portland piano international

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein: Unconventionally classical

The New York pianist, in town for a Portland Piano International concert, found her own way to stardom

By JANA HANCHETT

In 2005 Simone Dinnerstein was a young mom living with her husband and son in her hometown of Brooklyn, working as a freelance musician and raising funds to record her own CD. Perhaps that seems a bit anticlimactic for a pianist who graduated from New York’s prestigious Juilliard School and studied with the likes of Peter Serkin and the famous pedagogue Maria Curcio.

The music she recorded happened to be her richly personal interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which no pianist had ever played so slowly and expressively while retaining the clarity, fluidity, bubbliness of Bach.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewDinnerstein also savvily used her connections to garner interviews and radio play. When released by Telarc in 2007, the album shot to No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Classical Chart in its first week of sales, famously out-sold the White Stripes on amazon.com, and was named to many “Best of 2007″ lists including those of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker.

Simone Dinnerstein performs Sunday and Monday at Portland State University. Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco.

Simone Dinnerstein performs Sunday and Monday at Portland State University. Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco.

Four successful solo albums (on the Sony label) later, Dinnerstein collaborated in spring of 2013 with singer-songwriter Tift Merritt to create a nationally acclaimed album that blends folk and classical idioms, combining composers like Schubert with folk-artists like Patty Griffin. Dinnerstein’s last album, released January 2014, presents all of Bach’s inventions and sinfonias, while her next disk, with conductor Kristjan Järvi leading the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, takes her into different territory: Maurice Ravel’s dazzling G major Piano Concerto, Gerwshin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and a new concerto written for her by Philip Lasser.

While Dinnerstein has performed internationally with major orchestras and in celebrated concert halls, she has stated that performing at Maryland’s Correctional Institute for Women was one of her most inspiring performance experiences. Now her self-initiated Bach-packing project brings classical music to classrooms around the country with the help of Yamaha’s electric keyboards.

On December 14 and 15, Portland Piano International presents Simone Dinnerstein in two different concerts. Both feature Bach, but on the more exciting program December 15, Dinnerstein will perform two contemporary works by American composers: “You Can’t Get There from Here,” written for her by Nico Muhly and based on fragments from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and George Crumb’s mystical “A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979,” inspired by Giotto di Bondone’s Nativity frescoes painted in the late 13th-century in Padua, Italy.

Dinnerstein talked with ArtsWatch about the courage it takes to pursue one’s path, the lost art of listening, and the thrill of playing contemporary music.

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by JANA HANCHETT

“You have to put passion on a plate, and then everyone wants to have a share,” stated Yugoslav-born pianist Tamara Stefanovich, who performed the freshest piano concert yet presented by Portland Piano International under Arnaldo Cohen’s artistic direction. Portland’s piano lovers devoured the healthy portions of 20th century composers Olivier Messiaen and Gyorgy Ligeti that Stefanovich dished out Monday night.

Stefanovich proved a savvy musical chef, pairing Messiaen with late Franz Liszt on the first half of Monday’s concert and Sergei Rachmaninov with Ligeti on the second half. “There is a lot of work to be done [in promoting new music]. That is why I try not to dogmatically stress only new music, but I try to mix the past with the present,” explained Stefanovich. “I try to take the audience with me by saying, ‘Let’s see! Can we mix someone who is so backwards thinking like Rachmaninov with someone who is so forward thinking like Ligeti? Let’s put them in the same space and see what happens.’”

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Thomas Brill.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Thomas Brill.

The audience readily accepted this invitation for experimentation; usually a healthy 10 percent of the audience will at some point close a sleepy eye, especially on Monday evening. But no sleepy eyes this night. As Stefanovich used one hand to turn the page (Hooray! Another pianist who uses music on stage!) from Messiaen into Liszt and Rachmaninov into Ligeti, and the other hand to sustain the last chord into the beginning of the next, the audience’s energy and curiosity perceptibly heightened: how was this going to work? Pianists often pair Bach with Schoenberg to show off the analytical, highly structured beauty of these disparate composers. But Messiaen and Liszt? Ligeti and Rachmaninov? How would they ever get along? Living up to her role as a new mother, Stefanovich used these chords to say, “Now let’s shake hands.” Messiaen and Liszt exchanged thoughts on spirituality, despair, and triumph while Ligeti and Rachmaninov shared their love of pure virtuosity and pianistic poetry.

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Portland Piano International preview: Madness, Mayhem and Mastery

Tamara Stefanovich plays some of György Ligeti's "impossible" Études.

by CLAIRE SYKES

Nazi-occupied Hungary, an army labor camp, family in Auschwitz, Soviet occupation. Escape by train, hiding beneath piles of mailbags. Then, under fiery skies lit by Russian rockets, fleeing on foot for ten kilometers—finally to safety.

Once you know even this much of György Ligeti’s life, how can you not hear it in his music? And if you think you haven’t ever come across anything by him, go watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again and note the part when the “moonbus” heads off to see the mysterious monolith. You’ll be listening to an excerpt from Ligeti’s choral piece, Lux Aeterna (1966), one of four of his pieces in the film (used without his permission, but that’s another story). Read more about Ligeti’s life in the bonus sidebar below.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

His music doesn’t belong to any particular style. It spans such varied works as that choral piece, another one for 100 metronomes called Poème symphonique (1962), orchestra works, string quartets, and a two-act opera Le Grand Macabre (1974–77). For the Hungarian-born composer, who died at age 83 in 2006, his ordeals amid political regimes, musical bans, war and exile all live in the complexity, chaos and contradiction that shape many of his compositions—especially the Études pour piano (Studies for piano, 1985–2001).

Thanks to Portland Piano International, we’ll get to listen to seven of the études from the hands of Yugoslav-born Tamara Stefanovich on Monday, October 20th at 7:30 p.m. in Lincoln Hall at Portland State University. She’s one of many pianists around the world who perform the Études, and there are at least nine different recordings of them — both rare for contemporary classical piano works composed in the past few decades. Stefanovich will start the recital with Olivier Messiaen’s Curlew (Le Courlis cendré), “Fire Island” 1 and 2 from Four Rhythm Studies, and Franz Liszt’s Variations on Bach’s Weeping, Lamenting, Worrying, Fearing (Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen). In between each Ligeti étude, she’ll play an “Étude-tableau” by Rachmaninov. While we all sit quietly in our seats, pandemonium is going to hit that piano once the Ligeti leaps off its strings. But don’t worry, Stefanovich will have it all under control.

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Portland Piano International review: A Visit to Planet Kamenz

Russian pianist's performance proves well-grounded, though not earthbound.

by JEFF WINSLOW

I laughed as I read pianist Igor Kamenz’s advance publicity – “extraterrestrial musicality,” said the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Surely a looming deadline or sloppy translation was involved. If I hadn’t been obliquely reminded by Portland Piano International director Arnaldo Cohen’s introduction to Kamenz’s recital last Sunday afternoon at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, I might have forgotten all about it. Kamenz began with three transcriptions from the harpsichord works of French Baroque composer François Couperin, and he played from the score rather than memory, but otherwise nothing unusual seemed to be going on. He was scrupulous about inner voices and pedaling, bringing out intricate details clearly, and he elegantly shaped each piece with flexible tempos and subtle pauses. That’s consummate musicianship, but there’s nothing Martian about it. One thing that did seem odd was the slowness of his trills in the first two works, especially when he removed any lingering doubts about his technique by ripping out any number of fast ones in the third.

Igor Kamenz performed  at Portland Piano International.

Igor Kamenz performed at Portland Piano International.

Robert Schumann’s last completed work, “Spirit Variations” – so named because the composer, his mind in a downward spiral from tertiary syphilis, dreamed the theme was given to him by the departed spirits of Schubert and Mendelssohn – is another unusual choice for a virtuoso. The theme is indeed lovely, and Schumann decorated it sublimely, but there’s not much else to it. It seems to come from a simpler time, before Beethoven and Brahms turned the variation form into something questing and dramatic. Kamenz nonetheless strove to get what drama he could out of it. Again, inner voices beautifully supported the musical argument. Tempo contrasts between later variations kept interest up. In the last variation though, he pushed the harmonic accompaniment to the foreground, nearly drowning the melody. Schumann may have tried to drown himself a few days before he wrote it, but that’s mere concept; the accompaniment was not interesting enough on its own to sustain musical interest and the overall effect was merely peculiar.

Such experiments were banished from the next work, Australian-born virtuoso and composer Percy Grainger’s homage to Richard Strauss “Ramble on Love (from Der Rosenkavalier).” There were decorations aplenty, including a generous helping of Strauss’s own otherworldly celesta riff orbiting around the home key. It would be all too easy to obscure the theme, from the love duet of his 1911 opera, in a haze of pianistic stardust. But Kamenz, using what seemed to be infinitesimal gradations of volume, gave each filigree its due and yet highlighted the theme at all times. The crowd, which seemed a bit bemused by the earlier works, gave him a big hand in recognition. But we hadn’t heard anything yet.

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Igor Kamenz: Playing the Indescribable

A preview of the Russian-born pianist's concert for Portland Piano International

By JANA HANCHETT

“I choose repertoire that fits my nature,” says pianist Igor Kamenz, who’s performing a pair of recitals in Portland this weekend. “The first concert is more atmospheric while the second concert is more virtuosic.”

The Russian-born pianist’s split musical personality explains why he’s opening Portland Piano International’s 2014-15 season with two back-to-back solo recitals featuring completely different programs. Sunday night’s concert begins with selections from French Baroque composer Francois Couperin’s collection Keyboard Pieces (Pieces de Clavecin) and builds to Igor Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka and Russian Romantic composer Mily Balakirev’s Islamey. Also, by including Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess), this concert will submerge listeners into the extravagant and lonely sounds composed during the tumultuous fin de siècle period.

In Monday’s concert, Kamenz will perform ten of the eighteen Domenico Scarlatti sonatas on his latest recording, just released on the respected French Naive label, which has already been awarded album of the week honors by WQXR, New York´s classical station. Thoughtfully arranged into a musical story, Kamenz’s Scarlatti album connects each musical moment to the next in virtuosic unity. Scarlatti lived in Madrid, isolated from the dominant European musical world during the early 1700s.  His 555 keyboard sonatas are spicy on piano textures and unexpected harmonic turns. Kamenz never gets lost, but places each phrase in perfect support of the one before and after, irresistibly pulling the listener through Scarlatti’s rich, kaleidoscopic layers of harmony.

Igor Kamenz performs at Portland Piano International. Photo: Matt Hennek.

Igor Kamenz performs at Portland Piano International. Photo: Matt Hennek.

Born near the Chinese border in Russia, Kamenz managed to escape from the USSR to Germany in 1978. While he has has won top prizes in eighteen international competitions, this will be his debut in Portland, right on the heels of his New York debut at Lincoln Center for the Mostly Mozart Festival just a month ago.

Kamenz, who now lives in Freiburg, talked with OAW about his surprising discoveries in Scarlatti, his method of learning pieces, and his favorite music to listen to.

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Garrick Ohlsson performed at Newmark Theatre.

Garrick Ohlsson performed at Newmark Theatre.

by JEFF WINSLOW

Isn’t Classic all about balance, restraint, discipline, and precision? Isn’t Romantic all about eccentricity, abandon, emotion, and drama? How can one possibly show how the other is done?

In the final recital of this year’s Portland Piano International season, at Portland’s Newmark Theatre, Garrick Ohlsson showed us how it’s done in a program of quintessentially Romantic works – a selection of Charles Griffes tone paintings, two Alexander Scriabin sonatas, and Frederic Chopin’s third and last sonata.

True enough, those who crave eccentricity and abandon most of all were bound to be left somewhat hungry by Ohlsson’s straightforward and controlled approach. But that control, and the reassuring precision that went with it, was generously leavened by a fine sense of expression and overall shape that opened a window to the music’s emotional life-breath. His Classic approach created a certain perspective: that elusive and delightful illusion of the composer speaking for himself.

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Daniil Trifonov.

Daniil Trifonov

by JANA HANCHETT

“Every performance should be an exploration and should have spontaneity,” Daniil Trifonov told Oregon ArtsWatch about his demonically explosive March 8 piano recital  at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. In the penultimate entry in Portland Piano International’s 2013-2014 season, the prizewinning 23-year-old Russian turned listeners’ grumblings at yet another evening of Frederic Chopin’s 24 preludes, op. 28 into a hollering standing ovation, showcasing two of the elements in his extraordinary musicianship: exploratory transitions from one prelude to the next and spontaneous body language.

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