Sunday, November 22, 2015

Interview: Pianist Yoonie Han on Interpreting New Compositions ‘Gloriously’ Dedicated to Her

Yoonie Han had been invited to perform some of her most recent repertoire in 2006 at a private house concert in New York when she first met Theodore Wiprud. Yoonie immediately observed his keen listening capacity and personal demeanor.
As the New York Philharmonic’s Vice President of Education, Wiprud wears many hats: educator, concert presenter and music executive. Through his own compositions, he further impacts the musical world with creative works that reflect his widespread interaction with listeners of all ages.
It wasn’t until a few years later, though, that the two reconnected over “the other keyboard,” as Han calls her widespread activities on social media’s still most dynamic resource, Facebook.
Through “friending” each other, Han won a supportive listener and advisor in Wiprud, for whom she started to play through her repertoire, and who became an able consultant to her. Wiprud gave Han advice on many musical themes, but also on how to develop her speaking skills, which are becoming increasingly important for performers who introduce works to new audiences.
After Han became a Steinway artist in 2012, Wiprud dedicated his composition “El Jaleo” to her. It also appears on Han’s 2014 debut recording on the Steinway label. The piece was written in 2012, sparked by the painting with the same title by John Singer Sargent, a work that depicts a Spanish woman about to launch into an impassioned flamenco song and dance, surrounded by an enthusiastic audience of musicians and spectators (“Jalear” in Spanish means to encourage a performer with cries and clapping.)
“Right before that, Ted heard me perform Spanish music, a musical genre I felt particularly close to, after I had been stranded in Spain for several months without [my] passport and experienced great, totally unexpected hospitality,” says Han. “I indulged in daily visits to the local museum and familiarized myself with Spanish culture, and upon my return to New York, I delved into my pianistic resolve and into Goyescas,” says Han.
“‘El Jaleo’ however was a work we debated about together, endlessly. I loved the fact that Ted was inspired by my playing of Enrique Granados’s Goyescas to write a Spanish-flavored piece for me. But I wondered how this is going to work: Where does the performer come into the composition process, with a living composer who writes the piece for me?”
Han had raised a valid concern: Wiprud is a violinist, not a pianist. How easily was he going to negotiate technical difficulties with the performer in mind?
“Many times we discussed my comfort level with his writing for piano: ‘How far can you reach,’ he texted me, ‘can you comfortably cross…do you cross up or down…’ Sometimes I demanded a change of his pianistically impossible demands.”
After working at Lincoln Center, Wiprud would often come over to Han’s apartment on the Upper West Side to discuss everything from fingerings to the general concept of the piece, which appears on her disc titledLove And Longing, and was premiered in concert at the Harvard Club.
Yoonie Han with Theodore Wiprud classical musicYoonie Han with Theodore Wiprud
This November, at Steinway’s new salon series at Symphony Space curated by music journalist and pianist Ted Distler, Han again included a piece written for her by Wiprud in her program of mostly Spanish music. Also inspired by a painting by Sargent, this one is titled ‘Fumée d’Ambre Gris.’
This tranquil composition’s trills and expanding chord progressions face up to the painting’s motionless female figure in its contemplative state, depicted in masterly shadings of white light and grays by the painter. Dressed in layers and adornments amid the work’s North African setting, the woman gazes into an empty space before her, somberly inhaling the intoxicating, earthy vapor of the ambergris fragrance emerging from an incense-burning vessel.
“For this piece, we did not labor together in the same way we did for the first one,” Han says. They already had established a working relationship, and for this piece, Wiprud just sent the score to Han electronically when it was completed.
A third composition is in the works, which will round out a cycle inspired by Sargent’s collection of female figure paintings, which Wiprud came across at an exhibition at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA.
Wiprud’s most recent work for Yoonie Han is not based on Sargent. It is a piece for Han’s Gloriosa Trio and is named for a flower found in her hometown, Jeju Island in Korea. “I composed ‘Vinea Gloriosa’ as a brief, brilliant signature work for the Gloriosa Trio,” says Wiprud in his description of the five-minute work for violin, cello and piano: “I was struck by the extravagant beauty of the flower from which the trio takes its name, an improbable lily that grows in wild profusion in some tropical climes. I set the opulence of its flower in counterpoint with the tenacity of its tendrils – snaking vines adorned with blossoms. The title – Latin for “glorious vine” – invokes not the actual name of the plant, but my two-fold inspiration.”
Yoonie Han with Karen LeFrak classical musicYoonie Han with Karen LeFrak
Another composer’s work for the trio, titled ‘Gloriosa,’ by philanthropist, educator and composer Karen LeFrak, adopts the trio’s name for a composition that expresses the flower’s vital power to rejoice in its blooming lifecycle. Han performed another miniature cycle by LeFrak at Symphony Space, her work ‘Ombres d’Éte.’ These shadows of summer show the composer’s heartfelt, lyrical and subdued approach to an untainted mood piece, with only slightly nuanced variations to its pure, innocent, sometimes nostalgic allure.
Wiprud’s ‘Vinea Gloriosa’ entails a completely different approach: The piano follows its main melodic path, while the lines of the trio’s cello and violin “vines” intertwine mysteriously, and at times threaten to mischievously envelop the melody into a dense and restrictive “sleeping beauty”-esque untamed growth, also reminding us of the possible poisonous effect of the flower’s medical attributes and its nickname, “firebird.”
It comes as no surprise that both composers’ pieces for Han’s lyrical, softly outspoken pianism recognize aspects of her personal, capable performance style and characteristic traits, recognizing also that every performer also displays a bit of him/herself in performance.
Wiprud had introduced Han to LeFrak, who has written another piece, ‘Going Latin,’ to go along with Han’s next project of Enrique Granados’ Goyescas.
Han is looking forward to premiere ‘Going Latin,’ and to further collaborations with LeFrak, who has impressed Han with her incredibly efficient and speedy delivery of new works: “I love working with Karen. If I need another movement to make a program run a little longer, I just tell Karen,” Han says. “A day later, the movement will be ready, and it’s perfect. She’s faster than Mozart!”
In her heartfelt, yet humorous account of coming to the U.S. by herself as a 15-year-old performer to fulfill the promise of a pianistic career, one can sense Han’s resolve, but also her gratitude towards the many people in her life who have embraced her; she embraces in return. Han is not one to forget close encounters easily, or dismiss those who have had such a positive impact on her evolving career and her life.
Over the years, Han has interacted with numerous host families that have taken her into their hearts, and she keeps in regular contact with all of them. They call her “Korean daughter.” Her loyalty to those who have showed her kindness explains the large following of her concerts by her friends and loved ones.
The Gloriosa Trio, founded by Han, violinist Jennifer Carsillo and cellist Kevin Bate, has turned out to be a remarkable artistic collaboration.
Since their debut in January 2014 on the Flagler Music Series in Palm Beach, Florida, their carefully integrated thematic programs have been received extremely well by audiences and critics alike.
More than anything, the trio has been struck by the way audiences have responded to the group’s great chemistry. Says Han: “Being a pianist can be such a solitary pursuit; chamber music, on the other hand, can broaden the ways in which one thinks about and express oneself as a musician. It also opens the door to more performance opportunities, rather than pursuing a career purely as a soloist.”
The Gloriosa Trio will include the above-mentioned pieces composed for the trio in its performance at GetClassical’s concert series at ZincBar on January 11, 2016.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Tehorah: Adrienne Haan Concerts Celebrate 50 Years of German-Israeli Relations

This article was featured as editor's pick on blogcritics.

May 12th, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel. Stark black-and-white press images of Ben Gurion and Adenauer facing each other may have long morphed into images of the present day leaders of Israel and Germany, but there are still as many reasons to remember the dark shadow of historic events as there are reasons for the two countries to complement each other in striving for a shared future. 
This is a relationship marked by strong sentiments, but never indifference - a very peculiar relationship, which, against all odds, has flourished into a friendship between two, for the most part like-minded countries, in a changing world.
Said Angela Merkel when addressing the Knesset in 2008: “Yes, our relations are special, indeed unique – marked by enduring responsibility for the past, shared values, mutual trust, abiding solidarity for one another and shared confidence.”
And then there are the people: German tourism in Israel is booming, while Israelis’ growing interest in Germany and - above all - Berlin, has been widely reported on.
Still, at a time when European anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise again, one remains sensitive and mindful of the German promise, “never again”.
Regardless, this year’s golden anniversary is being celebrated with a variety of events throughout Germany and Europe, as well as North America and Israel. Israeli culture and Jewish history are a visible theme on the German event calendar this year.
Berlin has just seen the 2015 European Maccabi games, an international Jewish multi-sport event often referred to as the Jewish Olympics.
On the musical end of the scale, The Berlin Philharmonic opened the cultural celebrations with a performance of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s Symphony No. 4 in A- mayor.
In New York, the musical focus will be on German/Luxembourg chanteuse Adrienne Haan, an electrifying international cabaret star, whose Carnegie Hall debut at Weill Recital Hall on October 29th will feature music from Weimar Berlin, Yiddish klezmer and contemporary Hebrew songs. Equally at home in repertoire ranging from jazz, blues and klezmer to Broadway and pop, the music of the 20s and 30s, unthinkable without the contribution of Jewish talent, has a special place in Haan´s heart and career.
It is highly likely that Haan’s audience this fall will include many generations of holocaust survivors, and if Haan’s past concerts are anything to go by, she will again win her audience over with her sincerity and artistic honesty. It is these qualities, which, throughout her career, have made the many characters she portrays so believable - from pirate jenny to Lili Marlene. It will be fascinating to observe her delivery of Hebrew and klezmer material, which will include a medley of handpicked pieces, based on Haan´s love for expressive melodies. 
And one can, again, expect to witness her very special mélange of gloomy melancholy in memory of tragedy and loss, and the regret that the past remains unchangeable.  But her performances have always celebrated life, as well, and have honored the power of the human spirit embracing forgiveness in the hope for the new generation’s better future. 
The event will take place under the patronage of the UN ambassadors of Germany and Israel and the spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Park East synagogue and founder of the appeal of conscience foundation, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who has recently been knighted by Pope Francis for his work in promoting peace and understanding.
The evening will feature music especially arranged for Haan by German music director, Heinz Walter Florin. The program will include works by Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht, Mischa Spoliansky, Kurt Schwachbach, Friedrich Hollaender, Norbert Schulze, Chava Alberstein, the Klezmatics, Sasha Argov, Moti Hamer and Naomi Shemer. Ms. Haan will perform in German, Yiddish and Hebrew; Israeli violinists Netanel Draiblate and Perry Tal, violist Shmuel Katz, cellist Yoni Draiblate, as well as Mr Florin on piano, will accompany her. 
The embassy series at the embassy of Austria in Washington, DC, will present an encore performance of tehorah on November 3rd.
Says Haan: ”I created this program to share the tragic experiences of war and loss and to add a sense of love, hope and forgiveness. It is my hope that tehorah, which means pure in Hebrew, will help build musical bridges and create sincere understanding.”
And while building on a traumatic history can never be easy, Haan’s approach of combining just the right amount of nostalgia with a gentle sense of humor and a dash of sexiness seems a worthy way to try. 
Haan does not make a secret of her appreciation for Israel and its people, and has already lined up several performances for 2016 in the country. “Next year in Jerusalem,” she says and smiles. 
Her recording Berlin Mon Amour, is available on Amazon. Watch her as Pirate Jenny here.
Click here, for tickets to her Carnegie Hall debut on October 29th at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall.  

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Spirited Melancholy

The long bands that had tied her pointe shoes safely together, carrying her through elevated routines, are unraveling. Mia will never dance again, never again feel elated, losing herself in the moment, freed from gravity.
This scene is a peek into Galia Barkol’s new film Then What Happens, still simmering in its pre-production phase. Barkol dares to ask tough questions about our existential nature: who are we, really, when we are stripped of others' preconceived expectations of us and our own? How are we labeled by our chosen path, and how can we recover the true essence of our being independent of that course? Barkol’s film is a quest for answers to the question of what defines us - as artists and people - when the roles and circumstances that we identify with are taken from us.
Israeli born, New York based filmmaker, writer, and actress, Galia Barkol, is the film’s creator and star. Barkol deeply identifies with Mia, the lead character whom she plays, viewing her portrayal of Mia as a chance to uncover thought-provoking, deeper layers of their shared emotional state of being. Barkol saw an opportunity in the idea of the transitional artist to explore facets of her own identity as a multi-talented artist, and specifically as an actor. Barkol describes: "The film asks 'who am I without my story'...the magical thing which drew me to acting, and the theme, appealed to me for the film. As an actor you have to be many, diverse characters, but also none. In that way it’s a similar process, of stripping yourself bare, so your essence can still shine through under any circumstances." As a symbolic exercise to explore these ideas, Barkol created an Instagram for Mia, using it as a vehicle to develop her vision of the film and her discovery of Mia's character.
Barkol says: “While I am not a dancer, I admire that art form and chose it to communicate how an artistic career, meant to express your inner self, easily overtakes one’s whole identity. What we do becomes such an inseparable part of us, especially in a society that always encourages us to find purpose, to move on and recover swiftly; barging on to successfully and dutifully reach our goals, we often forget the getting there that really counts.”
The film aims to show Mia in this vulnerable state, feeling as though she has lost who she is by having lost what she is. The film is about the internal aspect of being 'in process:' starting with an empty space, and filling it with deeper meaning. Mia must discover the layers of her identity when she is no longer able to practice her art form.
“The choices we make are so often subconscious," says Barkol, yet her artistic voice carries tenacity throughout the nascent project's presentation. Barkol's “what if?” questions stir the imagination into an unconscious territory of melancholy, transporting her characters to an existential place from which true transformation can come to pass. 
With Mia, a dancer whose budding career is stopped abruptly in its tracks by injury, Barkol asks: "What happens if we have lost the hope of reaching what we have set out for? Do we just forge forward to the next best thing? How do we deal with this particular loss, how much of that feeling of loss is external to ourselves?" The film explores Mia’s coming to terms with the limbo of having to let go of an all-encompassing identity. Barkol seeks out opportunities for her character to examine deeply-rooted anxieties, social mores, and expectations in a milieu of random situations. Mia finds herself immersed in Origami, an art form she would have deemed trivial in her former life. With nothing to prove, nor any ambitions to improve herself, she finds inner calm and refuge in the minutae. Engrossed in an art form so arbitrary and markedly different from the dancer’s previous regimented and high-strung lifestyle, Mia experiences the calming impact of a peaceful resort – where she has nothing to prove or improve upon – and comes closer to her inner self in the process.
This subject of randomness is also accentuated in the relationships portrayed in the film. Often, as Barkol points out, our random relationships are the ones that let us experience an uninhibited possibility of connection with 'the other,' and ultimately with ourselves. Barkol speaks to the safe haven of anonymity, and its ability to allow us a unique chance at pure, honest intimacy. The other main character featured in Then What Happens is Justin West, a travelling businessman. Barkol observes his and Mia’s relationship under the magnifying glass in the film. It’s not a romantic relationship, but the pairing conveys one’s capacity to develop a deep connection to a stranger, that while often only temporary, can shift one’s perspective and enable one to see his or herself through another’s eyes. At its core, the film’s narrative circles around the susceptibility of our internal selves towards accepted clichés of who we believe we must be, and explores ways that we can carve out a space in our conscience that holds true to who – rather than what – we are.      
Gleefully taking risks and baring their souls, Barkol’s characters show, rather than tell, stories about the weight of seemingly inconsequential encounters and random choices during the process of finding one’s true self. Beyond the scope of time, they carry the message of a young generation forced by unlimited choices to look into a fragile place of the id in an attempt to identify what truly bears meaning and lasting joy. Watch a trailer for the movie here.

About Galia Barkol: NYC-based Israeli actress, writer and filmmaker, Galia Barkol has a multidisciplinary soul and international background. She is passionate about filmmaking, screenwriting, music, and mostly about bringing round, complex characters to life - characters that are often nudged to reconsider questions that had been answered too soon, too fast.
Galia founded Ring the Bells Productions in 2013 - an avenue for her to marry her passions for Cinema, Language and the Performing Arts, to express her voice fully and explore new territories. Read more.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Sir Andràs Schiff - Building Bridges for the Next Generation of Pianists

Maestro Schiff in his hotel suite, grand piano provided courtesy of Steinway, Photo by Ilona Oltuski
Andràs Schiff - world-class pianist, much-traveled cosmopolitan and critical spirit unafraid to speak his mind. Last year the Queen knighted the Hungary-born artist. In his latest incarnation, Schiff has become a supporter and patron for the next generation of young pianists. In between two Carnegie Hall performances, “Sir Andràs Schiff’ talks about his new passion.
By Ilona Oltuski  
This article was published in the German PianoNews Juli/August 2015

A concert-free day between two big performances in New York’s Carnegie Hall. Andràs Schiff is relaxing in his hotel suite on New York’s Upper East Side. On his Steinway the scores of some of his favorite composers - Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. The late works of the Viennese classics are part of Schiff’s concert tour this year, which will take him from Europe to the United States and Canada. At the zenith of his popularity, the 61-years old pianist has not forgotten about the hard times of building his career.    This might be one of the reasons why he is now dedicating himself to supporting new talent. He also feels that existing offerings for young artists can be approved upon. „I’m not a great believer in piano competitions,” he says, but adds that he has taken part in some himself. “Back then competitions offered the only opportunity to get concerts and play in public, and winning a competition opened up all sorts of doors,” he explains. “Today, there are very few promoters who manage to translate a competition victory into reasonably important concert opportunities. You end up having many winners all moving from one competition to the next, without ever managing to achieve anything meaningful in terms of building their careers.”
Of course, Schiff realizes that it is not enough to just criticize competitions, but that one has to find other ways to tackle this dilemma.
Schiff smiles when he talks about never actually winning any famous competition, such as the 1975 Leeds International Piano Competition: “In a competition, the one not bothering anybody is the one who wins. Nobody can play everything equally well. Everybody has their very own strengths and weaknesses,” Schiff says. It is well known that the structure of competitions and the great expectations young artists find themselves confronted with often make them ‘play safe’ at the expense of the artistic.  Schiff maintains that the freely chosen concert provides a much-needed counterpoint, because it allows the pianist to really show what he or she is made of. “In a concert one should play what one loves,” he says. “It has to be more than an obligatory exercise.”
He also thinks that “… the emotional and the intellectual should be in balance, and that the instinctive in music should dominate at 60% over 40%. One has to study and analyze, but then again integration is necessary. The audience doesn’t want an analysis; they want to be swept off their feet. It’s about a kind of controlled letting go. Risk taking is part of it, and that requires courage.”  At the same time, Schiff believes that a pianist needs a clear concept, and that without it there’s the risk of anarchy. “And one can hear that,” he says. “Only through the experience of performing publicly can one learn to take risks in a controlled fashion, resulting in a mix of an interpretation’s fixed elements and the improvised nuances of the reproduction, which will always differ somewhat depending on spatial acoustic conditions.”
Photo by Ilona Oltuski
And he reminds us that “… above all, music is play. I hear the human being behind it; you can’t deny yourself. The human and the personal are vital in music.”
His critical attitude towards competitions and the fact that he did not win Leeds ’75 have in no way been stumbling blocks in Schiff’s career. On the contrary: The fact that jury member Charles Rosen, himself an accomplished pianist and author of the landmark volume, The Classical Style, was extremely dissatisfied that his favorite competitor did not make first place, probably was, in the long run, much more helpful than winning the competition. “Rosen really supported me, and through his recommendation I came to Columbia Artists, which in turn led to me finally leaving Budapest in 1979 and moving to New York,“ Schiff remembers. His big breakthrough, however, was not to be for some time. “It was very hard, “Schiff says. “Everything took a lot of time. [I played] one community concert after the next, sometimes even in a sports stadium; at times it was almost humiliating.”
Schiff’s participation at the Marlboro Festival marked the beginning of a new phase in his life. Not only did he admire the festival’s founder and pianist extraordinaire, Rudolf Serkin, but he also had the chance to deeply immerse himself in chamber music.  On a personal level, Schiff added new friendships and connections, and he met his future wife, then Salzburg-based violinist Yuuko Shiokawa. After following her to Austria, he founded the “Mondsee-Festival“ in 1989 and six years later, together with composer and oboist Heinz Hollinger, the “Ittinger Pfingstkonzerte”. Marlboro may well provide further answers as to why Schiff has dedicated himself to supporting new talent: to him, the festival proved that performing music together, as well as the exchange between teaching and learning artists offers a potential which cannot ever be fully realized in a competition-style environment. It is this experience Schiff wants to pass on.
In selecting candidates for his concert series he not only consults his musician friends, but also relies on suggestions of industry professionals like Berlin impresario, Sonia Simmenauer, or his New York friend and director of the 92Y concert series, Hanna Arie-Gaifman. Gaifman, who has accompanied Schiff’s New York career in the city, was with him when he started to think about the possibility of a program supporting new talent. She says: “After Andràs’ concert performance three years ago we already spoke about such a concept. Who would want to turn down a performance featuring young talent recommended by an artist like Andràs?” she asks.
Promoting his initiative under the heading of "Building Bridges – András Schiff Presents Young Pianists“ and "Andràs Schiff Selects“, Schiff is making sure that the European and North-American music scene is ready for his project. “In the next few years, the series will feature performances at the Piano Festival Ruhr in Germany, in Brussels, Antwerp and Zurich, as well as in San Fransisco und Vancouver, “says Schiff proudly.  “And perhaps next year already at Wigmore Hall in London, an excellent performance hall where I often play myself, “he adds. Schiff continues: “Apart from master classes I have very limited teaching experience, but a great opportunity has presented itself here. Of course, one doesn’t know what the effect for the individual artist will be, but I think we’re off to a good start.”
The Berlin and New York performances in Schiff’s new concert series have been very well received, already.
Photo by Ilona Oltuski
This year’s “chosen three” young pianists all live in the U.S. and are Curtis or Juilliard students; some of them, like International Rubinstein Piano Competition 2008 winner, Roman Rabinovich, have already been on the international competition circuit.  Pianist Kuok-Wai Lio, whose teacher, Gary Graffman, was also Lang Lang’s teacher, won over his audience at New York’s Town Hall last year. He had at short notice replaced Radu Lupo who had been slated to play in Frank Solomon’s "Peoples’ Symphony Concerts“– series.
Number three is Fleisher-student Adam Golka. He says: “[Schiff] really dedicates a lot of time to us and looks after us with a lot of love and perseverance. Sometimes it’s almost eerie when he sits by the piano and discusses ‘our’ repertoire with incredible precision.” And Rabinovitch raves: “András Schiff epitomizes the pinnacle of artistic integrity; he is a shining example for all musicians. His support was invaluable and means incredibly much to me.“
Performances in the series mainly take place in small, intimate locations, such as the "Institut Français“ in Berlin or "Subculture“ in New York, a laid-back and ‘cool’ alternative performance space in Manhattan’s Downtown, in collaboration with the 92Y.  ”An artist’s character shows through when performing; egoistic tendencies, for example, or exaggerated self-promotion can be easily detected in a pianistic rendition,” says Schiff. “A pianist has an important role in terms of bringing the work of a composer to life, but we, as interpreters, have to stay within the framework the composer has provided us with; everything else is criminal. This does not warrant any further discussion for me.”
Pianist Adam Golka with new found mentor Schiff
Schiff applies his rather non-ambiguous approach to other areas of cultural activity, as well, contemporary theater being one example. Recently he severely criticized some directors of German theater productions for what he regards as disrespect to original works. And so it follows that he sees it as his task to promote opportunities for young talent sharing his love for tradition.  He regrets that the West’s young generation seems rather disinterested when it comes to tradition: “Despite excellent training facilities at European and U.S. institutions these countries only provide a small fraction of students; these days, almost 90% of music students come from Asian countries,” says Schiff, and laments the corresponding lack of interest in concert visits and classical music in general.   The increasing number of young instrumentalists composing interesting new works gives him some hope, however.  ”I myself have no talent for composition, but I admire the young generation, many of which do not only perform magnificently, but also enrich the field of new music with their own compositions. There we see a true return to the composer/pianist of the 19th and 20th century – a very interesting phenomenon, indeed. “   One of this new brand of artists is 27-years old Juilliard graduate Michael Brown; the New York-based pianist and composer and recent recipient of the distinguished Avery Fisher Career Development Grant will be featured in Schiff’s next round of concerts. If there is something Schiff would like his students to take to heart, it is the trust in art; he quotes Claudio Arrau, who once said to a young pianist: “Don’t be afraid to be boring. Having to be interesting or original in an uptight way – that is what’s boring. “    “The classical composers give us a lot of freedom,” he concludes. “One has to use that freedom, and that requires a lot of courage. Not everything is in the score. I am sometimes called old-fashioned when I use both hands with small time lapses in between. I do this very often, and it feels stylistically correct and very pleasant to me. Most pianists use both hands very accurately and in a totally synchronized fashion. But then there is the tradition of building in small freedoms – a tradition that is known all the way to Bartòk who himself played his chords arpeggiated, although they were written as a simple chord. You cannot possibly say that he didn’t know how to play his own music.“     It does not surprise that an artist and personality like Schiff, who deeply cares about culture in general and the pianistic tradition, in particular, feels a responsibility for the future of classical music, and so his personal commitment in supporting new talent is but a logical step.
The full extent of his work might not be known for some years, but one thing is already certain: his legacy will live on in these chosen pianists from all around the world.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Vika goes wild – a classical pianist taps into her passion for rock

When her parents were told that she – at kindergarten age – had perfect pitch and a talent for music, there was no going back: “My parents took it seriously, and the natural consequence seemed to be continued studies at a special music school. That included competitions, exams, and concert performances under high pressure, requiring utmost commitment and all the other expectations that go along with that…and- it was all understood,” says pianist Viktorya Yermolyeva, better known as Vika, or “vkgoeswild” to her YouTube subscribers, which now number over 350,000.
“All these people are spread all over the world, which is wonderful, and at the same time it makes it harder to project when organizing live concerts. Musically, they come from very different directions; mostly they are open-minded. I have classical fans, who realize that metal is good music too. And I get metal fans, who realize the piano is not as lame as they thought it might be.”
Vika’s arrangements are one-of-a-kind. While many may think of her as controversial, she manages to transfer music she adores into an idiom of sound that resonates from the instrument she knows so well. In her hands, music that wasn’t written for the piano in any way, sounds as if it was written for it alone; she makes the piano into an incubator, tapping into a new kind of orchestral expression to grow out of it.
Sometimes, her extraordinary choice of style makes her feel a little out of place: “Honestly, I don’t do it to be controversial at all. I just play music I can identify with on the instrument I know best. It happened to be this combination. If I had figured it out earlier in life, maybe I would have picked up bass guitar and would be in a band, not making everybody’s eyebrows raise,” she says, half-jokingly. In fact, Vika tried that too, at a time before she realized that the instrument wasn’t the problem. Even though she successfully finished her piano studies at the Kiev conservatory, partook in the competition cycle, and pursued postgraduate studies in Weimar and Rotterdam, she never felt enthusiastic about a career in classical music. Why did people view a career in music as some sort of an Olympic sport? Should not live experience add just as much value to audience interpretation as a performer’s competition history?
Vika reacted to these tensions by listening to “the other music,” rock music in particular, and her choices became heavier and more aggressive as she continued to broaden her palette. Rock became the “soundtrack,” as she says, to her “inner reality.” For a while, Vika tried on the Jazz hat and even enrolled in her first year of jazz piano instruction in Rotterdam after graduating with highest honors as a classical concert pianist. “A weird move,” she admits, because she knew from childhood improvisations that traditional jazz was not her thing. Eventually, she quit her search, and as an escape created a secret channel, “vkgoeswild,” to let it all hang out, dance, sing, and improvise without publicly revealing her identify. Very soon, Vika started making full piano arrangements, and then, with her first Metallica cover, her web presence began to go viral.
“It wasn’t the first time I had to arrange rock songs. I used to play in a restaurant in Amsterdam, solo and accompanying singers. Piano sheets of pop song arrangements never satisfied me, I always had to change them, add more life to them…but I never thought of it as a career.” She also heard arrangements of songs she loved that did not sound at all like the originals when played on the piano. Deep down, Vika knew the piano was capable of much more than the easy listening covers she was hearing. The occasional arrangements by classically trained musicians, on the other hand, sounded too virtuous for her taste. “Lots of technique,” she describes them: “Pianists would add a lot of unnecessary passages and technical tricks to make it look cool, and to show off…there wasn’t the right feeling for the music. Sadly, there seems to be a lack of respect in the classical world for classical musicians who try themselves in other genres, I never got why people could see this as a “betrayal of good taste.” I could never relate to that snobbish quality in people,” she says. Instead, Vika eagerly turned to metal, without really looking back.
“I don’t feel like making debates about it, and I don’t want to know what some people will say about my choices,” she says. “I just want to play music I feel a deep connection with.”
Her success happened quickly once people started to take an interest in her YouTube videos. It was Vika’s getting to that point that took years of wrestling with perfection.
While her arrangements of renowned titles are high in demand, Vika plans to also develop some of her own materials in collaboration with friends. She hopes to release some of these tracks on an album, which she is in the midst of funding via Kickstarter. Vika now lives in Frankfurt, Germany. She still occasionally plays classical music for herself and friends, and she misses performing on a grand piano, which will be a must for the upcoming recording. There are still logistical questions that she is working through for the project, particularly with regard to the metal covers for which she has become known: “It’s logical to want to also record all the songs I love most and feel great about performing, but that depends very much on the copyright issues. With classical music, we never really have to think about this issue, but with arrangements, it certainly becomes a complicated matter,” she confides.
When the limitations of laws and judgment are stripped away, though, there is something essential in all music making; according to Vika, this universal element consists of “emotions in music, energy, and power.” She says, “I think classical music, rock, and metal…these are all just different ways of expressing the same thing. As long as it’s there, it does not really matter to me how it’s being articulated. Music I love was always written by people who felt a lot, went through a lot of pain and suffering…even if they wrote their music 200 years ago, times changed, but these things don’t.”
Visit Vika’s website here for more information.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Lera Auerbach – excessive ease of aesthetic discovery

An artist who does not like to comment on her own prolific work, Lera Auerbach answers query with further creative output. “When I was told, you can’t be a composer and a pianist, I started to paint,” says the now 30something Russian-American pianist, composer, visual artist, and poet.
Literature and poetry were always part of Auerbach’s artistic inspiration and an integral part of her creative DNA. She has published three books of poetry in Russian, selected works of which have been recited publicly in performances by Gerard Depardieu, Sergey Yursky, and Evgeny Kissin. In 1996, the International Pushkin Society of New York named her Poet of the Year, and her poetry and prose are included in textbooks mandatory for schoolchildren in her native Russia.
Alongside several of her own librettos, Auerbach writes the English blog Trouble Clef, published for over a decade as a contribution to the Best American Poetry blog. Her first English publication is titled Excess of Being. A collection of aphorisms, some of which occasionally appear in Trouble Clef, it is a spontaneous work in progress collected over three years, which, compiled into eight chapters, integrates and comments on different aspects of life.
Coupled with some 120 oil-on-rusted metal works made from antique roof tiles that Auerbach found in an architectural salvage store, the book completes a body of work that she felt was forging its way for some time.
Originally approached by her publisher about a book of prose, the plan changed quickly; as aphorisms continually appeared, the author kept collecting, jotting down her thoughts in a notebook she kept next to her bed whenever inspiration struck. “Early on I felt there was something else that wanted to come out,” a feeling Auerbach always fosters while writing or composing.
It is in the editing and grouping process, an intense period of structuring by condensing, that Auerbach’s more evaluative shaping takes place. The visual art element of her work started out similarly impulsively before becoming an integral and defining part of the book. She fell in love with the characteristics of the raw and rusty material, and the 19th century tiles’ alluring time-worn aesthetic. “There is beauty in the spontaneity of creating,” says Auerbach, seeing strong connections between her visual art and her work as a pianist and composer. “Not unlike in performance, there is a certain spontaneity involved in the creative process. You can’t correct yourself with this unusual technique. You can only keep it as is, or discard it. That takes an inner freedom and courage. You can’t be afraid of making a mistake.”
It is through her selection, the grouping of raw material, that the artist establishes the framework and context of the larger work – and here again she feels there exist many similarities to the way she composes. Auerbach originally wanted to include her existing artwork, but felt the need to create a special series of visual pieces, ingraining her words, and giving a unifying structure to her writing. Her original work now only accompanies the chapter titles. “The overall form is always very important for me; even a collection of shorter pieces, similar to a collection of Preludes, must receive a solid shape,” she confirms.
“A book of aphorisms is a rather strange genre: It may seem similar to poetry but it’s also very different in how I relate to it. Excess of Being is based on a Rainer Maria Rilke poem.” Auerbach quotes: “‘Excess of being wells up in my heart …’ Rilke was fascinated with the Russian language. I edited some of his Russian poems, because I felt there was so much beautiful imagery with an awkward use of language. It gave me great joy working on it and I loved the process.”
Many of Auerbach’s grand scale scores embrace dramatic fairytales, often willed by the artist’s own romantic mindset, but with an ingenious message of their own: “It is irrelevant how you feel,” says Auerbach. “What matters is the work itself. You tune yourself to be the instrument of your creation and, the work writes itself. I make the grand plan, but then I let it go, and very often, the work turns out differently than I had originally perceived it, and I allow it to be.” The process of her own artistic creativity is at the heart of her contemplation and observation, and often shows up in her most original scores. It is perhaps precisely because of her distinctive eye for its conceptual framework and orchestrated architecture that Auerbach’s aphoristic shorthand becomes true commentary. “Dying from a paper cut,” the author remarks on her own, sometimes overwhelming struggle with the little things in life. Depicting occurrences and observations stemming from everyday life, to love and to music, her words – perhaps best pondered upon in small dosage – offer truism in coming to terms with life’s excess by making it into art.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Pianist Inon Barnatan – Classic Role-play

This article was published in the German PianoNews magazine 3/2015, Staccato Verlag.

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

Impressed with Barnatan, Alan Gilbert, Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, recently described the 35-year-old Israeli musician as “a wonderful pianist, a probing intellect, passionately committed, and a capable contemporary music pianist as well.” Gilbert, the leading force of New York’s mighty music citadel, in fact allocated an extraordinary position to Barnatan; this March, Barnatan performed Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, his debut with the orchestra, and the inauguration of the New York Philharmonic’s performer label, “Artist-in-Association.”
As the first soloist in the history of the New York Philharmonic, or any other world orchestra to my knowledge, Barnatan will be playing a sequence of contracted collaborations with the New York Philharmonic, including three different concerto performances during three seasons, as well as chamber music with musicians from the orchestra.
The pianist explains that Gilbert’s call came as a total surprise: “I had no idea about any of this when my manager got the call. I am much honored to be the first artist chosen for such a significant position. What Allan and his team do so well, by not just hiring different soloists for every season, is to nourish a deeper rapport with the artist. That applies not only to the new ‘Artist-in-Association’ series, but also to their already established ‘composer-in-residence’ program. They really mean it when they say they are looking to build meaningful relationships, and they put their money where their mouth is.” 
                                                                                                                                                                                                        Photo credit: Marco Borggreve
The ‘Artist-in-Association’ program consists of a continuing collaboration between artist and orchestra over three full seasons, and includes concertos, as well as a variety of chamber music programs. Working through a broad repertoire over several seasons and with the same musician not only allows for a certain freedom from the impulse of “playing it safe”, but also creates opportunities for discovery and for showcasing the full spectrum of an artist’s aptitude – an opportunity particularly beneficial to emerging artists. At the same time, this approach brings the artist closer to the audience.
 “The usual situation is that you have very short notice to prepare for your debut,” says Barnatan, “and by the time you could be invited back – which usually can’t be planned earlier than three years in advance due to advanced scheduling arrangements – the audience has all but forgotten you.”
Particularly in the realm of contemporary music, Gilbert’s commitment to building long-term perspectives rather than indulging in the novelty aspect of a soloist is well known and appreciated.
“The New York Philharmonic does not just do contemporary music – they do a whole Biennale,” says Barnatan.
Being the first emerging artist featured during several, consecutive seasons at the New York Philharmonic has certainly not hurt Barnatan’s career, but his talent and personality have made him many friends within the New York music community long before this extraordinary honor.
I’ve played a lot in New York lately,” he says.  “Remarkably, despite New York being known as such a ‘dog eats dog’ place, I found much support here early on. In my experience, if someone here likes you, they will do everything they possibly can for you to succeed.”
Barnatan’s New York road to success has recently been further paved by being awarded one of the prestigious Martin E. Segal Awards for the year 2015. 
Apart from John Gerlach, director of the Rockefeller Concert Series, who invited him for his first performance in New York, Barnatan names Hanna Arie-Gaifman, music director at the 92Y, as one of his early and most important advocates.
Since 2009, he has been performing regularly at the 92Y’s concert series, participating with members of the Cleveland Orchestra in a Janáček – Kundera celebration, and also joining the Tokyo String Quartet in its three-year cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets.
In December 2012, Barnatan’s solo recital with works by Debussy, Adès, Britten, and Ravel formed the backbone of his CD, “Darkness Visible”, an album that made the “Best of the Year” list of The New York Times.
A 2013 release of Schubert’s late Sonata in C minor, D.958 and A major, D.959 (including his affectionate Impromptu in G flat D.899, No. 3) on the Avie label followed, attracting Gramophone’s praise for his “sensitivity, poise, and focus”; the music magazine called Barnatan a “born Schubertian.”  
Barnatan’s 2006 recording on the Bridge label, “Schubert Recital, which included Schubert’s second set of Impromptus (D.935), already expressed the pianist’s affinity for Schubert’s work early on in his career, and so it came as no surprise when three years later, after his time with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s group for young musicians (CMS Two), he co-curating the CMS “Schubert Project”, an exploration of Schubert’s late works. Following this, Barnatan participated in international performances with CMS.
“Inon is an absolute musician, engaging and interesting. He is already great and still growing, and he is a joy to work with,” says the 92Y’s Gaifman when asked about Barnatan.

Photo Credit: Ruby Washington
Inon Barnatan at SubCulture
During the 2014 collaboration between the New York Philharmonic and the 92Y at the downtown music venue, SubCulture, Barnatan was featured in a solo program titled “Voices”, which allowed him to express himself through repertoire ranging from Bach to Liszt all the way to jazz.
Then, during the 92Y’s “Jerusalem Quartet and Friends” cycle, he played Brahms’ chamber music works as “resident pianist” with the revered quartet.
Jerusalem Quartet cellist Kyril Zlotnikov raves about working with Barnatan:
“The quartet’s first collaboration with Inon was at the London Royal Academy of Music, around 12 years ago. Since then it has been always a great pleasure for me to collaborate with Inon. He is very sensitive, delicate, flexible, and such a knowledgeable musician with great taste; and most importantly he knows how to listen, which is a quality I personally admire the most. It’s just a joy to make music together with Inon, and I hope we will have many more opportunities to play together.”
Barnatan likes to compare his playing and performing with the role-play of an actor: “As in an actor’s job, a musician’s job is to inhabit the role, but at the same time disappear behind it and figure out what the material is about, and how to bring that across,” he says.
And indeed, an actor’s nuanced and very detailed expressions create a unique palette that is not unsimilar to the pianist’s craft.   
To achieve perfectly aligned coordination, the choreography of movement requires a controlled distribution of body weight. Only then can a pianist’s interpretation fully and uniquely express the emotional power and character of a composer’s specific sound. There is a reason why classical master works are performed and recorded countless times and by a multitude of pianists: no performance possesses the same interpretative detail as the other.
An unending quest to discover a musical work’s character, which rarely reveals itself in the score alone, is a prerequisite for any adequate interpretation.
Not unlike a film script, the score only serves as a point of departure; in the performance, it is up to the artist to provide direction by balancing dominant and secondary voices, but, unlike in film production, this has to be done in one ‘take’  – true mastery each time.
Naming some of the masters who helped him build his musical vision, Barnatan particularly mentions his mentor, Maria Curcio, herself the last pupil of the legendary Arthur Schnabel in Italy and of Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Curcio’s list of students reads like the ‘who is who’ of piano icons, and includes pianists such as  Martha Argerich, Radu Lupu and Leon Fleisher.
“Originally the plan was for me to leave Israel for the US, where at age 17 I was auditioning for Juilliard, Curtis, and Peabody,” Barnatan remembers.   “But after I had returned to Jerusalem, where I was supposed to play for Curcio, she had to cancel but invited me instead to visit her for a week in London, where she resided at the time. I was so taken with her that this week turned into my moving to London to study with this grand dame of the piano; she was just so incredible,” says Barnatan.
“She embodies that spirit of Schnabel, and although she did not have a career of her own as a performer, she fully represented that beautiful musicianship, a true marriage of sound and knowledge.”
Barnatan especially appreciated the great mentor’s capacity to technically achieve different types of sound, so precious in an artist’s palette. “She taught me how to use everything in my arsenal [while] still trying to make it sound like you are the first person playing that piece.”
In 2000, Barnatan met pianist and educator Leon Fleisher at the Ravinia Music Festival in Illinois. Coming out of the Schnabel/Curcio tradition, Leon Fleisher told him: “If you want a thousand different sounds, you need to play a thousand different ways.”

At Ravinia, Barnatan also worked with teachers such as Miriam Fried, Claude Frank, Menahem Pressler, and collaborated with young artists like Alisa Weilerstein. “Alisa and I had the same manager, who paired us up and planned our first live radio broadcast together, in 2008.”
Barnatan remembers his first performance with the vibrant cellist very vividly: “We did not really have much time to rehearse together, but it came so natural – we agreed about things in every respect and it was just a great chemistry between us. The broadcast took place at one of the major radio stations, and after we played, the interviewer remarked that our performance together was obviously the fruit of a longstanding collaboration, to which Alisa remarked without blinking: ‘Oh, about a year and a half’.” 
“Ravinia opened my eyes,” says Barnatan. “It did so for many things, but especially for my developing understanding of chamber music.”
Four years after Ravinia 2000 and shortly before his Carnegie Hall debut, Barnatan played one of Schubert’s late sonatas for Fleisher’s master class at Carnegie Hall. In the audience was Ara Guzelimian, then Carnegie Hall’s senior director and artistic advisor. Ardent about Barnatan’s talent, he further assisted Barnatan by introducing the young pianist to cellist David Finckel, artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which in turn led to Barnatan’s engagement with CMS Two.
In 2007, Barnatan and violinist Liza Ferchtman released a duo-CD with works by Schubert and Beethoven on the Challenge Classics label. The musical chemistry between both performers has been praised as a “tour de force in ensemble playing.”
And despite very demanding solo careers, Barnatan and cellist Alisa Weilerstein decided to devote some of their precious time to celebrate their musical synergy. Photo credit: Jamie Jung

“We don’t do huge amounts of performances together; usually we plan on one tour per year in Europe and one in the United States, but when we get together it’s always easy, just like the first time,” says Barnatan.
They recently returned from Berlin, where they recorded sonatas by Chopin and Rachmaninoff for the Decca label at Teldex, to be released sometime this year. “This is difficult repertoire and could be tricky sometimes in collaboration, but because of our dynamic, it went like a breeze,” Barnatan says.
In an industry starved for iconic performers, both Barnatan’s and Weilerstein’s careers are flourishing; Weilerstein’s recording of Elgar and Elliott Carter’s cello concertos on the Decca label conducted by Daniel Barenboim, was named “BBC Album of the Year” in 2013.
Yet stepping into the realm of a successful international career has not always come easy for the thoughtful Israeli artist, who has made his home in Harlem. He struggles with the dilemma of the business aspects of an artist’s life versus the noble act of performing.
It might well be his understanding for the role of the actor, which will provide the young pianist with the necessary balance to navigate these disparate worlds.
And then he adds: “it’s a bit of a paradox: the career stuff is supposed to be all about you … but I do feel very strongly that as a musician it’s really not about you.”
It is this humble thoughtfulness that makes Inon Barnatan so likeable.