws from their CD of the same name on the Lindoro label.

It’s a big family

Most recorder ensembles I’ve heard have been small—maybe three or four players—and limited to the higher-pitched members of the family. The recorder clan, however, is actually quite a large one, ranging in size from the twelve-inch sopranino to the massive sub-contrabass (over 10’). The thirteen members of The Royal Winds play all of them, producing a sound that is organ-like in its depth and sonority.

The parallel isn’t exact, of course. The Baroque organ had a much more varied sound, with stops that imitated other instruments. As an all-recorder band, The Royal Wind Music produces a wide range of pitches (several octaves worth) but a relatively limited tonal palette. When I think of Renaissance and Baroque wind music, I tend to think in terms of mixed groups like the late Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica or contemporary ensembles like Piffaro that augment the recorders with shawms, sackbuts, crumhorns, and bagpipes. The Royal Wind Music tends to sound a bit monochromatic by comparison.

Paul LeenhoutsPhoto: Toon Vieijra

That said, there’s no denying that, taken on its own terms, The Royal Wind Music does itself proud. It’s clearly a virtuoso assembly of versatile players, nearly all of whom appear to be comfortable with multiple members of the recorder family. Whether performing in trios, quartets, or quintets, or as a full ensemble, the sound they produced was uniformly pleasing. Mr. Leenhouts’s arrangements showcased the instruments and players nicely.

The program, while varied and interesting, did not strike me as being structured as effectively as possible. In the first half, for example, four slow, reverential late 16th-century religious works were grouped together in a way that threatened to produce what Peter Schickele (in a radically different context) describes as “a confused slumber.”

The second half of the concert changed things up a bit more, though, with some dance-inspired works by (among others) Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605) and Giovanni Maria Trabaci (ca. 1575-1647). A set of galliards by the latter brought the concert to a lively conclusion, followed by a standing ovation and a full ensemble encore.

Taken as a whole, this was a satisfying way to end my four-day immersion in early music. After being immersed in the 19th and early 20th century piano and orchestra repertoire at the Cliburn Competition the week before, the music of the 16th and 17th centuries made for a pleasant contrast.

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.

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.

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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