Endings and Beginnings

Pianist Cohen plays a final recital before taking the helm at Portland Piano International

Portland Piano International founder Harold Gray, right, and new artistic director Arnaldo Cohen.

Portland Piano International founder Harold Gray, right, and new artistic director Arnaldo Cohen.


On May 5 in Portland, two musical chapters will end, and another will begin. On that Sunday at Portland Center for the Performing Arts’s Newmark Theatre, Arnaldo Cohen will give the last solo recital of his distinguished international career, and after that Portland Piano International event, the organization’s founder, Harold Gray, will officially welcome the renowned Brazilian pianist as PPI’s new artistic director.

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Cohen began his musical pursuits on the violin. His piano studies quickly followed after he began playing his sister’s piano lessons by ear. At the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Cohen initially pursued a triple degree in engineering, violin, and piano. Then, at a formative masterclass, Brazilian pianist Jacques Klein encouraged him to drop everything else but piano.

“Jacques Klein was very courageous and even a bit crazy to come to me, a 19- year-old boy in his third year of engineering, and tell me that I had all the ingredients to become a professional pianist,” Cohen said in a recent phone interview. “He made a great impact on me because he detected my possibilities hidden behind my lack of technique, and then he worked to bring everything out for me to develop.”

Cohen went on to win first prize at the 1972 Busoni International Piano Competition and over the next four decades won much acclaim for his performances around the world. He began playing with the Oregon Symphony in 2008 with Liszt’s second piano concerto, and again joined the orchestra in 2010 to perform all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos and his triple concerto. These performances, plus his 2009 solo PPI recital,  have given Cohen a good grasp on the culture of Portland. “I’ve found that Portland is an extremely sophisticated and sensitive city,” he said. “What makes a city is its people, so it is not by chance that within Portland, you find wonderful modern art galleries, wonderful restaurants that serve excellent Oregon wines, and overall a unique, fertile terrain for the development of music and art.”

Recital Finale

Before Cohen commences his new role in Oregon this Sunday, he ends his earlier phase with a career-retrospective recital. The first piece on his program, Ferruccio Busoni’s late-19th-century transcription of J.S. Bach’s famous “Chaconne” from his second violin partita, looks back to the 1972 competition and the influence of Busoni. “I’ve studied Bach’s Chaconne on violin and played it when I graduated from the University,” said Cohen. “But the concept of the Busoni transcription is totally different than the Bach. You cannot play the Busoni version thinking about what the violin would do. Busoni’s transcription is like a magnifying glass on the original harmonies, and then Busoni clothes these harmonies with an organ-like sound and 19th-century piano virtuosity. As I perform this piece in the 21st century, I recreate in a personal way Busoni’s recreation of Bach’s creation.”

Cohen’s next piece, Brahms’ “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel” op. 24, also commemorates the past while looking forward. Six years after his famous manifesto of 1860, which declared Liszt and his Music of the Future as “strongly to be deplored and condemned,” Brahms found in the Baroque structure of Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no. 1, HWV 434 the foundation for 19th-century melodic exploration.

Cohen will end his concert with the four Chopin scherzi. “Playing Chopin’s scherzi is a beautiful, emotional trip,” Cohen said. “It’s incredible, from the first to the fourth scherzo, to watch Chopin create completely different atmospheres through contrasting the old and the new, the poetic and the dramatic, virtuosity and tranquility. I perform it differently every time because it’s like being on top of a mountain and slowly turning 360 degrees to gain different perspectives.”

These performances exemplify Cohen’s artistic goals. “I always try to make a link between life and music, between humankind and music, between unanswerable questions and music,”  he explained. “Music is an alternative language that mankind discovered or invented in order to say what cannot be said in any other way, either through language or another form of art. The magic behind making music is that the performer can say anything he wants, the public can understand anything they wish, but through experiencing the music together, both can understand each other very well.

“This is the fascinating thing about music: to express what you cannot say in words.”

New direction for PPI

Following the concert, Harold Gray will officially announce Cohen as the new artistic director, and Cohen will unveil the 2013-2014 season. “I am looking forward to announcing the artists for this upcoming season, and there are exciting challenges in expanding PPI’s recital presentations,” Cohen said. “PPI presents six recitals a season, but I want to eventually multiply this to twelve recitals by six pianists so that each pianist can play one and a half recitals. The first evening, the pianist will play his or her program, and the second evening the pianist will repeat half of that program and then play new projects or other personal interests on the second half.”

Besides expanding the number of recitals, Cohen will also exert some influence on their content. “The challenge lies in convincing an artist to play works outside his or her program,” Cohen continued. “For example, one artist who will be performing this season has a recording of a piece that I think is the best in the world. But this piece was not part of his recital program for 2014, so I had to convince him to include this piece in his program for PPI. Convincing an artist to play pieces outside the standard repertoire, such as the Bartók sonata or one of the Szymanowski sonatas that Portland hasn’t heard yet, takes a lot of negotiating. It can be such a challenge to break this artist barrier and bring something new.”

Cohen has been an advocate for new music. When writing for the Brazilian journal “Veja,” he promoted the music of violinist Nigel Kennedy, and his most recent recording “Brasiliana” presents unfamiliar piano works by Brazilian composers, most composed in the 20th century. “To develop a better society we need to bring new things that the society hasn’t heard,” Cohen said. “It is important to create a diverse environment that challenges the minds of people who have multiple intellectual curiosities.”

A professor at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, Cohen believes strongly in educating the next generation of classical musicians. “Education is a major tool in preparing the future audience of PPI, and so with time, I hope to develop educational programs for young people,” he told ArtsWatch. “I am looking forward to meeting Portland’s young composers, and I will need more input from community music teachers. I want to develop strategies to attract young people and prepare them for the future. This is absolutely fundamental to the future of PPI and is a long-term, challenging project that will require joint ventures with other organizations. As I become a mentor of this piano-loving community, my ultimate role is to continue and develop the work of Harold Gray, to continue to grow the existing PPI family into a concert hall full of piano lovers. I will depend very much on the collaboration with the community and hope to meet everyone after the recital and eventually over a glass of pinot noir.”

Arnaldo Cohen will give a free masterclass on May 4 at 2pm at Portland Piano Company, 711 SW 14th Avenue. He will perform on Sunday, May 5, at 4 pm at Newmark  Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway. Tickets are $14-$54 and can be purchased by calling 503.228.1388 or online.

Pianist Jana Hanchett covers classical music for ArtsWatch.

One Response.

  1. Cynthia Kirk says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article! I think it’s important to note, however, that Arnaldo Cohen’s musical career will not end with his May 5 recital for Portland Piano International. While it will likely be his last solo recital in Portland, he may accept select solo invitations in the future. And he will continue to concertize with the world’s leading orchstras, including the Oregon Symphony, where he’s scheduled to play Rach II February 22-24, 2014.

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