Monday, March 2, 2015

Bridging Music and Poetry - Mohammed Fairouz and David Handler at Le Poisson Rouge

photos and article by Ilona Oltuski – GetClassical.org



The newly launched series, Return to Language, which seeks to imaginatively blend text and music into an amalgamate of artistic substance, provided a perfect opportunity for a special presentation featuring Le Poisson Rouge’s own David Handler and American-Arab composer Mohammed Fairouz.
Fairouz’s January 2015 release of Follow, Poet on Deutsche Grammophon marks the artist’s debut on the yellow power label – excellent timing for a live performance of “Audenesque”, an excerpt of the recording, with the Ensemble LPR conducted by Evan Rogister.
Mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey’s (photo- with Ensemble LPR) astonishing vocal range and theatrical talent gave intense expression to the highs and lows of Fairouz’s composition, transforming wild pitches and uttered lingual sequences into fanciful rhythmic and melodic otherworldliness.
Set to the poetry of Seamus Heaney and read by Irish writer, Paul Muldoon, “Audenesque” is based on an elegy mourning the loss of poetic giant W. B. Yeats; it is also a tribute to the 20th century lineage of English-language poets.
With four symphonies, an opera and several chamber and solo works to his name, Fairouz’s deeply emotive, timeless messages and metaphors, as well as the musical references to his Middle Eastern roots, have contributed greatly to the composer’s growing reputation as an unique musician The New York Times calls ”an important new artistic voice.”
Composer, violinist and violist David Handler’s composition, Celtic Verses, performed by harpist Kristi Shade and mezzo-soprano Mary Mackenzie whose crisp voice and purist diction moved with the music’s poetic waves, offered a further highlight of the evening.
Long familiar with the concept of language as music and sound, Handler recalls being as fascinated by the material leading to Celtic Verses, as he was with the transformative power of language in Fairouz’s work.
For Handler, co-founder of LPR and the Ensemble LPR, which, in a previous interview, he described as a natural outgrowth of LPR’s curatorial identity, the evening’s musical collaboration also helped to further the venue’s artistic and curatorial identity. 
During the evening’s on-stage discussion with the composers, former IMG Managing Director Elisabeth Sobol, who had initiated the series for Universal Music Classics, shared her fascination and lifelong belief in the power of language and literature. At IMG, where she had managed artists like Evgeny Kissin, Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman, Sobol - now President and CEO of the Decca Label group - was instrumental in opening the doors for new music and genre-bending collaborations.

Joined on stage by Paul Muldoon, she expressed her hope that the evening’s encounter between two exceptional artists working at the crossroads of music and language “will spark a deeper kind of listening experience and, ultimately, a deeper sort of emotional response, because that’s the whole point of art: to be inspired and moved deeply.”
And Fairouz explained his thoughts: “In both our poetic and diplomatic lives, I would argue for a broad return to a love for illustrious language. Poetry can give us a means to reach beyond the daily, confused present and touch something timeless and eternal. At a time when the search for meaning has never been more critical, it seems to me that a return to language, to a respect in the way we treat each other with and through language is the first step in solving some of the problems of human communication and understanding that are manifest in conflicts from the Middle East to the halls of the U.S. Congress to the unchecked, vitriol sounding on social media. In times like ours, there is an imperative to use and value language more carefully and thoughtfully – a need to listen to and admire thoughtful language as part of our day-to-day lives. Our highest forms of linguistic expression are a defining element – and reflection of – our humanity.”
Sounds like a well-versed prayer to me. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Violinist Paul Huang – Nurture and Nature


The contours of natural talent, education, and unlimited personal support from his family all blend together for young Taiwanese/American violinist Paul Huang, who came to Juilliard’s Pre-College division at age 13. “It meant a lot of changes for my family, when my mom came to New York by my side, parting from the family and its business, a small pharmacy she ran together with my father back in Taiwan,” Paul remembers. Paul’s mother made the decision to leave behind Paul’s older brother and his father, dedicating five years of her life to Paul’s musical education, fostering his growth as a budding virtuoso.

All photos by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

“Looking back, I feel so much appreciation for her utmost devotion, she never went out except for grocery shopping, always staying home for me,” says Paul, who remains closely connected with his family through tools like Skype and daily phone calls, but clearly feels like a New Yorker today. “Artistic growth like this does not happen there; the teacher tells you what to do…here the teacher encourages you to teach yourself, finding your own voice – that’s an even bigger lesson,” he says.
“Of course I don’t know yet where my life is going to take me, but right now it’s happening here [in New York.]” While Paul visits Taiwan on a regular basis, he has clearly made himself a home in the metropolis of music-making, “living [his] dream,” as he proclaims, which revolves around the instrument that took center stage for him as soon as he heard it performed for the first time as a young boy. “I seek inspiration wherever I am, and [in] whatever I do, living very much in the moment,” he says, describing his morning’s jog in Central Park, during which his eyes and ears were wide open, taking in nature’s wonderful sights and sounds. “There is always a new corner I have not yet discovered, birds singing, people to watch…sometimes, when you feel stuck and hopeless, you need to get inspired in order to inspire others. That is a talent in itself,” he explains. Paul likes to take advantage of the city’s broad variety of art and concert offerings. Sometimes, when he is inspired by great performances, Paul will pick up the violin right after to practice, even at 10pm at night.
“Listening to a great performance makes you want to play better,” he says, starting his daily practice with Bach, a composer whose works he does not feel quite comfortable performing publicly yet, but whose music takes him on an inner voyage, reflecting on his own, personal state of mind – in all its glorious and self-revealing solitude. “With Bach, there is nowhere to hide, in a musical sense you are totally exposed, and it’s reflecting on who you are and where [you are] at this point in time with total honesty,” he says. Choosing his performance repertoire as a young performer, he realizes the importance of being familiar with a great variety of programs, although his heart truly beats for the late romantic and 20th century genre. “I never play music I don’t love,” he says, and that is palpably clear in his performances, which display his distinct individual musical voice, already lauded by many critics.
Beyond that recognizable personality, there is an element of absolute necessity in his playing, making listening to him a gripping experience. “I never try to be different for the sake of being different; I rather always look for what’s meaningful to me and try to convey that as best as I can, but I do treat every performance as if it was my last one,” he says, explaining the emotional intensity of his recitals, in addition to his “stylish and polished playing,” praised by The Strad. After winning the 2011 Young Concert Artists’ International Auditions and its 2012 Helen Armstrong Violin Fellowship, the young artist, who had already worked on collaborations with internationally acclaimed artists, began working with management geared towards moving his career in a distinct direction. One chamber music collaboration that came about through YCA was between Paul and the talented young pianist Louis Schwizgebel-Wang, BBC New Generation Artist 2013-15. The project resulted in instant friendship: “Although we just live two blocks away, we had never met in New York, before,” Paul says. A presenter in North Carolina was looking for a collaborative performance of Beethoven Sonatas, and, since YCA often promotes their artists together, Louis, winner of YCA’s 2006 auditions, was brought together with Paul to take on the task. “We immediately clicked while rehearsing Beethoven, and a close friendship developed further on many following concert tours together. Chamber music is the building block for any kind of music making. For me, it’s the absolute pinnacle of music making,” Paul says. For the 2015-18 seasons, he will join Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s CMS Two program for young, up-and-coming artists.
“I am at my boldest in big concerts, with orchestra, but music at the beginning was all meant for smaller spaces, especially chamber music. Intimacy is what chamber music in particular is all about,” he says. “To have the luxury to share music in a smaller setting is truly a rewarding experience; the audience being so close around you – they are practically breathing with you, hearing every nuance of your sound and seeing every movement,” he explains. “I actually think this is music-making at its most exciting, and it is especially enhanced by the atmosphere in such intimate settings that allows the artist true interaction and communication with the audience, [which is] always cherished.”
On April 14, 2015, Paul Huang will perform in this kind of setting at GetClassical’s intimate classical music series at Zinc Bar, a downtown Jazz club, along with pianist Louis Schwizgebel-Wang. The two will collaborate for the first time with cellist Julian Schwarz, forming a trio to perform “Intimate Impressions,” a program of music by French and Francophile composers whose musical output is inspired by the epoch of the impressionist art movement. Visit GetClassical’s website for more information about this upcoming concert. http://getclassical.org 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Pianist Alon Goldstein – pursuit of one’s vision and voice never go out of style


 “It has been fifteen years since I received my last ‘official’ lesson with my sainted teacher Leon Fleisher,” wrote Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein in a July 2013 blog entry dedicated to his legendary mentor on the occasion of his eighty-fifth birthday. “I remember telling him not long after I moved on that my best decision in my life was to come and study with him, and the second best decision was to leave,” adding later in a personal interview that he knew he had to leave before getting too comfortable. Obviously, all of this commentary was delivered with love and admiration.
Fleisher, who may easily be one of the most captivating raconteurs among the great musicians of his generation, recently commented when asked about his former pupil: “Alon, now he really is fantastic. He is one of the most open-minded musicians I have ever met and he is not blinded – like so many others – by anything; he has a vision, and his playing is rather insightful, deep and meaningful. He also has such a warm personality; we have shared so many memorable moments together.”
Goldstein witnessed the power of the maestro’s communicative gift during his four years working closely with Fleisher as a student, and later as his assistant: a coveted position at the Peabody Conservatory reserved for Fleisher’s most brilliant students. “Even though Fleisher’s teaching did not involve extensive demonstrations at the piano, not having been able to play with his right hand for many years, he used his descriptive skills,” says Goldstein and explains how Fleisher’s vast personal experience, rooted in his exceptional pianistic career, inspired his students. He managed to translate his musical directions into intellectual property, geared to assist his students in expressing their individual vision at the piano.
“Musicians tend to say that music cannot be described in words. I believed it until I heard Fleisher speak. It was so clear, so eloquent, so rich, so incredibly precise...,”Goldstein says, describing Fleisher’s intention to teach his students how to teach themselves through his profoundly associative instructions. One of these descriptions stuck with him in particular: “During one of our lessons, while I was trying to find the focal point in the phrase, create long lines, generate momentum, and so forth, Fleisher leaned backward slowly in his chair, closed his eyes, gently raised his eyebrows, and said, ‘music is made out of physical forces. Every note, every ascending or descending line, circular pattern, or huge leaps is surrounded with physical forces. They are a magnet between the notes. This is what the music is made of. Understanding these physical forces, knowing how to utilize them, makes for an interpretation that is not only irresistible, but inevitable,’ ventured Fleisher." This irresistible musicality can be found in demonstration, recorded on his latest Grammy-nominated release of left-hand repertoire, All the Things You Are (Bridge, 2014).
“He had x-ray ears,” says Goldstein about Fleisher, “and because he made you analyze everything you do, this awareness allowed you to go straight to the heartbeat of the piece and challenge your music making to find its fundamental truth, time and again,” he reminiscences.
Even the most stirring lessons need fertile ground to instigate motivation. Goldstein inherited the tradition bestowed upon him with deep gratitude, continuing an inspired, lifelong dialogue with music vigorously articulated in his own teaching and his international career as concert pianist, and on occasion in his writing and concert talks.
In 1997, Goldstein moved on to Great Britain’s Guildhall Music School as a performance fellow, where he became a proponent of four-hand piano performances, and helped create a chamber music festival. His pianistic talent and creative performance concepts led to his receipt of an invitation to be artist-in-residence from the Theo Lieven International Piano Foundation at Lake Como. During two seasons, Goldstein was privileged to partake in private master classes with world-renowned musicians.
Shared Israeli roots and summers spent at the Marlboro and Vermont Music Festivals brought about collaboration with stellar cellist Amit Peled and clarinetist Alex Fiterstein. The resulting Goldstein-Peled-Fiterstein Trio was praised on many occasions for its members’ ability to precisely balance their original artistry as soloists with their great sensitivity and communicative skills as chamber players.
Photo Credit: Britt Olsen-Ecker

 Together with violinist Ilya Kahler, Goldstein and Peled also formed The Tempest Trio, whose virtuosic performances have already been compared to the legendary Million Dollar Trio comprised of Arthur Rubinstein, Gregor Piatigorsky, and Jascha Heifetz.
        The Tempest Trio's European Tour, 2012.
Goldstein’s musical integrity and amicable personality has translated into scores of alliances and engagements as recitalist and soloist with orchestra, and a multitude of chamber music appearances, including numerous invitations to perform and teach at some of the most highly regarded music festivals, including the Verbier and Ravinia Festival. A recipient of various scholarships and prizes, including a ten-year scholarship from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, Goldstein has always believed in paying it forward. His loyalty in supporting music by young Israeli composers, which resulted in a commission and performances of Avner Dorman’s concerto Lost Souls, is as much an integral part of that pledge as his community outreach efforts, through which he aims at “giving everyone the chance to be transported by the beauty and power of classical music,” inside and outside of the concert hall.
At the same time, some of the formative moments of Goldstein’s past remain a substantial source of reverence, and have become an integral part of his personal musical voice: “Not long ago,” he writes, “in the midst of rehearsing of Mozart’s concerto for two pianos… at my alma mater, the Peabody Conservatory of Music, in preparation for a performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra later that summer, Fleisher entered the room unexpectedly,” which marked a welcome opportunity for Goldstein to be transported by the master’s presence and to experience. He says, “…how these physical forces slowly awakened – Centrifugal force pushed us outwards when an ascending melodic run changed its direction. Centripetal force pulled us inwards when a descending line suddenly turned upwards. Circular patterns, angular ones, leaps, jumps, sustain notes- all generated forces that glued the notes to become a musical phrase.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                Maestro Leon Fleisher with Alon Goldstein
“There was one force, though, that existed from the moment the first note of the piece was pressed until the last note disappeared. That was the force of gravity. As the melody soared high above, then dived back down almost touching the ground, making loops and leaps, taking us on a rollercoaster journey, it was a journey in anti-gravity…and Fleisher commented, ‘Listen to the way the long notes make a crescendo after being pressed, followed by a diminuendo before the next note arrives…Every physicist would say this is impossible, but we musicians are not physicist, we are illusionists. This is vocal playing.’”
For more information about Alon Goldstein’s diverse concert activities and CD releases, visit http://www.alongoldstein.com/. His blog can be found at http://blog.alongoldstein.com/.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Gümüşlük International Classical Music Festival

“When I think about Gümüşlük, I can’t stop smiling. The warmth and hospitality of its people, the sunshine, the sea and the spectacular concert venue make me want to come back again and again,” says renowned Russian-American pianist  Ilya Itin. photo - Aljazeera
                     
Itin is a prestigious guest artist and returning pedagogue at the Turkish music festival, and a personal friend of its propelling forces, the festival’s founders, Eren Levendoğlu and Gülsin Onay.



Onay, one of Turkey’s foremost pianists, has taken on the role of artistic advisor, working closely with the artistic director of the festival, Eren Levendoĝlu. The festival celebrated its 10th anniversary this summer.
Levendoĝlu had the idea to start the festival in a small, idyllic fishing village, steeped in the history and ruins of the ancient Mediterranean city of Myndos. She says, “I had just graduated from London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama and was looking for an alternative lifestyle in music without the stress and rigorous schedule of the conservatory.” The locale was a romantic escape from the big cities for many artists, and Levendoĝlu found refuge – and her future husband –at the Eklisia Church-turned-arts center located In the center of town, yet just steps away from the ocean.
The first thing to do was to get a piano into the space for her to practice on. The instrument that got things going was a makeshift upright that had fallen from a truck and was in bad condition. Levendoĝlu’s search for a piano tuner led her to Onay, who was visiting her summer home the next town over. The renowned pianist’s enthusiastic reaction to the idea of creating a festival matched Levendoĝlu’s passion for the project. Over tea, plans were turned into action, as the two women motivated other musicians, including the head of the faculty of music at Bilkent University in Ankara, Isin Metin, to get involved. Levendoĝlu mobilized everyone around her according to their trades: Her cousin, a graphic designer, made posters, a friend wrote press releases, yet another friend sponsored the wine, and the response was overwhelming. “The church seats only 60 people and there was an overflow into the garden, where we put up a screen and a sound system. Over 800 people attended the concerts and the press responded wholeheartedly,” remembers Levendoĝlu. Master classes followed in 2006, the festival’s third year, and expanded from the original piano festival into its broader framework of a classical music festival, even featuring its first symphonic orchestral concert, attracting sponsors and international artists to come on board. By 2011, the festival was in full swing with all its pedagogical and performing activities, supporting Turkish music students and promoting the work of Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun to the younger generation. As one of the premier proponents of Saygun’s work, Onay had set out building her distinguished career as an international performing pianist, never losing sight of her Turkish identity. It is thanks to her great initiative, as much as to her warm personality, that the festival attracts not only fans and local artists, but musicians from around the world, and acts as a true messenger of cultural diplomacy.
In 2012, the festival moved from its original location to an ancient stone quarry situated on the southwestern seaside of Gümüşlük’s Koyunbaba area, gaining an idyllic panoramic view and further artistic participation, contributing to its significant cultural stance.
Today, a varied mix of nationalities present myriad genres at the festival’s annual six-week summer program, filling the Mediterranean landscape with music ranging from Jazz to classical, and including such artists as pianist Fazil Say from Turkey, Yury Martynov from Russia, Mauricio Vallina from Cuba, Pierre Reach from France, and Italian guitarist Carlo Domeniconi. A growing number of various instrumentalists, among them Portugese bassoon player Rul Lopez and French oboe player Celine Moinet, have made this a true classical music fest.
Supported by the Bodrum Classical Music Association and the Bodrum Chamber of Commerce, the festival carries an academic and educational outreach element, bringing the newest research and developments in the field of music education to the enthusiastic local student body of its academy. Edna Golandsky, for example, co-founder of the New York-based Golandsky Institute, has returned to a loyal group of students for the past several years, bringing her teachings on how to gain natural pianistic facility building on the principals of the ‘Dorothy Taubman approach,’ to a growing branch of the Institute’s following. Master classes are held in piano, flute, cello, harp, voice, conducting, clarinet, guitar, viola, and violin, and – thanks to the multi-talented Fazil Say –composition has lately been added to the programs offered.   Photo - Fazil Say and Gülsin Onay

Run with the help of its association of volunteers, in addition to its three-person staff, the festival holds its own, even next to the big festivals in the Istanbul area, boasting a uniquely intimate and welcoming character. Perhaps the most significant attribute of the festival remains its special atmosphere, the naturally ambient and enjoyable spirit of the event augmented by impromptu performances at the beach and local restaurants. One finds plenty of opportunities in Gümüşlük for open-minded cultural exchange, both on a musical and social level; an important outlet in today's politically challenged cultural climate in flux between Orient and Occident.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Quintessentially Russian: Philippe Quint’s new Tchaikovsky/Arensky recording

This September, Avanticlassic released yet another account of Tchaikovsky’s much performed Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35, revealing the stylistic versatility and technical brilliance of Russian/American violinist Philippe Quint. In this recording, Quint, whose “lyricism, energy and devotion,” was lauded by the LA Times, pairs Tchaikovsky’s “war-horse” of the violin-repertoire, with Anton Stephanovich Arensky’s String Quartet No.2 in A minor, coincidentally his Op.35 as well. This line up makes for Quint’s first all-Russian recording, and there is something of a full circle coming about within this youthful thirty-something violinist’s successful career, which has led him from his native Leningrad to Moscow’s Central Music School for Gifted Children, and then to an illustrious mentorship at Juilliard when he was just 17.
Quint’s earlier discography, which includes Grammy-nominated recordings of Bernstein’s Serenade and violin concertos by American composers William Schuman, a former Juilliard president and Erich Korngold, as well as Ned Rorem, speaks to his affinity for his new American domicile and his assimilation within his immediate surroundings. Two contemporary composers who Quint champions - John Corigliano and Lera Auerbach - are Juilliard alumni, like Quint.
(Photo credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)
In 2005, Quint recorded for David Grubin’s film, Marie Antoinette, which led to Quint’s performance of the lead role in Grubin’s 2011 film, Downtown Express.  Quint plays himself, a violinist at Juilliard, adding his dramatic talent – coached by Sondra Lee – to his musical virtuosity, featured on the film’s soundtrack.
Everything in Quint’s performance style speaks of his highly personal relationship with the music he performs, revealing his passionate drive to “own” and live it. The late Andrej Korsakov, Quint’s teacher and one of the great pedagogues of the Soviet Union at the time, features prominently in Quint’s recollection of his first rendezvous with Tchaikovsky’s famous concerto: “Korsakov assigned the concerto to me as the next ‘big’ step. I must have learned the concerto over a few days and brought it for my ...disastrous…lesson with him, the following week. Korsakov was furious with me that I was taking so many liberties with tempi and interpretation…” Quint says, noting that he had barely looked at the score, but mostly “performed” the notable concerto, which could be heard on TV, radio, and concert stages all around at the time, by ear, longing eagerly to perform the all-time favorite work with orchestra. Recognizing his young student’s euphoria, Korsakov allowed Quint to continue working on the concerto under the condition that he would start from scratch, adding proper methodical craftsmanship to his enthusiasm. (Photo credit: Jeff Gerev)
Quint’s persistence panned out. At this point, he has performed the concerto over 200 times, re-evaluating the work’s possibilities without losing his fascination for its ingenious writing and historic context. In the recording’s liner note, Quint describes Tchaikovsky’s “fire of inspiration,” when composing the concerto. In personal correspondence about writing the concerto, a process that took less than a month’s time, Tchaikovsky described his progress, saying: “Everything I have written today will have the power to enter the heart and make lasting impressions on it.”
Tchaikovsky was personally inspired by violinist Iosif Kotek, a student of Hrimaly and Joachim, whom he met at the peaceful lakeside villa retreat in Clarens, Switzerland after fleeing Russia. “I could never have done anything without his support,” he wrote, but he worried about causing gossip about his relationship with the virtuoso and eventually dedicated the concerto to the eminent performer Leopold Auer, professor at the St. Petersburg conservatory. Auer’s famously critical stance towards the concerto and its outright “bashing” from critics such as Eduard Hanslick, who depicted its dramatic finale as “leaving a stink in the ear,” led to numerous edits, including revisions of its solo part and cuts in its finale. According to Auer, these changes were made with the consent of Tchaikovsky, who is rather known for accepting alternative suggestions concerning his work.
Jascha Heifetz, one of Auer’s famed students, favored the edited version, although the original version was favored by some protagonists, including Bronislaw Huberman.
Quint offers both versions here with great gusto, acknowledging the choice and difference of opinion, and letting the listener make up his own mind as to which version is preferable. Quint is supported by the Sofia Philharmonic under Martin Panteleev, making for an enthusiastic musical rapport, despite the less than ideal acoustics at Bulgaria Hall.
Pairing the concerto with Arensky’s quartet puts further attention on the background, which ties these composers and their works together historically.
Arensky shared his great admiration for Tchaikovsky’s work with his students, including Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Gliere.
Intended as a memorial to Tchaikovsky, Arensky’s quartet, Op.35, includes themes of the master’s Chansons Enfantines, Op. 54 in the variations of the quartet’s second movement, adding Russian patriotic themes, like the hymn Slava Bogu no nebe slava, which draws from an ancient funeral mass and was also used in the ceremonial tradition of the crowning of the Tsar, turning Tchaikovsky, as Quint observes, into “the Tsar of composers.”
Supportive of his fellow musicians, Tchaikovsky had personally vouched for Arensky’s “forgotten” work to be performed –even instead of his own, at least in one instance, as an 1887 letter to Rimsky-Korsakov reveals, asking Rimsky-Korsakov to program Arensky’s work instead of his already famed Romeo and Juliet Overture.
In place of the usual habit of quartet literature, Arensky’s second violin is replaced by a second cello, giving a soaringly mournful quality to the music’s already melancholic character. On this track, Quint collaborated with Lily Francis, Nicolas Altstadt, and Claudio Bohŏrquez, recorded at the concert hall of the Siemens-Villa in Berlin.
All in all a great historically inspired addition to one’s library, from a versatile and charismatic artist, we will certainly hear much more from in the near future.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Music and Film - Touching the sound

    
 “The main ingredient is still a powerful story to tell…” -Peter Rosen ( all photos courtesy of Rosen Productions and Close Encounters with Music festival)
In addition to its concert series, the yearly Berkshire festival’s Close Encounters with Music, lead by charismatic cellist and conversationalist Yehuda Hanani, explores the multi-faceted themes of classical music’s culture.
As part of this year’s festival, Peter Rosen presented his emotive documentary Touching The Sound on blind Japanese pianist and 2009 Van Cliburn gold-medalist Nobuyuki Tsujii.
“This is a film about the human triumph, as well as artistic triumph,” comments Hanani. “One thinks of Beethoven overcoming adversity. A deaf composer and a blind, virtuoso pianist… The way Peter spins the story from early childhood…all the way to the Van Cliburn competition is an inspiring crescendo,” offers Hanani, whose weekly Classical Music According to Yehuda airs on WAMC Northeast Radio’s Round Table Discussions.
In our conversation about the latest release in his longtime career, Rosen, the New Yorker documentary film maven defines “storytelling” as the essential ingredient of any film: a challenge that does not differ with respect to the message in a film on music.
“Every project has a different theme and constellation of how the film came about and how its production developed, however, the same structure of the traditional story development – its characteristic three-act partition – basically applies to all my movies,” explains the filmmaker, an architect by education.
Whether Rosen portrays Arthur Rubinstein’s life or the Van Cliburn’s International Piano Competition, he never aims to show one’s technicalities as they master their instrument, which in effect – as important as those details may seem – would be quite boring to watch. Except in taped live recordings that show a performance in its entirety, like in Tsujii’s Live at Carnegie Hall, Rosen rarely shows a full-length piece of music performed on film. “It is always a fine line to define how much music you can actually use without disrupting the flow of the story. We always get letters from people who had wished to hear more of the pieces performed, but the average attention span only allows for uninterrupted music to be played for 2-3 minutes without losing the thread of the story,” says Rosen.
That is also the case in Touching the Sound, which trails the gold-medalist from his mother’s touching descriptions of the first moments that his blindness, as well as his exceptional musical gift became clear, to his winning hearts and gold: “Nobu,” as his fans lovingly call him, asserting himself on the concert stage.(Nobu and his mother Itsuko)
Blind from birth, Nobu at 23 shares his inspiring, heroic journey and his prodigal gift for the piano, portraying facets of his identity as an international performer and cultural ambassador of his native Japan. His sincerity comes through as much in his art as in footage shot during various concert tours that portrays his happiness and eager excitement to experience different locations, people, and culinary surprises. Considering that he overcomes such extreme adversity, judging his pianistic achievements in comparison to his ‘seeing’ peers seem even more arbitrary, than the already debatable and subjective decisions of any competition’s jurors.
The Van Cliburn’s jurors, who included the distinguished pianist Menahem Pressler, admitted to having to work extra at their “objectivity-gage” to award their prestigious approval, solely on the grounds of the artist’s pianistic excellence. Nobu himself admits that he would prefer to be rather known as a great pianist rather than ‘the great blind pianist,’ whose astonishing gift is a curiosity over which people marvel.
With the help of translations by Nobu’s constant travel companion and manager, Nick Asano and Nobu's childhood piano teacher Masahiro Kawakami, the film expresses much of the artist’s sincere love for sharing his innate musical talent, his modesty, gratitude, and openness, with which he meets life’s challenges and cheerfully embraces its pleasures. The film focuses lastly on his actual mastery of the keyboard. Set against a backdrop of the music of Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Beethoven, and Mussorgsky, Rosen’s camera always focuses in on the angle of human sentiment: Nobu’s heavy breathing with restless desire to conquer the stage, right before his Carnegie Hall debut, followed by the release of all the built up tension in the teary-eyed, sobbingly-performed encore, consisting of his own composition, written in honor of Japan’s Tsunami victims.
Rosen seeks out his film’s characters according to the drama they convey. He looks for storylines created by individuals’ conflicts, their relationships with others or their own artistic personality, and most importantly by their redemption: overcoming their individual challenges – that’s the story he tells, amidst each project’s own, particular soundtrack. Rosen chooses to rather‘show’ than ‘tell,’ guiding the camera’s focus on his characters’ emotional reactions, which form the arc on which he builds the story.
Rosen started his film career with USIA projects directed at enhancing America’s cultural reputation overseas in the late seventies. One of these assignments – a portrait of Leonard Bernstein – became the landmark for Rosen’s passage into the classical music business.
“I am not a musician, myself. I resentfully survived 12 years of piano lessons, without any results – I can read music, but can’t play a thing,” he volunteers. “Of course, I knew of Bernstein’s immense persona in music, but I did not approach his personality from the standpoint of a musician – I did not have that kind of ‘highbrow’ perspective.” This was, as he convincingly relays, Rosen’s recipe for success: “While films on music are generally pitched to an already knowledgeable audience with a musical background, I intuitively get what the general public wants to see and relates to,” he says.
This certainly holds true for those films in Rosen’s copious filmography that I had the opportunity to watch. A good example would be his tour de force, The Maestro, about the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, in which Rosen strays from depicting the maestro’s actual musical career, focusing instead on how the conductor used his prominent status as a vehicle in his ideological battle against fascism.
Of course it is the music, the fundamental soundtracks of these documentaries on musical figures, which provides the stories’ intrinsically sustaining feature; their developments’ accompaniment, enunciating their climaxes. The essential messages that Rosen’s films convey with astute perspective, transcend his explorations of human nature through his characters’ struggles under intense conditions, expressing their growth and individual geniality, and highlighting their supreme heights of artistic achievement.
And that is the kind of emotional connection, in music- as in film-making, audiences react to with applause.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Violinist Asi Mathatias – Talent forges its way

Fortunate for violinist Asi Mathatias, his prodigal musical gift has been recognized at a young age. Born in Jerusalem and growing up in Herzelyah, he heard Heifetz performing on the radio, making up his mind instantly that this was, what he wanted to be doing, just as well. While his debut at age 12 with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Zubin Mehta may be deemed an impressive undertaking in and of itself, it just marked another checkpoint on the path of high expectations for the young musician, geared to master the virtuosity of the violin. The year following his inaugural performance of Mozart’s G-Major Violin Concerto No. 3, recorded as part of a BBC documentary, Mehta invited him back to perform Saint-Sains Violin Concerto No.3.
Described by Zubin Mehta as:”extremely musical, sensitive and technically accurate,” the maestro went further and personally advocated for Mathatias’ acceptance at the famed Vienna Hochschule for Musik, Mehta’s own former breeding grounds. Esteemed pedagogue Christian Altenburger accepted Mathatias as the youngest student, age 16, at time and Peter Landesman, director of the Salzburg Festival, arranged for a host family for Mathatias,  who arrived to Vienna in 2004. “My parents did not believe that their spoiled, little son could make it on their own,” remembers Mathatias, but he did prove them wrong. After a couple of months with his host family, he decided it was time to move out and to keep house for himself in Vienna, during his beginning studies at the university. It was by invitation from Pinchas Zuckermann, that the next dream came true for Mathatias; to study under the wings of the legendary violinist, at New York’s Manhattan School of Music. “He is very demanding,” he says about Zuckerman, and admits:” it was a bit overwhelming at first.”
Thinking his famous teacher would be impressed by his intense schooling and self assured, prodigal technique, Mathatias was in for a rude awakening:”No one can impress him, of course, I went through a very tough regiment of “cleaning house,” he says. At first a bit rebellious, Mathatias learned to accepted the “grounding” experience, which ultimately made him a more secure and more mature musician. “It was very good for me, after my experience in Israel and Vienna, I was able to handle this new discipline, going back to the fundamentals of violin playing, like basically going back to open strings. I am not sure how it would have been, had I come straight to Zukerman,” he says. ”I was used to performing a lot, already by then. Already when I came to Vienna, I had quite a number of concerts; now I had to cancel most all of my engagements. Zukerman did not care about performing while studying, his standpoint was:” You are here to build a lasting career.”
In December he finished studies for his Masters degree at the Manhattan school of Music, and he is convinced he would follow his master’s firm yet inspirational way, should he ever be teaching himself:”You have to start with a clean slate. You are not going to become a different player, but it changes your approach completely… you become demure.”
While he was worried to lose momentum to build up his performance career, in hindsight he sees how important it was to reevaluate his early gained confidence. From day one, he also worked with Zukerman’s teaching assistant Patinka Kopec, whose persistence and strict supervision was what he needed to kill his darlings and ultimately truly progress. “I was a wild boy from Israel, a little cocky and convinced, things would continue to come so easy to me,” he smiles. After working hard for a few years, things turned around.”I developed a real work ethic, which in turn allowed me the freedom, to fully appreciate the inspirational side. Having such personal access and the privilege to hearing Zukermann play up close, is a revelation. His incredible sound, striking for a string instrument and his analytical thoughts are so fascinating. I always thought you can’t teach sound, but Zukermann always says:”Sound is your bank account, without it you make no money.” He is able to teach the abc’s of getting good sound, how to control your bow arm, how to hold the instrument properly and adjust the bow arm according to your shape and size of your hand. Even sound comes from the right distribution of the weight of your fingers and your arm. There is a method to the madness, although, having said that, there is always the individual way of what works for you. Many great musicians had quite unconventional ways of applying their own technique and still did fantastic, just think of Heifetz, whose bowing goes probably against everything we know, still succeeding with such fantastic results,” he says. “Zukerman believes in the “natural” way of playing, in order to avoid injuries. That means without straining or forcing, in any way. That means you have to build up your capacity constantly, since wanting to express something, without having the technical means, tenses you up immediately.  It’s something that requires a lot of guidance, and he provided that en galore. Not every great player can teach from his own experiences, but he certainly gives you an all around approach to playing violin and its many different sound roles, when playing in a small or large environment, with or without an orchestral context, understanding its surrounding sound instead of just focusing on its melodic line.  So many years of experience, performing with such ease…Zukerman’s example makes it quite clear that making music is not only a profession but a very particular way of life,” says Mathatias.
In February of 2015, Mathatias will perform his debut recital at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall with Manhattan School of Music alumni, pianist Dominic Cheli. He will then take his program of Brahms/Strauss/Saint-Saens to Europe, performing at the Berlin Philharmonic with pianist Victor Stanislavsky, view excerpts here.
For an early-bird preview of his program, visit GetClassical’s series at Zinc Bar, where he will perform with pianist Dominic Cheli on November 6, 2014.
For more information about the artist and his upcoming performance at Zinc Bar visit GetClassical’s website.