portland piano international

Lise de la Salle: Joining Hands

 Portland Piano International recitalist bridges musical territories


European culture and history loom large in classical piano music, where one can still find traces of the historical rivalry between Germany and France. Thus it’s notable that young but already masterly French pianist Lise de la Salle chose a program for her Portland debut that was evenly split between quintessentially German composers – Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms – and quintessentially French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Reflecting the current era of European union, she proved insightful and adept at both subcultures. The program, performed a week before Halloween at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, may have been symbolic also: Portland Piano International artistic director Arnaldo Cohen mentioned during his introduction that de la Salle had married just ten days earlier.

Lise de la Salle performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Rich Brase.

Lise de la Salle performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Rich Brase.

The Beethoven sonata she chose, the third of his earliest published set (Op. 2), may not be one of his famously thunderous works. But there’s plenty warning of what he’d unleash on the world once he got free of Joseph Haydn’s well-intentioned but somewhat irksome tutelage. Harmonic feints abound, and de la Salle had a way of making them new, so that I nearly burst out laughing here and there. No doubt her timing was exquisite.

And there is thunder even here. The sonata begins elegantly, if a bit nervously, but soon fanfares in octaves burst out. Even that isn’t enough for Beethoven. After the traditionally calmer contrasting theme, he brings the fanfares back for an even more exuberant go. Then he crashes to what sounds like a big finish, but the movement isn’t even half over yet!

De la Salle’s performance though, energetic as it was, never lost sight of the fact that Beethoven in these years was far from the wild, unkempt figure of legend, but rather was always well-groomed and, when performing in public or in private salons, impeccably dressed. No matter how many notes went rushing by, they were always perfectly clear. The lyrical slow movement was even a little dry for my taste, a creation of the fading 18th century rather than the passionate 19th century to come. But the impish scherzo, with its trio ranging athletically over the keyboard, stirred things up again, and the finale fizzed and bubbled as if uncorked from a celebratory champagne bottle.

A much darker, 20th century thunder erupted from time to time in Ravel’s evocative and masterly “Gaspard from the Night.” De la Salle was apparently having an off day, as slips in easy passages were followed by note-perfect renditions of the hardest ones, but she clearly knew the work’s intricate and sometimes frightening (both to hear and to play) territory well. In “The Gibbet,” no doubt inspired by the same Aloysius Bertrand text that inspired the composer, she seemed to be trying to evoke the sound of a distant bell on the wind, as the ever-present tolling octave came out louder, then softer, then louder again in an irregular pattern. This time it misfired somewhat, and the overall effect was mostly labored. However, that maniacal devil “Scarbo” taunted and snarled with brilliant finesse, and “Ondine,” after ravishing displays of her misty beauty and one desolate yet surprisingly insistent passage, relinquished her quest in the most perfectly executed fade-out I’ve ever heard in nearly 50 years of hearkening to that seductive sprite.


Portland Piano International: Locavore’s delight

New recital series that commissions new Oregon music and pairs local composers with rising star performers gets off to a strong start


The Portland metro area’s presenters of traditional classical music are slowly starting to notice the locavores in their audiences. So far, mostly the new are trying out the new – it’s been some years since the venerable Oregon Symphony programmed a work by an Oregon or Washington composer, but the younger Portland Columbia Symphony, Portland Chamber Orchestra (in May) and especially the Beaverton Symphony are all programming music by local composers this season, and the Vancouver Symphony did last season. Even presenters who don’t directly control their repertory are finding ways to get a piece of the action. Friends of Chamber Music invited the Martinu Quartet, who have Tomas Svoboda‘s 12 string quartets in their repertory, to give concerts last spring that included three of of them. Now Portland Piano International has upped the ante, not just (like the others named above) performing one or two Oregon-born compositions in an entire season, but helping create more Oregon music by commissioning six Oregon composers to write new solo piano works, with six more to follow next season. PPI has even paired each composer with a brilliant young pianist from its Rising Stars project for the premiere performances.

Pianist Justin Bartlett.

Pianist Justin Bartlett.

If the inaugural concerts are any indication, PPI has done itself and the region proud. Pianist Justin Bartlett gave four free, hour-long concerts of works by J. S. Bach, Dmitri Shostakovich, Karol Szymanowski, Toru Takemitsu, and Portland composer and Lewis & Clark College professor Michael Johanson, the first of the six Oregonians to be heard this season. Only two of the venues were in Portland; one was in Beaverton and another, unusually and commendably, in Bend. I caught the third concert, on October 4 at Portland Piano Company. It was not quite a full house, but the spectacular summery Sunday afternoon weather outside made formidable competition.

Justin Bartlett led off Portland Piano International's new Rising Star series.

Justin Bartlett led off Portland Piano International’s new Rising Star series. Photo: Dan Wasil.

Bartlett was all that could be desired, and more. We were drawn in by his fluent and engaging remarks introducing each work, and all works were given sensitive, technically expert, and individualistic treatment which brought out the composers’ musical personalities. Bach’s G major French Suite, BWV 816, sang and sparkled by turns, with a highly varied, well-judged use of the pedal. In his remarks, Bartlett made much of the role of his improvised ornamentation, but to me that was distinctive only in the lyrical Sarabande, where his understated yet yearning interpolations gave the formidable old German master an unusually tender face. Szymanowski’s Tantris the Fool – which as Bartlett explained, was inspired by a satirical story in which the famous lover Tristan schemes to tryst with his Isolda by disguising himself so well that not only dogs and guards but even Isolda herself fails to recognize him – was biting but also clear and direct. The final Prelude and Fugue of Shostakovich’s op. 87 set of 24 was appropriately grave, monumental, but also infused with a warmth that made an inspiring finale. If there was any fault to be found, it was that Bartlett’s interpretations were probably not quite as distinctive as he thought, and would gain even more depth from further exploration of the uniqueness of each work.

Composer Michael Johanson.

Composer Michael Johanson.

The star of the show was the pairing of Johanson’s new composition, Eternal Gardens, and the Takemitsu work that in some ways inspired it. The 20th century Japanese composer’s Rain Tree Sketch II was composed in memory of the great French 20th century composer Olivier Messiaen, who had just passed away, and Messiaen’s obvious influence makes it a fine homage. Johanson is also a great admirer of Messiaen’s music, and in fact, at the beginning of Eternal Gardens, I was slightly startled by its close resemblance to the soundworld of the Takemitsu. But it soon diverged and established its own, contrasting personality. Where Rain Tree Sketch was dark and restrained, Eternal Gardens was luminous and exuberant, almost like Takemitsu on hallucinogens. Before the performance, Johanson quoted him describing his music as “like a garden, and I am the gardener.” Johanson let loose a cloud of brilliantly colored butterflies in it.

Johanson and Bartlett confer before the recital. Photo: Dan Wasil.

Johanson and Bartlett confer before the recital. Photo: Dan Wasil.

One factor that no doubt contributed to the success of the premiere was that Bartlett committed it to memory along with the rest of the program. Memorization can seem an overwhelming challenge in new music, which is often virtuosic and full of unfamiliar patterns. But there’s no denying its power as a tool freeing the performer to directly impact the audience with the composer’s inspiration. Also, both the Takemitsu and Johanson are densely atmospheric works, with many complex harmonies fading away gradually before moving on. Bartlett in his remarks beforehand seemed concerned that his audience might grow restive, but he needn’t have worried; his pace and pedaling provided plenty of time for contemplation but never let us lose the way.

In the coming months, look for the premieres of PPI’s commissions to Depoe Bay composer Greg A Steinke, Eugene composer David Crumb, and Portland composers Jackie T. Gabel, Sarah Zipperer Gaskins, and Bryan Johanson (no relation to Michael). If they come off like this one did, they will show that often the best music is composed nearly in your own backyard.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers, as does Greg Steinke. Michael Johanson and Jack Gabel are also members.

News and Notes: A BCA shutdown, summer shows galore, grants

Business for Culture & the Arts closes up shop and lots of other items, three-dot style.

News and Notes has been in a bit of slumber, but we were awakened from our deep sleep by Business for Culture & the Arts, the nonprofit that links the arts with businesses. The group has announced that it’s going out of business June 30, though it will hold a special membership meeting currently slated for August 11. Declining memberships and staff transitions led the board to conduct some research with its members and stakeholders, and in late May, the board voted to start to shut things down.

BCA is looking for homes for its primary programs, including the Art of Leadership board training program, the Arts Breakfast of Champions, which recognizes successful business-arts partnerships, and Associates and Business Volunteers for the Arts. We’ll let you know what happens to these programs as soon as we know.

And now back to our usual News and Notes programming!

The Portland Piano International Summer Festival opens Thursday at Lewis & Clark with a busy schedule of lectures, workshops and performances, involving a great lineup of musicians. You’re going to have to visit the website to get the big picture…Post5 Theatre has announced its schedule for 2016 (which seem further away than it really is), and it involves a generous helping of Shakespeare or Bard-influenced plays—Lear, and all-female Othello, Richard III, The Complete Works [abridged] revised, along with a little Christopher Durang, Rashomon, and Jeff Whitty’s The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. We’ll get you linked up for the details once they are available on the website.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has received $25,000 from Arts Midwest’s Shakespeare in American Communities program. The money will support reduced or complimentary tickets for schools in Oregon and northern California to Much Ado about Nothing, Pericles, Antony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night the next two years, and also go to related classroom curricula and actor workshops, post-show discussions, tours, and teacher training classes. Since 1971, the festival’s School Visit Program has reached more than 2 million students, according to OSF…Coho Productions’ Summerfest is in full swing—this weekend’s show (June 18-21) is Deanna Fleysher’s Butt Kapinski, a sexy and gender-confused murder mystery, with a big dollop of comedy mixed into its Noir…Third Rail Repertory Theatre runs a mentorship program, and on Thursday those, um, mentees (?) will open the Off the Rails Festival, June 18-28, 7:30 pm Thursdays-Sundays at Action/Adventure Theater. The playbill includes three fully-staged productions of plays that are on the edgy side, and a reading of a new play by resident playwriting mentee, Alexandra Schaffer.

MJ Anderson, Eyrie, 2014, green onyx, 13 x 20 x 8"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

MJ Anderson, Eyrie, 2014, green onyx, 13 x 20 x 8″/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Sculptor MJ Anderson is giving an artist’s talk at Elizabeth Leach Gallery at 11 am Saturday, June 27. Anderson has sculpted stone for the past 30 years, and she’ll be talking about the process, including her shift in the current exhibition, Acqua Pietrificata, away from the female form to something more abstract and metaphorical, using rare stones, such as the green onyx above.

A-WOL takes its circus to the trees in Art in the Dark.

A-WOL takes its circus to the trees in Art in the Dark.

One of the best adaptations by an arts group to Oregon summer (and lots of successful one exist including Third Angle’s Porch Music and Bag & Baggage’s outdoor summer Shakespeare, Richard III this year) is A-WOL Dance Collective’s August Art in the Dark show in West Linn’s Mary S Young Park. This year’s performances are August 7-9 and 14-16, and they start at dark. The theme involves Old World circus acts—and since it’s an aerial company, they’ll be hanging and swinging from the trees…Richard Maxwell is the artistic director of the New York City Players, a band of theater experimentalists, and he’s going to be in town for a series of performances of his Showcase, a play in which “a businessman alone in his hotel room reflects on his day, and his life.” It plays 7, 8, and 9 pm Thursday, June 18-20, in the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower, 921 SW 6th Ave. It’s free, but you have to RSVP, because seating is tight in the actual hotel room where Maxwell will perform it. Yale Union is the sponsor—visit the site to RSVP.

Ani and Nia Sulkhanishvili: Lyric and elegant sister act

Sibling pianists team up for a well-behaved Portland Piano International recital.


“What makes more noise than a concert pianist?” “Two concert pianists!” Pretty silly, I know. Especially if applied to young twin pianists Ani and Nia Sulkhanishvili, who graced the stage of the Newmark Theatre in a recital last Sunday afternoon. In the season finale for Portland Piano International, they played as one pianist, whether on two pianos or as a duet on one. There were times when I did wish for more volume, but these are not the thunder and fireworks sisters; they are the lyric and elegant sisters.


So, no, Witold Lutoslawski’s World War II re-imagining of Paganini’s famous Variations did not careen dangerously towards the apocalyptic madness I was hoping to hear, nor did the festive finale of Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnole” seem to imbibe as much sangria as I would have liked.

Even what would seem to be irrepressibly joyous passages in Mozart’s duet Sonata, K. 521 barely ruffled the decorum. Indeed, this opening work was so well-behaved throughout, that I began to hunger for a broader emotional and even dynamic range, softer as well as louder. On the other hand, it was undeniably beautifully shaped and phrased, and precise without being at all metronomic. As a special treat, the primo (right-side pianist) interpolated a charming and completely appropriate cadenza of just the right length before the final reprise of the theme of the last movement. It earned a soft appreciative murmur from the audience.

Four numbers from Antonín Dvořák’s “Legends” breathed more freely, though not so freely as would have given Austro-Hungarian censors in 1881 anything to worry about from the many touches of Czech nationalism sprinkled throughout the work. The sisters also gave careful attention to the composer’s imaginative harmony and sonorities via pedaling. No matter how evenly a pair of pianists splits the duties on the keyboard, only one works the pedals. (Normally the secundo or left-side pianist, partly because the lowest tones naturally tend to sustain longest.) It requires something like telepathy by the pedaling pianist, not to mention a thorough understanding of the work, to do really well. I couldn’t say whether Ani or Nia was doing the honors (they must get tired of hearing that), but she coordinated perfectly with her sister.

Coordination weakened only slightly in Johannes Brahms’s roughly contemporaneous “Variations on a Theme of Haydn” even though the sisters decamped to separate pianos. Many pianists seem to believe this is the work of a stuffy, repressed throwback to the era of fops and periwigs, and present it more like a whirring, clicking automaton than the richly Romantic work it is. The sisters know better. They gave Brahms his full poetic due, with more wonderful attention to sonority, and much expressive modulation of tempo which again seemed coordinated by telepathy.

Felix Mendelssohn was a prolific composer, but he left only one piano duet work, known by its tempo indications “Andante and Allegro Brillante.” Maybe pianists of the time, when faced with the dizzying speed of its scales and other passage work (written with virtuoso Clara Schumann in mind), asked him not to write any more! The sisters pushed their boundaries a little; it was not always crystal clear as one expects from Mendelssohn, but it was undeniably brilliant.

Their fine sense of sonority again created many beauties in Maurice Ravel’s impressionistic Spanish rhapsody, even though it was hard to avoid calling to mind the lush and much more evocative orchestral version he completed just after the piano score. In many ways, however, the work on the program that suited the sisters’ talents best, besides the Brahms, was the unassuming “Imaginings no. 3” by multi-talented and multi-genre composer Chick Corea. The tricky, bouncy rhythms were delicate and precise, and an air of mystery and, yes, poetry wafted over it all. I trust that in future the Sulkhanishvili sisters will continue to grow their dramatic and dynamic range, but their mastery is already considerable, and made for a highly enjoyable afternoon.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist. He has no plans to go into stand-up comedy.

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Benjamin Grosvenor review: Playful brilliance

Portland Piano International recitalist indulges in serious play.


“Play the piano” is such a common phrase that concertgoers – and more to the point, pianists – often forget the joy and spontaneity that lives in the verb, or only experience its manipulative evil twin: “play the audience.” British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor has already achieved such mastery at age 22 that you know he spent thousands of hours practicing at an age when most kids play out in the sun, or these days in front of a video screen, instead. But all that work couldn’t knock the play out of him, as concertgoers were blessed to experience last Monday evening at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

Benjamin Grosvenor. Photo: York Tillyer

Benjamin Grosvenor. Photo: York Tillyer

We heard it almost from the very first notes of Frederic Chopin’s first Ballade, when he added atmosphere to the declamatory intro by subtly delaying the release of pitches that define its harmony. It continued when he added a kind of Viennese waltz swing to the triple meter of the otherwise pensive main melody. Later he apparently couldn’t resist adding resonance to a few dramatic moments by adding extra bass an octave below what Chopin wrote. This last move didn’t really work – Chopin was as mindful of counterpoint as harmony and he likely would have frowned, at the very least, at extra bass that doesn’t form part of a countermelody – but there was no denying Grosvenor’s intimate engagement with the work, which made it seem to leap off the stage.

This was all the more remarkable given that he rarely swelled to full volume. One of his most telling details was another subtle one. Whenever that pensive melody returns, it’s intensified almost to the point of dread by the soft return of the triple meter on a single insistent pitch in the bass. Grosvenor wisely dropped the Viennese touch at such moments, but beyond that, he dared us to look into the dark corner with a sinister staccato delivery.

Such things never got beyond play, unlike some young virtuosos who impose outlandish interpretations as if in a contest of wills with the composer. In that most playful of Ballades, the A-flat major, it wasn’t hard to imagine we were hearing Chopin himself at the piano. Detail after detail was lovingly brought out, yet without sacrificing overall narrative feeling, and without any ostentatious fireworks, which the composer abhorred. In contrasting F major sections, I wished for even more playful exploration of complex harmony via pedaling, as hinted at by the countermelody Grosvenor brought out in the last one, but that I even considered such a possibility testifies to his extraordinary control and delicacy.


Benjamin Grosvenor interview/review: Pianist’s poetic intensity

An interview with the British piano prodigy and review of his first Portland Piano International recital.


Editor’s note: Our crack team of ArtsWatch piano enthusiasts double-teamed 22-year-old piano prodigy Benjamin Grosvenor’s concerts for Portland Piano International last week at Portland State University. ArtsWatch’s Jana Griffin spoke to the rising British star, and her review of his Sunday recital follows their interview. ArtsWatch’s Jeff Winslow reviewed Grosvenor’s Monday recital for ArtsWatch, too.

 OAW: What makes a great pianist?

Benjamin Grosvenor: You get a sense that the great pianists have their own quality of sound. You can often tell it’s a particular pianist playing by listening to the rubato and the particular timing they use within passages. It’s tricky to describe, but for example, Jorge Bolet has this wonderfully burnished tone; it’s quite a thick sound at the piano, warm and rounded. but the way they choose the voicing and they also had a particular sound in their head when they came to the piano. You get a sense from some pianists that they have their own individual sound and this quality, along with timing and rubato, are issues that are incredibly personal and distinctive.


Portland Piano International preview: Denis Kozhukhin

Russian pianist goes to war with Prokofiev and plays Haydn's classical sonatas.


Denis Kozhukhin makes his debut in Portland Sunday and Monday, January 25-26, as part of Portland Piano International’s 2014-2015 season. He talked with ArtsWatch about how he searches for good sounds, how Prokofiev relates to Haydn, and how pianists enter into the struggle of Prokofiev’s war sonatas.

Denis Kozhukhin. Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell (c) 2012.

Denis Kozhukhin. Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell (c) 2012.

OAW: What are you reading? Who are your favorite visual artists? And where else do you draw inspiration from?

DK: Right now I’m reading Kafka’s works, and one of my favorite painters is Van Gogh because of his incredible expression and intensity. That’s what I appreciate when I go to the concert hall or listen to a recording: the intensity of music making, the intensity of the mind creating music. The mind is like a big pot where everything’s cooking, and the mind makes connections you yourself wouldn’t normally think about. Sometimes, years after, you see something or you talk to someone and one sentence, one phrase, one picture suddenly comes up.

In the world of music, symphony orchestra is probably my favorite. When I listen to music I listen to more chamber and orchestra music than piano music.

What is extremely helpful and what I love about being a pianist is being a chamber musician. Pianists have a tendency more so than other instrumentalists to do everything alone. We practice alone; we perform alone. It’s a very rich experience playing with others. For example, when I started working with singers, I discovered the physical feeling of how music breathes.


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