Tag Archives: piano

EMANUEL AX, PIANO, at San Francisco Symphony


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



Helene Grimaud & San Francisco Symphony

HGrimaudThe astonishing Helene Grimaud performed Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op 15 (1858), with the SFSymphony, Feb. 6, 2014, at Davies Symphony Hall. Ms Grimaud’s performance was powerful, expressive of the deep emotions in the great work. She is a pianist whose affinity for Brahms has offered both wonderful performances and recordings. Listening to the concerto is an intense experience. Brahms never dodges the emotions and does not mind calling on the audience to pay heed to the interworkings of piano and orchestra, changes of rhythm, a lyricism which is not soothing. In fact, Brahms does not seem to mind if one is not comfortable.This is edge of your seat music.BrahmsHeleneGrimaud. The music can swirl like a rip tide in deep water. It has a force which could sweep one away. It brings to mind images for which one might have yearned but never reached. Writers often find autobiographical detail in this concerto. Brahms’ friend and champion, Robert Schumann, had tried to drown himself in the Rhine in 1854. Schumann was sent to an asylum where he died, in 1856. Schumann and his wife, Clara, had 7 children. Brahms spent time visiting Schuman, helping Clara, helping with the children. Brahms and Clara: who knows? Seeing them through 21st century eyes is not so helpful. Yet their devotion to each other and to Schumann was total. So, is it a game to identify which movement is Robert Schumann and which is Clara Schumann and which is Brahms’ sense of loss? Oh, please, let’s not go there! Johannes Brahms was a great, earth-shakingly great composer. He worked with music and invented music. If he wanted to write a play, he could have done that instead. The concerto is about the music. If memories, images, emotions are called into being by it, that is its life. The concerto embraces the intertwining of music, love, and life. Sadness is there because it is real, and Brahms is always real. Ms Grimaud played with feeling completely in tune with Brahms. She spent herself entirely in service of the music. It was an extraordinary performance by Symphony and soloist.                                                                       


The SF Symphony offered Metaboles, by Henri Dutilleux, and La Valse, by Maurice Ravel, after intermission. The SFS was an exuberant, well-tuned instrument as conducted by Lionel Bringuier. Metaboles, though a little intimidating to read about, was a poetic and interesting piece. The composer was concerned with finding the correct form for each of the five movements. For example, Obsessionnel: Scherzando and Torpide: Andantino. It was fascinating music played with precision that did not take away from the rhythmic and melodic pleasure of the piece. La Valse is dramatic and threatening. Ravel’s affection for Johann Strauss had moved him to write a waltz tribute; World War I intervened. La Valse is imbued with the harsh sounds of irony. Couples may be dancing together, but they are out of step and off center, like a chandelier about to crash on a party. The music gets faster and –perhaps Maestro Bringuier was excited–extremely loud (as occasionally happened in the concerto). It is not the charming waltz of days gone by but the future’s dance of terror. Pictures: top, Helene Grimaud; L to Rt: Brahms, H.Grimaud, Lionel Bringuier, Maurice Ravel

Andras Schiff/Bach

AndrasSchiffAndras Schiff performed J.S. Bach’s Six Partitas for Keyboard, BWV 825-830, Sunday, October 6, at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall. “Awesome” was the comment of the Hedgehog’s co-editor, a man seldom given to exaggeration or the use of that word to describe a sandwich. It was an awe-inspiring event. For readers who were not there, I will try to describe this once in a lifetime experience and also urge upon you attendance at one of Mr. Schiff’s performances or, if that is not possible, a careful listen to one of his recordings. I had the privilege to hear Mr. Schiff on his earlier visit to San Francisco in which he both played and talked about Bach. While I wanted to write about what he said and did, I put it off; perhaps I imagined that some how my ordinary brain would wake up to a set of words to match the music. That did not happen. The Partitas are multi-movement suites. Each is different; one can not anticipate, “oh, there’s the Sarabande, here comes the Gigue.” Bach uses those dance forms ( yes, conservatory students, dance forms ) in wholly new ways of his limitless invention. He adds movements called “galanterien,” optional movements, that come from all sorts of forms: arias, capriccios, fantasias. Within each movement, there is more invention within and all around it. The rhythmic variety is dazzling. Both the right and left hand establish different, complex rhythms and then take off onto new ones. The result is beauty. It is beautiful in the way a sunset or a forest might be beautiful on one glance but more beautiful, a mysterious and challenging beauty, if one could look knowing that one was not seeing a static picture but myriad entities made up of countless atoms all in motion. It was a performance that required focus on the part of the audience. The focus and endurance of the artist is at a level combining the focus of a world champion chess player with a world champion Iron Man. Being a person who does neither chess nor Iron Man contests, I do not claim to know from the inside what that is like. I am reaching to understand. The performance of these technically wizardly compositions lasted about 2 hours and 45 minutes. I mention that lest someone think a solo performance would necessarily be brief. The first half included Partita No. 5, No. 3, No. 1, and No. 2. Each one contains delights. No. 5 has a Corrente movement which truly runs quick notes dashing through bright, happy harmonies. Its seventh and final movement is a thrilling Gigue which demands beyond virtuoso playing. The rhythmic inventions in No. 3 continually alter the listener’s perceptions and occasionally reveal just a glimpse of a dance.  The stunning final movement, Capriccio, of No. 2 leaves the listener breathless. Partita No. 4 opened the first half offering part of an answer as to the artist’s choice of the order of the works. This Partita’s lyricism made it sound almost as though it were foretelling the musical future evolving into Romanticism. Bach’s genius transcends any classification by era or style, just as pure mathematics, another hobby this writer has yet to take up, knows no limits by year or geography. The Hedgehog co-editor told me after the concert that the Partitas are works that every serious piano student knows, or knows about, or has approached, although, he said, they are so very (extremely) difficult to play. Looking back, I realize how lucky I am that I was not familiar with these magnificent works. That is because when the final movement, a Gigue that took even the previous Gigues to another level of pure music and artistry, came suddenly to its end, the sudden gesture of both my hands to my mouth in amazement was entirely involuntary. Yes, 2 hours and 45 minutes without the many curtain calls and Mr. Schiff’s generous encore. I would have gladly stayed to hear it all again. Andras Schiff performs Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Sunday, Oct. 13, 7 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. JSBach