Festival Reviews

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Ariel Quartet gives deeply affecting performance of Beethoven’s final masterpiece
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

December 9, 2019

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 10, 2019

On Sunday afternoon, a goodly crowd gathered at Barrister Winery to hear the Ariel Quartet play a program of music by Beethoven and Shostakovich. Had that same audience been able to travel anywhere else in the world, they would not have heard better quartet playing than was offered on that day by the Ariel Quartet in its last of four concerts in the winter season of the 2019 Northwest BachFest.

To encounter quartet playing of this level is more remarkable than you might think, because there is no aspect of classical music where the standards are as high as they are in the performance of string quartets. Cults have formed whose members focus with a jeweler’s eye on the smallest details of execution and interpretation, scrutinizing accuracy of intonation, precision of ensemble and technical finish, and always comparing each new performance with recordings of the same work by other quartets who have already attained cult status. Even when subjected to this sort of scrutiny, the Ariel Quartet, comprised of Gershon Gerchikov and Alexandra Kazovsky (violins), Jan Grüning (viola) and Amit Even-Tov (cello), emerged as a treasurable source of new pleasures and new insights into the string quartet literature, from which three great works were chosen for Sunday’s program: Beethoven’s Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6; his Quartet in F major, Op. 135; and Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110.

The sharp-eyed reader might have noticed that, in listing the members of the Ariel Quartet, I made no mention of “first violin” or “second violin.” This is a result of the group’s policy to depart from the traditional notion of the dominant first violinist, whose musical personality defines that of the quartet itself.

Just mention to string quartet cultists the names Joseph Roisman, Robert Mann and Norbert Brainin, and they will fire back the names of the quartets they led: Budapest, Juilliard and Amadeus String Quartets, while the names of remaining three players in each group may prove more difficult to recall. The two violinists of the Ariel Quartet exchange chairs according to the players’ wishes and the opinions of the other players as to who might be more suitable to the work at hand. This frees every player to speak in his or her own voice, which is reflected in the startling transparency and clarity of their playing. An audience member, himself a violinist, was heard to remark that he heard 50% more music in the performance of the Beethoven Quartet No. 6 than he knew it contained, even after having studied and performed it himself.

From the first measures of the Beethoven Quartet No. 6, the Ariel Quartet conveyed a marvelous quality of openness and airiness by carefully moderating bow pressure and vibrato, allowing us to hear all the colors acquired by their splendid instruments over the last three centuries. They also achieve a remarkable flexibility of tempo while maintaining utterly perfect ensemble. They seemed always to own the beat, rather than being regulated by it. Even at very quick tempi, there was always time to give a witty inflection to a phrase, or impart a touching bit of color.

As illuminating as these qualities were in performing the Beethoven quartets, they were perhaps even more so in Shostakovich’s great C minor quartet, which Spokane audiences last had a chance to hear in an arrangement for string orchestra, performed beautifully by the Spokane Symphony last year under guest conductor Daniel Hege. Though it might seem counterintuitive, the piece was even more intense and affecting when played by four players than by 40. The quartet mixes deep sorrow with bitter sarcasm in a way that seemed unique to Shostakovich, until, that is, we encountered it again in Ariel’s deeply affecting performance of Beethoven’s last string quartet, and final completed masterpiece. To move in the space of one minute from the fragile lyricism of the third movement to the screaming dissonances of the fourth was to be led in a moment from one extreme of the human soul to the other.

Any summary of the highpoints of Sunday’s concert must include mention of a soloist who appeared before the quartet walked onstage. In keeping with the practice of introducing its audiences to outstanding local talent, BachFest presented 10-year-old Jessie Morozov, who performed Charles Auguste de Bério’s “Scene de Ballet,” a violin work of blistering difficulty, with a degree of technical mastery, poise and musicality that many professionals may only dream of. Before a phenomenon like Jessie, criticism must fall silent.

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

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Concert Review: Zuill Bailey shakes things up in BachFest fall season debut
By By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

September 1, 2019

Recent years have seen the rise in what we might call the “curator/artist”: a person responsible for organizing a show of works of art whose creative vision is as important as that of the artist or artists whose work is being exhibited.

Since assuming the role of artistic director of the Northwest BachFest, Zuill Bailey has not only continued its elevation into the front ranks of similar events in our country, but he also has used his authority in planning the programs and engaging the performers to instruct all of us in how to engage with and comprehend the world of classical music in our time.

Not content with dusting off long-loved scores by Beethoven and Brahms and creating a stable of familiar players to perform them, Bailey set out from the start to shake things up by programming little-known works by well-known composers, radical transformations of familiar masterpieces or immersive, blockbuster series of masterworks (Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” for example) formerly regarded as off-limits in a festival setting.

Sunday’s kick-off of the festival’s fall season, titled “Spanish Nights,” at Barrister Winery was a perfect example. Bailey called on four friends who are brilliant musicians (he seems to have a very large circle of tremendously gifted close friends) to perform works by all of the leading Spanish composers of the 20th century, with the exception of Isaac Albeniz.

We heard works by Joaquin Rodrigo (“Sonata Pimpante”), Manuel de Falla (“Seven Spanish Popular Songs”), Enrique Granados (“Andaluz” from his “Spanish Dances, Op. 37”) and Joaquin Turina (“Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 67”). Emphasizing the questing, dynamic spirit behind the festival, Bailey himself performed two works not on the program, Pablo Casals’ “The Song of the Birds” and the “Sarabande” from J.S. Bach’s First Suite for Solo Cello.

Joaquin Rodrigo is the composer of what is likely the world’s most familiar piece of Spanish instrumental music, the “Concierto de Aranjuez” (1939) for guitar and orchestra. The work we heard Sunday, the “Sonata Pimpante,” on the other hand, is so unfamiliar that it fails to warrant inclusion in what pretends to be a listing of Rodrigo’s complete works in Wikipedia.

Yet it was revealed in a performance by violinist Kurt Nikkanen and pianist Alfredo Oyaguez as a work of brilliant invention, superb construction and inspiring impact. Nikkanen has appeared several times in Spokane, giving us interpretations of concertos by Sibelius and Beethoven that displayed technical mastery and gripping, imaginative engagement. His performance of the Rodrigo Sonata maintained that very high standard.

It was exciting to be able to be so close to him and watch his unremitting, varying bow speed and pressure, subtly varying his vibrato to achieve the greatest possible degree of expressivity in every measure. He was fortunate to have the support of Oyaguez, who is intimately familiar with the music and whose accompaniment was a model of accuracy and vitality.

The difficulty in mounting a performance of a group of songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra has meant that we have had to depend on recordings as a way of experiencing Falla’s powerful “Seven Spanish Popular Songs.” Leave it to Bailey to find an arrangement for viola and piano and to bring in violist Scott Rawls, who last appeared at the festival in 2016, to perform it.

The viola is widely regarded as less moving and expressive than the violin. In Rawls’ hands, however, the instrument achieved tremendous expressive variety, ranging from the dusky sensuality of the famous “Jota” to the tender sweetness of “Nana,” a lullaby. For each number, Rawls was able to find an appropriate “voice” to convey Falla’s emotional message, just as a vocal soloist would do. It was a remarkable achievement.

The evening concluded with a performance of Turina’s Piano Quartet, which, while very enjoyable in the way we might take pleasure in finding a faded rose pressed in the leaves of an old volume of poetry, could not disguise the composer’s emulation of models pressed on him during his studies in Paris by such fashionable composers as Gabriel Faure and Ernest Chausson and his half-hearted identification with the music of his own country at that point in his career.

During the few minutes in which Bailey held the stage himself in performing the Bach Sarabande and the Casals “Song of the Birds,” it must be said that we all felt the presence of something beyond technique and interpretive originality: that mysterious connection a few rare artists can give us to the wellspring of music, indeed of artistic creation itself.

When he plays, we may hear a vibrating string, but what we feel is yearning and disappointment, compassion and love. We feel our very humanity and even glimpse whatever it is that lies beyond it.

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

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BachFest Review: Richard Dowling plays music by the teenage Chopin
By By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

August 26, 2019

Following two appearances last May in the Northwest Bach Festival, performing, in one, a selection of Scott Joplin’s piano rags, and, in the other, accompanying festival director Zuill Bailey in a program of music for cello and piano, Richard Dowling returned to Spokane on Thursday night to perform a program of music for the piano composed by the teenaged Frederic Chopin. The venue was, again, Barrister Winery: an ideal festival venue, affording both intimacy and the acoustic space needed to accommodate the full dynamic range of a grand piano.

Dowling took advantage of both qualities. He is a polymath who commands the full resources of a concert pianist, the scholarly accomplishments of Ph.D. in music from Yale and the skills of a professional music editor.

In his running commentary to the audience, however, he drew the audience in by wearing his accomplishments lightly, providing just enough historical background to provide context for what we were to hear, while communicating an almost boyish enthusiasm and admiration for what the young Chopin was able to achieve.

At the keyboard, he obtained an extraordinary dynamic range, from ethereal filigree to octaves that registered high on the Richter scale, that has eluded some other, very fine pianists we have heard playing the same instrument in the same space.

In the early stage of his career in which he produced all of the music we heard on Thursday night, Chopin was seeking to establish himself both as a composer and as a prominent performer. Much of his music from this period, then, demands extraordinary technical brilliance, of which Dowling possesses an apparently inexhaustible supply.

The Polonaise in G-sharp minor Op. Post, written before Chopin reached the age of 14, may lack the brooding power of the later polonaises, but it is damned hard to play, and Dowling dispatched its showers of scales, its rapid octaves and intricate ornaments with imperturbable ease and fluency.

Again, while the totally obscure “Introduction and Variations in E major on a German National Air, ‘Der Schweizerbub’ Op. Post.” offers little in the way of philosophic depth, it allowed Dowling to show off both the breadth of his scholarship and the evenness of his scales.

The pianist who ventures an entire program devoted to Chopin is daring to pick up a heavy gauntlet, laid down by generations of pianists, many of whom traced their musical lineage back to The Master himself, who was acutely conscious of what was unique in his own playing, and determined to pass it on through colleagues and pupils, and by composing two books of etudes that crystallize it.

That gauntlet is called “Chopin Style,” about which much wine, if not blood, has been and is still being spilled in the cafes of Paris and Warsaw. Playing in that style requires all the technical attributes that Dowling possesses, as well as others which he deployed with less consistent success.

Most significant is the use of rubato, a flexible approach to tempo that requires the player to maintain a steady rhythmic pulse in one voice, while subtly varying that pulse in another voice by falling slightly behind the pulse at one point, and then catching up with it.

This may sound too subtle and too wonky to be worth much attention from anyone apart from piano teachers, and perhaps music critics, but in fact it separates great Chopin playing from good Chopin playing.

In too much of Dowling’s playing, tempos would grind to a halt, only to lurch forward suddenly. The effect was to break the lyric thread holding the composition together, leaving a series of well-played and agreeable fragments. One example was the Nocturne in C sharp minor Op. Post, where Dowling’s exquisite voicing of the melody was undermined by an impatient rushing of tempo and a failure to let the phrases “breathe.”

In the following piece, however, the “Nocturne in B-flat minor Op. 9 No. 1,” composed about the same time, the pianist displayed masterful use of rubato, achieving a completely different and more satisfying effect.

The appearance of this unidiomatic approach to tempo recurred often enough throughout the program to create the impression that Dowling was not entirely at ease with Chopin, much as he loves and admires the music.

This impression was sharpened by the encore piece, which began as a thoroughly lovely, and idiomatic, performance of a work by Chopin which, though early, is one of his most famous and most beloved: the “Nocturne in E flat major Op. 9 No. 2,” a classic test-piece, by the way, of a pianist’s command of rubato.

Dowling was passing the test with flying colors, when, just at a point of a change in harmony, a peculiar chord appeared. The music briefly stopped altogether, and then burst upon the audience as something entirely different, a pounding, ecstatic transformation of Chopin’s melody in the stride piano style of the 1920s, of which Thomas “Fats” Waller was the incomparable master.

The audience was transported, and so was Dowling, who played the piece out with a galvanizing mixture of bravura and delight, suggesting that he at last felt completely at home.

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

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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.