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Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto N.2

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A couple of weeks ago I gave a masterclass at NYU-Steinhardt. One of the students, Chantal Balestri, performed the Liszt Second Piano Concerto. I have played this work several times, but the last time was about 10 years ago or so. Looking at the score again, and working on it with Chantal, brought back great memories of a wonderful musical experience I had in 2003, performing this concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Miguel Harth-Bedoya. A fantastic orchestra, and a world-class conductor. By coincidence, a few days after the masterclass I learned that the FWSO musicians went on strike this past September, and that as of today (October 25th, 2016), all of their scheduled concerts are cancelled till the end of the year. This means these wonderful musicians are going through tough times, and I would like them to know I am thinking of them. I do not live in Fort Worth, and don’t know any of the details. I just hope that this situation (also happening in Pittsburgh, by the way) can be solved in a way that satisfies all parties, and allows the musicians the serenity and peace of mind to know their future in that organization is not in danger, and that they are valued for what they are worth: a lot. I hope the conditions can soon be met for them to resume their concerts. Listening to the FWSO in Bass Hall, and especially performing with them, is a truly marvelous experience, and I want to wish all of them the very best. Here is that Liszt Concerto we played together in 2003.

 

 

 

 

Franz Liszt: the calm before the storm

I was looking for an old recording of mine, and found this video from June 1, 2012. Since 2005, I have been on the jury of the San Jose International Piano Competition every June. The competition always opens with a gala concert from members of the jury. Among the selections I performed on this occasion are movements from the “Annes de Pèlerinage” (Years of Pilgrimage) by Franz Liszt. Two of these pieces are so incredibly contrasting, and placed right one after the other in the middle of the 9-movement suite. They are both about water, but the first is called “Au bord d’une source” (Beside a spring), and the second is titled “Orage” (Storm). The former is so wonderfully peaceful, lively yet infusing an inner calmness, brightly shimmering, glittering, the drone of spring water inducing the most pleasant of feelings; the latter is such an outburst of nature’s violent and fearsome might. Both beautiful in their own way, I think. The audio quality is not first rate, what with all the compressions. Nonetheless, I hope they’ll be enjoyable to whomever wants to listen!

 

 

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Sergei Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto N.4

The Fourth Piano Concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff is an extraordinary composition, and perhaps the least appreciated of the Rachmaninoff Concertos. I feel it is a dark piece, and for me it should not be played too “brilliantly”. The development of the first movement, and most of the last, in my opinion, cannot be fully appreciated when the piece is played at breakneck speed.

The most important traits of this piece are the heart-wrenching sadness, nostalgia, and melancholy. Even the “Dies irae” theme, so recurring in Rachmaninoff, is heard here at the end of the first movement, in the piano left hand, in such a melancholy way.

Compositionally, it is by far the most complex of Rachmaninoff’s works, with hundreds of passages where the piano and the orchestra play in cross rhythms, irregular groups, syncopations. The composer makes this sound purposely “out of sync” most of the time, which gives the piece a feeling of great instability. The climaxes, those gorgeous explosions of passionate lyricism, are also present here as in other more popular Rachmaninoff works, but for once they are not the most significant traits, although they greatly enrich the whole. The harmonic language is far more daring than that of all the other Rachmaninoff Concertos, more modern, if you will. In that respect, maybe this is the only truly modern piece Rachmaninoff wrote for the piano. Yet the work still offers a romantic allure, creating a combination of old and new that holds an immense fascination for me.

This is a very difficult work to perform, I find, requiring a heightened state of concentration on the part of everyone involved, at all times. I didn’t notice it as we were performing it, but in the recording I can actually hear some of the musicians counting! I promise you it wasn’t me, although I was doing it in my head.

It was exciting to play this work with Maestro Theodore Kuchar. I find him to be an amazing musician, deeply committed to his Art, very humble although his level of artistry is up there with the best of them, and an incredibly gifted accompanist, too.

As always, it was a privilege to perform with the musicians of the Cape Town Philharmonic, truly a fantastic ensemble.

 

 

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Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos 1 and 2

These recordings are from one of the most intense nights of my career, in Cape Town, South Africa. Performing Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos 1 and 2 on the same program with an ensemble I truly have come to love, in an amazing Country, and in a city which I find utterly beautiful. There is also something very special about the magnificent venue, Town Hall, where one is surrounded and enveloped by the audience, left, right, front and back.

I remember how that morning, as I arrived for the dress rehearsal, the rumor that Nelson Mandela had died was spreading at the speed of light. It turned out not to be true, but we did not know then. I remember the Conductor, Maestro Yasuo Shinozaki from Japan, deciding on the spot to add the “Nimrod” Variation from Elgar’s “Enigma”, in memory of Mandela, at the beginning of the program. The dress rehearsal was public, attended by hundreds of people, mostly elderly audience members who preferred not to leave their homes at night. It was more a concert than a rehearsal. As the orchestra started running through the Elgar, all these people stood and wept. It was all very emotional, very moving. At the end of both videos, I included one picture from this moment, which I took with my phone. It shows a partial view of the audience, with people standing and paying their respects to the great man.

After the rehearsal, basically a run-through of both Concertos, I got back to the hotel and opened the TV. CNN was saying that Mandela was still alive! It was surprising, and strange.

Finally, that night I played these two gorgeous pieces for a packed house (again, I included pictures at the end of each video, of me bowing in every direction to acknowledge and thank the audience). I felt inspired by the large crowd and their enthusiasm, and by my fellow musicians with whom I shared this experience. It is far from a perfect performance, of course. After all, it is live and unedited, and there is even a cell phone that went off during the first movement of the First Concerto, but for some reason that night nothing mattered, nothing bothered me.

In both of these works, but especially in the First Concerto, I like slow tempi. I guess this is true, for me, with all the Rachmaninoff Concertos. There is so much to love, to hear, to absorb. Melodies, countermelodies, harmonic gems, cross rhythms, little chamber music dialogues within the massive context. Also, I think faster tempi take away the depth and beauty of the sound, forcing the pianist to shorten the motions and “whip” the keys to get power, rather than dig deep and with a fluid, naturally weighty approach. Something very personal, or course, and therefore debatable. Furthermore, there is only so much that an archival recording, or any recording, can catch in terms of the actual sound heard live. At any rate, I truly love these Concertos, and I particularly loved playing them on that night of June 27th, 2013.

 

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Nights in the Gardens of Spain

Fifteen years ago, I performed Nights in the Gardens of Spain by Manuel de Falla. It was in Paris, with the Radio France Philharmonic. I never saw or heard that performance, although I knew it had been televised by the French national tv. Just a few days ago, I obtained a copy of the recording. It brought back many memories, and it reminded me of why I love this piece. It also made me ask myself: why have I not played it again, after that performance in Paris? I guess the opportunity never came, and I have been playing so much repertoire since then… Never say never, though. Right?

Originally conceived as Nocturnes for the piano, these three movements are best described using the composer’s own words: “Symphonic Impressions”. The piano plays here a wonderful role, and a very different one from that of the traditional romantic concertos: it is a co-protagonist, rather than a protagonist. The orchestral part is luscious, and the whole is as evocative as any music I know.

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Roberto Piana (b.1971): 25 Preludi Pittorici (Pictorial Preludes)

I first came into contact with the work of Italian composer Roberto Piana about three years ago. When I first heard his music, I was struck by the sheer depth, beauty, and directness of it. No affectation of any kind. Roberto’s language is uniquely his own, but rooted in tradition, blending the romantic, post-romantic, impressionistic, and modern idioms with a melodic vein that I can only describe as Italian, in the best sense of the word. Sometimes he also uses harmonic and rhythmic patterns that come from popular music, and even jazz. His deep knowledge and understanding of compositional styles and techniques from early to contemporary music allows him to have a vast array of devices at his disposal, all of which are masterfully used. He is not the kind of composer who rejects a type of language or a compositional technique just because they have already been used before (fortunately!), but he makes everything his own.

I have never liked very much composers who ignored and scorned anything that preceded them, as if they grew up in a vacuum and music started with them. Unfortunately, there were quite a few like that in the second half of the 20th century, and they were the ones who shouted the loudest, attacking anybody who dared innovate from within tradition, and seizing the limelight, so to speak.
I think it is as a result of their work, and of their shouting, that nowadays almost no one cares to listen to contemporary composers. There is true fright on the part of concert organizers, and to some extent record labels, when you propose to play music written by people who are still alive, or who passed away less than 70 years ago, because they know the public tends to stay away from that music, rejecting the very idea of contemporary classical music as a whole, without even listening to any of it. Those tyrannical few composers who shouted the loudest accomplished something terrible: to make the public at large believe that all contemporary composers sounded like them. And that is a pity, because there is a lot out there that is beautiful, that can really enrich our lives, and that is worth listening to. In truth, the last 70 years seem to me to be one of the most eclectic, interesting and varied eras in music. But I digress…….

What I find most fascinating in Roberto Piana’s music is that it flows completely naturally, and apparently effortlessly. It is based on traditional techniques, and it is mostly tonal in its harmonic frame, yet it sounds modern, current, to me.

In composing these “25 Preludi Pittorici”, Roberto was able to create a large cohesive work (about 29′) made of twenty-five short pieces, each inspired by a different painting. Not only that, but the paintings come from artists with hardly any connection among them, from different countries, eras, styles, and depicting broadly varied subjects. These “Pictorial Preludes”, in my opinion, are a masterpiece. The way Roberto evokes the paintings through his music is absolutely wonderful. The paintings themselves are gorgeous. The sea is a recurring subject, from the beginning in Preludes 1, 2, 3, and then in the last one, 25. Then there is a prominent presence, if not in number at least in weight and position occupied within the general architecture of the work, of the religious subject. There is also the comical (Don Quijote), the ironic (La Risata), the reverent and learned (portrait of Bach), the tender (mother and child) and much, much more. The cohesiveness of the work through these many changes of character is assured by thematic relationships, sometimes subtle, sometimes more evident. The paintings are extremely important, yet I am convinced that if Roberto had not disclosed his source of inspiration, I would still find thousands of images evoked by the music, and I would love the work just the same, as absolute, pure music.
I hope you enjoy listening to one of my favorite contemporary works!

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