portland piano international

Benjamin Grosvenor review: Playful brilliance

Portland Piano International recitalist indulges in serious play.


“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.


Benjamin Grosvenor interview/review: Pianist’s poetic intensity

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


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.


Portland Piano International preview: Denis Kozhukhin

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


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.


Chamber Blast ready for takeoff

14 days, 14 concerts, two earfuls of great music


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:


Pianist Simone Dinnerstein: Unconventionally classical

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


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.



“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.


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