Friday, August 5, 2016

Guest Post by Roland Colton, author of "Forever Gentleman," offering a free copy here!

By Roland Colton
As an amateur pianist with a passion for classical music who also loves to read great fiction, I have often lamented the dearth of novels in this genre. Several years ago, a story began to form in my mind that centered upon a gifted young pianist in Victorian England. It took me a while to put pen to paper as the task of writing a novel seemed utterly daunting. But once I had written several key scenes, I found myself carried away in an unexpected creative surge that ultimately culminated in the completion of a manuscript entitled Forever Gentleman. After sending out queries, I was delighted to receive a book contract from an east coast publisher last fall and the book was released to the public just three weeks ago.
My intention was to write a story that would appeal to those who love classical music, and particularly to pianists. However, the book is much more than a novel about music; it is also a mystery, a romance, teeming with suspense, intrigue, mistaken identities and unexpected twists and turns. My novel takes readers back in time to nineteenth-century London, a city of beauty and brilliance, and a city steeped in filth and despair. The protagonist, Nathan Sinclair, a struggling architect and gift pianist, lives in both worlds, mingling in high society while dwelling in suffocating debt and poverty.
One of the challenges I faced in writing the book, was to depict with words, the music that accompanies the story. To better accomplish this task, I attempted to learn and play compositions that taxed my ability as an amateur pianist. In the opening chapter of the book, Nathan performs Chopin’s Quatrième Ballade, a work I had never seriously considered learning, but nevertheless was one of my favorites. Working from the back forward (as I was taught to do in my youth), I gained increased respect and awe for pianists able to master that brilliant composition. Delving deeply into this and many other works helped me to better put into words the music that appears in the book.
Another challenge was to dramatize the age of musical and artistic enlightenment and the deluge of creativity that existed during the nineteenth century. In my opinion, there is no better way to travel back in time than to hear music from a bygone era. I wanted readers to relive this age of creativity and experience the music in a contemporary context, not as a distant voice from centuries past. Writing this novel also gave me an opportunity to create scenes that I, as a classical music enthusiast, would dearly love to see take place in a book or movie. One of those scenes is every amateur pianist’s dream, but one, unfortunately, which I dare not share, for fear of spoiling the surprise.
The setting of my story also coincides with the development of the modern-day piano, revolutionary in its day, when craftsmen had developed a rim-bending process that was said to give pianos a remarkable sound and character. We experience the moment through Nathan’s eyes when he first encounters the extraordinary Steinway concert grand--winner of the Grand Gold Medal of Honor at the Paris Exhibition. We observe Nathan as he caresses the stunning rosewood finish and imagine the musical vibrations the instrument will create, before he finally raises his hands above the keyboard to play Liszt’s Concert Etude in D-flat major.
Finally, I endeavored to document, in my story, the dexterity, dynamics and beauty of compositions well known today and others that have disappeared from today’s repertoire. In doing so, I attempted to select words and phrases that would re-create, in some small way, the challenges of performing the music as well as how the music stirs the listener’s ear. Writing music into fiction has helped me gain an even greater appreciation for the brilliance, imagination and creativity of the prodigious composers from the past.
Roland Colton is a trial attorney, classical pianist, and author of the historical novel, Forever Gentleman.  For more information about Colton and his work, visit


National Youth Orchestra at Carnegie Hall: Signing up for excellence – standing for cultural outreach

Short of the national “red, white and blue,” the National Youth Orchestra’s featured dress code on Carnegie Hall’s stage incorporated red slacks, white shirts and black blazers, with Converse-style sneakers adding a youthful touch. Despite the teenagers’ adolescent appearance, they could be judged on a rather adult level of performance as they cautiously, but deliberately held back in Mozart’s subtle virtuoso passages, so as not to undermine master pianist Emanuel Ax, known endearingly as Manny to New Yorkers. The teens later befittingly let loose in Bruckner’s bursts of amalgamated power and dexterity, energetically coaxed by the veteran leadership of iconic Christoph Eschenbach.   (photo credit:Chris Lee)
As music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eschenbach, known to enjoy working with young talent, understands not only how to lucidly direct young musicians through his communicative body language, but how to pull his audience into the elementary pathos and summits of musical drama.
Given the packed hall and high level of musicianship, providing a hopeful outlook on sustaining the future of classical music, one can’t help but wonder why it took until 2012 to reinstate pre-World War II attempts to unite young talent on a national level, specifically Leopold Stokowski’s short-lived effort to establish the All-American Youth Orchestra from 1940 until 1942.
For British-born Sir Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s leading force since 2005, the inspiration gained by young musicians partaking in such an overarching collaboration was the decisive element behind initiating NYO, which he implemented as a major community outreach program within Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute’s education wing. “It is so important to be here together with the greatest young players in the country,” he exclaims, “and the implications are manifold. We can inspire them, simply by not being a big fish in a little pond, but becoming a part of the big pond. They may decide to rise to the challenge and inspire us in turn, in whatever field they will choose. They also are our ambassadors and carry the best of our messages. It is a virtuous circle.” Most significantly perhaps, Gillinson experienced the impact personally when - as a teenage cellist growing up in Great Britain - he was given the opportunity to perform with the National Youth Orchestra there. “It was one of the greatest experiences for me, an eye opener,” he remembers, “that put music in the center of my life.”
This continued to hold true throughout Gillinson’s many years with the London Symphony Orchestra as a cellist, and then as its managing director in 1984. Before coming to Carnegie Hall, his pioneering vision brought about many new changes at LSO, including the orchestra’s installation at the Barbican Centre, as well as the establishment of LSO’s own label for presenting their live-recorded performances. Archiving and sharing live performances continue to be an important way to manifest the cultural message. Just before our meeting, Gillinson prepared his interview about NYO with WQXR, who will broadcast NYO’s Carnegie Hall performance later this year.
For his vision for NYO-USA, Gillinson closely followed the principles of the established National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Following the practices of its model across the pond, the NYO-USA residency entails that the musicians’ two weeks' preparation at Purchase College is assisted by principal musicians from professional American orchestras, and overseen by the orchestra director -- a position that varies from season to season, leaving room to engage renowned guest conductors.     (Clive Gillinson, photo credit: Peter Murphy)
NYO-USA’s first concerts were held in 2013, and the concept grew more ambitious each year. The brilliant featuring of star soloists like violinists Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham and last year, pianist YUNDI, did not only up the ante, but opened international concert venue doors to the orchestra for future summer tours. Traveling as musicians with world-renowned soloists and conductors like Valery Gergiev, David Robertson, Charles Dutoit or now Christoph Eschenbach, and serving as ambassadors abroad, has a lasting effect on the young participants, who must be age 16-19 and hold American citizenship or a green card to participate in touring. “They can’t be enrolled fulltime in a college-level conservatory or a music department on an instrumental performance major, that’s why many conductors and soloists who have performed with these young orchestral players, are so surprised by the high level of musicianship,” says Synneve Carlino, director of PR at Carnegie Hall. Two recommendations are also required in order to be considered in NYO’s nationwide, egalitarian search for excellence, in which participation is free–of–charge, no matter from where participants travel.
“New technology is partially to blame for spreading the word more swiftly,” explains Carnegie Hall’s Synneve Carlino about online applications like DecisionDesk, which facilitate the extraordinarily broad reach of modern application processes. “We put out the word and applicants can simply sign up and introduce themselves and their talent with a personal video clip,” says Carlino.
NYO-USA is a remarkable institution on its own, but Gillinson is not one to rest on his laurels. With the launch of NYO2 this year, he has already managed to broaden his original vision exponentially, catering to an even younger talent pool of musicians age 12-17 with the goal to expand classical music’s reach even further. Recognizing that musical talent forms early on, NYO2’s special agenda is to come into communities that are underserved and underrepresented in the field of classical music. This younger group of musicians will also form a natural pre-selection, potentially feeding into the orchestra, or other music-related fields. Among this year’s 109 NYO2 participants, two apprentice composers and conductors, as well as a librarian joined the program.
Passion about classical music goes beyond the narrow field of the professional performing artist. Planting the seed of love for classical music-by-doing is essential for bringing the next generation not only to the stage, but into the hall.

The tour travels on meeting Valery Gergiev for the next concert at Amsterdam's Het Concert Gebouw. (photo credit Chris Lee)

NYO-USA 2016 at Carnegie Hall:  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Concerto No.22 in E-flat Major, K.482  pianist Emanuel Ax
Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 6 in A major.  conductor: Christoph Eschenbach

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

CMS Chamber Music Encounters - on a perpetual quest for inspired music making

American cellist David Finckel and Taiwanese pianist Wu Han need no further introduction to visitors of “Chamber Music Encounters,” an intense 6-day educational chamber music workshop, and their latest brainchild under the auspices of  Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center. Culminating in a free concert performance at Alice Tully Hall, audiences shared the results of a dynamic coaching effort focused on communal mentorship between CMS’ Encounters renowned faculty and new talent. In the sessions, which implement paradigm-shifting coaching conduct based on workshops led by the late Isaac Stern, students are challenged to relate to multiple masters’ viewpoints while making the music their own. With live-streamed workshop sessions, CMS indulges even remote audiences with a behind-the-scenes peek into their chambers of music making, brimming with eagerness and motivation.

Wu Han and David Finckel (Photo credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)
David Finckel and Wu Han, the powerhouse couple of chamber music named “Musicians of the Year” by Musical America in 2012, have spearheaded artistic leadership at CMS since 2004. Chamber Music Encounters, presented in collaboration with The Juilliard School, represents yet another educational initiative in their ever-growing New York performance series. A blend of artistic excellence and savvy entrepreneurship, the secret of this series’ enduring success is not only found in the sauce: a meaty title of largest worldwide producer and presenter of chamber music, but in the spice, as the institution has gained substantial critical acclaim for its omnipresent high standards, and inspiring artistic verve and vision.
Together with Wu Han, his partner in life and music, Finckel began establishing a network of chamber music institutions during the early days of his busy touring and recording schedule with the eminent Emerson String Quartet, which he only just left in 2013. Educating young musicians has always front-lined the duo’s activities. Han and Finckel began their appointment as Artistic Directors of CMS at Lincoln Center not long after founding Music@Menlo in 2003 in San Francisco’s Bay area. Their beginnings at Lincoln Center in 2004 opened up the prospect of a dynamic bi-coastal artistic exchange.
When Han was approached in 2009 to bring the culture of chamber music to Taiwan and Korea, the infinite potential of leading international artistic and educational initiatives became apparent, and the pair set off. Backed by a grant-supported effort to provide performance culture and give back to its local music community, Chamber Music Today was established in Seoul in 2011 as an annual music festival with its own Chamber Music School supported by LG. With recent enterprises that include co-commissions of new works with London’s Wigmore Hall, and the latest addition of CMS’ residence at SPAC, the artistic summer retreat of New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Saratoga in 2014, a spider web of alliances continues to spring up throughout Europe and the US, solidifying the pair’s identities as engineers of chamber music education and collaboration. “We are chamber musicians and there is a whole new generation out there that needs to perform; that’s what we do. It’s a constant work in progress and to keep it in flux these ‘satellite’ venues, as we call them, are vitally important to the growth and emanation of the work,” explains Finckel.
Hands on approach: David Finckel during an Encounter session (Photo credit: Lilian Finckel)
To perform chamber music, musicians require not only the talent and technique to master great accountability for their own instruments’ parts, but they must navigate nuanced musical and inter-relational sensitivity to convincingly communicate their engagement with both the score and one another. Intimate settings showcasing each of the individual ensemble members demand immensely interpretative coherence and individual artistry.
“In its original definition thought of as music performed in a private group setting for pleasure by amateur musicians ‘in their chamber,’ one may argue that the profound interplay of diverse voices virtually defines the entire canon of Western music as chamber music,” remarks Arnold Steinhardt, renowned first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet and a student and later collaborator of Sternduring a spellbinding panel with the eminent CMS Encounters faculty. “I at least think of all musical interplay as chamber music,” he adds.

Session in progress, masters discussing details, from right: violinist Arnold Steinhardt, pianist Leon Fleisher, violinist Shmuel Ashkenazi   (Photo credit: Lilian Finckel)
To a great extent, chamber music’s mounting success in the United States has profited from concepts expanding on it as a communal experience, and it does not come as a surprise that most mentors involved in the Encounters workshops developed their love for this – up until recently - underappreciated art form at one point or another in their lives at Marlboro’s Chamber Music School and Festival. Incorporating novices and masters in collaborative rehearsals and performances, Marlboro is a unique educational environment, and Marlboro’s alumni play a huge role in cultivating America’s greater chamber music scene, infusing it with strong musical and personal relationships forged throughout weeks spent in Vermont’s summer hills.
Relating pianistic ideas: Wu Han in a workshop session at CMS Encounters, Photo credit: Lilian Finckel
Wu Han fondly remembers her days at Marlboro: “I was used to performing solo repertoire and big concerti as a soloist with an orchestra. But it’s a lonely road, practicing alone, travelling alone, and when I came to Marlboro, I fell in love with the whole idea of this intimate interaction. Having to match all the strings’ colors, study the others’ scores…it’s a different process and you are not just looking at your own part, but one gets to learn the entire concept of the music and to explore it together; I am so grateful for the discovery. Opening up your own sound world and being challenged to match the other musicians’ voices changes you every time anew, you become a different pianist each time, and that goes for performing as well as for teaching.”
Now with the inner-city efforts of Chamber Music Encounters, coined after the series of spirited chamber music workshops offered by the late Isaac Stern, CMS continues where Stern has left off, taking up his strategy to implement diverse artistic vision into the coaching process. Stern had commenced this path, with initial workshops held in 1994 in Jerusalem and at Carnegie Hall, and some exemplary sessions in Germany, Holland and Japan. Right up until his passing in 2001, Stern, the iconic violin virtuoso and musical activist whose personal crusade saved Carnegie Hall from looming destruction, passionately taught his workshops shoulder to shoulder with an illustrious faculty of colleagues and friends, tirelessly shaping and inspiring an entire generation of young musicians, including the attending Encounters faculty; most of the Encounters mentors have taught in collaboration with Stern; next to pianist Wu Han and violinist David Finckel, pianist Leon Fleisher, violinists Shmuel Ashkenasi, Ani Kavafian and Arnold Steinhardt, as well as Juilliard’s provost and dean Ara Guzelimian are partaking in the workshops at CMS.
Relying on the same pedagogical cross-pollination of interactive teaching and learning, students are coached by multiple faculty members in various groupings. Bringing differing opinions and solutions to the table allows each student to examine facets of his or her playing in a communal quest, focusing on varying concepts, but with the universal goal of learning how to learn, and how to develop their own artistic perspectives.
Close up investigation by Leon Fleisher during a workshop (Photo credit: Lilian Finckel)
While different input may be confusing at times, an investigative game plan that leads to the why - instead of blindly following one-dimensional instructions of how to – certainly engages creative responsiveness. Says Wu Han: “I wished something like this had existed when I was a budding musician.” Like Finckel, Steinhardt, Fleisher, Ashkenazy and Kavafian on the faculty of Stern’s sessions, she experienced the impact of the clever concept. “It is so helpful to include some open ended discussions during one’s studies. Sometimes you realize the fruitions of a suggestion only later on. There are so many choices and if one just listens to one teacher during weekly lessons, this curiosity of exploring different possibilities may not get sparked – and then, where is the searching for answers with this incredible ‘aha’ moment that brings one to the next level and makes for a true artist’s development?”
Arnold Steinhardt explains his view of what makes the experience different: “Just like in Stern’s workshops, where he was not only interested in getting to the finished product but rather looked for the kernel of truth that could stand for the general viewpoint of how to look at music, we are focusing on crucial musical elements in the students’ performance that would be easily glossed over in regular lessons, trying to cover a lot of repertoire. Here, varied outlooks can open different points of entry for further artistic exploration.”
“Inquiry was at the center of Stern’s spirit,” explains Ara Guzelimian, who, comparing varying approaches through historic recordings, lectures on the differences in performance styles over time. While working with Stern, serving as artistic director of programming and education at Carnegie Hall, he says he “was hugely influenced by Stern’s unique concept of wrestling with multiple approaches. Stern did not believe in the usual master class setting, promoting submissiveness. Exploring collective inspiration was at the core of his idea of life as a musician.”
Faculty and students at CMS’ Encounters   (Photo credit: Lilian Finckel)
This summer, 15 students were geared to experience inspirational encounters with their prominent coaches. Split up into their performance groups for four of the repertoire’s staples: Mozart’s quartet in D minor, K.421, Schubert’s Trio No.1 in B-flat major, Op.99, Beethoven’s trio in B-flat major and Brahm’s quintet in F minor, Op.34, students practiced and were coached together.
The atmosphere is generously friendly, with temperamental discussions and casual jokes varying slightly depending on the different combinations of faculty members and ensemble groups. When it comes to the serious efforts dispersed behind the music stands, doubled up scores and insights shared from heartfelt convictions forged during years of firsthand experiences, there is no business as usual. During a fiery discussion, these mentors, sometimes with hands on demonstration, wild gesticulations, whistling, humming or rhythmic stomping, can sudden upon any minute detail that may unhinge or open up a world of musical ideas.
The characteristic elements of Stern’s workshops continue to live on in these interactions, even during a tight schedule of coaching sessions: “Mr. Stern opposes the idea of the master class and prefers teaching with others. This is chamber teaching of chamber music,” writes Philip Setzer, violinist of the Emerson String Quartet, of his firsthand experience working with Stern in an article, published in 2000 in the New York Times.
Everyone working under CMS’ Encounters faculty has been influenced by decisive moments and prolific individuals in their lives, which led them to careers in music. And while each of the coaches brings their own differently-flavored personalities and viewpoints as well as specific instrumental expertise to the sessions, it becomes obvious early on that the success of the workshops’ structural dynamic comes through its reflection on chamber music’s own distinct platform - making music in intimate collaboration, keeping it fresh for the students and the faculty.
Students’ work is under scrutiny from different angles throughout the sessions. Pianists mixing into strings’ fingerings and violinists suggest the pianist’s singing tone does not project enough. Sound a little intense? Perhaps, but the insightful disagreements between coaches not only keeps the process colorful, but can lead to eye-opening realizations. 
Performance at Alice Tully Hall, Sahun Hong, piano; Stephen Waarts,violin; James Jeonghwan Kim, cello; page turner Daniel Colalillo - Franz Schubert Trio No.1 in B-flat major, D.898, Op.99
(Photo credit: Cherylynn Tsushima)
Final performance at Alice Tully Hall: Jenny Chen, piano; Petery Ilvonen, violin; Brandon Garbot, violin; Cong Wu, viola; Jiyoung Lee, cello; page turner Daniel Colalillo – Johannes Brahms Quintet in F minor, Op.34  (Photo credit: Cherylynn Tsushima)
A better balance between players, more expressiveness and fine-tuned changes in tempi, and coherence in color and rhythm are noticeable after each session, but the students’ most important lessons lie deeper than just surface improvements in their playing and collaboration. The students have not just been prepared to perform in a successful concert at Alice Tully Hall, which evidenced much of the sessions’ fruitful advice. They have not just partaken in a beautiful performance of a Schubert trio or a Brahms quintet. These students will remember the nods towards exploring further, and look to carry on the musical discussion they’ve become a part of in these workshops for years to come, and perhaps even inspire others in turn.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Evgeny Kissin’s Well-Tempered Departure

Pianist Evgeny Kissin, concluding the Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall’s 125th anniversary season – which also celebrated his illustrious pianistic solo debut here 25 years ago – wooed audiences once more with Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2, before taking a previously announced leave of absence from concertizing in the USA. The concert amounted to a farewell observation on the series’ narrative, revealing the artist’s uniquely personal artistic journey. Capture by Simone Massoni    
This article was published by the author on Blogcritics Magazine
Since that memorable Carnegie Hall debut, with people waving hundred-dollar bills to scalp a ticket on mobbed street blocks around the sold-out concert hall, New Yorkers’ enthusiasm for Kissin does not seem to have diminished in the least. Coming out of the Soviet Union as a prodigal talent with staggering musicality, his reputation had preceded his eagerly awaited appearances before both Russian and world audiences; and perhaps like no other, this pure Romantic has united them in an ecstatic communal sense.
It was Carnegie Hall’s centennial season, 1990-91, and Kissin, age 19, was – as in the current season – the notable opening act, one of the very few artists who had never had to ask, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” He simply arrived, and performed annually from then on.
“What makes a performance great?” I once asked him, and he simply remarked: “It has to be convincing.” Carnegie Hall initiated its Perspectives series in 1999 to further explore the complexity of what makes an artist great by showcasing leading artists’ individual interests and bringing in their musical friends. The previous pianist the series focused on was Sir Andràs Schiff in 2011-12.
This season’s in-depth close-up opened channels of discovery into Kissin’s enigmatic persona and vocation on stage, in five different programs.
Beyond bringing some of the musical milestones of Kissin’s career full circle, the series portrayed the artist who at 44, unabashed by the persistent trail of Wunderkind status, has proven he can carve out new paths of artistic growth and a remarkable personal departure. His choices of programs are always “a matter of love,” and it is the kind of intimate, sanctified love that does not warrant further conversation. Notwithstanding his free spirit he feels: “Talking about all kind of things including sex, is great fun – talking about music seems vulgar.”
Knowing how close to his heart his programs are – he usually spends a full touring season with each one – one had to wonder why Chopin, with whose concertos the pianist skyrocketed to stardom and who, as Kissin confesses when pressed on the subject, is the closest to his heart, would not appear in any of his featured programs. Bookending the series with two of the arch-romantic Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concerts, Kissin instead curated his classical solo recitals with works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms in conjunction with the Spanish composers Albéniz and Larregla.
Highlighting his extraordinary temperament en galore with the Spanish rhythmic idiom added a most welcome geographic twist to the Germanic precursors. The recital program, which was performed twice that same week in November, was legendary not only because his “Appassionata” was nothing short of a revelation, but because a repeat performance of the same repertoire, selling out the house twice in a row, had till then been a feat achieved only by Vladimir Horowitz, in 1979.
No one present at Kissin’s concerts, least of all the performer himself, would suspect that concert halls are scrambling to fill their seats at many other quality concerts. Least of all at the truly stirring season’s opening concert, with red carpets rolled out for the occasion all across 57th street.
                                                                                              Opening of Carnegie Hall’s 125th season. Photo: Ilona Oltuski

If Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic and its departing director Alan Gilbert was meant to be associated with one of Kissin’s own, most triumphant historic performances of the same concerto in 1987, given with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic when the pianist was just 16, Kissin certainly stood the test of time. While one can’t say if Gilbert was as touched by Kissin’s brilliance as was Karajan, who, according to Karajan’s wife was moved to tears by the genial talent of his chosen young performer, their engagement certainly carried its own merit of excellence, making it also one of Gilbert’s rather gallant collaborations to remember.
On the day following his evening of Yiddish music and poetry, Carnegie’s Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson moderated – at the associates’ level ticket price – a public tête-à-tête on stage, where Kissin appeared relaxed and personable. He humored the audience with anecdotes about Prokofiev and his first meeting with Karajan, as well as his strong-mindedness when it comes to conductors who don’t share his vision. He also recalled some of his earlier years, when his revered only mentor through all these years, Anna Kantor, moved in with the Kissins, following them on their path from Moscow to New York to London.

Turning 93 now, Kantor stays a vibrant member of Kissin’s family, and hers continue to be the ears he trusts the most; until recently she was an integral part of his concert touring entourage and it speaks for their deeply reverent relationship that the pianist continues to play new repertoire through for her.
Evgeny Kissin with Anna Kantor. Photo: Ilona Oltuski

A first was Kissin’s public opening up about becoming inspired and re-inventing himself: “As we live and develop we discover new things in ourselves, of which we were not aware earlier,” he says. “A few years ago, I would have never been able to imagine that I would be writing my own poetry in Yiddish and have it published…I have always hoped and continue to hope that I will always keep improving.”
Almost no trace remains of the admitted former “painfully shy” mannerisms of his younger years. No matter how long the line of beleaguering fans may be, he happily obliges with oddly composed courtesy and at times touching generosity.  

Evgeny Kissin swarmed by his fans at Carnegie Hall after Rachmaninoff concerto performance. Photo: Ilona Oltuski

Perhaps the least successful program of the series was Kissin’s much anticipated novel partnership with violinist Itzhak Perlman in a trio performance with Kissin’s longtime collaborator, cellist Misha Maisky. It was almost surprising that the performance lacked a persuasive harmonious flow of leadership and balance, given the great musicianship of all these artists individually. Perlman’s melodic lines especially seemed to get lost at times acoustically, flanked by Maisky’s and Kissin’s powerful virtuosity.
In contrast, Kissin’s Yiddish evening was in some ways the most significant program of the series. Kissin’s passion project of Yiddish poetry recitation and music by rarely performed Jewish composers illuminated the deeply personal context of his engagement with Jewish culture. The fascinating presentation touched audiences on many levels, highlighting Kissin’s capacity and courage to explore new artistic frontiers. This was the case with works by Ernest Bloch, Alexander Veprik, Alexander Klein, and Mikhail Milner, with which Kissin ventured into modernist and folklore-inspired tunes off the beaten path.
Carnegie Hall Green Room moment: the author with Mischa Maisky and Evgeny Kissin after their collaborative concert

With his nuanced and melodic declamation of poems in the Yiddish idiom of Yitzhak-Leybush Peretz, Kissin captured the lyrical elements and aura of the language with its particular humor and spirit, transporting the transfixed audience into the bygone era of the shtetl. Soulfully baring his heart in every syllable, the magnetic performer – stripped of all his virtuoso veneer – sufficed to fill the hall, momentarily halting time. As in Kissin’s own poem, the evening’s credo points to celebrating our intrinsic individualism, which, if painful to bear at times, brings fulfillment through truth to ourselves.

Ani maymin                                                                                Credo     Translation by Barrnett Zumoff
Shoyn Terekh hot gezogt zayn kleynem zun mit shrek:        After Terah* said fearfully to his young son:
"Far vos bist nit aza, vi ale?".                                                     “Why are you not like all the others?”
Un s'iz geven azoy in yedn kant un ek,                                      into which our brutal fate cast us.and it was so
vuhin di dolye undzere brutale                                                    in every nook and cranny                                              
flegt undz nit varfn. S'iz dokh undzer koved,                            It’s to our honor, after all,
vos tomid zaynen mir geven getray tsu zikh                            that we have always been faithful to ourselves,
un hobm ot di khokhme oysgekovet:                                         and have forged this wise saying:
"Ven ikh vel zayn vi yener, ver vet zayn vi ikh?".                     “If I am like the others, who will be like me?”
                                                                                                          *Abraham’s father 

This bent of Kissin’s talent was earlier introduced on a smaller scale at New York’s Yivo Institute and at his momentous debut at Charles and Robyn Krauthammer’s Pro Musica Hebraica series, at Washington’s Kennedy Center in 2014; but it was a first at Carnegie Hall, drawing New Yorkers into Kissin’s other personal passion. (See my article about Evgeny Kissin on a mission to celebrate his Jewish heritage.)

Evgeny Kissin at Pro Musica Hebraica. Photo: Ilona Oltuski

For the very first time in 2002, during Verbier’s prestigious festival in the Suisse Alps, the festival’s director Martin Engstroem encouraged Kissin to recite Russian and Yiddish poetry as an extracurricular presentation on stage. Kissin agreed, but only if other artists would participate as well. The ones who had confirmed, among them Zubin Mehta, had to pull out at the last minute leaving Kissin “to wet his feet,” as he recalled. What a happy coincidence it turned out to be, bringing his previously private predilection into the spotlight.
For Kissin, the Yiddish language represents an important cultural territory of the Jewish people. On a personal level it became a reminiscence of his childhood, and peaceful summer months spent at his Yiddish-speaking maternal grandparents’ datshka. During his childhood, Kissin was made aware of anti-Semitic sentiments; derogatory slurs were not unusual. Not yet aware of Israel's existence, Kissin envisioned himself uniting with his people, as a grown up, in Birobidzhan – the Russian territory with an official Jewish status, which became a center of Jewish culture at the time it was founded under Stalin, in 1934.
                                                                                Evgeny Kissin with Martin Engstroem in Verbier. Photo: Ilona Oltuski               

Kissin’s interest in his native Russian poetry and literature were closely followed by his interest in Yiddish culture and its language, which he had initially taught himself. Even though he grew up completely assimilated into Soviet society, he felt a strong connection to his ethnic heritage and always had a special place in his heart for Israel. After being in the public eye for a long time, he deployed his voice not only for numerous humanitarian causes, but also to protest a growing anti-Israel sentiment he observed living in London and Paris. In December 2009, his open letter to the BBC in protest of its perceived biased reporting made headlines. In 2010 he explained to me why he had spoken out: “I just felt that it was no longer possible to remain silent and not protest….my motivation came from the dramatic increase of anti-Israel slander.” (See my article, “The Artist as Citizen.”) His fan-website features a broad selection of sources in support of Israel.
When we met at his first solo concert in Jerusalem the following year during his commanding Liszt tour, he was engulfed in the topic. (In 1988 he went on his very first trip to Israel with the Moscow Virtuosi Orchestra.)
Performing in Jerusalem meant the world to him and he matched his sentiment with a dramatic biblical stance: “Im Eshkachech Yerushalayim Tishkach Yimini (If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten).”
Despite not living in the Promised Land himself, he initiated action to fully demonstrate his allegiance: in December of 2013 Kissin took on Israeli citizenship. His evolving sense of Jewish identity certainly plays a decisive role in his creative discoveries within its history, language and music and beyond that in Israel’s modern-day crisis. During one summer at the Verbier festival, Anna Kantor, concerned about this (to her mind) superfluous extracurricular activity, turned to me, remarking: “Ah politics, who needs politics…he should sit and play the piano.” I am certain the sentiment is shared by many, who would prefer an artist being removed from anything that could view the man and citizen behind the artist. Alas, despite his performance schedule of about 40 concerts a year worldwide, Kissin’s creativity obviously requires many different stimulating outlets, certainly feeding his extraordinary imagination at the piano.
Just some days after his Yiddish recital, we met over tea and he brought the newest chapter of his novel. In his steadfast timbre, Kissin read it out loud in one sitting. He did not touch his tea. He was excited to share his modern-day drama depicting an opera-inspired Russian heroine’s suffering with deep sentiment, in a pictorial and captivating style. Here is an excerpt:
From the novel by Evgeny Kissin, translated by Barrnett Zumoff
Book 1: Outside It Was Snowing
The smoke from the cigarette was beginning to mix with the emanations from the Indian aromatic sticks. There was no ashtray in the house, so the cigarette ash fell on the floor immediately after each light tap of her finger. She kept slowly and deeply inhaling the smoke, filling her entire body with the mild poison; oh well – the deed is already done, so relax and calm down.
Three thoughts kept drilling into her mind: “Sasha, my darling”…”I’ll get the money as fast as I can!” …and “Now I‘ve really become a whore – I’ve lived to see the day!”
“Man proposes and God disposes,” her wise grandmother Chana used to say. Her grandmother’s words had sounded convincing to her even then, though she was still a child and of course couldn’t understand what they meant. Now, in the past few days, she somehow understood them with her whole being, from the tips of her fingers to the depths of her soul, perhaps as never before in her life. When she was still a young girl and had just begun to discover the world of pleasure, she used to fantasize about taking money for love. For instance, a nice man she liked would come to her and propose to spend time with her, and she would answer him playfully: “If you pay!” Now, however, she didn’t get to choose only nice clients…
Five months did go by after the Russian heroine of his novel appeared, and reverberations of sentiments stirred by Kissin’s Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 slowly filtered through the hall.
Nothing less had been expected from a moving farewell concert by Kissin, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
For this final concert of the series, Kissin reunited with his longtime friend, colleague and frequent collaborator James Levine, who, as the Met’s leading force for 45 years, has just announced his final bow as music director. 
                                                                                                              Photo:, Maestro James Levine
The eminent conductor, winner of 10 Grammy awards, entered in his wheelchair, elevated by a special mechanism onto a towering conductor’s podium.
Kissin – and Levine – fans had witnessed this somewhat involved process in the hall already in 2013 when the artists collaborated on Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, when Levine, returning to the concert stage after injury and two years of absence, was greeted with a standing ovation.
Kissin has played the world over with an extraordinary number of first-rate conductors, but Maestro Levine, the pianist once told me, is among those he really loves the most. For several years, Kissin and Levine were both at home in New York. Together they recorded Beethoven’s Second and Fifth Concertos in 1997. As a special highlight their all-Schubert piano duo program, recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 2005, speaks volumes of their alliance in temperament and artistic perception. It is also among Levine’s most favorite recordings, he told Kissin (even though for acoustic reasons and perhaps also to facilitate unrestrained physical motions, the music intended for one piano four hands was performed on two separate grand pianos).
While Kissin’s beautiful singing lines where at times marred just slightly by the piano’s dry acoustics, the strong personal connection was palpable in their take on Rachmaninoff, on a beautiful night in May for Kissin’s last concert of the series.
Familiar with Kissin’s 1989 recording of the concerto with Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra, I had never before heard this all-time favorite concerto played live by Kissin.
Rachmaninoff himself gave the premiere of the work composed in 1901, which established his fame and marked the end of a severe depression he had suffered.
While Gergiev’s recording is certainly notable, already the entrance, just so slightly off, speaks of a much less deeply rooted musical bond than that between Kissin and Levine. In the recording Gergiev paints – at times more daringly – with a bigger brush, but Levine is a master at bringing out all the hidden nuances. If his Spanish repertoire already was full of vitality and rejoicing in the intricacy of mischievous rhythmic skill, in Rachmaninoff the drama got taken further. But despite the constant shifts between tender palettes and multiple climaxes there was nothing mise-en-scene, only a profound myriad of fine-tuned dexterity.
If Carnegie Hall’s Perspective series set out to convey different angles of the performer’s aptitude with multiple genres and composers’ objectives, we witnessed it all. The blissful melancholy projected in this last Russian gem was matched only by his intimate poetry recitation, with a bared soulfulness that brought one closer into the world of this artist, and perhaps with one’s own humanity. With unrelenting inquisitiveness and willingness to challenge the status quo, Kissin does not rest on his laurels, which indicates there is much more to come; and how happy he looks, especially when conveying another scoop of news to me: Kissin is now also trying his hand at composing, and some of his installments, which include a chamber music work, have already acquired much interest among some distinguished musicians. Previously just something he dabbled with during his childhood, and put aside in favor of an exclusive focus on performance, composing has now taken solid hold, adding yet another facet to Kissin's opus of discovery. 
New York will feel the absence of this remarkable individual whose innermost workings can be found in his art. In the meantime, I am sure all his fans will join me in wishing him bon voyage as he spreads his artistic inspiration abroad.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Concerts and the City - Urban storytelling with Daniel Libeskind

There is a deeply affecting quality about star architect Daniel Libeskind's simple, elegant elucidations, which possesses an air of truth that never fails to inspire. Perhaps most essentially, they offer a glimpse into the deeply enthusiastic and positive worldview so inherent in all of his endeavors. "You have to bring hope," Libeskind tells Listen. "without a positive sense of the future, you can't build architecture, because you are laying foundations." 

All architectural photos courtesy Studio Libeskind. 

left: Master plan for Ground Zero in New York City. Photo right: one of the voids of the Jewish Museum Berlin. Underneath: Sketch H 3 Chamber Works.
This article was  published by "Listen -  life with  music and culture" April, 2016.

This sense of hope occurs in all of his major architectural work. In Berlin, for instance, stands the Jewish Museum  the award-winning design of which was accepted in 1989  and brought Libeskind world fame. its jarring curves, bold shapes, and unexpected voids gave form and shapes to the violent and complicated history of Germans and Jews further explored in the collection. 
But Libeskind's design also included cracks of light which penetrate that intimidating space, providing  literally – a glimmer of hope. the same idea occurs in his master plan for New York City's Ground Zero, where hope and commemoration manifest themselves as wedge of light.
In a recent BBC radio interview, Libeskind – once an aspiring accordion player – revealed  his diverse musical taste in a list of works that included selections from Mozart's Requiem; Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op.133; ancient Greek music; Giacinto Scelsi's Pfhat; and Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz. This colorful array is indicative of both Libeskind's own broad palette, and of the love for music that inspires and impacts his sense of design: "Even though I have given up performing music" – Libeskind played classical music, which  he transcribed for accordion  "I never gave up music at all. I am always listening to the sound of a space and to its vibrations."
Indeed, Libeskind sees much resonance between the fields of music and architecture. "How we listen to music, the physical, visceral experience...can never be experienced in the same way [by two people], and while perhaps nothing brings people together like music, its experience is linked to each individual human soul...the same goes for architecture." 
This belief has prompted him to undertake many cross-disciplinary projects, including a series of drawings published by the Architectural Association School of Architecture. The loose-leaf sketches, collected in a record box, were titled Chamber Works, and Libeskind calls them "musical scores of performances of a civic space."

As CNN Style's first guest editor, Libeskind also recently commissioned and curated a series of features which link music and architecture through the common thread of their emotional impact and communicative capacities. "The audience becomes a vital component of the performance. it is not passively sitting down and removed from the show," he says. in May 2016, Libeskind will further explore these issues in a twenty-four hour extravaganza of site- specific concerts called One Day in Life. (sketch for the event)

Set in Frankfurt at the invitation of the city's Alte Oper, One Day in Life opens up Germany's commercial and cultural hub with an odyssey through different locations and musical eras. each site and program identified by one of eighteen basic themes of human experience. One such performance, hosted in the
massive Commerzbank-Arena, will feature concert violinist Caroline Widmann and DJ Spooky as a contribution to the theme of "will." The program notes describe the event as "...a confrontation of two  musical worlds for the benefit of a shared retaliation. In a location where, at other times, sporting events mesmerize large numbers of people,music will exert its evocative power by presenting virtuosic violin
pieces or contemporary electronic sounds - music whose strong will makes it irresistible to the audience."

Photo: Commerzbank-Arena, Wolfgang Miguletz (One Day in Life, Alte Oper)

At the German National Library, Star pianist and Steinway Artist Pierre-Laurent Aimard will participate in a performance of Schubert's Sonata No.18 in G Major, D.894 - a contribution to the theme of "translation," letting the music speak for itself.
Many locations used for the concerts are spaces most people would not even have known existed, while others have never seen performances of the kind One Day in Life presents. Accordingly, musical offerings will change with the scenery, ranging from soloists and small ensembles to a full symphony orchestra.
In a recent press conference in Frankfurt, Libeskind said: "My project is to put music where it's never been played in that way. The idea is to open up the city, and how people listen to music." 

photo left: Imperial War Museum in Manchester, United Kingdom. 

photo right: Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto

Libeskind explained to Listen some of the essential factors at play in his vision: "Music is constantly in our lives; it reveals the rhythm of our lives, we are just not always...aware of it. One Day in Life brings a special unity to the dialogue between the audience, the place, and the music, and reveals new connections. Music becomes recognizable as the force of life it is  think of its already biblical power, bringing down the walls of Jericho  and of course as a source of bringing pleasure into one's life. People will suddenly realize that they can enjoy being in a hospital or at the bunker while listening to a performance of a work by Schoenberg, or by Nono. 
The music changes how we experience the place and the place changes how we listen to music."
Ilona Oltuski

One Day in Life will occur May 21-22 in Frankfurt am Main. 

Daniel Libeskind plans to attend the extraordinary event. 

Daniel Libeskind, photo: Wonge Bergmann, Alte Oper Frankfurt am Main.