Saturday, October 18, 2014

Pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine - modernist Cuban idiom and Russian virtuosity in New York

Currently featured in no less than seven all-Rachmaninoff piano recitals at the renowned Carnegie Series at the Nyack library, three of them still to be heard, Russian-American pianist, Alexandre Moutouzkine, does not fail to impress with his crystal clear melodic sense of line, sensitive expressiveness, and powerful pianistic facility. (Photo Credit: Ellen Appel)

This week at Merkin Hall, Moutouzkine gave a sampler of his take on Rachmaninoff in the first half of his recital, exploring the romantic resonance of the Russian master’s preludes, awesomely engaging his listeners, filling every corner of the hall. Moutouzkine followed up with contemporary fare, and concluded the mid-day recital with his own transcription of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.  (Photo Credit: Van Cliburn International piano competition)

The performer’s humorous, yet unpretentious accompanying remarks aided in connecting the performer with his audience, and made it fun to follow the lines of new repertoire. His banter was especially effective in introducing several compositions by living Cuban composers. He shared from the stage: “My revered teacher, Solomon Mikowsky, who, born in Cuba (of Russian-Polish descent) always said to me: ‘to get that special Cuban feel and rhythm – you have to have it in your blood.’ but nevertheless, I hope that through all the lessons, all the screaming…perhaps one drop of that blood of my mentor has entered my bloodstream, or at least my visceral system.”

The pianist made a convincing case for that drop of blood running in his veins, and for the Cuban pieces by composers Leo Brouwer, Guido Lopez-Gavilan, and Ernan Lopez-Nussa, which held those sensuous rhythmic idioms and jazzy lilt typically associated with the musical language of the region, despite their contemporary, mostly abstract, configurations. (Photo Credit: Ellen Apple)

In 1995, Moutouzkine had left his native Russia for Hannover’s reputable Hochschule für Musik (Theater und Medien) until it, according to the artist, “somehow happened” that Mikowsky heard him perform and secured a place for him as his pupil at Manhattan School of Music, in 2001: “It was a new world for me, and it opened doors for me [that] I would not have otherwise known existed,” says Moutouzkine. “I did not have money for a flight to New York, nor for a taxi ride for that matter; he invited me, and it clearly was the step that changed my life. Always, when you get to a new place, everything filters into your playing, new ideas [and] new energy always translate musically, and I grew all along during these formative years. But out of all the influences I received, he most definitely was the most transforming one.”

Of Mikowsky, Moutouzkine says, “he was also always brutally honest. No small talk, no flattery, and no coaxing. But at the end he always came through for me,” the artist describes. “When I had just arrived, minutes before auditioning for the scholarship I so depended on, Mikowsky just took me aside, saying, “don’t worry, you probably won’t get it, but you may as well play…” And he held on, rather stubbornly, to all of his opinions.

“He also was the one who revealed the ingredients of Cuban music to me. South American music had never been part of my vocabulary before, something ethereal, with incredible traditions and sonorities,” he says, and “for introducing me to that world [alone], I have to be eternally thankful. There is this special knowledge of how to treat ‘time’… one of the big secrets in music.” Sometimes personal accomplishments counted more for Mikowsky than competition laurels, even if it was hard to pinpoint an attitude of praise: “At one point, I was introduced to the legendary Alicia de la Rocha, who I had never heard about before; that certainly put me on a new path and a new program, which brought me to the Zaragoza competition as a young pianist, and then the Van Cliburn in 2001. While I only got a discretionary award, my performance had been broadcasted on the radio, and I received a letter from a woman in federal prison thanking me for my touching performance. Showing him the letter, upon my arrival, he said: ‘Alex, now I am really happy for you, and can see a bright future for you playing in all the jails throughout the United States.’”

Moutouzkine has certainly inherited his mentor’s somewhat restricted and unforgiving stance on collective success, accomplishment, and praise, seeing it as something standing in the way of the never-ending search for the fulfillment of artistic promises: “As a performer you don’t ever really feel accomplished, it would be counterproductive to the whole process, the continuum of being creative. New York certainly is the right place to be inspired with so much to offer, you just need the energy to fully take advantage,” he says.

Moutouzkine himself is a bit weary of the general direction of self-promotion used these days by young performers who feel pressured to get creative on social media platforms in order to further their reputations, given the lack of performance opportunities for them at established institutions.

(Photo Credit: Yi-Fang Wu)

In 2013, Moutouzkine joined the faculty of his Alma Mater, the Manhattan School of Music, and says, “I always tell my students that this whole way of getting superficial attention does take a lot of time and energy, which might be better spent where it really counts – with the music. Ok,” he admits, “there should be a good balance. You don’t have to not announce your events on your facebook page…but ultimately, if you concentrate on getting the real work done, other things will fall in place.” Moutouzkine himself has been taken on by different management during different areas of his emerging performance career, including Astral Artists, whose 2012/13 season he opened with a very original concert that included a specially commissioned animation entitled Who Stole the Mona Lisa, accompanied live by Moutouzkine performing his own transcription of Stravinsky’s Firebird. The performance was repeated in its entirety at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

Perhaps this example best illustrates that while self-proclaimed talent on facebook may not count as press or facilitate artists’ recognition, participation in audience-friendly artistic projects may definitely contribute to an artist’s career advancement – if, as Moutouzkine says, “there is substance to build on.”

Moutouzkine’s greatness lies in the elusive product of personality, technical knowhow, and the artistic transparency of his expressivity – and this quality isn’t something you can necessarily achieve through practice. “It is that level of greatness that is intoxicating, connecting with great art and with the meaning behind it all…rarely achieved, but always strived for. It is that energy, which comes from the music itself, these sounds that embody a message…as a performer you are in the ocean, with the movement of the music, and when the wave rises – and you catch it – it raises you – and your audience. It’s magic, and all about that energy that is in the sound, just like ultrasound has the power to heal; music can change everything on a molecular level. But on stage you are in the moment, you can never play the same exact way again, but you have that energy and what you do with it - like in real life – is up to you in that instant.”

In the spirit of shared passion for bringing classical music to alternative venues and in his support of GetClassical's efforts to reach new audiences, Moutouzkine will perform at GetClassical's new series at Zinc Bar on January 15th, 2015.

 (more info on that at to come on

Friday, October 3, 2014

Sivan Magen – fresh sounding promise of David’s harp

Meeting with enthusiastic harpist Sivan Megan turned into an eye-opening conversation about the instrument: one which is typically sidelined by composers and concert venues alike.
photo credit: musicians designs
While there are an astounding number of harpists around, who, as Sivan shares, are flocking somewhat regularly (every three years) to worldwide harp conventions by the hundreds, a harp performance these days, whether solo or in a chamber music setting, is still quite the rarity.
Harp performers will often combine teaching positions with an orchestral contract, like Sivan’s mentor at Juilliard, Nancy Allen, who holds the position of principal harpist with the New York Philharmonic. Sivan himself has built a reputation as teacher, holding a teaching position at Brooklyn College and giving international master classes.
Growing up in Israel, Sivan first studied piano and then harp with Irena Kaganovski-Kessler at Jerusalem’s Academy for Music and Dance. He eventually reached Juilliard via Paris, where he had initially found his love for the harp, and continued his studies at the somewhat authoritarian Paris Conservatoire. Relating strongly to his mentor, Isabelle Moretti, he still longed for a different artistic climate: “When I came to New York for my master’s degree, I felt so free; it’s a much easier city to become a part of than Paris, especially the music scene. It’s so vibrant,” he says. “I was always astonished to hear others complain about the competitive character of Juilliard when I felt it was such a relaxed environment – at least next to Paris,” he remembers.
At Juilliard, Sivan connected with a group of Israeli friends, among them pianist Assaff Weisman and clarinetist Tibi Cziger, and became one of the founding members of Israeli Chamber Project, (photo)an ensemble that started concertizing in Israel in 2007/2008. The group’s initial goal was to bring musicians who had left Israel for their studies abroad back to their roots, where they would teach and perform for the people they left behind. Under Weisman and Cziger’s entrepreneurial leadership, the project grew and succeeded, giving the talented group of young Israeli musicians – piano, clarinet, strings and harp – many opportunities to showcase Israel’s culture throughout the United States, and recently, internationally as well. A CD recording on the Azica label with works by Saint-Saens and Martinu (Debussy, and others) grew out of Sivan’s collaboration with the ensemble in 2012.  “Martinu,” Sivan says, “is one of the few composers within the repertoire where the collaboration between piano and harp is working incredibly well; more often the piano’s resonance easily overthrows the resonance coming from the harp.”                                                                                                                 
Some of Sivan’s most musically formative experiences happened to him during his four summers spent at Marlboro, where he plans to return next summer. His first all-Britten recording in 2012 on the Avie label grew out of the collaboration with baritone Nicholas Phan at Marlboro, and he formed many other fruitful relationships there, both musical and personal. When Sivan was placed with violist Kim Kashkashian and flautist Marina Piccinini to explore chamber performance at Marlboro in 2010, “we all really hit it off,” he says, identifying the special environment and the musicians’ capacity to freely and fully explore repertoire, as what made his time at Marlboro one of his most rewarding musical experiences. Their trio, Tre Voci, has just released a recording on the ECM label. “As a harpist,” Sivan says, commenting on the importance of exchanging musically with others, “one often feels isolated from other musicians. We are on a musical island, rarely play with each other, and it’s infrequent that one gets to perform with such exquisite musicians in a chamber situation, like one finds at Marlboro.”                                                                                                                                            photo credit: musicians design
Like with any artistic instrumental interpretation, there are completely different musical approaches possible while mastering the harp’s expressiveness. “I admire certain approaches, even if they differ tremendously from my own, or my mentor’s,” he says, referring to Isabelle Moretti, after whose communicative playing he molds his own performance style. “For example, I greatly admire the Berlin Philharmonic’s harpist, Marie-Pierre Langlamet, whose soft, lyrical quality of playing lures the listener in,” he explains, “yet my playing has a completely different character. Sound can vary a lot,” he claims. Critics have hailed Sivan’s performances as exhibiting an “impressive virtuosity and great range of expression... a breathtaking performance…played to perfection” ( American Record Guide picked up on his “rhetorical flow,” WQXR hailed him as a “magician,” and Sivan was the 2012 winner of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust rewarding musical excellence. With his particular sound, Sivan seems to go all-out with astonishing vigor and a crisp, energetic sound – which is perhaps rather unexpected from an instrument associated with angels’ delicate voices.
“There are hundreds of different tone colors achievable on the harp; this is what makes the instrument so special to me – this, and the matter of resonance, which is based on the fact that there is always sympathetic resonance, which is such an asset and at the same time its inherent difficulty,” Sivan explains. “The specific quality of sound is connected to the tension between the different registers of the harp, and its extreme differences. The art is to both use this tension, and then to get rid of it where you don’t want it. It’s a matter of utmost tone control and it’s very directly connected to the grasp of the fingers – much more directly than at the piano, where the tone is transferred through the keys that hit the strings, or the string instruments, where the bow is used to transmit the vibration of tone. At the harp everything is happening at your fingertips, and just the slightest variation in how you pluck the string creates a different soundscape,” he says.
Sivan also explained to me the unique struggles that harpists deal with while finding new and challenging repertoire: “When it comes to repertoire, we were not lucky enough to have the great composers of the 18th and 19th century write for us, so we have to transcribe a lot of works, meant for other instrumentalisation, or commission new works, for the instrument - I do a lot of both, and then the question is, what is technically possible. There are certain limits, for example as to how chromatic a piece can be, in order to be transcribed. If there is a lot of melodic movement in the base, it rarely works for the harp, because of all the resonances; it’s hard to muffle the base at a certain time, since it loses the momentum for a strong enough attack, coming from the lower register to create the right texture. Complex contrapuntal writing, unless it’s solely in the upper register, is problematic to transcribe for harp, limiting its possibilities of choices.”
photo credit: Lyon & Healy Harps
He continues, “For example, The Well-Tempered Clavier, with its many configurations in the middle and lower register, would not work well for the harp, losing its explicit clarity…But certain works of Bach can work rather well; I would, for example, love to transcribe the six French Suites, or also some of Chopin’s Mazurkas,” he says and confirms that “there are many, many possibilities.” He continues: “I love collaborations with all strings, in particular the violin, or viola, but also percussion works well with the harp’s resonances, even electronics, and I am constantly looking to expand the repertoire with new commissions.”
“The almost violent dynamics reached on the harp, especially in modern music, is something audiences are often fascinated with.” Sivan’s recorded and live work has garnered a great deal of praise both critically and popularly. His debut solo album, Fantasien, released in February on the Linn label to critical praise, aims to show the broad range of expressive possibilities of the harp, exploring the form of Fantasy from the Baroque to the early 20th century. A second disc recorded for the same label this June, is forthcoming. It will juxtapose French music of the 21st century with the golden age of the harp in France – which is the early 20th century.
Being so intimately familiar with the vast potential of the instrument, Sivan sometimes shrugs in frustration at how fringed the harp still seems to be in the eyes of even avid concert-goers: “There is definitely a tendency for people to underestimate the expressive potential of the instrument and its diversity of sound,” he says. “Many imagine a harp solo recital to be boring. I always get responses after a recital, like ‘I did not know that harp can sound like that,’ or ‘now I want to hear more…’ The difficulty is bringing people in for the first time, audiences and concert presenters alike.”
Sivan Magen will perform at LePoisson Rouge on October 6th as part of the trio Tre Voce, celebrating their Cd-release with music by Rameau, Debussy, and Sofia Gubaidulina and as soloist at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on October 21st.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Pianist Lily Maisky and Cellist Mischa Maisky – musicality in the genes

(This article is published in this month's German Ensemble magazine.)
Lily Maisky - photo credit: Benjamin Brolet
As the daughter of world-renowned cellist Mischa Maisky, pianist Lily Maisky always felt a special connection to her father, who naturally inspired her reverence for classical music. “My father always was this enormous figure in music and naturally shared his gift and the joy of music.”
It was obvious early on that Lily’s younger brother, Sasha, would become the missing violinist of the Maisky family trio, which had been a dream of her father’s. “My father always had that vision of us making music together, but it was never forced. He gently encouraged both of us, giving musical advice in a way that was fun, not pushing technique, but rather inspiring my imagination,” says Lily, who freely admits to being somewhat of an awkward child, not fitting in with her classmates’ social climate. “I was never accepted, I was eccentric and always running off to practice, “she says,
“Music just was in our lives, always,” she says, and while it was mainly her mother, Kay, who oversaw her daily practice routine while her father was on tour – making her get up at six in the morning to practice before school, and seeing that she practice for at least an additional hour after the rigorous school curriculum –Mischa Maisky’s exceptional place in the music world sparked Lily’s motivation.
(photo credit: Ilona Oltuski - taken during rehearsal at the Martha Argerich Festival in Lugano)
Born in Paris and growing up in Brussels, Belgium, Lily started piano lessons at age four. Her teachers included Lyl Tiempo, Hagit Kyrbel, Ilana Davis, and Alan Weiss. “As a child, I was not the most eager piano student, always finding ways to cut daily practice time, often reading a book while pretending to pay attention, playing with one hand,” she says. But it was her early experiences of the musician’s lifestyle that preserved her fascination with the music’s context and the musicians in her personal life. “I always got along with adults better than with my peers. The grownups around my parents were my friends as well,” she remembers.
“In the summers we would travel to music festivals with my parents, where my father performed.” At age six, Lily was present at the first edition of the illustrious Verbier festival; there were tours to Israel and Sienna, Italy, where Mischa Maisky gave master classes at the academy. Lily’s exposure to the world of performance over the years instilled in her pervasive ambitions: in 2001, she became a pupil at the Purcell School of Music, where she also expanded upon her classical training, foraying into Jazz performance. She began to partake in master classes with famous musicians like Dimitri Bashkirov, Joseph Kalichstein, Pavel Giliov, Vitali Margulis, and Oleg Maisenberg, and when she was 15 years old, she performed with her father for the first time, which both of them describe as a revelation: “I was working on the very intense Brahms E-minor Sonata; I asked him to run it through with me. We had a party for my mom’s birthday, and we decided to make it a surprise performance for her. My mom got nervous, but when we played together, it was the most natural thing in the world, it felt as if we had always played together,” says Lily, and Mischa confirms: “we did not rehearse but sat down and played, and it was fantastic. She was ready – if you can ever be ready - and played with such great instinct, emotion, and sensitivity; in that moment I realized – my dream is coming true, it felt like we are related,” he says with the typical warm and humorous fashion of his storytelling. (photo - Mischa Maisky and Lily Maisky - courtesy of the artist) 
“I am the luckiest cellist in the world,” he continues. “I met Pablo Casals, studied with Mstislav Rostropovich and Gregor Piatigorsky, and made more than twenty recordings with Leonard Bernstein, performing in many concerts with him conducting,” he says. His love affair with his cello, which was loaned to him, shared with the greats of the international music scene, among them Zubin Mehta, Gidon Kremer, Martha Argerich, Radu Lupo, Evgeny Kissin, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniel Barenboim, and only became his prized possession after a good many of his forty years-worth of award-winning performances. “I played with great and differing musicians, many of which I am connected with through special friendships, on- and off- stage. But playing music with our children is something else. Music begins where words fail and it becomes part of our personal relationship. I love all of my children either way of course, whether they play music or not, but going through this experience together is an emotional bond that’s powerful and uniquely special,” he says.
(photo credit: Ilona Oltuski - father and daughter after the rehearsal)
In 2005, Lily performed her first professional recitals with her father in Emola and in Ravenna, Italy: “I was still finishing up school and was building up repertoire, and this was my first serious collaboration as a chamber musician. I knew then that chamber music was to become my forte, and that this was meant to be. I was never built for nor interested in a virtuoso career,” says the petite-framed pianist, who at that time had experienced some fatigue symptoms and was battling a severe case of tendonitis. The rehearsal schedule of a chamber musician, which was less physically demanding than performing with orchestras, appealed to the pianist, who refers to herself as: “unteachable, by the pedagogues in my life.”
“All my teachers told me I was pretty much too strong headed to be taught, I always learned by performing.  And I feel it was faith that the performance with my father inspired my independent interest in chamber musician.” In 2008 she performed as a soloist, with a program of Scriabin, Chopin, and Janacek at the yearly Progretto Martha Argerich festival in Lugano, and built up her experiences with different chamber music partners. “It is important to know one’s strength and weaknesses and I feel I have the gift to listen to others and have the flexibility to adept to different styles and performance situations and I find the dialogue on stage utmost exciting. Every chamber music partner has the potential to inspire a different kind of collaboration and to explore and present the repertoire in a different way,” she explains.
(photo credit: Bernhard Rosenberg)
For nine years now, father and daughter have frequently teamed up for duo performances, or have performed as a trio with her brother, Sasha. Deutsche Grammophon extended her father’s 25-year recording catalogue to include two collaborative CDs performed by the father/daughter duo: The first double CD, titled Song of the Cello, compiles live recordings of pieces by Rachmaninoff and Brahms from festival performances at Verbier and Utrecht. The second recording, titled España! Songs and Dances from Spain, was recorded in the studio. Lily is also featured on a Shostakovich recording on the former EMI label, along with violinist Alissa Margulis and pianist Nicholas Angelich, both of whom are regular participants at Progretto Martha Argerich, as is the Maisky family.  Lily’s latest CD release, a recording with violinist Philippe Quint released on the Avanti label, was featured by The New York Times in November 2013. She is currently preparing a performance program with violinist Hrachya Avanesyan, with whom she feels she has an especially strong musical and personal connection. Lily’s concerts have been frequently broadcast on European and Asian radio and television, and last year, she made the cover on Harper’s Bazaar Korea.
The young artist is very aware of the pitfalls of being a famous musician’s daughter: “Of course there is always a struggle for finding your own voice, the fact that I do not play a string instruments is helpful.” After all, the rigorous musical training necessary in every musician’s upbringing does not except the fact that many musicians come from musicians’ families, where the recognition of musical talent and its necessary nurturing and sustained support are standard practice. Referring to her famous father she says: “Of course I became very associated with him, and perhaps I felt a bit more pressured on stage, carrying more responsibility with the name, that goes without saying. But at the end, you have to find your own voice and not care too much about what people think or say. He would not perform with me if he felt I could not play well enough. He is too much a musician for that; but the fact that our musical alliance developed so naturally and we matched so beautifully gave me the necessary self-confidence to overcome the feeling that I had to constantly prove myself. Of course it’s a continuous learning process, I constantly keep on growing over time, and that learning process continues with each new collaboration. My father is my most important musical influence, and I separate the father from the cellist. I learned many important musical principles from him, more than from anyone else, and I am still picky when it comes to collaborate with a different cellist; his sound is so ingrained in my head.”
In rehearsal there is not much being spoken between father and daughter. Most things vital to making music together, like timing and phrasing, are picked up by listening and an occasional glimpse of the other’s moves. The two musicians are in great correspondence, exercising a lot of body language as they play. “Naturally, I try to share my experience, what I know and love about music, through my playing, but it’s a two way street, and I am very open minded,” says Mischa. “ She influences me as often as I influence her; that’s the beauty of playing music together and keeping that kind of communication going – this is also what keeps me young,” says Maisky, renowned for his individualistic sound as well as his distinctly relaxed and youthful performance outfits.
The father-daughter team has never been stronger, it seems. Maisky’s very public separation from his wife when Lily was 14 years old was a traumatic event for Lily that forced her into an early maturity beyond her years. She says: “I was often the mediator, I was outraged and it took me years to recover, but it also made me fiercely independent and eager to support myself.”
(photo credit Ilona Oltuski: Lily and her brother Sasha, with their mother Kay, visiting the Lugano Festival)

Today, Lily feels close to her mother and father, and loves her young siblings from her father’s second marriage. Playing chamber music gives her a sense of belonging to the artists’ community she grew up with and enjoys. “It trumps the solitude of a soloist, on stage and…en route,” she says. 
For 2016, the father and daughter plan on touring with the charismatic violinist Julian Rachlin.

hear father and daughter perform here

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Donal Fox – Playing With the Classical Imperative

When pianist/composer and improviser Donal Fox appeared live on WQXR’s All Ears With Terrance McKnight in 2013, classical music’s agenda, addressing its cultural divide, was tangible on air. As rare as it may be for a classical musician to improvise in jazz and Latin American vocabulary, it is probably even more unusual for a jazz musician to be at home with the classics. Improvising in the classical style with a pianistic technique that knows no boundaries between a jazzy scale slide and Chopinesque arpeggios is right out the exception. Fox, a classically-trained musician, felt the need early on to stray the course from the ”sacrosanct score,” dismissing it as a notion of today’s conservatories that was not at all the idea that the great masters like Bach and Beethoven had in mind, in his opinion. “When they performed, they improvised…there were strings breaking,” he says.
(photo- Thomas Goettinger)                               Listen to Donal Fox here
Donal sees improvisation in the foreground of the creative process. “The more I read about the history, it was clear to me that improvising was part of what a great musician had to do. Mozart was improvising. Beethoven was improvising! He may have written the score down later on for his great patrons or the publisher, but his composition process is based on improvisation, and this is the real genesis of creativity,” he explains in our meeting on the eve of his recent Jazz at Lincoln Center duo performance with the virtuosic vibraphonist Warren Wolf. “Whether it is the great classics, or whether it’s jazz, they come from the same creative place. In most classical music, the melody and harmonic structure dominate, while the rhythm comes more to the forefront in jazz. Many classical composers, for example Stravinsky, have been influenced by jazz, the musical language that is the African-American cultural language of the melting pot fusion, and,” he continues, “that reminds me of something: a very young Mick Jagger said on a talk show interview, before he became Mr. Rolling Stones: ‘I am really trying to be James Brown – this is how it comes out.’” Fox says, endearingly: “In this sense, I am trying to improvise like Beethoven – what comes out is Fox."
Fox is no mutineer, and he certainly does not look to connect the disparate worlds of classical and jazz via crossover; he is also not a classical concert pianist who would perform the Beethoven Sonata cycle. “There are people that can do that much better than I ever could, and who devoted much more time to the rigorous training it takes,” he says. In fact, playing piano became a vehicle rather than the mission of his early musical career. Donal’s improvisation seems to indicate his simple refusal to deny classical music’s greatness on the grounds of being a jazz musician, and he takes it from there, venturing to sonic spaces above these two worlds. Whether he is teaching improvisation to members of the orchestra at the Symphony Hall, a process Fox compares to the fun and freedom of “playing in the sandbox,” or taking his original programs based on Brahms or Schubert to the jazz pub, Fox is equally likely to improvise over Thelonious Monk as he is to offset jazz with the contrapuntal structures of Johann Sebastian Bach. “In principle, baroque and jazz are so much alike, they both share the walking bass line, and I often compose with a part of the score written down and a part improvised, giving me room to engage in improvisational communication. I like to draw audiences’ interest with arrangements that respect the melody, but bring the swing,” he says, “this is not crossover; it’s opening up your thinking about music that is informed by history, but it also feels like it is part of our time. More important is the question: Does this music touch you? Music is so powerful and there should not be any stigma attached to playing what moves you; it has to come from a true place in your heart.”
Studying both at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, renowned for its strong jazz faculty, and New England Conservatory of Music,  Donal frequently got carried away in different directions improvising while practicing classical repertoire, despite his teachers’ insistence that he focus on the classical composition at hand. Other forces were stronger for Fox: “My focus on creating over recreating became stronger and stronger,” he says. He is certainly not alone in this; other pianists, like Gabriela Montero, who Fox greatly admires, have been improvising from the beginning of their studies while simultaneously discovering the piano’s classical repertoire. And yet, the stigma of the written score as the only suitable homage to the great composers of the past, as opposed to the self-created tune, has sustained overwhelmingly. In Montero’s case, as celebrated as she is for her spontaneous improvisational interpretations of the classical masters in the concert hall, it took personal encouragement from the great pianist Martha Argerich to allow her to dare explore her special talent.
Fox grew up in a rare, artistic home in which Bach Cantatas occupied the family playlist right next to Miles Davis, which was next to Igor Stravinsky. But music’s limitations and stigmas were quite clear to him early on, when most of his friends did not follow him on his classical concert hall explorations. “When I performed at a jazz bar it was cool, when it came to a concert hall performance, no one came.” Fox did not want to miss out on social solidarity entirely, defined by a mutual musical identity, but he certainly did not care to toss out his great respect for the classical tradition to stay popular with his friends either. In fact, for a long time, Fox hid his improvisational talents, afraid of being frowned upon by either side of the musical fence. “The contemporary music scene is just as stiff in its ways,” he confesses, “and every venue is worried for their audiences. It gets complicated, sometimes” says Fox, who has been able to reach both concert hall and jazz club audiences with his individual style and adaptable pianistic technique. His skills brought him from the Rockport Jazz Festival to Tanglewood and Carnegie Hall, where, as composer/performer and improviser, Fox received standing ovations and a gleaming review by Times critic Anthony Tommasini, for the world premiere of his concerto “Peace Out” for Improvised Piano and Orchestra in 2009.
Photo - Frank Stewart
Donal’s international career took off, after serving as the first African American composer-in-residence of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. He participated in a vast array of collaborations and recordings with artists ranging from new music’s Bang on a Can contemporary players, to jazz celebrities at Lincoln Center. “Still, black people don’t usually come to the concert hall,” he comments, “and at the same time, jazz is getting much more institutionalized now that it is an established discipline of its own in schools. What happened to learning on the road, from the great masters? Today’s performers have incredible facility, amassed a large amount of repertoire and a great technique, but rarely carry their own voice. It is rather difficult to get people to listen to either jazz or classical these days; there is the need to produce new things, for people to go out there and hear live concerts.”
If audiences are particularly defined by their music tastes, perhaps it’s time to overcome borders within music presentation by letting audiences mingle in more intimate venues with more social context. The divide may not lie as much with Bach or Monk, but rather with the strong affinity for one’s own identity. Perhaps more common traits can be discovered over a glass of wine and a good show than one might expect; after all, good music opens horizons, carrying the bass line beyond one’s own small world.

By Ilona Oltuski – music journalist and founder of GetClassical – music salon events and new classical music concert series at Zinc Bar.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Pianist Roman Rabinovich – balance of mind, hands, and heart

There is darkness, and then the evocative, abstract sound of a narrative piano and cello piece setting the tone and interacting with the screen’s wide-angle focus on New York City by night. The camera zooms in on a young painter, wrestling with artistic perfection in differently crafted self-portraits. Reality, vision, and self-doubt infuse the main character’s struggle in the short film, presenting pianist and painter Roman Rabinovich haunted by his art.
While the film, called “Portrait,” depicts a somewhat satirical combination of chaos, anxiety, and despair within the creative artistic process, its protagonist, Roman Rabinovich, seems to come out of these battles a champion of artistic catharsis in his real life.
Yet the Israeli pianist (born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan), winner of the 2008 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, is no stranger to the occasionally torturous journey towards perfect artistic expression. Having made his debut with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta at age 10, and after studious years of learning from his many teachers including Arieh Vardi at the Rubin Academy of Music in Tel Aviv, Seymour Lipkin at the Curtis Institute of Music, and Robert McDonald at the Juilliard School, Rabinovich says that he continues to learn. “Many things inspire me: firstly, the music of great composers. It is such a privilege to be in direct contact with the composers through their work. The more you learn about their music, the more real the composers become as people. And then of course creative musicians I play with, inspire me. Sometimes it’s a beautiful piano, or a particular hall and the energy that transcends from the audience. But inspiration is a mysterious and transient thing. A good performance is based on meticulous preparation, hard work and austere discipline,” he says.
In his effort towards the ephemeral goal of excellence and exactitude, Rabinovich took a recent opportunity to meet András Schiff, whose mastery, “perfect balance of mind, hands and heart,” as Rabinovich describes it, he had always admired. He played for his icon at Schiff’s recent Carnegie Hall master classes, titled Bach and Beyond: “It was a pivotal point for me,” says Rabinovich. “Meeting with this great artist brought a new direction in my own development, and since then, I was privileged to continue working with him in Europe, enjoying his invaluable advice and his profound knowledge of music and art in general.”
Endorsed by András Schiff, one of the foremost pianists of our time, as one of three performers chosen to present the new generation of artistic talent, Roman will perform in Schiff’s newly established Berlin- and New York-based András Schiff Selects: Young Pianists series in its opening 2014/15 season. A program with works by Bach, Brahms, Bartók, and Smetana will give Rabinovich the opportunity to show his sensitivity for a wide range of pianistic repertoire, performed with his own, poignant personality, which San Francisco’s Classical Voice observed as “mature and self-assured playing, belying his chronological age.” Mr. Schiff himself spoke about his choice: “Roman is a very talented, young pianist, highly intelligent, quick-minded and genuinely original. He deserves to be heard and I hope to be able to help him.” The other two pianists presented in the series are Kuok-Wai Lio, Roman’s fellow Curtis graduate who recently stepped in replacing the legendary Radu Lupo at a Town Hall recital, and 2008 Gilmore Artist Award-winner Adam Golka.
Roman’s March 2013 recording titled Ballets Russes on the Orchid Classic label, for which he received the Classical Recording Foundation's Artist of the Year Award, showcases the pianist’s musical gift for refined, in-depth performance, and his imaginative arrangements of works formerly not conceived for solo piano. Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juilliet, Ravel/Rabinovich’s Daphnis and Chloe, as well as Stravinsky’s Petrushka, had captured his imagination for quite a while, and the arc connecting the program was their close ties to the Ballets Russes: “Albeit in slightly different times, and marked by their aesthetic differences, they were all inspired by the energy and charm of one man – Sergei Diaghilev, a force of nature,” Rabinovich explains. “They belong to the era of the creator of the Ballets Russes, which had a profound influence on the artistic trends of the next generation, fusing avant-garde music, dance and art, styled in a fresh and innovative way.”

On October 14th, 2014, Roman Rabinovich, Michael Brown and Nick Canellakis will appear in a collaborative, public Salon concert series GetClassical at the New York historical landmark India House.

sketch for Ballet Russes - Petrushka and ballerina, by Roman Rabinovich

Friday, July 25, 2014

Thriving on the efforts of its musical community: the Manchester Music Festival

Photo: by Ilona Oltuski – GetClassical - Banner of the festival at its concert’s summer home at the Southern Vermont Arts Center’s Arkell Pavillion
 Not unlike its esteemed neighbors, Marlboro Music, which has, for decades, built itself upon its master-performers’ reputation, or Yellow Barn, with its annual workshop geared to foster artistic growth, the Manchester Music Festival counts on  Vermont’s  bucolic Mountain views for its splendorous atmospheric stage-scenery.
During its six-week full scholarship summer program (this year from July 3 – August 14), young musicians are coached in chamber music performance by the festival’s capable faculty, members of its own Michael Rudiakov Music Academy- and an impressive roster of attending guest artists, who are also presented in weekly concert performances.  Concerts are filled to capacity which has helped to build the festival’s thriving reputation and its opportunity to feature fresh and consummate musical talent.
With a demographic of ca. 4,500 all year round residents, an amount that triples during those music filled summer-months with a swelling population of second home owners, it is no surprise that the summer highlights of the festival meet with an especially high enthusiastic support.
In its 40th year now, the festival relies on unyielding support by its local and visiting patrons of the arts, some of whom not only help financially to sustain the festival’s programs, but open their home to visiting artists, as part of their residency.
In accord with the spirit of the festival’s founder, pianist Eugene List and his wife, violinist Carroll Glenn, who initiated the Southern Vermont Arts Center Music Festival in 1974,  Peggy Telscher, a current festival board-member and chair of its artistic committee, explains, ”We have an obligation to foster the love for music and reach out to the next generation.”  A professionally trained singer herself, her interest focuses on bridging the gap between the instrumental and a voice syllabus of concerts. Last year the festival featured the prominent singer/actress Audra Macdonald.
After attending the series’ Young Artists concerts with her own children, when she  moved to Vermont a few years ago, Telscher held her first house-concert, in passionate support of professional singers, in 2012. Since last year, the concert-hall-like acoustics of Tom Snopek’s and Peggy Telscher’s’house has led them to host some of the artists for private recording sessions, while enjoying their home’s equally exquisite mountain views. Returning festival’s artist-in-residence, and co-founder of LP Classics record label, pianist Vassily Primakov, brought in his recording team for two of the performing artists of the festival. Photo: Ilona Oltuski-GetClassical Vassily Primakov after a coaching session with “his” group of students saying they sounded amazing

Primakov also has been invited for the second year in a row as “artist in residence,” a weeklong performance and teaching position at MMF. “Attending the festival now for a number of years, it has from the beginning felt like home away from home. MMF always attracts great artists, so I am always grateful and humbled to be among the performers and now also to be part of their guest faculty,” says Primakov.
When recently taking over the chair of the artistic committee, Telscher followed Mary Miller, whose own pianistic background and passionate engagement for the festival made her an advocate for finding and bringing great pianists to the festival. Says Telscher,”I had big shoes to fill, Mary did a fantastic job! The biggest challenge is that the costs of presenting can never be fully paid through ticket sales alone, and people have to understand that we have to pay living wages for the artists, which don’t just cover the performances, but endless hours of preparation.”
Photo: by Ilona Oltuski – GetClassical from left: Tom Snopek, Peggy Telscher, Mary Miller, and Walter Miller at the 40th Anniversary Celebration Cocktail Gala

Board member or not, Mary Miller and her husband Walter Miller, made it their mission to look out for “their” artists. “We love it as much as they do,” says Mary Miller, whose renowned hospitality includes filling most of her many rooms with visiting artists and their entourage, during the summer months. “To be surrounded by so much talent is amazing,” says Miller, who met the current artistic director of the festival, violist Ari Rudiakov and his wife, violinist Joana Genova, on the occasion of their daughter’s wedding in 2003. "It is just fantastic, what they have helped to build here, for the community," says Garry DuFour, and enthusiastically vouches his future support.

 ”We have work that is still unfinished,” says Ari Rudiakov, the festival’s artistic director. “My job is to not only put together a great festival, but to build our endowment fund, guaranteed to support our Young Artist program. We are half way there now, with activities that go well beyond the summer, and we are incredibly thankful for the support of all our members through their own personal efforts, hosting house concerts and benefits, to profit the organization. Right now, I am looking to unify all the varied elements we already have in place,” he says.
                                                                                                                                                                Photo: Ari Rudiakov, Artistic Director MMF.
But perhaps it is exactly these special, personal efforts that create small sanctuaries for the arts in intimate environments which contribute to the festival’s great communal success, as well as providing a unique setting for visiting artists. “There are always great hosts and wonderful performances and it is quite a unique experience, to create, perform, study and teach surrounded by nature – it feels like a retreat,” says Primakov.  Photo: Cottage at the Miller’s residence, hosting a MMF-student dinner.
Two years in a row, Primakov has been performing trios with cellist Ben Capps and violinist Joana Genova at the festival.  Last season it was Rachmaninoff’s PianoTrio élégiaque in D minor, Opus 9, and this year Chopin’s Piano Trio in G minor, Op.8. Primakov describes these experiences as one of the highlights of the season for him and they are soon to plan the repertoire for next season’s program. ”It’s a wonderful feeling to return to a place where you feel welcomed and harmonize with the performers.  I am equally thrilled to have the opportunity to coach the students in chamber music performance, it always creates excitement and a special bond,” describes Primakov.
Photo: Pianist Vassily Primakov with violinist Joana Genova and cellist Ben Capps at the Southern Vermont Arts Center’s Arkell Pavillion
In 2000, Ari Rudiakov inherited his father’s, Michael Rudiakov’s, mission to give more definition to the loosely organized festival that its founders had created, with an emphasis on a streamlined, full scholarship program for young artists that includes a strong, communal outreach program.

Photo: by Ilona Oltuski- GetClassical – student rehearsal and coaching at the Riley Center for the Arts at Burr and Burton
The philosophy of the festival was built on different premises than those of its eminent neighbor at Marlboro. While there was a fair amount of crossover participants between Marlboro’s and Manchester’s stellar performers, the Manchester Festival focused on giving students their separate curriculum and stage experience, while Marlboro’s concept integrated its students’ and professionals’ performances.  A student of Bernhard Greenhouse, member of the famed Beaux Arts Trio, Michael Rudiakov was a veteran cellist, principal cellist of the Indiana Symphony Orchestra and had administrative experience from running a chamber music series at Sarah Lawrence. Invited by List to join him in Manchester, he took on full leadership of MMF in 1985, after the passing of the festival’s founders.
Their son, violist/conductor Ari Rudiakov and his wife violinist, Joana Genova, continue to pass on the tradition of great, classical music, taught and performed in an environment geared to enhance the music’s outreach, as well as the personal maturity of its performers. Some travels are taking place, sometimes as a string orchestra, sometimes as chamber music tours and the faculty varies from year to year.  
“We are building on the previous year’s teacher’s faculty, but also have some new additions every year; the only truly constant are Joana and me. That way we keep it fresh, but still make it possible for musicians to return and build a wider community. What’s great is that students always have more than one opinion, we break them up into groups, switch coaches, change repertoire and put them back together again – often they have already become different players.”

Friday, July 18, 2014

Making of a Modern Musician

In her lecture at the Golandsky Institute’s Summer Symposium at Princeton University, Director of Yamaha Artist Services, Bonnie Barrett gave some great career advice for musicians, clearly inviting them to “think out of the box.”
“Due to the shrinking market for traditional classical music, its “graying” audience and overall lack of funding for costly productions, the generation of the great impresarios and dedicated press coverage has vanished. Because of all this, the solo-piano virtuoso is all but dead,” she commented. “However,” she continued, “where there is crisis – there is opportunity.”
In her commitment to promoting new approaches to music performance and presentation, Barrett introduced a selection of entrepreneurial efforts within the classical- and jazz music-environment. The creative mindset and reinventing of alternative forms of representation is now being widely recognized.
Ms. Barrett gave examples making use of efficient collaboratives and giving a new angle to the concert experience which includes unusual settings, means and combinations of skills and genres. Some of these innovative undertakings are based on technical advances, some on recognition of the need to instill different marketing aspects. Barrett introduced an award winning, animated movie which,  based on the personal story of the Bulgarian pianist Nadejda Vlaeva, introduced her pianistic soundtrack in a most endearing way. Another novel example mentioned by Barrett was the classical series “Music by the Glass,” which combines music- performances at Soho’s “Louis Meisel Gallery” (Photo) with Wine tastings, paired to associate each performance’s musical syllabus.
Founded by the accomplished pianist-duo couple, Soyeon Kate Lee and Ran Dank, the series aims to develop new audiences who will respond to an experience of classical music, up close and personal, in a relaxed and communal atmosphere.
The need to identify the “personal touch” of classical music presentations beyond its usual concert hall existence is also the mission of “GetClassical,” which takes its classical music happenings to different localities, including extravagant hotspots like the Gramercy Park Hotel’s Rose Bar. Photo: Alex Fedorov GetClassical at the Rose Bar pianist Alexandra Joan

Barrett showed the documentary of GetClassical’s last June-event at “India House.” The film, made by Hilan Warshaw, watch video here harked back to the series’ essential model of the19th century Salon made relevant today, by integrating innovative programs in diverse, social environments. In the film,  GetClassical founder Ilona Oltuski, pianists Vassily Primakov, Natalia Lavrova, and David Aladashvili explain the key ingredients of the series: personal closeness and direct interaction with the audience and with each other, bridging the divide between the performer and the listener, which does not happen in traditional venues, often remarked on as a “disconnect.”

Works presented by GetClassical were chosen from the highly original Opus 13,” Aladashvili’s debut recording on the LP-Classics label and a preview of the Lavrova-Primakov piano duo’s Rachmaninoff recording.

Founded by the Lavrova/Primakov musical team, LP-Classics was discussed as an empowering answer to the difficult market situation for new artists, who are struggling to sign onto established recording labels for their debut recordings which they, in turn, can use as a calling card, necessary to land performance engagements. LP- Classics gives an opportunity to both its founding artists to manufacture their own recordings, with a now rapidly growing repertoire, as well as open their prospects for collaboration with artists they discover and admire.

Photo: Alex Fedorov  GetClassical at India House from left: Natalia Lavrova, David Aladashvili, Ilona Oltuski, Vassily Primakov 

Technology has always had its impact of re-defining our culture, and with no exception here, an improved and facilitated technical recording process opens the door to professionally graded recordings, and for savvy self-made producers.
Another astonishing and innovative result of technological refinement was demonstrated with Barrett’s introduction of Yamaha’s Disklavier Digital Player Piano. “One possible answer to the challenge of overcoming great distances and responding to educational needs is tapping into the renewed thirst for remote piano lessons, through the digital connectivity of the Disklavier,” says Barrett. It allows teachers to connect with their students throughout the world. “With its sophisticated nuances of 256 pedal strokes and thousands of keystrokes, the Disklavier recreates pianistic action with an extreme exactitude, transforming the landscape of piano pedagogy. Many top universities and conservatories like UCLA already have signed on and some, including the Juilliard School of Music, are just about to,” says Barrett. The program also enables re-creating the concerto-experience, superior to the simple  music minus one, for example, a recording of the orchestral score performed without its piano part, to be filled in by the performer.
“Through the exceptional capacity of adjustment of the Disklavier to the keystrokes by the individual performer and chosen instrumentalisation, the technology is able to follow the performer’s tempi, and yes, even recognize the performer’s wrong notes. Playback and repetitions are simply accomplished, making the Disklavier a preferred platform for many artists in a variety of educational programs, like Simone Dinnerstein’s high school outreach program watch it here, or Dan Tepfer’s (photo) imaginative jazz piano-playback arrangements. It remains to be seen if the apt description of his demonstration so far and yet so near, will truly win over fans, or just point to the one ingredient missing that would make the experience more than an experiment. Does the student need the actual stage presence of the performer or the teacher’s commending pat on the shoulder, the truly human touch - perhaps not superior in action, but not quite to be superseded by any technology either?

Photo: Ilona Oltuski - Bonnie Barrett                                                                                      

Venerable musicians like Jerome Rose and Byron Janis have embraced the fascinating possibilities that Disklavier offers, using it in the service of special workshops and teaching presentations.
The only condition, of course, is to have access to two Disklavier pianos, a laptop and the internet, and off you go readily creating complex multi-track arrangements, recording your own performance and playing them back.  But, fortunately, some musical talent still needed.