portland piano international

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.

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.


“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.


Portland Piano International's "Upclose with Masters," 11-23-2013, Raley Schweinfurth with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Jim Leisy.

Raley Schweinfurth with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Photo: Jim Leisy.


“I have to thank you, for three reasons,” Jean-Efflam Bavouzet told fourteen-year-old Portland pianist Raley Schweinfurth after she performed Shostakovich’s “Three Fantastic Dances,” for the renowned French pianist. “First of all, I did not know these pieces. Second, you make me love Shostakovich. And third, I knew I would love your playing before you reached the first note. This may sound problematic, but it’s true; you treat your piano exactly like a conductor. Music starts before the first sound, and you expressed the character before making any sound. If you treat this instrument like you’re just pushing the right button at the right time, it will not make any sense.”

Bavouzet pursued this idea more while discussing resonance with 13-year old Christina Im at the same November 23 master class at Portland Piano Company presented by Portland Piano International. “The music is the sound you are creating, but the sound is actually not from you,” he said. “It is already in the piano, and you are just bringing it out. In other words, don’t think you are playing the music but that the piano is playing you.”

Bavouzet’s class and recital the next day raised the next question: what happens when the pianist listens to what the piano is telling her — but what she hears, and plays, differs from the composer’s ideas? In Schweinfurth’s lesson, Bavouzet showed the young pianist Shostakovich’s score. “This note is supposed to be very short,” he said, “but you play it very long. Try again.” Schweinfurth played through the passage, but still held the last note too long. “Voilà!” Bavouzet exclaimed, but then took a long, silent pause. “Try it again.” She played it again, and still held the last note too long. “Oui! You are very convincing. You do not play what is written, but you play it with such confidence. Bravo! But you must play what is written. Try again.”

She did, her movements and sound complementing each other beautifully. “I would not be able to tell you any of this if I did not have the score in front of me,” Bavouzet acknowledged. “Which leads us to ask, who is more powerful? The composer or the performer?”

Bavouzet’s own musical exploration of this question in his PPI performance on Sunday, November 24 at Lincoln Hall made clear that the answer is the ever-complicated, excitingly nebulous answer of both-and: both composer and performer wield powerful swords in a joint battle to communicate musically to specific times, places, and experiences.

Born in France in 1962, Bavouzet came to the world’s attention when invited by the great conductor Georg Solti to debut with the Orchestre de Paris in 1995. His Sunday performance was a captivating choreography of sound in which his gestures translated directly into musical color and character. His hands often gave slight conductor-like gestures as though coaxing the music out of the piano; his elbows and shoulders were relaxed fulcrums of energy, and his nuanced pedaling, while exuberantly dance-like in the Beethoven and Bartók works, exalted his performance of Debussy and Ravel.

Bavouzet’s commitment to the extremely diverse characters presented in the movements of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata No. 21, Op. 53 was so complete that it drew appreciative applause — at the end of the first movement. His performance of that movement, though, suffered from his tendency to rush, particularly within the presentation of the first theme and in its development. In the second movement, Bavouzet created intense Beethovenian fear, trepidation, and longing by capitalizing on the natural decay of each piano note, particularly in the pianissimo return of the first theme. The melody outlines a progression of incredibly tense diminished chords (pretty much the crunchiest chord used back in the day), and Bavouzet held each note until almost all its oxygen was gone. The start of the third movement provided a perfect melting release of that tension.

Following Beethoven’s “Waldstein” with Ravel’s famous “Gaspard of the Night” seems daunting, not only because both are virtuosic and demanding, but also because their sound worlds are entirely different. Bavouzet beautifully connected these two composers in his treatment of the third movement of the “Waldstein.” At one re-entrance of the rondo melody, he held the pedal down to melt the harmonies into each other in an impressionistic manner. In addition, Bavouzet carefully echoed octaves played in the right hand by voicing either the top note in the fifth finger if in a major sonority or the bottom note in the thumb if in minor. This effect, while not out of the ordinary, is certainly not written in the score and lent a personal touch to the performance.

In “Gaspard of the Night,” a three-movement masterpiece piece inspired by Aloysius Bertrand’s poems of the same name, Bavouzet drew out the water fairy Ondine’s sensuousness using melancholy more than sinisterness. By taking a little over seven minutes to play the piece, Bavouzet gave each melodic note more time to expand and thus connect more significantly to the next note. Rather than permitting the background arpeggios to recede into mere impressionistic wallpaper, Bavouzet allowed them to occasionally poke through the melodic line so that each harmonic change became a deliberate turn of the gem to catch a different light. I wish he had more literally interpreted Ravel’s indication to take the climax even more slowly and thus achieve a richer depth. The genius of the whole performance coalesced in his last chord where he allowed the A-natural to bleed into the final C# major chord and used the pedal to exquisitely resolve the A-natural to the G# in the resonating strings.

I was not a fan of the second movement, “Gibet,” as Bavouzet took a more poetic approach, and the sound of tolling bells was not insistently torturous enough for my expressionist taste. But who cares when treated to a thrillingly terrifying “Scarbo”? In this famously demanding third movement, the audience experienced Bavouzet’s incredible control of ostinati (repeating notes) that could swell and abate without losing tonal clarity. His attention to descending bass lines even while all hell broke loose in the treble voices created a colossal sound universe. While pianists often play the ending gesture with humor, Bavouzet caught the audience by surprise, ending so suddenly, so quickly, and so softly that we all thought the goblin Scarbo would burst forth again in sinister revenge. Instead, the audience burst forth in astonished applause.

While we experienced glimpses of Bavouzet’s pedaling mastery in the Beethoven and Ravel works, his brilliance rose to the forefront in the consistently best stretch of the whole evening, the performance of the first seven preludes from Debussy’s “Preludes,” Book 1. He began “Dancers of Delphi” with very little pedal, and slightly rolled the opening chords; this dryness is unusual, and certainly not called for by Debussy in the score, but it gave the impression of dancers’ feet stepping on to the stage. After setting the stage, this dryness gave more room for expansion, and the first full pedal wash lent a gentle mysteriousness, evoking spirits rising to meet the dancers. Bavouzet expertly placed each layer of sound securely within the cushion of resonance allowed for by his pedaling.
The transitions between Preludes No. 4 “Sounds and Perfumes Mingle in the Evening Air,” No. 5 “The Hills of Anacapri” and into No. 6 “Footprints in the Snow” proved especially effective. Bavouzet ended the purple richness of the fourth prelude with simple echoing horn calls that left Lincoln Hall completely still. The fifth prelude ends in emphatic bursts of light, and Bavouzet emphasized this by bringing all his fingers together at a single point to play each note in ecstatic deliberation. He then allowed for a long pause to accentuate the starkness of the sixth prelude. It’s strange to feel completely and desperately alone in a hall full of music lovers, but that’s what happened to me when Bavouzet carefully allowed for the decay of each note within each voice, and then proportioned them so that the voices did not bleed over each other, but stood in the snow all alone with no hope of finding the other.

Finally, Béla Bartók’s piano sonata! Bavouzet infused the first movement with tremendous joy by playing the bouncing dance rhythms with a light touch and flowing swing. I prefer the more violent approach of the great Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, but Bavouzet’s interpretation provided a greater contrast for the second movement in all its starkness. The third movement, with its angular rhythms and orchestral colors, brought an exciting conclusion. Bavouzet’s enormous energy evoked horns, clarinets, flutes, oboes, cellos, and ended with an accelerated orchestral crash. For his encore, Bavouzet laughed and said, “Perhaps something calmer,” and ended the evening with Debussy’s popular Prelude no. 8 from Book 1, “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.”

As the audience filtered out, I heard a number of people humming sections of the concert. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is a pianist whose performance gets inside people and dwells for a time. He is not one who fights over whether the composer or performer is more powerful; rather, his strong convictions about the composers’ music reminds the audience that life is something to stay awake for, and so we take this music with us like a treasure into the night.

Jana Hanchett is a Portland pianist.

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Hauschka performed at Portland's Mississippi Studios.

Hauschka performed at Portland’s Mississippi Studios.


“I was thinking about abandoned cities,” pianist-composer Hauschka told the audience before beginning his performance at at his intimate Mississippi Studios http://www.mississippistudios.com concert last Friday, “There are two and a half thousand cities that are abandoned in the world; if you look at Wikipedia they are ordered by country, and there are some amazing photos. I imagined myself sitting in one of those houses for a week listening to music.”

Finding beauty in what others have neglected or discarded seems a strong inclination for the German pianist and composer (real name: Volker Bertelmann), who has performed often in Portland.. Hauschka builds intricate sound structures out of the janglings of everyday life. Placing found objects like bottle caps, ping pong balls, duct tape, clips, toy drums and cymbals onto specific strings of the piano, he creates a rhythmic orchestra alive with delightful buzzes, rattles, plinks, and chimes.
Hauschka’s pieces generally begin with a simple rhythmic motif upon which he layers repetitive melodies and harmonies. He improvised three pieces for the hundred or so privileged souls in attendance at Portland’s Mississippi Studios. The minimalist approach to harmony and melody gives the audience freedom to focus on the various rhythmic textures that float or streak across the brooding musical landscape like many beams of light.
The first piece began with an insistent knocking that by the end transformed into a lilting dance rhythm. Hauschka electronically manipulated the last knocking rhythm so that it drifted out into the distance for the listener to rediscover later. The second featured more angular rhythms periodically interrupted by nostalgic, chiming dances. A cymbal placed upon the lower strings splashed buzzing bass chords defiantly into the air while the dampened tenor strings became hand drums pattering on top. A chiming waltz-like section interrupted to usher in electronically manipulated sound characters that shimmered around a march of minor sixths and thirds. The musical landscape swelled to a seat-shaking intensity before dissolving into another nostalgic waltz which thrust the piece back into the angular rhythms of the beginning.
The final work illustrated well Hauschka’s artistic searching. “I tried to find some expression for the endlessness of beauty,” he explained to the audience, “and for me, that means monochrome colors, steady waves of sound, and a little darkness. I would call such expression Melancholie.” As the piece progressed, Hauschka choreographed the removal of all of his found objects, placing them in a heap or whimsically sticking them to the exterior of the piano as he continued to play harp-like chords. While this signaled the conclusion of the piece, the rhythmic sounds produced in the process of removing the objects served to continue the music’s development, illustrating Hauschka’s search for the endlessness of beauty. The audience chuckled appreciatively, realizing that Haushka was still enlarging our ears’ territorial definitions of music. With the piano returned to its naked state, Hauschka ended the night with a melancholy dance.
Honest Interpretations

Hauschka last appeared in Oregon when Portland Piano International hosted him at Doug Fir Lounge. This year, the Polish Chopin sensation Rafał Blechacz opened PPI’s 2013-2014 season with two different concerts, one on Sunday afternoon and Monday evening. “His sound reflects the honesty of his strong convictions,” said PPI’s artistic director Arnaldo Cohen. The honest exposure of one’s artistic backbone takes a great deal of courage, and the greatest musicians are those committed to such honesty with the knowledge that their convictions will evolve as the world responds to their art.

Blechacz is one of those artists committed to finding an interpretation that is honest to himself and to the composer: “For me, the key to developing individual interpretation on a particular piece is finding the right balance between the emotional and intellectual aspects of the music,” he told ArtsWatch. The greatest example is Arthur Rubinstein; when I’m listening to him play I can say that his interpretations are absolutely individual, but at the same time his respect for Chopin’s style is absolutely audible.”
How to find one’s individual interpretation while remaining true to the composer’s intentions is an oft-explored question that causes much fighting and biting among music lovers. Because Blechacz speaks frequently about entering into the logic of a piece, one might expect a clean, cerebral performer. Thankfully, Blechacz’s playing clearly derives from heartfelt convictions, and when balanced by thoughtful analysis, the listener forgets about the piano, about Blechacz, and is overwhelmed by Music.

Chopin’s music, like breathing, is natural for Blechacz; this connection stems from birth, but Blechacz credit his international success to rigorous study. “I concentrated on the logic of the mazurka and the polonaises, and thanks to studying the score and philosophers like Roman  Ingarden, I could understand quite well the typical character of the Polish dance,” Blechacz recalled. “I wanted to create a very Polish interpretation with my own individual viewpoint of the polonaises.”

Rafal Blechacz. Photo: Felix Broede.

Rafal Blechacz. Photo: Felix Broede.

A problem arises, however, when Blechacz is not convinced that he has found the right balance. Blechacz’s body language in Mozart’s piano sonata k.311 communicated a sense of anxiety that was reflected in the music: stodgy phrasing in the second movement was bookended by melodic lurches and forced harmonic hesitations in the outer movements. Blechacz did effectively capture the sonata’s operatic character in some special moments, and the audience audibly laughed at his use of staccato and melodramatic pauses to humorously depict the third movement’s cadenza.

Blechacz’s perfect balance was best displayed in the Chopin repertoire he performed Sunday evening. The rolled start of the Nocturne op. 32 no. 2 was exquisite. While still right-hand dominated, melodies finally spun out effortlessly. The audience realized that Blechacz’s musical convictions held more integrity in this second half of the concert and didn’t dare clap after the Nocturne, allowing the rolled chord, identical to the piece’s beginning, to completely expand and dwell in Lincoln Hall; this A-flat major chord then amped up a half step to the victorious Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, no.1. Blechacz’s fifth finger, normally curved straight up, was finally relaxed and, sitting only six rows away, I could see him using the full range of all ten fingertips; some of his fingers would be up on their tips, firmly connecting with the keys to express aggression; others were flattened, using the soft pad of the fingertip to express a darker sadness. His variety of finger approaches in the Chopin pieces meant that his colors changed immediately and dramatically. Tears are rare for this listener, but Blechacz’s performance of Chopin’s Polonaise opus 40, no. 2 precipitated them.
The second night’s performance opened with Debussy, and Blechacz kept his hands much closer to the keys, seeming much more at ease then the previous night. Blechacz found unique polyphonic lines in the Menuet and separated the lines with a gentle balance of tone color. Before placing the last notes, Blechacz pulled his arms completely away from the piano and re-approached the final tonic notes like a pole vaulter. Blechacz used this long-distance approach to produce a surprisingly precise dynamic shading. Of course, the overplayed “Claire de Lune” is the quintessential cringe-piece, but Blechacz’s refreshing approach included very careful, clean pedaling, avoided over-romanticizing the arpeggios, and used a laser-beamed melody to help paint a gorgeously pale, almost icy, moonlight. Only at the end did he indulge in bringing out a few, well chosen inner lines that brought the listener’s ear back to earth.

Blechacz then performed the piece I most anticipated, Szymanowski’s first piano sonata. His fingers flew, his body was intensely focused, and the audience gasped in awe at the fireworks. Szymanowski’s expressionism was clearly exhibited: bold, bright colors and overwhelming harmonies. For me, however, the anticipated rawness was missing. Blechacz, remarkably comfortable with the technical demands of the first movement, presented a wall of sound that, while impressive, fell shy of guiding the audience through the piece.

His recording, however, is absolutely phenomenal. In the second movement, sans the distractions of technical difficulties, Blechacz maintained integrity in his musical lines. It was a privilege to hear this piece live for the first time. Judging by the audience’s reactions to both Blechacz and Hauschka, Portland is ready for more repertoire outside the traditional realm.

Portland Piano International has developed an exciting season. The piano, thanks to Marshall Anderson’s piano tuning expertise, is a highly satisfying instrument and was perfect for Blechacz’s artistic needs. In addition, moving the concerts to Lincoln Hall produced a more comfortable and personal experience, but because of the smaller seating capacity, all but three concerts are sold out for the remainder of the season. Including a coupon in the program for these concerts was certainly a nice touch.

PPI has tapped into an amazingly generous audience that clearly enjoys funding the enjoyment of great piano music. To foster the development of Portland’s own piano performers and teachers, perhaps donors should consider funding special concert packages for college and young piano students. This season, Portland Piano International is hosting two master classes free and open to the public given by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on November 23 and Vladimir Feltsman on January 13.

Bavouzet is the next pianist to visit Portland Piano International. Check back with Oregon ArtsWatch for interviews and analysis of PPI’s 2013-2014 season.

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

Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Rafał Blechacz performs at Portland State University Sunday and Monday. Photo: Felix Broede/ Deutsche Grammophon

Rafał Blechacz performs at Portland State University Sunday and Monday. Photo: Felix Broede/ Deutsche Grammophon


The prestigious Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, Poland is held only every five years. The 1990 and 1995 competitions failed to produce a Grand Prix Winner, but in 2005, one 20-year-old entrant so outranked his fellow competitors that the judges found no one suitable for second prize. Born just 150 miles northwest of Chopin’s birthplace, Rafał Blechacz seems the reincarnation of Chopin for his homeland.

This Sunday and Monday, September 29 and 30th, Portland Piano International’s new artistic director Arnaldo Cohen will welcome Blechacz as the opening pianist of PPI’s 2013-2014 season.

“Polonaises and mazurkas are, of course, very special for the Polish people and Polish artists,” the characteristically modest Blechacz told OregonArtsWatch. “But in my opinion, any artist can enter into the logic of Chopin, and by understanding Chopin’s sensibilities can create the right emotion and the right feelings.”

Clearly Blechacz isn’t “any” artist. While performing all over the world, Blechacz is also finishing up his own book which discusses examining the inner workings of a musical score in order to discover one’s unique interpretation.

PPI has put Portland in the enviable position of hearing Blechacz perform two solo recitals. “It is not so often that I play two concerts back to back in the same city and concert hall,” said Blechacz. “The experience will be very enjoyable for the audience and me, because in the same hall, on the same piano, I can create completely different musical worlds. For example, in the first concert I play music by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. Then for the second concert I play music by Debussy and Szymanowski, along with the same Chopin selections. The first concert is more classical, obviously. In the second concert, the idea is to show the contrast between Debussy and Szymanowski, between the impressionist and the expressionist, between the colors and shades of their sounds.”

The two-recital format reinstated by new artistic director Cohen this season provides greater opportunity for pianists to present works that lie outside standard piano repertoire. “I am most pleased that Blechacz will be performing Szymanowski’s Sonata No. 1, Op. 8,” Cohen says. “We are lucky to hear this piece, which is rarely performed, by an artist who understands so well the language of the composer and at the same time is a master of his instrument.” In PPI’s 36-year history, works by Szymanowski have been performed at only three other concerts, and Monday evening’s audience will hear PPI’s first presentation of this sonata.

While many pianists are unfamiliar with Szymanowski, Blechacz connected with the composer’s music at an early age. “I was a child,” he stated, “and, fascinated by the unexpected harmonic solutions and wonderful melodies, I really wanted to play more and more of Szymanowski’s music. Today when I present Szymanowski’s massive culminations of sound I want to have a great bass in the piano and a great forte in the higher section of the piano.”

Born just 33 years after Chopin’s death to Polish nobility in Ukraine, Szymanowski was keenly aware of his role as a Polish composer. Szymanowski’s first piano sonata was written when he was still quite young and wrestling with the shadow of Chopin. “Above all he loved and worshipped Chopin and, after Chopin’s music, the piano works of Scriabin,”  Ludomir Różycki, a fellow member of the composers’ group Young Poland, said of Szymanowski. “When he was working on his First Piano Sonata, I found him frequently at the instrument stuyding in minute detail the strucutre of the passages in Chopin and Scriabin.”

Szymanowski’s close examination of Chopin’s music led him to conclude that “the works of Fryderyk Chopin possess precisely this trait of immutable Polishness –a Polishness existing beyond this or that historical event, concentrating in itself…the Myth of the Polish Soul from the most profound depths of the heart.”

These Polish traits resonate with Blechacz. “When I am practicing Szymanowski, especially in his mazurkas, I see similar emotional solutions in his music as in Chopin’s music,” he explains.

The Myth of the Polish Soul, at once mysterious and captivating, speaks to the very human search for a unique identity made complete through collective realization. Chopin’s and Szymanowski’s decisive rhythms, troubled harmonies, nostalgic ornaments, and biting emotional contrasts not only create space for this metaphysical search but also, when performed in a concert hall full of responsive listeners, provide for a collective experience of this mystery. Hearing Blechacz realize these two composers’ solutions within Portland’s own Lincoln Hall is a rare opportunity to experience such a reality.

Blechacz’s concert on September 29 is sold out. The concert on September 30, which features Szymanowski’s first piano sonata, is at 7:30pm at Lincoln Hall. Buy tickets at Portland Piano International or call 503.228.1388.

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

Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

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