portland piano international

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.

by JEFF WINSLOW

“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.

Sulkhanishvili

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.

by JEFF WINSLOW

“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.

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Benjamin Grosvenor interview/review: Pianist’s poetic intensity

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

by JANA GRIFFIN

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.

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Portland Piano International preview: Denis Kozhukhin

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

by JANA GRIFFIN

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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Chamber Blast ready for takeoff

14 days, 14 concerts, two earfuls of great music

By JANA HANCHETT

Portland’s first ever Chamber Blast rockets off this month, catapulting the city out of its post-holiday doldrums. Kicked up by an impressive roster of chamber musicians, this whirlwind of musical energy seemed to surprise even the five Portland organizations involved in the scheduling. “Five of us – Chamber Music NW, Friends of Chamber Music, Portland Piano International, Third Angle New Music Ensemble and Portland Youth Philharmonic – realized we were offering 14 different chamber concerts over 14 days in January,” said Chamber Music Northwest’s executive director Peter Bilotta to ArtsWatch. “Compete or collaborate? It’s much more fun to get together and celebrate this fantastic music together – and we hope audiences will enjoy it as well. Our wonderful Oregon Community Foundation provided us a little help, and we were off and running!”

Friends of Chamber Music open Chamber Blast with a return of the Takács Quartet, the only string quartet to be inducted into Gramophone’s Hall of Fame. Other highlights to the Chamber Blast include Third Angle’s presentation of Vedanā, Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen’s horn trio commissioned by Third Angle in 2011. The Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Camerata Ensemble, made up of advanced music students performing more challenging repertoire with an eye towards modernity, will present 20th-century Romanian composer George Enescu’s Octet for strings.

Chamber Music Northwest teams with North Portland’s gastropub staple The Old Gold to pair whiskey tastings with a concert benefitting The Protégé Project, CMNW’s initiative to bring the best young musicians to Portland. And because everyone understands that a piano is a small orchestra unto itself, Portland Piano International’s solo pianists are included on the Chamber Blast schedule. PPI gets an additional gold star for presenting the only free concert during Chamber Blast: Rachel Kudo, the first pianist presented in PPI’s Rising Star Series, performs Saturday, January 31.

A quick guide to all the Chamber Blast events infusing this first month of 2015 with musical vitality:

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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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