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Speaking of Pianists » 2008» September

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    Archive for September, 2008

    Thirteenth Van Cliburn Competition

    Monday, September 29th, 2008

    To put it mildly, the listening experience at the Twelfth Van Cliburn Piano Competition, held in 2005, was intense. But it was one of my greatest experiences ever.

    Portland Piano International will again host  a group of up to 40 piano lovers to the Semifinal Round of the Thirteenth Van Cliburn Competition May 27 - June 1 in Fort Worth, Texas.  This round takes place over a four-day period, and provides the opportunity to hear the twelve remarkable young artists chosen for this round striving to communicate their very best, and thereby gain a place in the Final Round.

    One of my favorite parts of the competition was hearing the five commissioned works for the competition. Repeated performances of these new works really gives the listener a chance to get to know them well.  My favorite of the group was Ruth Schonthal’s Sonata quasi un’improvvisazione.  Schonthal, a former student of Paul Hindemith, died the following year at the age of 81.

    A real joy for us was hearing each of these Semifinalists performing the great piano quintets of our repertoire – Brahms, Schumann, Dvorak, and the lesser-known Cesar Frank, with the great Takács Quartet.

    To give some idea of  the importance of the Cliburn Competition, PPI has presented the following Laureates of the competition since 1978:

    Ralph Votapek, Cécile Ousset, Radu Lupu, Mark Westcott, Vladimir Viardo, Steven De Groote, Jeffrey Swann, André-Michel Schub, Panayis Lyras, Santiago Rodriguez, Jeffrey Kahane, Christopher O’Riley, José Feghali, Philippe Bianconi, Barry Douglas, Emma Tahmiziàn, Alexei Sultanov, Simone Pedroni, Christopher Taylor, Jon Nakamatsu, Katia Skanavi, Stanislav Ioudenitch, Olga Kern, Antonio Pompa-Baldi, Davide Cabassi, Roberto Plano, Joyce Yang and  Alexander Kobrin.

    A few places remain for the exceptional event sponsored by Portland Piano International.  For information and a registration form, visit our home page at

    Winging it - Again

    Sunday, September 14th, 2008

    Mary Kunz Goldman writes in the Buffalo News about a recent performance of a Mozart Concerto by pianist Robert Levin.

    “What made the Mozart concerto an adventure was the featured pianist, Harvard professor Robert Levin. Levin, an authority on Mozart, has a unique approach: He improvises as he plays. No, really. He wings it. On the phone last week, he confessed that he never is completely sure how a performance is going to turn out.

    I have never heard the 23rd concerto like this. Levin doesn’t just play the music. He lives it. It shows in his face, in his whole body. He delights in every note, every chord change. Did I say chord change? He is making me think of jazz.

    Because Levin really does use Mozart as a vehicle for improvisation. He goes far beyond anything any other pianists have done in this department. He takes chances. It is like watching a high-wire artist.”

    Later in the same article Goldman says “It’s a shame that, over the centuries, classical musicians have dropped the ball on improvisation. Fie on them. It’s time this art was brought back.”

    You can read her entire review here.

    Although the recent article by New Yorker critic Alex Ross is not specifically about improvisation, he takes a look at some of the performance practices of the past, fairly way-out by our current standards. Ross sums it up well: “Piano recitals were, by modern standards, completely nuts.”

    He describes a Franz Liszt evening: “In one favorite routine, Liszt brought onstage a large urn into which his listeners had dropped slips of paper, each one inscribed with a suggestion for a tune on which he might improvise. He then drew out the messages one by one, taking delight in those which wandered off topic. Hamilton* writes, “On turning out the urn in a concert on March 15, 1838 in Milan, Liszt found a piece of paper with the question ‘Is it better to marry or remain single?’—to which he slickly replied, ‘Whatever course one chooses, one is sure to regret it.’”

    The Alex Ross article, Why so Serious, from the September 8th edition of the New Yorker may be found online here.

    Pianist Gabriela Montero brings back the art of improvisation in her Portland recitals on October 26 and 27.  View her complete program here.

    *From Kenneth Hamilton’s book, mentioned in a previous post, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford).

    Winging It

    Saturday, September 6th, 2008

    For the most part, programs in our upcoming PPI season represent the real core of the pianist’s repertoire, with a few departures to Medtner and Tchaikovsky.  It is some of our most remarkable music, but last year we heard some fairly offbeat performances - works by Weissenberg, Thalbert, Louie, Stravinsky, Strauss, Tcherepnin and Trenet. There are few surprises in the 2008-2009 season with one unique exception. I don’t use that adjective often, but I believe it is deserved here.

    In October, Gabriela Montero will do her part to revive a tradition from the 19th century, a rich heritage practiced by Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn (one of the best) and most other performers of the era; the art of improvisation. Competitions that we would consider completely tasteless today, pitting dueling pianists against each other, were an important part of the musical life of the time.

    Take this example of the art of improvisation in the extreme, written by British pianist Charles Salaman and related by Harold C. Schonberg in his book, The Great Pianists:

    “I recall an interesting incident at a morning concert given in June, 1844, in honor of that gifted and most pathetic of famous violinists, Heinrich Ernst. Bach’s Triple Concerto in D minor was played by Moscheles, Thalberg and Mendelssohn – what a trio of giants! And each performer was to play an impromptu cadence [cadenza].  Moscheles, a famous improvisatore, led off with a fine cadence.  Thalberg followed with perhaps even more brilliant effect.  Then Mendelssohn, who had been leaning listlessly over the back of his chair while the others were playing, quietly began his cadence, taking up the threads from the subject of the concerto; then, suddenly rousing himself, he wound up with a  wonderful shower of octaves, indescribable in effect, and never to be forgotten.  The audience was so excited that the applause at the end was all for Mendelssohn.”

    Once a requirement for any successful performer, improvisation has been lost to us for the past 100 or so years, replaced by the pianist as performer rather than the composer as pianist.  Fortunately, it’s coming back, and I believe a time will come when no pianist will be a complete musician without having some degree of expertise at this skill.

    James Fenton in the Guardian (UK) quotes from Kenneth Hamilton’s excellent book,  After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford University Press, 2007).

    “The concert pianists of the Romantic period did much that would surprise a modern audience. Many of them were skilled improvisers, and improvisation on popular themes was something that their admirers insisted on hearing. If you weren’t good at improvising, you lived in dread of these ordeals. At any moment inspiration might dry up and you might make a fool of yourself.”

    Gabriela Montero does not live in dread of improvisation, and will take requests for themes from audience members (yes, that’s correct), so put on your thinking caps and gather your courage.

    “The first half I get into who Chopin was, who Schumann was,” she says, “while the second half is really my world. I have no plan, no road-map.”

    National Public Radio has featured Montero in seven segments since 2006.  Those are archived here, and have wonderful clips of improvisations sung to her by telephone callers to the program “Sing It and Wing It”.