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Speaking of Pianists » 2008» August

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    Archive for August, 2008

    Jackie on Performance Today

    Thursday, August 28th, 2008

    Pianist Jon Kimura Parker – Jackie to his many fans and friends in Portland - is a featured artist on Performance Today this week, talking about a work he commissioned Canadian composer Alexina Louie to write for him twenty years ago.

    Listen to Jackie’s stories about his work with Louie in the creation of this exquisite piece, and then hear his performance of  Memories in an Ancient Garden, the second movement of Scenes from a Jade Terrace.  American Public Media’s Performance Today site is here; click on the “New Music Comes Alive” link to hear the interview and colorful performance.

    Performance Today also replays the world premier of Peter Schickele’s (aka P.D.Q. Bach) Music for Orcas Island, commissioned by the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival.  Parker is the Artistic Advisor for the summer event.

    Amateur Competitions

    Sunday, August 24th, 2008

    Oregon M.D. and pianist, Ron Potts, one of the newly elected Board Directors of Portland Piano International, is a finalist in the Seattle International Piano Festival Amateur Competition. The final round of the competition, new this year to Seattle, will take place on September 20. Best Wishes to you Dr. Potts!

    The upcoming Seattle event represents the growing trend of recognizing the many excellent pianists who have (wisely) chosen not to pursue music as a profession, but make piano study an important part of their lives.

    The most famous of these events, and the likely inspiration for many of the regional competitions, is the Van Cliburn Foundation’s International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, held every four years. Portland pianist Sylvia Gray was a contestant in the 2007 competition. David Stabler, classical music critic for the Oregonian and one of the judges for the event, wrote about her here:

    Stabler followed Sylvia’s progress through the competition, so click on “Cliburn Amateurs Competition” for other archived posts from the Oregonian.

    There is also the Cliburn’s YouTube Competition for Amateur Pianists, held this past March for the first time; a second online competition will be held in the summer of 2009. This sure saves a lot of money on travel expenses for the contestants and judges! Here is the basic story from Stabler’s Oregonian blog:

    “Building on its competition for amateur pianists, the Van Cliburn Foundation recently held a YouTube contest for amateurs. Christopher Shih, a gastroenterologist from Maryland, won by popular vote. Forty-one amateur pianists, ages 35 and older, took part.

    On his video, Shih comes across as a clean and tidy player with an agile technique. He gets an automatic entry to the sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, to be held in the spring of 2011 in Fort Worth. Last year, Portland pianist Sylvia Gray competed and came away with new friends and a new confidence in her playing.

    Shih won the YouTube contest with his playing of “Los requiebros” from “Goyescas” by Enrique Granados. The Cliburn’s second YouTube Contest will be held in the summer of 2009.”

    And one more recent story about a dedicated amateur, this courtesy of (Toronto, Canada).

    Speaking of competitions, Portland Piano International will host a group of patrons at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. If you are interested in the trip to Fort Worth, Texas for the semifinal round, see details here:

    Happy Birthday, Achille

    Thursday, August 21st, 2008

    Today, August 22, is the birthday of one of our greatest composers of music for the piano: Claude - Achille Debussy. Born in 1862, Debussy was one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, continuing and expanding the Romantic tradition with his bold harmonic explorations. For pianists, he is arguably the most important composer after Chopin.

    It was late in 1892 at the age of thirty that he was finally able to shed the name “Achille” (from the Greek warrior) and became, simply, Claude.

    The Académie des Beaux-Arts was not impressed with Debussy’s new sounds and harmonies initially. The following rebuke, however, is important because it uses the word impressionism for the first time in the musical world.

    Monsieur Debussy…has a pronounced tendency – too pronounced - towards an exploration of the strange. One has the feeling of musical color exaggerated to the point where it causes the composer to forget the importance of precise construction and form. It is strongly to be hoped that he will guard against this vague impressionism, which is one of the most dangerous enemies of truth in works of art.

    So much for the taste of the Académie.

    Pianist and author Paul Roberts, long-time friend of Portland Piano International, has made an important contribution to the Debussy literature. His new biography, Claude Debussy (Phaidon Press, 2008) is a gorgeous and engaging portrait of the composer, inviting us into Debussy’s life through letters, photographs and art of the period. Roberts knows the works of Debussy intimately and has recorded two discs of his music, including the complete Preludes.

    [Roberts] “has succeeded, distilling a lifetime’s reading, listening and thinking to create an intimate portrait that takes us nearer to the heart of that music than any biography before.” (Michael Church, The Independent)

    For Paul Roberts’ website, including audio clips, click here:

    I’ve just finished reading his beautiful book; it’s like a good novel that I just couldn’t put down.

    “Collect impressions. Don’t be in a hurry to write them down. Because that’s something music can do better than painting: it can centralize variations of color and light within a single picture - a truth generally ignored, obvious as it is.”
    Claude Debussy, in a letter to his stepson, Raoul Bardac

    A Poet of the Piano: Richard Goode

    Friday, August 15th, 2008

    “Listening to the pianist Richard Goode playing Bach and Chopin on Sunday was a perfect, soul-soothing tonic after a busy week.” So begins Vivien Schweitzer in her New York Times review of Goode’s Town Hall recital this past April.

    Although the program is not the same Goode will play in Portland, the comments Schweitzer makes about the relationship of Bach and Chopin are interesting and pertinent to his Portland programs. See those October programs here, and read the complete April 29, 2008 Schweitzer review at this link.

    Despite the fact that my last post focused on child prodigies and the need to begin piano studies at an early age, Goode doesn’t fit that formula. “I was in no way a child prodigy,” he says. “My parents weren’t involved in music, although my father had some musical ability. But, as a child, I heard mostly pop music.”

    And he was 47 when he gave his first solo recital in Carnegie Hall.

    In my opinion, his 1993 Nonesuch recording of the complete Beethoven Sonatas still remains the standard. Goode was the first American-born pianist to record the complete cycle.

    The intriguing story of his rise to prominence is one of the portraits in the late David Blum’s book, Quintet, Five Journeys toward Musical Fulfillment (Cornell University Press, 1999).

    Excellent seats are available for Goode’s Portland recitals on October 12th and 14th at the Newmark Theater. Go to the Portland Piano International website for ticket information.

    BBC: Imagine being a concert pianist

    Friday, August 8th, 2008

    Anyone hoping for a career as a pianist should see this series of seven clips from the BBC on YouTube (where else). These clips show some great talents, discuss the odds, and point out the joys and difficulties of the piano business. They’ve been around for a while, but worth a second view if only for the excitement of hearing some great performances.

    Vladimir Ashkenazy says that in his thirty years of teaching there have been “only maybe a couple or three to whom I say, ‘well I think you really can make a big career’.”

    The clips feature pianists and teachers Yoheved “Veda” Kaplinsky, Lang Lang, Joyce Yang, Stephen Hough and others, beginning with a very talented 11 year old, Benjamin Grosvenor. There is also a segment featuring one of my favorites, the Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires, who no longer travels to the United States.

    See the clip series here.

    Monday, August 4th, 2008

    Just a reminder that many of the concerts from summer festivals in Verbier (Switzerland), Aspen (Colo.) and Aix-en-Provence (France) will remain available free of charge until September 30, 2008 on

    There are some excellent performances by pianists Martha Argerich, Jeffrey Kahane, Yuja Wang and Boris Berezovsky, plus other orchestral, chamber music and opera performances. I’m enjoying Ravel’s G Major Concerto with pianist Helene Grimaud while writing this.

    The Washington Post published an article yesterday by Anne Midgette, Taking a Dip in The Online Stream, about the new online resource. You can read it here.

    Lang Lang Watch: The Olympian

    Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

    Chinese pianist Lang Lang is the subject of a lengthy article by David Remick in this week’s New Yorker. The first paragraph of the piece (not available online) sums it up: Lang Lang is the performer most likely to benefit from the upcoming Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

    The pianist, “China’s greatest musician” according to the magazine, has already celebrated the Olympics with a one-year advance concert in Tiananmen Square, and rumor has it that he will perform in the opening ceremonies next week. Today Show interviews, bookstore events pushing his new “autobiography”, and record store displays featuring his wide range of recordings will all be a part of his victory in the Games.

    As a final tip of the hat to Lang Lang, one of the official pandas of the Beijing Games has been named after him.

    At twenty-six, Lang Lang is one of the most famous classical artists in the world, and one of the most controversial. From his You Tube clip of Chopin’s Black Key Etude played with an orange, to his trademark-protected name – it appears as Lang Lang ™ in China- the young man is definitely in the news a lot. Is he a great pianist? Is he a great salesman for classical music? Two different questions, so make your own decisions.

    It’s a fascinating and fantastic story of Lang Lang’s first twenty-six years, so pick up the August 4th New Yorker issue if you’re interested.

    Another story, this one online and free from The Independent (UK) is here.

    Lang Lang performs Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto with the Oregon Symphony in a special concert on October 3, 2008.

    For tickets, go to this link.