Ebb tide

When most folks think of cabaret, I expect the image that comes to mind is that of a single performer backed up by a piano, possibly augmented with bass or percussion.  That’s certainly the most common arrangement but, as singer (and visual artist) Dionna Raedeke and guitarist Mike Krysl will be demonstrating this Friday, it’s by no means the only one.

A relatively new addition to the St. Louis cabaret scene, Ms. Raedeke has garnered raves for her singing and musical taste.  “Dionna is one of my new favorite singers,” says actor, singer and teacher Jason Graae. “Her voice has such a haunting beauty and it comes directly from her soul.”  New York-based singer, songwriter and music director Rick Jensen—who accompanied Ms. Raedeke for her 2011 show Sight – Sound—agrees, describing her as a “vocally compelling and consistently original in her performance.”

For her new show, titled Ebb and Flow, Ms. Raedeke has put together an evening in which the sound will be acoustic, the mood mellow, and the song choices rather different from the Great American Songbook standards that are so often associated with cabaret.  Expect 70s rock, contemporary singer/songwriters, and even some new tunes.  Ms. Raedeke, with a nod to her visual artist side (and with tongue somewhat in cheek), describes the evening as a “carefully curated” one that features “everything from Pink Floyd to PINK.”

Expect arrangements that will make you re-think familiar songs as well.  An inventive musician who lists influences as diverse as Robin Trower, Django Reinhardt and Leonard Bernstein, Mike Krysl has often impressed me with both the ingenuity and virtuosity of his inventive and original takes on rock and pop standards.  I remember being particularly blown away by what he and singer Shauna Sconce did with some of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon at their recently concluded monthly sessions at The Wine Press.

“Mike Krysl’s sound is taut, deep and brilliantly soulful,” says local cabaret artist Katie McGrath. “Dionna’s voice is plaintive, joyous and straight-arrow true. My favorite musician with my favorite singer. And the angels smile.”  As someone who has been both a critic and performer on the local cabaret scene for many years and who has had the pleasure of seeing both Ms. Raedeke and Mr. Krysl in action, I heartily concur.

The one and only performance of Ebb and Flow is this Friday, August 9th, at 8 PM at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive at the intersection of Skinker and Wydown.  A not-for-profit music venue, performance space and art gallery, The Chapel has played host to a number of cabaret shows over the last few years.  It’s an attractive, unconventional space in a quiet residential neighborhood that provides its services free to local musicians as part of its mission to support the arts in St. Louis.  I think that’s pretty admirable and worth supporting.

Tickets, which are available at the door and at ebbandflow.brownpapertickets.com (along with some free sample music tracks), are $20 and include two free drinks.  Parking is free as well.  Come on down Friday and smile with the angels.

Spring Forward

Jerome Elliott

Palm Springs-based cabaret artist Jerome Elliott is making his St. Louis solo cabaret debut this Saturday (June 29) at 8 PM at the Chapel with “My Favorite Springs,” produced by Mariposa Artists. But Mr. Elliott’s relationship with St. Louis goes back several years. He sees St. Louis, in fact, as “the birthplace of my work in cabaret” due to his participation in the St. Louis Cabaret Conference in 2007.

“Prior to the 2007 workshop,” he said in an email interview, “I had done a couple of cabaret shows in Palm Springs, going by instinct only. The first St. Louis year propelled me to dig deeper into the craft and led me to the Yale Conference in 2008. In turn, the Yale Conference made me want to investigate even more, which brought me back to St. Louis in 2009. Since then I’ve created five original shows that I have performed in Palm Springs, New York, Seattle and Los Angeles. I would not have accomplished that without the work I did in St. Louis.”

Mr. Elliott also appreciates the vitality of the St. Louis cabaret scene. “I look at the St. Louis cabaret community,” he notes, “as a model for keeping this art form moving forward. As a direct result of the annual workshops, you have created a very supportive and nurturing environment for cabaret. Through social media, I’ve kept up with many of the friends I met during my two visits and I admire how many of you have continued to study and grow. I am amazed at the breadth and frequency of cabaret activity that goes on in St. Louis.” Indeed, he asked Katie McGrath (of Women Under the Influence) to do an opening set for his show here precisely “because she exemplifies what I like to call the Spirit of St. Louis.”

Based on an earlier Palm Springs show, “My Favorite Springs” pays homage both to the season spring and to the famous hot springs of his hometown in the California desert. The eclectic song list spans eight decades and includes works by Noel Coward, Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hart, Harry Chapin, William Finn, Amanda McBroom, Gordon Lightfoot, Steve Marzullo, Mark Campbell and Jerry Herman. There’s even a number (Coachella Valley Blues) with lyrics by Mr. Elliott himself.

Music director and pianist for the show is Jasmine co-founder and Webster University faculty member Carol Schmidt, whose work is frequently scene on local cabaret stages. Carol is also the music director for The Cabaret Project’s monthly open mic series at Tavern of Fine Arts

Mixing a rich baritone with a sly wit, Elliott has received accolades for his performances in New York (The Duplex), Los Angeles (M Bar), Seattle (Julia’s and Egan’s), as well as at many cabaret venues in the Palm Springs area. His work in Southern California music and theater has garnered seven nominations for the Desert Theatre League’s annual Desert Star Awards.

Mr. Elliot, though, says he thinks of himself primarily as “an actor who sings” rather than a singer per se. “I’ve learned that one of my natural abilities is story-telling. I like to give myself leeway to improvise within the patter. I love to write patter and a good third of my show consists of talk.”

“My Favorite Springs” bounces on to the stage at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive in Clayton, on Saturday, June 29, at 8 PM. As its name implies, The Chapel is a converted chapel that now serves as both a performing arts venue and a gallery space, which makes for a very friendly and mellow vibe.  For more information: brownpapertickets.com; look for event 365191.

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 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.

The Cliburn Report 14: 40 Great Unclaimed Melodies

[Thanks to The Firesign Theatre for the title of this post. If you haven’t heard the hilarious 1970 sketch in question, you owe it to your sense of humor to check it out. Some of you may even be old enough to remember the commercial—featuring Jack Benny’s long-time announcer Don Wilson—that inspired it.]

[Note: this has been corrected based on information obtained from tinyurl.com/cliburn2013rep; viz. the anonymous comment]

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes. – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze”

“I would while away the hours / Conversin’ with the flowers,” but since I’m “leavin’ on a jet plane” for the finals of the Cliburn International Piano Competition, I thought I’d use the flight time to devote some attention the musical canines that were silent, or very nearly so—that is, composers whose work was poorly represented or entirely absent during the three rounds of preliminary and semi-final recitals.

Let’s start with the dogs that didn’t bark at all.

One of only two knownphotos of Alkan

Charles Valentin Alkan – Not a household name but certainly known among pianists. Granted, most of his stuff is fiercely difficult, but somebody could have taken on (say) Aesop’s Feast, the Sonatine, or the Barcarolle (with its prescient “blue” notes)—any of which would have been well within the capabilities of these technically proficient pianists. Besides, none of them appeared to shy away from technical challenges;  Stravinsky’s thorny Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka was heard often as were  works by Liszt (including 11 of the Transcendental Études by Vadym Kholodenko).

And, speaking of Stravinsky, the Pétrouchka suite was the only work of his on the bill.

François Couperin – Yes, he wrote for the harpsichord and organ rather than the piano, but so did Bach and that didn’t keep him off the program (although he didn’t appear that often either; three performances including a Siloti transcription).

Charles Ives

John Field – Nothing from the inventor of the nocturne. In fact, no nocturnes at all. Maybe everyone was afraid of putting the audience to sleep?

George Gershwin – He’s marginal in this context, perhaps, but surely his Preludes would have made an interesting addition.

Charles Ives – Ives only wrote two piano sonatas, but they’re amazing pieces—and would surely have been appropriate for a competition held in America. Indeed, American composers were poorly represented in general.

Dimitri Shostakovich – Granted, Shostakovich might not be as well known for his piano works as Prokofiev (see below), but his Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues are real gems. It would have been nice to see a few performed.

These dogs, meanwhile, barked so little you could easily have missed them.

Albèniz – A prolific and popular composer for the piano, he’s represented only by Book 2 of Iberia (Tomoki Sakata)

Bartok – Again, a composer well known for his piano works, but represented by only three performances: the 1926 Sonata (Luca Burrato), the Étude, op. 18, no. 3 (Alexy Chernov), and Out of Doors (Beatrice Rana).

Grieg – Another prolific and popular composer of piano miniatures and one massively popular concerto, Grieg is represented by a whopping total of three waltzes (performed by Alexey Chernov). I find this odd, to say the least. Is it because most of his work doesn’t offer the kinds of opportunities for flash that one finds in the work of (say) Liszt (who is very well represented)? Or has he simply fallen out of fashion?

Mendelssohn – Only three works: the Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, op. 28 (Scottish Sonata), the Sonata no. 3 in B-flat Major, op. 106, and Variations serieuses, op. 54.

Liszt by Lehmann

So who is well represented? Well, after Liszt, the biggies were Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven (including the challenging “Hammerklavier” sonata), Brahms, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev.

Ravel looks to be well represented—sixteen performances—but those performances covered only five works including the multiples of Gaspard de la nuit. Still, they’re major works, so maybe that’s not a big deal.

What, if anything, does this mean? The Cliburn and other competitions have been criticized for encouraging safe repertoire and performance choices—a kind of reversion to the mean, in which idiosyncrasies are weeded out. I didn’t see enough of the preliminary and semi-final rounds to comment on the performance side, but it certainly does appear that, given the ability to choose their own music, contestants tend to go with the tried and true. What do you think?

The Cliburn Report 13: Les Six

Leonard Slatkin

After two three rounds of recitals and one round of piano quintets (with the Brentano String Quartet), the group of thirty Van Cliburn International Piano Competition contestants has finally been narrowed down to six finalists. This Thursday through Sunday, each of them will play two concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony conducted by former St. Louis Symphony music director Leonard Slatkin.

I’ll be covering the final round from Fort Worth as part of a delegation from the Music Critics Association of North America. Meanwhile, here’s a list of the finalists along with the concerti each will play.

Sean Chen (24, USA)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, op. 73
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30

Fei-Fei Dong (22, China)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, op. 58
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30

Vadym Kholodenko (26, Ukraine)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, op. 26

Nikita Mndoyants (24, Russia)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, op. 16

Beatrice Rana (20, Italy)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, op. 37
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, op. 16

Tomoki Sakata (19, Japan)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, op. 23

And for those of you who like details, here’s the Cliburn jury handbook, courtesy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The Cliburn Report 12: The Unanswered Question

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June. Meanwhile I’m picking the best of the current press coverage for you dining and dancing pleasure.]

Cliburn in Moscow in 1958

The semifinal round of performances, in which recitals will alternate with piano quintet performances, runs through tomorrow (June 4th), at which point each one of the dozen semifinalists will have done one of each and the six finalists will be announced.

By that time each of those finalists will have played three 45-minute recitals and performed a piano quintet with the Brentano String Quartet. Starting on Thursday the final round, in which each one of them will play two piano concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony under Leonard Slatkin, will commence. The winners are announced at a ceremony on Sunday evening, followed by a black tie party at the Worthington Hotel.

It’s a punishing schedule and raises an interesting (and ultimately unanswerable) question: if he were alive today, could the 23-year-old Van Cliburn, who took the world by storm when he won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, win the competition that carries his name?

The evidence is ambiguous and scanty. Looking at the works Cliburn played in concert and on record, he was clearly at his strongest in the romantic Russian repertoire. His 1958 Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with Kirill Kondrashin and the Symphony of the Air is legendary. As cited in Joseph Horowitz’s 1990 The Ivory Trade, Aram Khachaturian called Cliburn’s performance “better than Rachmaninoff’s; you find a virtuoso like this once in a century.” Cliburn’s subsequent Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 went platinum—the first classical LP to do so.

Outside of the Russian romantics, though, he fared less well. Here’s how Mr. Horowitz describes the situation:

Cliburn’s recordings add contradictory impressions. He never made another as ardent as his 1958 Rachmaninoff Third—unless it was the Rachmaninoff Second Sonata, also recorded in concert, in Moscow in 1960. In American studios, he recorded sixteen concertos eleven sonatas, and a variety of shorter solo works. Here, the Cliburn imprint remains sonorous and expansive. He majestically sweeps through his “Favorite Encores”—by Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, and Schumann/Liszt—in love with their stormy rhetoric. Elsewhere, the lustrous sheen and monumental architecture attain a sort of embalmed perfection.

Fei-Fei Dong

Cliburn also had no interest at all in chamber music. Add that to his limited musical interests, and one wonders how we would fare today in a competition that demands a variety in repertoire, including the piano quintet. Would he ever make it to that final round? One wonders.

Meanwhile, back at the competition, a bit of controversy has spring up around the revelation that Yoheved “Veda” Kaplinsky, the teacher of competitor Fei-Fei Dong, is sitting on the Cliburn jury. And she’s not the only one. As Andrea Ahles reports in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram today, “Two of juror Arie Vardi’s students, Claire Huangci and Beatrice Rana, performed Saturday. Jury member Dmitri Alexeev’s student Nikita Abrosimov played Saturday, too. In all, nine of the 30 competitors who started the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition were current or former students of the individuals adjudicating it. Four of the jurors’ students advanced to the semifinal round, which started Saturday.”

This turns out to be far from unusual, not only at the Cliburn, but (as Ms. Alhes reports) at competitions in general:

Although it may seem like the world is filled with concert pianists and teachers who could adequately judge a piano competition, [former Cliburn chief Richard] Rodzinski said, there actually is a small pool of talent to draw on for contests at the highest levels. Therefore, he said, it would be impossible to eliminate teachers altogether from juries like the Cliburn’s or the Tchaikovsky’s.

“I think [the criticism of the Cliburn] is a little bit unfair,” Rodzinski said. “There are certain master teachers and obviously, Veda [Kaplinsky] is a master teacher. She’s also a wonderful juror.”

My feeling is that Mr. Rodzinski (son of the great conductor Artur Rodzinski) may be right. When it comes to competition-level pianists, teachers, and judges, “it’s a small world after all.”

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