ArtsWatch guest review: composer Jeff Winslow on Portland International Piano Festival

By Jeff Winslow

Editor’s note: Portland-based composer Jeff Winslow attended many of the events in this month’s Portland International Piano Festival and filed this guest review.

Possibly in an attack of first-day jitters, the lights accidentally came up after Andreas Klein played Beethoven’s op. 7 sonata, the opening work of this year’s Portland International Piano Festival, while all stayed dark at the very end of his concert after the applause had died away. Maybe the glitches were a metaphor for the performance, which despite manifold points of interest and beauty seemed to show that Klein just wasn’t quite up to the job. Several times he wandered off into la-la land, and only recovered by skipping ahead or seamlessly circling back and taking a second run at it. When this happened only a few minutes into the Beethoven, I was shocked because he seemed so assured up to that point.

Andreas Klein

Unfortunately, Robert Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces were also marred by several such lapses, oddly enough in the technically easier numbers. And yet, “In the Night” swirled frighteningly and effectively, and “Dream’s Confusions,” maybe the most difficult of the set, was very nearly perfect: light on its feet (no mean, er, feat when there are this many notes to spit out), and ending with a revelation in sonority such as I’ve rarely heard — Klein scrupulously followed Schumann’s restrained dynamics, even decreasing to let all tones ring with shimmering beauty.

Beethoven’s op. 7 is my favorite of his early sonatas, the first movement veering from jubilant outburst to jokey aside to simple yet heartfelt song to macho posturing to the mysterious music of the spheres, with time enough for another joke before moving on. Klein caught nearly all of this admirably, only rushing past the heartfelt bits somewhat. But one could hardly ask for a more heartfelt, deeply projected slow movement. This magnificent song, in a distant key, must surely have been meant for an innamorata’s ears. (Yet even here we’re treated to a short humorous dialogue between a gruff hulk and what, a tweety bird?) After the last delicious phrase died away, Klein continued mostly on top of the rambunctious Allegro and, in a final contrast, the lyrical Rondo, which among other beauties takes off in the wrong key just before the end!

After intermission, Franz Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy began forcefully and continued for the most part sensitively and dramatically, but Klein just didn’t seem to be up to the hardest figuration, the nadir coming almost at the end when his left hand wandered into the wrong track: we were treated to a boisterous flash of bi-tonality just when Schubert is wrapping up a triumphant home key finish.

Klein acted constrained and ill at ease. Was he suffering from jet lag? Did the snafu with the lights prey on his confidence? He did seem less happy afterwards. I left the hall wondering if I heard a once superlative pianist in decline, or a hitherto second-stringer who was beginning to break through to real mastery. Maybe he just had a bad night.

Master classes at Portland Piano International’s summer festival are always fascinating — not so much for the students’ performances, which are always well prepared but which tend toward the gray and mechanical, but rather for the various approaches of the master pianists. Paul Roberts laid on plenty of well-deserved praise, but then simply and matter-of-factly took each student through the many areas needing life and expression. I was reminded of his uncommon mastery of the soft touch when performing.

Beth Levin handled the young egos with such tender kid gloves that I feared for her upcoming Beethoven performances. Gilbert Kalish focused more narrowly on shortcomings, going into considerable detail and emphasizing his points with strategic nudges on the students’ shoulders. Anderson & Roe were much like Roberts in substance, and provided an interesting practical suggestion for bench placement in four-hand performance, but their speaking style verged on valley girl/surfer dude. It was hard to tell if this helped communicate to the students or not.

Films likewise ran the gamut. The Byron Janis Story was a puff piece, yet still fascinating because of the famed pianist’s lifelong struggle with hand injuries and arthritis. Hidden behind the story was an object lesson for young pianists — don’t play like this! You may blast out the Prokofiev Toccata like nobody’s business, but you will burn out fast. It’s All About the Music: The Art of Marc-André Hamelin was likewise a puff piece, but as much about a certain kind of character as about Hamelin himself: the great composer-pianists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most were greater in their pianism than their compositions, but everyone has a devotee these days. Hamelin at least demonstrates his devotion with supreme technical ability, which measures up handily to his difficult subjects. Chopin at the Opera was less interesting, alternating rather precious talking heads with excerpts from various Chopin works arranged to add a voice part. It seemed a long-winded way of telling us not much more about Chopin than the fact he loved opera. I was left hungry for substantive details.

Stephanie & Saar

Saturday afternoon brought four absorbing lectures in a row. The third was a recital in disguise: an elegant performance by  Stephanie & Saar of contemporary composer György Kurtág’s transcriptions of J.S. Bach’s music, indeed their entire recently released CD, Bach Crossings. The duo showed a real feel for this repertory. Lines sang out clearly, and pedaling was always perfectly judged. The performance was visually fascinating as well: Kurtág created them for himself and his wife, and their multiple and extreme hand crossings are obviously designed for a couple who like each other very much.

Catherine Kautsky was lively and informative, as always, in her lecture on Orientalism and Debussy. My only disappointment was that she was having so much fun showing us artwork Debussy knew and objects he owned that the music, which was lined up towards the end, got short shrift. I would have happily stayed an extra half-hour to give all the materials their due.

Linda Scott, my piano technician as well as my friend, gave us a wealth of well-arranged detail about the parts of our pianos which tend to give the most trouble over time, even providing a part petting zoo and a mnemonic song of her own invention to back it all up. Finally, local boy made good Chad Heltzel gave us a very serious argument for the necessity of the singing line in piano performance. I was convinced, but I craved more nuts and bolts.

Beth Levin

In the evening Beth Levin showed, in her performance of Beethoven’s last three sonatas, that while she could put on the kid gloves when young egos in master classes were at risk, the gloves came off when dealing with Ludwig. She didn’t bother to memorize, but still played full out, crowding the keyboard, emotional involvement showing on her face, never sloppy, always focused. I didn’t agree with several interpretive choices, but it was apparent all was carefully considered, and the result was a performance of high integrity.

In op. 109, the outer movements moved at a moderate pace, all the while sustaining a singing line, building to climaxes of great intensity. The middle movement, by contrast, was appropriately brutal without ever going completely mad.

Op. 110 followed much the same dramatic arc, but it has an additional challenge — a climactic ending of almost maniacal, triumphant intensity. This last bit was the one place where she nearly went off the rails, going too fast at first and splattering the final left hand chord. Yet who could resist it? Taking the gloves off with Beethoven is a risk well worth taking.

In op. 111, I missed the repeat of the first movement exposition, but the ending opened softly to the heavens, not least by scrupulously following Beethoven’s marked pedaling. The stately finale often leaves audiences yawning in the pianist’s pursuit of sublimity. Levin’s was compelling instead, and the audience remained quiet and attentive throughout.

One other presentation deserves mention: the recital of new works by Cascadia Composers for student pianists on Friday. Since I’m on the board of Cascadia, however, I will refrain from detailed commentary and just say how thankful I am to the students, the teachers, the composers, and last but certainly not least to artistic director Harold Gray for making it happen. Everybody involved seemed to be having a great time.

4 Responses.

  1. Peter Rosen says:

    The International Piano Festival could have chosen a better known figure in music than Jeff Winslow to review the festival.
    From reading this what comes through is an opinionated, and not very smart person who advises young pianists not to play their hearts out.

    Why choose someone who’s work is virtually unknown, when the Festival has access to composers and artists recorded, applauded, and well-known by the national and international public.

    Maybe he’s someone’s friend or husband?

    • bob priest says:

      hello peter,

      btw, a critic/reviewer is SUPPOSED to be opinionated.

      sincerely,

      bob (boy, do i have opinions!) priest

    • Jeff Winslow says:

      If you’ll read the paragraph on master classes, you will (I hope) understand that contrary to your baffling claim, I very much do want young pianists to play their hearts out.

      Later on, I did advise young pianists, not to avoid playing their hearts out, but avoid playing their hands off, in effect. There are ways and ways of playing your heart out without the muscle tension which seems to have been Janis’s bête noire. Beth Levin provided one example.

      What’s the matter, did you want the job?

  2. Maria Choban says:

    I am the one who recommended to Oregon Arts Watch getting Jeff Winslow to disseminate his until now private reviews of concerts. I find him the equivalent of Richard Taruskin in his prodigious analytical abilities coupled with an actually entertaining writing style – something long missing from this arcane field of classical music reviewing. My tendency is to scout for unknown talents with fresh unpretentious demeanors and in depth knowledge. Winslow fits this for me.

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