portland piano international

Nelson Goerner review: He has the technology

Portland Piano International recitalist is master of extremes in music by Beethoven, Schumann and Handel

by JEFF WINSLOW

During the 1817 Christmas season, English piano manufacturer John Broadwood & Sons, as much a technology innovator in those days as Apple or Google is in ours, sent Ludwig van Beethoven one of their top-of-the-line pianos as a gift, complete with a laudatory engraved inscription in Latin.

As luck would have it, Beethoven was working on the big piano sonata that would eventually be published as his op. 106. Although it’s unclear, due to his advancing deafness, how much he could directly appreciate the piano’s features, he praised it enthusiastically to his friends and associates. Finally, he had an instrument that he felt measured up to the range of his genius.  It can hardly be coincidence that the sonata became the magnum opus we know today simply as “The Hammerklavier” – the German name then current for the piano, that celebrated its advanced mechanisms much as today’s “smartphone” is distinguished from yesterday’s mere “phone.” It turned out by far the longest and most difficult piano work of the time, and even today is considered a touchstone of pianistic virtuosity.

Portland Piano International brought Nelson Goerner to Oregon in November. Photo: Richard Brase.

Many classical music fans would count themselves lucky to hear two outstanding live performances of the sonata in their lifetimes. Here in Portland, we’re fortunate indeed, because thanks to Portland Piano International we’ve now had the opportunity to hear two in the same year. As I wrote in May, Murray Perahia wowed a Schnitzer Concert Hall audience with his version, and the first Saturday in December, those fortunate enough to be part of a relatively small audience at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall heard Nelson Goerner’s quite different but just as accomplished version. They were like two brothers: Perahia the serious one, recounting an epic from his own world, and Goerner the sunnier one, giving the crowd an exalted song and dance, something he senses they’ll love.

At first, Goerner gave away no hints how it might go. The Argentine-born Swiss pianist’s opening number, George Frideric Handel’s early 18th-century “Chaconne” – Beethoven would have called them Variations – “in G major” HWV 435, came across as a pleasant and busy essay of the period that would likely sound more impressive on the older technology instrument (a harpsichord) it was written for.

Robert Schumann’s 1837 “Dances from the League of David (Davidsbündlertänze)” was written just ten years after Beethoven’s death, but it’s a world of fantasy away from the music of the “Hammerklavier.” Gone is the titan wrestling with deep questions of musical form, replaced by a one-man show of colorful characters. Schumann’s “League of David” was a made-up inner circle of music cognoscenti revolving around the characters Florestan and Eusebius, who represented two extremes in Schumann’s own psyche. Eusebius was intellectual, precise, thoughtful, daydreaming, while Florestan was all action, impulsive, outgoing and adventurous.

Schumann left notations that suggest Florestan and Eusebius should get equal say in the Dances, but there was more Eusebius in Goerner’s precise yet lyrical performance. Unfortunately the most sublime moment in the entire work, where, after all musical loose ends are wrapped up, a blissful Eusebian afterthought takes off apparently in the wrong key, was ruined by a clueless cougher. Nonetheless, in dance after dance, I felt myself beguiled back to a simpler time, when music seemed to have all the answers, when I was surrounded by the warmth of family and school friends and my head was filled with hopes and dreams of the future.  No doubt the sweet directness of Goerner’s interpretation created a kind of intimacy that opened up such memory lanes.

Drama and Suspense

Eusebius’ sensitivity informed Goerner’s Beethoven too, notably in his particularly harmonious way with passages that use the extreme ends of the piano simultaneously, and in passages the composer specifically marked to reverberate by holding down the damper pedal throughout. The former can sometimes sound cartoonish and the latter muddy and unfocused, but Goerner had no such problems. In particular, his pedaling at the end of the first movement created a fittingly grand finish to one of Beethoven’s most exuberantly massive essays in sonata form.

But Florestan could not be kept in the background. He burst out in the beginning and ending sections of the antic scherzo, where Goerner somehow evoked the chuckling of a madman. Even in the languishing slow movement, he notably animated a bridge into a reprise of the unconsolable opening lament – a bridge that risks sounding like an undergraduate exercise in harmony – so that it became a vignette of drama and suspense. Most of all, Florestan’s spirit somehow permeated the most intellectual movement of the four, the final gargantuan yet high-spirited fugue, so that for the first time in my experience, it seemed to fly by and end almost too soon. And yet, Eusebius joined in too, for every detail was clear throughout.

Nelson Goerner performed at Portland State University. Photo: Richard Brase.

I went to congratulate Goerner on his performance, and though I had never noticed while he was on stage, in person I was reminded of what the great Soviet-era pianist Emil Gilels once said about his young compatriot Vladimir Ashkenazy: “He is small, but the grand piano is not too big for him. He does what he wants with it. Others who are big come to the piano, but it is too big for them.” Whether he comes to the piano, or as happened with Beethoven’s new instrument, the piano comes to him, Goerner does what he wants with it, and wonderfully well.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Revel without a Claus

Commedia Christmas, O'Connor & Ives, Nutcracker, Imago's new Belle, Milagro's Posada, more "Messiah," Kurosawa Dreams, and more

This year’s dragon, not red as in the picture here from 2014 but a bright scaly green, was sitting in a little storage corner outside Portland Revels’ offices in the Artists Repertory Theatre creative hub one day last week, waiting patiently for assembly. It was in two pieces: a hind portion stretched over a large backpack, with room for levers, and a gangly top, again with movable parts, which when occupied by puppeteer Shuhe Hawkins will stretch giraffe-like perhaps 12 or 15 feet above the stage. It is a lovely creature all in all, and that fabled dragon-slayer St. George really ought to be ashamed.

Taggin’ with the dragon, in the 2014 Revels. Portland Revels photo

It’s Revels time again – this year’s Christmas Revels runs for eight performances Friday through December 21 at St. Mary’s Academy downtown – and for Bruce Hostetler, newly settled in as artistic director after about five years of working with and directing the annual winter solstice show, that means settling into the hundreds of details at hand while he’s also thinking about bigger things. If you don’t know about Revels – which is in its 22nd year in Portland, and began in 1975 in Cambridge, Massachusetts – it’s a grand and genuinely family get-together of singing, dancing, storytelling, mumming, and playing old-time instruments that is rooted in Celtic customs but regularly roams the earth, making connections with other cultures’ solstice traditions. Santa Claus? That’s somebody else’s tale.

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Sara Daneshpour review: Taking flight

Rising Star pianist soars in Portland Piano International recital

by JEFF WINSLOW

Pianist Sara Daneshpour is young, and speaks softly, almost shyly. But her hands flash across the keyboard like lightning and unleash heavenly thunder.

As her November 5 recital at Portland Piano Company, part of Portland Piano International’s Rising Stars series, got underway with two mild-mannered selections from French Baroque composer and seminal tonal theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Suite in A Minor, there was no hint of such godly powers. But she was definitely in command: melodies and harmonies were clear, phrases were elegantly shaped, and layered voices were distinct.

Sara Daneshpour performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Richard Brase.

Even in Maurice Ravel’s atmospheric virtuoso test piece, “Ondine,” which begins and ends with the most delicately piquant resonances, there were only a few rattling rumbles. The various elements were mostly clearly audible and well proportioned as in the Rameau, despite the flurry of fast fingerwork. Only a few unfocused moments and the fact this work is almost always performed as part of a set of three hinted that it may still be in development as a piece of Daneshpour’s repertory. Even so, with a little help from Ravel at the top of his game, it was easy to be uplifted to some magical land by her artistry.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: vote, and other opportunities

Looking back, looking ahead: a week's worth of theater, dance, music, film, and art in and around Portland

After all that feuding and fussing it’s election day, and nothing on this week’s calendar is more important. In Oregon, with its vote-by-mail elections, that means today is last chance, not first chance. Remember, ballots must be received by 8 p.m. Tuesday, not just postmarked by today. That means it’s too late to mail your ballot: You’ll need to drop it off. You can do that at your branch library and other designated spots. If you haven’t turned your ballot in yet, stop reading this right now and get ‘er done. If your vote is safely cast, scroll on down and take a look at a few visual reminders that the United States has been doing this for a long time. Except for the Bingham painting, the images come from the Library of Congress’s 2012 book Presidential Campaign Posters: 200 Years of Election Art:

"The County Election," George Caleb Bingham, 1852, oil on canvas, 38 x 52 inches, Saint Louis Art Museum

“The County Election,” George Caleb Bingham, 1852, oil on canvas, 38 x 52 inches, Saint Louis Art Museum

 


 

A FEW THINGS HAPPENING THIS WEEK:

Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival. The 43rd edition of the Northwest Film Center’s annual regional showcase runs Thursday through Tuesday at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium and Portland State University’s nearby 5th Avenue Cinema and Skype Live Studio. Shorts, features, and documentaries ranging from the battle over water rights to an internet horror tale to life in a modern medieval village.

Epoch. An evening of new dance from Samuel Hobbs (November) of push/FOLD and ArtsWatch dance columnist Jamuna Chiarini (The Kitchen Sink), with music by Hobbs and Lisa DeGrace. Friday and Saturday, BodyVox Dance Center.

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Tina Chong review: Adventurous women

Portland Piano International rising star recital pairs female composers' new work and neglected classic

by JEFF WINSLOW

The first work that Portland Piano International’s Rising Star Tina Chong played, the first Friday evening in May at Portland Piano Company, did not initially seem to promise any magic moments. True, the title of the 1836 composition was “Nocturne” and the fluid melody and colorful harmony suggested Frédéric Chopin, or at least, a composer who avidly studied and understood that musical conjurer’s newly published works. But like so many Nocturnes, especially by lesser composers, it seemed a simple song in A-B-A form, or if you will, verse / chorus – bridge – verse / chorus (with, as it turned out, a short coda or outro).

And yet something astonishing happened at the end of the bridge. The return of the verse felt nothing like the blithe “oh here we are at home again” restart regurgitated in myriad familiar and forgotten examples of the form. Instead, while the prevailing figuration slyly flowed on underneath, the harmony levitated for a few seconds, skipped the verse’s opening chord altogether and alighted on its first moment of instability. The effect was almost unbearably poignant, as if the adventurer at the keyboard was turned back out onto the open road just when she was at her most vulnerable. One treasures such moments of tone poetry in Chopin, even in Brahms and Beethoven.

Tina Chong performed in Portland Piano International's Rising Star series.

Tina Chong performed in Portland Piano International’s Rising Star series.

Move over, guys. The composer was 16-year-old Clara Wieck, soon to become the wife of much better known composer Robert Schumann. But “composer” was deemed an unsuitable job for a 19th century European woman, and Clara went on to become instead one of the most famous pianists of her time, her own original music buried in obscurity. Two heads are better than one, and no doubt she and Robert influenced each other’s work – there are signs even in this early Nocturne. But Robert got all the credit.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Triffle on a cloud, a lobster in the tank

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Carol Triffle is Portland’s most prominent stage absurdist, a quiet comic renegade who makes a virtue of never connecting the dots. Her theater is whimsical, outrageous, so ordinary that it defies the ordinary, stretching it into cosmic pretzel shapes. It’s an anti-theater, almost, bopping narrative on the nose and then ducking around the corner to put on clown makeup and reappear as something utterly different, yet somehow also just the same. At its worst, it falls apart. At its best, it feels a bit like watching Lucille Ball or Danny Kaye caught inside a spinning clothes dryer and howling to get out. Head-scratching occurs at a Triffle show, and the audience can be divided between those who adore the effect and those who simply scratch their heads.

Source, Fagan, Hale, on a sofa, on a cloud, in a funk. Imago Theatre photo.

Sorce, Fagan, Hale, on a sofa, on a cloud, in a funk. Imago Theatre photo.

Francesca, Isabella, Margarita on a Cloud, Triffle’s newest show at Imago Theatre (where she is co-founder and, with partner Jerry Mouawad, creator of the mask-and-costume phenomenon Frogz), is the story, if that’s the right word, of three sisters who feud inseparably, supporting one another through thin and thin. Margarita (Ann Sorce, an Imago vet who’s utterly internalized Triffle’s madcap expressionist style) is the one who won all the beauty contests. Francesca (Megan Skye Hale) is the one who lost all the same beauty contests. Isabella (Elizabeth Fagan), the baby, is the one who seems to have just accidentally starred in a porno film. Isabella’s boyfriend RayRay (Kyle Delamarter) and Margarita’s fella Bob the Weatherman (Sean Bowie) drop in now and again, eager, somehow, to attach to the sisterly scene.

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Murray Perahia review: Finding beauty in the beast

Revered pianist’s recital eventually bridges the gulf between performer and composer

by JEFF WINSLOW

A favorite misquote tells us music has charms to soothe the savage beast. But what happens when a work of music is the savage beast? World-renowned pianist Murray Perahia, in the grand finale of Portland Piano International’s current mainstream season, gave us his answer the afternoon of April 10 at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Murray-Perahia-03

Portland Piano International brought Murray Perahia to Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The program featured works that reflected turbulent times in the lives of über-classic composers Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johannes Brahms and of course, Ludwig van Beethoven. Early on it seemed the beasts were to be tamed, but in the end, something much less one-sided emerged that made one wonder: can man and monster meld into one great soul?

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