portland piano international

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

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

by JANA HANCHETT

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.

Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

 

Vladimir Feltsman. Photo by Jim Leisy.

Vladimir Feltsman. Photo by Jim Leisy.

by JANA HANCHETT

“There is a certain situation in the life of every human that is beyond his or her control,” Russian pianist Vladimir Feltsman told Oregon ArtsWatch. “That was my case for eight years.”

Born in Moscow in 1952, Feltsman applied for an exit visa in 1979, and the Soviet Union responded by labeling him a “refusenik.” His music suddenly disappeared from the public eye. The government banned his public performances and recordings from Soviet radio stations and stores. After a performance at the U.S. ambassador’s house, his car tires were slashed. He arrived at another house performance to find the piano strings cut and bent.

In 1987, U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz appealed to the Russian government on Feltsman’s behalf, and finally Feltsman was allowed to leave his country and come live in the United States. “I survived because I knew that finally I would be let out of there, and I had to be ready,” Feltsman said. “I worked very hard for eight years; it was a blessing in disguise because I had plenty of time to learn new music, to read books, to develop. Those eight years were an important though difficult time, and I would not trade them for anything.”

Now an American citizen, Feltsman teaches at the State University of New York, New Paltz, and is a member of the piano faculty at the Mannes College of Music in New York City. He is also the founder and artistic director of the International Festival-Institute PianoSummer at New Paltz. Perhaps because of his eight years of artistic isolation, Feltsman is not a pianist who gives easy answers or panders to other’s needs for inspiration and affirmation. His musical convictions are not displayed in excitable acrobatics but are laser-beamed at the points where his fingertips touch the keys.

“Watch all of the great pianists,” he advised 15-year old Jim Yang at Portland Piano International’s Up Close with the Masters last week, “and you will see that they are centered and still. No movement above the keys makes a sound. It is here,” indicating his fingertips on the keys. Certainly Portlanders left his Sunday and Monday PPI concerts at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall feeling inspired and better engaged with the “universal mind” to which Feltsman often refers.

“Play what you hear,” Feltsman told 23-year old Natalie Burton at this same master class, “and others will hear it, too.” In the moment he was referring to the many counterpoint lines in J.S. Bach’s E-flat Major Prelude and Fugue, BWV 876, but this philosophy also explains why listening to Feltsman perform two of Bach’s partitas on Sunday afternoon felt like stepping behind life’s curtain to discover, with joyful relief, a simple, sturdy framework inlaid with infinitely fascinating detail.

Feltsman coaches Natalie Burton at Portland Piano International master class. Photo: Andie Petkus.

Feltsman coaches Natalie Burton at Portland Piano International master class. Photo: Andie Petkus.

“Bach is one of the very few people in Western culture alongside Dante, Shakespeare, and maybe Joyce who participated in the universal mind and spirit,” Feltsman explained. “This universal mind is what makes our life worth living and is the source of everything. Bach made himself available for a certain work, which we all have to do in our life, and he created conditions for himself so that whatever came through him he was capable of receiving and articulating through his music. Bach’s music sustained me and nurtured me for most of my life, and I’m simply very grateful that it exists. I can’t imagine music or my life without it.”

Feltsman’s reverence for Bach, whose music he has often performed and recorded, was apparent in his discussion on editions and performance practice towards the end of the master class. Feltsman insisted that any edition of Bach’s music with dynamic and articulation markings should be “burned at the stake” as Bach’s original manuscripts show just the notes. (See for yourself!)  “There is only one edition of Bach: his own,” Feltsman declared. “So you must use your common sense, and then playing his pieces becomes quite easy.” The room full of piano teachers and students laughed with Feltsman, knowing that our common sense is often quite convoluted.

Feltsman’s own sense is anything but common, and his original ornamentation presented fresh and innovative perspectives on Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825 and Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826. An audience member asked his companion at intermission, “Is he listening to the instrument or to the music?” The listener recognized Feltsman’s decision to avoid stark dynamic contrasts and to rely instead on texture and timbre variations to highlight counterpoint lines. Because the action and colors on a piano can vary widely across the span of its 88 keys, achieving these subtle but vital differences requires absolute concentration on the individual instrument’s sound production. Fortunately for listener and performer, the Steinway piano in Lincoln Hall is fabulous and gave Feltsman the freedom to focus more on the power of his sound.

Feltsman revealed his powerful pianistic range in his Sunday performance of one of the most radical pieces of the 20th century,  Alexander Scriabin’s Toward the Flame.  I have never been able to follow so many melodic lines in this piece as I did in Feltsman’s performance. His voicing of the mystic chord (see this University of Oregon master student’s article for a great explanation), particularly his focus on inner dissonant characters, wormed its way into the ear and exploded into the bright trumpeting tritones at the end.

“The power of one’s sound has nothing do with how hard you hit the keys,” explained Feltsman the following morning. “This is a common misconception. Sound is primarily created by the velocity, the speed with which you approach and leave the key.”

In contrast to Feltsman’s flame-throwing fingers in the Scriabin, his performance of the second movement of Haydn’s Sonata in A-flat Major, Hob. XVI:46 on Monday night was the essence of tenderness. Feltsman played the simple melody with so much rubato that one might have protested, except that it sounded perfect, especially in contrast with the more rigid textures of Bach still ringing in the ear from the night before. Feltsman’s rubato derives from the fingertips and not from ridiculous shoulder rolls or orgasmic facial expressions. Through generous timing, he emphasized the notes in the melody he deemed most pleasant in the moment and used the silence between notes to highlight surprising harmonies or flirtatious ornaments.

While centered and still as a performer, Feltsman displayed a welcoming stage presence. Everyone spoke delightedly of the kiss he blew the audience after his encore of Franz Liszt’s third Dream of Love (Liebesträum) on Sunday evening before he ended the concert with the brief but prayerful first Album Leaf  from Robert Schumann’s collection, Colored Leaves. And it was with deep appreciation that audience members noted how utterly spent he appeared at the end of both Sunday and Monday night: sweat glistening on forehead, tired arms dropped at his side, and a deliberate, slow walk that clearly expressed a need for a recliner and drink.

Here’s a video of another piece I did not stop smiling through as Feltsman performed it, Schumann’s Carnival.

There’s so much more to discuss! Were you at the master class or concerts? What struck you about Feltsman’s teaching and performance? Please leave comments below.

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

Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to find out about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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