Tag Archives: Chopin

MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN: Phenomenal Pianist at San Francisco Symphony

The recital by pianist Marc-André Hamelin, Sunday, March 31, at Davies Symphony Hall was phenomenal. Mr. Hamelin is a great artist. Read this article, then get a ticket to fly somewhere soon to hear him. His technical brilliance is well matched by what appears to be his total immersion in the music; he understands it, he knows it, there is not a note that is not important to him. Not only can he play at warp speed, he can play slowly, even very, very quietly. I am tempted to call it playing “magically,” except it is not magic. The music is real. The musician is of this real world. The program knocked my sox off. Mr. Hamelin, however, is not a flamboyant presence. He is all about the music.

Marc-André Hamelin (photo by Fran Kaufman)

J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from Violin Partita in D minor, No. 2, BWV 1004 as arranged by stellar pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) opened the performance. It was representative of the now seldom performed 19th-early 20th century transcriptions of Bach’s monumental works. Whatever the historical instrument and performance style fans might think, it was fascinating musically. There was Bach but something different. It thoroughly engaged the listener’s attention. Written for the violin, translating it into piano language gave it different sounds, textures, and a different spirit. It was a wonderful introduction to Mr. Hamelin’s playing as he demonstrated his total mastery over the many dimensions of the piano.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Robert Schumann’s Fantasy in C major, Opus 17 is a gigantic work conveying myriad emotions as it ventures into different rhythms and suggests images. Having seen Mr. Hamelin play it, one can barely think anyone else would approach its technical difficulty and multiple meanings. The music explodes with Romantic energy and ideals and, in its third movement, seems to hover in moon glow. It is sometimes closer to a symphony than a sonata and draws on all of the young Schumann’s piano knowledge and technique as well as imagination unbound. Schumann wrote part of it in 1838, during the time he was separated from Clara Wieck, his true love, by her father. He wrote to Clara telling her, “I think  it is more impassioned than anything I have ever written–a deep lament for you.” Yes, romantic in every sense. They were married in 1840: she recognized as one of the great if not greatest pianists in Europe and he as a leading composer. Let us leave their history there before the tragic story’s end.

Mr. Hamelin is known for exploring less well known composers as well as the most celebrated, classical masters. His program included Six Arrangements of Songs Sung by Charles Trénet. Mr. Hamelin found a recording, Mr. Nobody Plays Trénet, of Trénet’s songs which typify French cabaret in the era from 1930s-1950s. The pianist who recorded the songs was Alexis Weissenberg (1929-2012). Mr. Hamelin created a score from listening to the recording and then received arrangements of four of the six songs from Mr. Weissenberg’s granddaughter. The performance of the six very different songs was a delight: personal and intriguing music with a special lilt and character. A wonderful addition to the recital.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cipressi (Cypresses), Opus 17 was a revelation to those of us unfamiliar with this composer. The music calls out visions of the cypress trees which were in the environment of the place in Italy where Castelnuovo-Tedesco spent summers in the 1920s. For this listener, the image of eucalyptus in the Bay Area mist immediately came to mind. It is a relatively brief, but beautiful and completely original work. The composer wrote extensively for the guitar as well as piano, symphony and voice. Like other artists who were fortunate to leave Europe in the 1930s, Castelnuovo escaped to Los Angeles in 1938. The beauty of this composition with its slightly mysterious sound impels me to look for his operatic work for Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well.

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

One may often hear Chopin’s work described as “jewel like” meaning both brilliant and, especially in comparison to a symphony, small. The thing about Chopin’s work is that it is perfect. This was my rejoinder to a friend who thought Chopin’s lack of symphonies made him less a composer. No. His work is perfect, that is in addition to enchanting, beautiful, entirely only itself. The two pieces chosen by Mr. Hamelin, the Polonaise-Fantasy in A-flat major, Opus 61, and the Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Opus 54, were vigorous and large, full of invention. Chopin’s performances and compositions helped to enlarge the piano’s world in technique and sound. Mr. Hamelin seemed to revel in the bright, ebullient and continually challenging music, and so did the audience.

Standing and cheering for Marc-André Hamelin, the audience brought him back for bows and then received two encores. The first was his own composition, Toccata on L’homme armé. Fast, incredibly intricate, it had thirty premieres as all the contestants in the 2017 Van Cliburn contest had to play this work by Hamelin, one of their judges. Bowing to the insistence of music lovers greedy for more, Mr. Hamelin also played Herberge from Schumann’s Forest Scenes. It was played lovingly, and with careful attention to the unusual phrasing and a surprise rest before the delicate ending.

Mr. Hamelin performs all over the world, and he will be in Madison, WI, April 12- 14. The ice has probably melted. You will be glad to be there even if it has not.

Charlotte Bronte: The Bats of Haworth

The Lively Foundation is proud to announce that the Browning Society of San Francisco, a prominent literary and theater society, has invited our Artistic Director, Leslie Friedman to make a presentation on January 12, 1:00 p.m., the Sequoias, 1400 Geary, San Francisco. Admission is free. A reception with cake, coffee, tea follows the talk.

The Bronte sisters, Emily, Anne, Charlotte, painted by their brother, Branwell.

Leslie will show the video of her dance, THE BATS OF HAWORTH, which is accompanied by spoken excerpts from the writings of Charlotte Bronte, and music of Chopin. The dance is a trio about the Bronte sisters. This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights. The presentation will include a talk about the sisters and their art as well as about the choreography. Dr. Friedman choreographed and danced in this work.

The presentation is free and open to the public, Jan. 12, 1:00 p.m., at the Sequoias, 1400 Geary Blvd., San Francisco. You may enter through the buildings Post St. entrance, sign in, take the elevators to the top floor. For more information, please contact Dennis R. Parks, 415/668-0332 or dennisrparks@yahoo.com  or find the Browning Society on Facebook.

HEROIC, BELOVED: Lively’s Concerts for Women’s History

Heroic leslieThe first one was in March, 1996. HEROIC, BELOVED, a concert of dances about real, historic women, or set to music by women, with lyrics by women, or ideas about women. Every Spring season, 1996 – 2010, The Lively Foundation presented the concerts with new works, guest artists, at home or on tour. From the beginning, it was the FIRST and the ONLY concert for Women’s History Month AND the FIRST and the ONLY production by an arts group to aid breast cancer patients.

In San Francisco, the concerts included choreography by Leslie Friedman for company dancers with Leslie and solo performances by Leslie. On tour through the US, the concerts were all solo. Performances presented by universities and civic organizations appeared in California, Washington state, Iowa, multiple times in various cities of Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee. Leslie’s dances included a dance about Harriet Tubman set to a song by the Oakland based group, Higher Ground; a dance with music by Edward Elgar written for a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning; music by Jon Deak for writing by Willa Cather; a song by Tina Turner dedicated to dancer Mary Craighill; Embrace Tiger, Return Rhinemaid to Mountain, a satirical dance for a Cole Porter song; a Brahms violin sonata for Clara, a dance about Clara Schumann; the velvety vocal of Miss Helen Humes’ ballad, Every Now and Then; the rousing spiritual, Come Down, Angels, written by Undine Smith Moore. And more: The Bats of Haworth, for example, a trio with music by Chopin and text from Charlotte Bronte.

“It amazed me when I got a call from some other dancers wanting to know who my funders were because they wanted to do a program like this, too!” recalls Leslie. “My funders?! I did the program because it needed to be done.

PDillardMy first guest artist, opera singer Pamela Dillard, was beautiful. She sang Come Down, Angels with me dancing, too. She said she always ran in the Avon event in San Francisco and was delighted to help. At one performance, Gloria Guth Pasta, my dear friend from graduate school, came with her cancer support group. That was a moment to remember always. That was my ‘funding.'”

Picture: top:Leslie Friedman, Washington, D.C.; photo by Jonathan Clark; Pamela Dillard

 

Barantschik, Nel, Wyrick Meet Beethoven, Chopin, Shostakovich

Chamber music at the Palace of the Legion of Honor is always a high point of San Francisco’s musical season. Remarkable musicians playing some of classical music’s finest selections in a theater that looks like the inside of magical music box: it’s great. Sunday, November 1, opened the season with Beethoven’s Trio in G major, Opus 1, no. 2; Chopin’s Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Opus 54; and Shostakovich’s Quintet in G minor, Opus 57. Each one was a gem. The character of each was entirely different from the others. I mention that for readers who may think narrow thoughts about chamber music. You have been misled; these are peak musical experiences. 14708Alexander Barantschik, the Concert Master of the SF Symphony, violin; Anton Nel, piano; and Peter Wyrick, Associate Principal Cello of the SFS formed the trio for Beethoven. Michael Grebanier, SFS Principal Cello was scheduled to perform but replaced by Wyrick. The music was delightful. Beethoven plays with bright emotions, letting his lyricism and great heart carry the listener into an ideal natural world. The Scherzo movement offers syncopation and suggests a folk dance. The Finale: Presto sweeps aside any constraint, calling upon the pianist for virtuosic performance and yet keeping all three in an exciting ensemble. It was thrilling to watch and to hear these artists.

800px-Frédéric_Chopin_by_Bisson,_1849Extraordinary pianist Anton Nel heads the Division of Keyboard Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He has performed frequently with the San Francisco Symphony as well as the Cleveland, Chicago, London orchestras, and in partnership with Alexander Barantschik in the Chamber Music series. His performance of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 4 was a gift. Although a life long Chopin devotee, the Scherzo was not familiar to this Hedgehog. It was performed with exquisite style and taste. Nel gave Chopin the leading role and by doing so showed his own brilliance. It is a big piece, not at all a piece of another, grander work. The listeners were given much to embrace and absolutely stellar musicianship.

600full-dmitri-shostakovichIn the Shostakovich Quintet, SF Symphony musicians Florin Parvulescu, SFS violin, and Jonathan Vinocour, SFS Principal Viola, joined Barantschik, Nel, and Wyrick. Concert goers who feel they know Beethoven and Chopin could have been quite surprised by the selections by those composers on this program. They were both fresh and profound. They may have been most impressed and surprised by the Shostakovich. His music is not played so often, was shut out of programming for decades, and when presented now opens the mind and heart with forceful, beautiful, sometimes soul wrenching music. While Shostakovich suffered greatly when out of favor with Stalin and his henchmen, this Quintet was written and premiered during a brief interlude of acceptance. It is glorious. Its premiere was 1940, but it sounds new and full of life. Its performance by this quintet of champion musicians provided music that could send the entire audience aloft. The persistence of the Russian dances in the last movements whirled us along while a thoughtful, musical spirit appears as if to whisper a reminder of a quiet secret. The audience called the quintet back for multiple bows. Each of the performers deserved whole hearted cheers.

Pictures from top: Beethoven, photo of Chopin by Bisson, 1849; Shostakovich.

EMANUEL AX, PIANO, at San Francisco Symphony

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Emanuel Ax performed a magnificent, wonderful, loving recital of works by Bizet, Rameau, Debussy, and Chopin at the Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, January 11, 2015. There is little to write about his performance except that it was wonderful. He is a great artist. His presence is low-key. There is no fuss and bother, no gesture that is not part of playing the piano with an understanding of the music that goes far deeper than the notes and with technique that has mastered every nuance, tone, color, rhythm. Like a baseball player who is hitting better than .300 for the season and still is the first one in the park to take batting practice, Mr. Ax could be seen from Davies’ Hall’s foyer over the SFS closed circuit t.v.s practicing until the ushers were forced to open the doors to let the audience be seated. His selections were not the usual fare for a pianist’s performance. He opened with Bizet’s Variations Chromatique de Concert. A dazzling display of musical color, it is also an astonishing virtuoso challenge. From the beginning, Mr. Ax showed that he was the Master and could make the piano would do whatever amazingly difficult turns the Master required. Dismissed as merely virtuosic by a music commentator who didn’t get it, the piece is a musical joy. Shall I point to center field and hit the home run exactly there? Ok, that’s what I will do. Shall I jump up and, while staying up there, cross my feet front and back six times just to show that a human could do such a thing? Ok, I’ll do that. And, I will do it beautifully because beauty counts.The Rameau selection, Suite in G major/minor from Nouvelles Suites de pieces de clavecin, was also a splendid surprise. It is full of invention from this late 17th-early 18th century composer. Each piece of the suites called for either a specific, unusual action of the pianist or musically suggested a image in action. For Les Tricotets (The Knitters) the pianist’s hands play closely together as though the melody is being unfurled like a scarf from knitting needles. La Poule (The Hen) has the music suggest the bird. However, by describing them in these brief phrases I am in danger of simplifying music which experiments with harmonies and rhythm as well as the physical act of making music. Approaching Debussy, the listener may anticipate being in a more familiar, early 20th century, musical world. Debussy never disappoints until one thinks it possible for him to be predictable. The selections were Estampes (Prints): Pagodes, La Soiree dans Grenade, Jardins sous la pluie. They were elegant, mysterious, beautiful in a way in which Debussy helped to teach us to find beauty. The delicate Pagodes was inspired by Debussy’s fascination with Japanese art which was just coming to France and captivating the Impressionist painters, as well. At times it suggested a small, graceful water insect which can tip toe across the surface of a pond. La Soiree dans Grenade had a snip of jazz inflection with its light touch of a Spanish accent. Debussy’s Homage a Rameau, in addition to being a fitting addition to the Rameau on the program, is a graceful and rhythmic tribute to the composer Debussy greatly admired. L’Isle joyeuse is completely extraordinary. Listeners whose closest association with Debussy is Prelude to L’Apres-midi d’un Faune especially should seek this music. It seems to capture all of Debussy’s love of nature: plants, water, strange and famiiar animals. It is an Eden one can almost touch, but only almost. After the intermission came Chopin. Mr. Ax chose Four Scherzos, written from 1832-1842. The great composer lived such a brief life, 1810-1849, that the time span of the Scherzos is significant. I will not describe them. I am still overcome by their intensity, range of emotion, magnificent and purposeful virtuosity. Each one had its own terrors and passion and its own troubled peace. Find them and listen. To find Emanuel Ax in concert, one need not travel far. He will play with orchestras in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Dallas, Los Angeles, Vancouver, in addition to an extensive European tour. Hear him live.Photos, top, Emanuel Ax; below: Bizet, Debussy, Rameau, ChopinBizet

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