portland piano international


“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.


Portland Piano International preview: Madness, Mayhem and Mastery

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


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.


Portland Piano International review: A Visit to Planet Kamenz

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


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.


Igor Kamenz: Playing the Indescribable

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


“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.


Garrick Ohlsson performed at Newmark Theatre.

Garrick Ohlsson performed at Newmark Theatre.


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.


Daniil Trifonov.

Daniil Trifonov


“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.


Vadym Kholodenko performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Jim Leisy.

Vadym Kholodenko performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Jim Leisy.


Last year’s Van Cliburn competition gold medalist, Vadym Kholodenko, represents much more for today’s piano lovers than just a prize racehorse who just won the pianistic equivalent of the Kentucky Derby. For example, not many internationally renowned solo pianists focus on four-hand repertoire, but the young Ukrainian’s recordings as iDuo with fellow pianist Andrey Gugnin are exquisite. In addition, and highly refreshing, Kholodenko is a promoter of new works, and most notably performs music written by his friend, Alexy Kurbatov.

Kholodenko’s own fresh 27 years help him connect to more current sounds; he famously stated that he would drop everything if Radiohead asked him to perform with them on one of their concerts.

“Concert managers need to create series where a percentage of repertoire performed is new works,” Kholodenko says. We know that closed systems die; we need fresh blood.”

Yet despite his youth and interest in contemporary works, no 21st century music appeared on his Portland Piano International concerts last Sunday and Monday evening at Lincoln Hall. “Many of my [musician] friends are doing a lot of interesting things,” Kholodenko told ArtsWatch. “But for me, this traditional repertoire is what I love, and I do what I love. Right now I am emotionally very much in the world of Rachmaninov. Perhaps that is not where I will be in five years, but this is where I am now. Each piece I play feels like another world. It takes time to hear everything and each time you revisit a piece, you discover something new.”

New PPI artistic director Arnaldo Cohen has said that he is pushing PPI artists to take advantage of the two-recital format and be more daring with their programming choices; the fact that this hasn’t happened is concerning to me as a representative of the younger audience. Case in point: according to the original 2013-2014 PPI brochure, the next PPI artist Daniil Trifonov was scheduled to perform Arnold Schoenberg’s exquisite Three Pieces, Op. 11, but now on the PPI website it shows that Trifonov is playing  Chopin preludes (not again!). A series like that suggested by Kholodenko is necessary if PPI hopes to achieve contemporary relevance.

As PPI’s double-concert format encourages, Kholodenko did present two less familiar pieces, albeit still well within the boundaries of standard repertoire. Sunday’s concert opened with Rachmaninov’s monstrous Sonata no. 1 in D minor, op. 28. “Rachmaninov, for me, is the number one pianist because of his passion and nobility of sound,” he says. “Like Heifetz and Rubinstein, Rachmaninov represents the old school of musicians, and I am drawn to this sound. Today, music is at the fingertips. Anyone can print off the music and produce a factory version of the piece. But the old school possessed absolute precision of sound combined with a deep understanding of the music.”

Kholodenko certainly possesses this nobility of sound and Kholodenko’s fingers pull the listener into ever-changing landscapes. Rachmaninov’s first piano sonata is a sprawling work pushing 40 minutes, its long, drawn-out themes fragmented by frequent modulations and vicious runs. This 1907 sonata seemed to stretch the audience’s capacity for attention and less sophisticated listeners most likely would have clapped at awkward moments. But Kholodenko’s pianism coupled with PPI’s keen audience created a rewarding atmosphere. His commitment to the sonata’s harmonic rhythm imparted to listeners an obsessive compulsion to keep climbing the next hill for a clearer view. For example, the start of the first movement races through one hair-raising modulation after another. Like a kayaker taking tumble after tumble, unable to find a way out of the rapids, Kholodenko pushed through the phrases, allowing the jagged accents to jar the sense of line and tunnel it further downward until resting for almost 30 (!) measures before returning to the white water.

Given his love of chamber music and his love of Rachmaninov, it makes sense that Kholodenko would perform a set of Rachmaninov’s transcriptions. “It is not for me to say if Bach, Schubert, or Mendelssohn would approve of these transcriptions,” he explains. “What I will say is that Bach’s music can be played on any instrument and still capture the essence of the composition, because Bach wrote for music itself.” While all of the transcriptions were performed with the delight of a wide-eyed child showing everyone his most precious treasures, Tchaikovsky’s “Lullaby” from Six Romances was the most breath-taking — literally, as the audience didn’t dare wiggle even a toe until Kholodenko turned to “Polka de V.R.”

Returning to Bach, Kholodenko’s most refined moment happened in his second encore on Sunday evening when he performed J.S. Bach’s Prelude in E minor BWV 855a arranged by Alexander Siloti in B minor. Kholodenko made this centuries-old piece sound surprisingly new. People leaving looked at each other asking, “Was that really Bach?” Like mallets gently hitting the keyboard, Kholodenko’s fingers played evenly with very little rubato. Like the feeling one gets when sitting alone at dusk in a southwest desert, each sound layer was carefully contained within its own dynamic range creating a sense of vast space inhabited by a single person. This minimalistic approach felt modern, not dusty and sung from afar or over-perfumed and shoved in your face.

For his second lesser-known repertoire choice, Kholodenko began Monday night’s concert with Nikolai Medtner’s Forgotten Melodies (Vergessene Weisen), op. 38. For most of us, these “forgotten” works from the 1920s and ’30s might as well mean “never heard.” The set features bits of ragtime, chromatic pointillism, sultry jazz harmonies, and complicated meter changes that feel somehow folksy and natural. Kholodenko’s fingers were like many drumsticks, brushes, and mallets. Deftly firm, his level wrist and high-finger approach lent a solid rhythmic undercurrent to his overall performance. Two ladies behind me practically swooned over his fourth and fifth fingers. Like a percussionist who can be both delicate and bombastic, Kholodenko changed articulations instantly, like in the seventh melody’s dance for the forest, “Danza silvestra,” which changes meters constantly and switches from light, staccato fairy flitting to troll-like jigging.

To ask which takes precedence, melody or rhythm, raises the whole chicken vs. egg conundrum; ultimately, Kholodenko’s sense of time structured his sound. In the sixth melody “Canzona serenata,” it would be easy to focus on the left hand’s triplet harmonic figure as the organizing gesture. Kholodenko didn’t give the audience even a rhythmic reason to hear these boring triplets, playing them almost pianissimo as his right hand swung the duple melody up and away into a million bells of driving clarity. In contrast, the eighth melody “Alla Reminiscenza” features a nostalgic quasi-waltz rhythm in the left hand which is off-kilter to the right hand melody; Kholodenko was calmly insistent with this idiomatic pattern, bringing awareness to the tension that memories often give to even the most freeing thoughts.

As Cohen stated in introducing Monday night’s concert, “I will not say more because it’s needless to say anything.” Just listen:

Were you at either of Vadym Kholodenko’s PPI performances? How did his performance appeal to you as a listener in the 21st century? If you heard him perform Rachmaninoff’s first piano sonata, what was your reaction?

Jana Hanchett is a pianist, teacher, and writer living in Portland.

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