Festival Reviews

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Concert review: ‘The Art of Fugue’ reimagined at Northwest BachFest
By By Larry Lapidus

March 9, 2019

Ever since Zuill Bailley assumed the role of artistic director of the Northwest Bach Festival, the theme of “Reimagining” has played a part in every program. As Bailley conceives it, reimagining consists of performing familiar works in unfamiliar ways or unexpected places.

Large orchestral works, such as Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote,” appear as chamber music, piano parts are taken by a guitar, concerti become quintets, and so on. The goal is to make visible the hardened assumptions and prejudices that stand in the way of really hearing what we are listening to, and to make us peer into the mystery of where the music really is: Is it buried in the notes of the score? Is it wrapped in the sounds of particular instruments? How much emanates from the performers, from the composer, or from us?

The process of reimagining is not only possible, but necessary in performing J.S. Bach’s last great work, “The Art of Fugue.”

Bach’s manuscript does not even tell us what instrument or instruments to use in playing it, whether it is a work for keyboard, strings, or winds. Appropriately, on Friday night, it was performed at a winery by a quartet of strings that is not a string quartet: the Richter Ensemble, consisting of Rodolfo Richter and Rebecca Huber, violins; Julia Kuhn, viola; and Jennifer Morsches, cello. They are all terrific musicians, and each one of the 14 fugues that make up Bach’s “Art” allowed them to display their taste, their vivid personality, and their instrumental virtuosity.

An essential aspect of the Richter Ensemble is that the players use instruments configured as they would have been in Bach’s time, with gut strings and with different fingerboards and internal bracing than are found in modern instruments designed to be heard in different venues and to meet different musical demands than those known to Bach and his contemporaries.

The gut strings require less tension, producing a less aggressive sound, less focused on the fundamental pitch and more balanced in its overtones. As a result, the ensemble’s four voices are balanced in a way that is nearly impossible for a quartet of modern instruments, in which the higher voices dominate, and the middle and lower-range instruments struggle to be heard. We could hear clearly the subtleties of every player, and the incredibly imaginative and expressive turn of every phrase of Bach’s inexhaustible invention. It was a musical experience at once fiercely stimulating and deeply relaxing.

To illustrate the power of Bach’s influence, “The Art of Fugue” was interrupted at several points by performances of short works by important composers of our own time, including Luciano Berio (1925-2003), Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) and Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933). As if to broaden the scope further, the Berio pieces evoked the styles of earlier composers Bruno Maderna, Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly and Igor Stravinsky. All of these composers reacted against the emotionalism and cult of personality that dominated European music after Bach and sought greater clarity in the works of the German master.

Prior to the beginning of the concert proper, and in keeping with the Festival’s practice of providing a platform for local young artists, we had a chance to hear Alex Hjermstad, cellist and winner of this year’s Concerto Competition of the Spokane Youth Symphony. Unaccompanied (more reimagining here), he performed the first movement of the Cello Concerto in E minor of Edward Elgar, which he will be performing in full on March 17 of at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. His performance, which portrayed Elgar’s anxious melancholy with remarkable understanding, reminded us that, while some things have been lost, much has also been gained in the evolution of string instruments since the time of Bach.

All content © 2019 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.

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Concert review: Yuliya Gorenman wins over the audience with a winning ‘Scheherazade’
By By Larry Lapidus

March 7, 2019

At her inaugural recital of the 2019 season of the Northwest Bachfest, at which she performed the entire “Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1” of J.S. Bach, Yuliya Gorenman won the admiration of her audience. At her second recital, she won their hearts.

Again, the program was a daunting one for the performer: Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s vast symphonic suite, “Scheherazade,” in an original transcription for piano by Gorenman herself. As she explained to us after the performance, her motivation in making the transcription was to be able to play “Scheherazade” for her father, who loves the piece above all others. Consequently, the transcription is scrupulously faithful to the original, lacking any meretricious additions designed to show off the performer’s technical gifts, which in the case of Yuliya Gorenman, are considerable.

Her Olympian technique was evidenced especially in her ability to play with perfect clarity and expression the many passages in which Rimsky-Korsakov weaves together several independent voices or melodies. At many points, it was hard to imagine how only 10 fingers could negotiate such complexity, much less how it could be managed with such utterly relaxed musicality. In the Russian School of piano performance, this, rather than purling scales or rocketing octaves, signals the highest level of achievement.

The comfortable ambiance of Barrister Winery allows one to see the reactions of others in the audience to what they are hearing. The beaming smiles and eyes closed in concentration made it plain that Gorenman had succeeded in her goal of embracing the audience, rather than bowling it over. The consistently warm, velvety tone we heard in her first recital was still everywhere deployed, perhaps even more suitably in giving voice to Rimsky-Korsakov’s sensuous, exotic melodies. The relaxation and naturalness of her approach to the keyboard allowed her to convey to us the beauty and power of Rimsky-Korsakov’s conception as though she were a bard of Homer’s time, keeping his audience enthralled throughout the days-long course of an epic poem.

After a few minutes of warm and informative banter with the audience, Gorenman demonstrated her versatility through three quite dissimilar encores; first demonstrating her mastery of the jazz idiom with “You Go to My Head” (1938) with a mastery of phrasing and pedaling one is unlikely to hear in a cocktail lounge. Then, in response to urging from festival artistic director Zuill Bailey, we heard a poignant, lyrical performance of the second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor Op. 13. The evening concluded with a performance of the Nocturne for the Left Hand Op. 9 by the late-romantic Russian composer, Alexander Scriabin. Without in any way denigrating the quality of Gorenman’s superb playing of the other works in which we have heard her, it must be remarked that her playing of the Scriabin Nocturne showed a mastery of idiom and a degree of technical finish so high as to suggest that this is the sort of repertoire most native to her, where her training, her natural gifts and her deepest sympathies converge.

In an effort to acquaint the audiences at the Northwest Bachfest with some of the talented young musicians in our area, Bailey is dedicating a 20 minute segment before the opening of each concert to the playing of an outstanding young musician. On Sunday afternoon, we had a chance to hear Yvette Kraft, a marvelous musician, plain and simple. Her rendition of two movements from the Partita No 1 for solo violin by Bach left this listener convinced that he could happily go on listening to her play forever. Before Gorenman took the stage to play “Scheherazade,” we were able to hear Noah Reason, horn, perform without accompaniment the first movement of Richard Strauss’ delightful Horn Concerto No 1, Op. 13. Reason is one of the winners of this year’s Concerto Competition of the Spokane Youth Symphony, and will be featured, along with his fellow winners, in a performance of the Strauss concerto on March 17 at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. Although betrayed a bit by his nerves on Wednesday night, Reason displayed a very distinctive, well-focused tone throughout the wide range demanded by Strauss. This is a quality that many professional horn players struggle throughout long careers to achieve, often without success.

All content © 2019 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.

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Concert review: Does one piano make for an extravaganza? Yes, when it’s Yuliya Gorenman playing Bach
By By Larry Lapidus

March 4, 2019

Anyone who bought a ticket to the opening performance of the 2019 season of the Northwest Bach Festival after seeing it advertised as an “extravaganza” might have been dismayed when, walking into the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on Sunday afternoon, they saw nothing onstage but a single piano.

What? No chairs for an orchestra, or music stands for the soloists? Where were the dancers to perform, and where was the equipment for the light show? Scanning the program, a baffled ticketholder would have found the name of only one performer, pianist Yuliya Gorenman, and that of a single composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. You call that an extravaganza?

Well, yes, in fact. The root of the extravagance was Bach’s decision in 1722 to publish a collection of paired preludes and fugues on every key in what we now know as the standard chromatic scale, climbing by half-steps from C to C sharp/D flat, to D, to D sharp/E flat … and so on to the note B. That makes 12 pitches on which to start either a major or a minor scale, also referred to as key “signatures.” Since one of his purposes was to advocate the adoption of a certain system of tuning for keyboard instruments, he published the collection under the title, “The Well-Tempered Clavier” (“Well-Tempered” meaning “tuned”). Bach’s task, then, involved composing 24 pairs of original keyboard works demonstrating the beauty, power and variety inherent in each key signature.

The other extravagant element to Sunday’s Bach Festival opening was Gorenman’s decision to perform not merely a few sets of preludes and fugues, but all 24. To do so requires not only tremendous stamina, both physical and psychological, but a keyboard technique capable of meeting any challenge and interpretive ability of the highest order.

It was plain from the start that Gorenman possesses a technique capable of meeting, indeed overwhelming any challenge. She exemplifies the Russian School of pianism, in which we number such titans as Sergei Rachmaninov and Emil Gilels. Like them, Gorenman plays with a consistently beautiful, warm tone and commands a very wide dynamic range, which she uses to express surges of emotion. She possesses a command of legato playing, or the tying together of notes in a way that imitates the human singing voice, and is skillful in using the piano’s sustaining pedal to intensify this effect.

Thus, Gorenman revealed much of the infinite variety of thought and feeling that lies within the first book of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” Still, many of the attributes of the Russian School were developed more than 150 years after Bach’s work was published, in response to changes in the construction of the piano and in the composition of music written for it that Bach could hardly have imagined. They must be applied sparingly, if at all, to the performance of Bach’s music, and Gorenman sometime applied them in excess. Particularly during the first half of the program, her very full tone, seldom dropping below a mezzo-forte (i.e., fairly loud), swelling phrases, unvarying legato and over-pedaling obscured the brilliance of Bach’s counterpoint and made one feel that one was listening to preludes by Rachmaninov, rather than by Bach.

As the program progressed through the second half, however, her approach changed rather markedly, perhaps as she became more accustomed to the very resonant acoustics of St. John’s. Whatever the reason, her playing took on more of the clarity and transparency so vital to the enjoyment of polyphonic music. In the B minor fugue, Gorenman’s sovereign technique and that of Bach combined to provide an experience of the beauty and majesty of this music that was truly unforgettable.

On Wednesday, Gorenman will appear at Barrister Winery in the second concert of this year’s Northwest Bachfest. She will be performing her own transcription of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s perennially popular symphonic suite, “Scheherazade.” If any work invites the full resources of color and emotion she commands, surely this one does. To any lover of Romantic music, and of great piano playing, the prospect is enticing.

All content © 2019 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.