Ax shows his lyrical gift in Schubert and Chopin

Emanuel Ax, piano
Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall
Evanston, IL
May 3, 2017

Schubert: Four Impromptus, D935
Chopin: Impromptu in A-flat major, Op. 29
Chopin: Impromptu in F-sharp major, Op. 36
Chopin: Impromptu in G-flat major, Op. 51
Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66
Samuel Adams: Impromptu No. 2, “After Schubert”
Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

Encores:
Chopin: Nocturne in F-sharp major, Op. 15 No. 2
Chopin: Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 34 No. 1

Awarded biennially since 2006, Northwestern’s Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance now claims a veritable who’s who of the piano amongst its laureates.  Each recipient spends time in residency on campus, working with music students and presenting a public recital, and 2016 winner Emanuel Ax closed this season’s Skyline Piano Artist Series Wednesday evening.  Ax presented one of his characteristically thoughtful programs, exploring the impromptu in sterling examples by Schubert and Chopin along with a new addition to the genre by Samuel Adams, rounded off by Chopin’s incomparable B minor piano sonata.

Emanuel Ax
Emanuel Ax at the Galvin Recital Hall, all photos credit Todd Rosenberg
The evening opened with Schubert’s posthumously published set of Four Impromptus, D935 – and piano devotees will note that fellow Lane Prize winner Murray Perahia can be heard in the same work this Sunday at Symphony Center.  An arresting opening began the set, unsettling but calmed in due course by the legato thirds under Ax’s silken tone.  The sudden shifts to the minor gave the piece an unpredictable, mercurial quality, and Ax’s conception was spacious and improvisatory.  The second impromptu was characterized by an intensely lyrical chordal melody complemented by gracefully flowing interludes.  The theme of the B flat impromptu was of a charming refinement, but I felt Ax could have aspired to greater contrast in the ensuing set of five variations, even if the composer provided only one in the minor. While Ax’s sound was exquisite, it felt this was achieved through an unnecessarily cautious approach, and this was much the case in the final impromptu as well – while its folk-like, quasi-Hungarian melody certainly had fire, one still wanted a bit more heft.

Robert Schumann famously described Schubert’s D935 impromptus as a coherent if veiled sonata; Chopin’s four examples of the genre, however, are quite independent of one another, bearing little more in common than the rather vague title.  Nonetheless, Ax presented them as a suite, an interesting approach insofar as it juxtaposed works from various points in the composer’s life.  The Impromptu No. 1 in A flat major was highlighted by its songful middle section, and under Ax’s guidance the circuitous, labyrinthine coda felt entirely purposeful.  In the following work, the deeply felt music yearned and grew to great passions.  While it may be the least played of the Chopin impromptus, Ax made a strong case for the Impromptu No. 3 in G flat major in its arching, appealing melody.  Despite its late opus number owing to posthumous publication, the familiar Fantaisie-Impromptu is the earliest of the four, and Ax gave it an energetic workout with impressive prestidigitation.

The second half opened with a 2016 work of Samuel Adams which Ax himself commissioned, and the attention to Adams’ work is certainly topical as he currently serves as one of the two Mead Composers in Residence at the Chicago Symphony.  In concert with the theme of the first half, the work in question was the second of a set of three impromptus, this selection subtitled “After Schubert”.  As a whole the three are intended to be inserted between each of the D935 impromptus, drawing comparison to Brett Dean’s Hommage á Brahms, which Ax presented in a 2014 recital at Symphony Center, superimposed within Brahms’ Op. 119.  While it certainly would be interesting to hear the Adams in that fashion, No. 2 – a substantial piece, surpassing the 10 minute mark – functioned well independently (although I thought it would have been more logical to program it in between the Schubert and Chopin, and that way it would literally have been “after Schubert”).

Opening with quasi-Schubertian melodic fragments over a rippling accompaniment, it was as if one was experiencing distant, refracted memories of the Schubert impromptus, along with a perhaps more obvious invocation of the elder composer’s final B flat major piano sonata.  Cast in Schubert’s preferred ternary form, the middle section fared somewhat repetitive, but the brief return of the A section rounded off what was generally a very attractive piece.

Departing impromptu territory, Ax concluded the program with Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, and it was here he was at his finest.  The first movement was grand yet tautly structured, while the fleeting, quicksilver scherzo put the pianist’s dexterous fingers on full display.  The heart of the work is in the slow movement; its declamatory opening soon melted away into a divinely gorgeous nocturne.  Though filled with bravura runs and effects, the melody was never lost in the busyness of the finale which closed the work with enormous passion and drama.

The warm, enthusiastic reception brought Ax back to the keyboard for two encores, both by Chopin: an elegant account of the Nocturne in F sharp major, along with the Waltz in A flat major, stylish and buoyant.

Emanuel Ax

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Osorio makes an impressive entry in Northwestern’s Skyline Piano Artist Series

Jorge Federico Osorio, piano
Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall
Evanston, IL
April 1, 2017

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2, Moonlight
Schubert: Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major, D959
Debussy: Préludes, Book II

Encores:
Granados: Andaluza, No. 5 from Danzas españolas, Op. 37
Granados: Orientale, No. 2 from Danzas españolas, Op. 37

For piano enthusiasts, the Skyline Piano Artist Series at Northwestern, now in its second season, has become an essential complement to the Sunday afternoon recitals downtown at Symphony Center.  The venue of choice for the series is the recently built Galvin Recital Hall, one of Chicagoland’s most striking concert spaces, an intimate setting boasting stellar acoustics and stunning views of Lake Michigan and the distant Chicago skyline.  Chicago-based pianist Jorge Federico Osorio made a welcome appearance and offered a weighty program of Beethoven, Schubert, and Debussy.

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Jorge Federico Osorio, photo credit Todd Rosenberg
Beethoven’s ever-popular Moonlight sonata opened, the lights of the city skyline reflecting on the water making a fitting visual backdrop, though it should be remembered that the work’s ubiquitous sobriquet didn’t originate with the composer.  Under Osorio’s hands, the first movement was given a luminous, rippling effect, and treated almost like a nocturne.  The buoyant second movement served as a light interlude to the stormy finale.  In this impressive outpouring, Osorio mined the emotional depths of Beethoven’s explosive psyche; a few minor technical mishaps did little to detract from the drama.

In change from the order on the printed program, Osorio proceeded with Schubert’s late, great A major piano sonata (D959) to juxtapose the two epochal Viennese sonatas, both of which redefined the genre.  The grandeur of the capacious opening movement had an ineffable Schubertian grace, and Osorio opted for the lengthy repeat of the exposition.  A thoughtful sense of narrative guided the pianist in the labyrinths of the development, and its introspection was maintained through the mysterious, arpeggiated coda.  The Andantino had the lyricism of a song without words, and built to menacing outbursts in the strikingly contrasting middle section, while the scherzo danced in its mercurial drama, complemented by an especially lovely trio.  In the finale, the main theme’s blissfulness belied a dramatic potential which Osorio was keen to explore, and the movement harked back to the sonata’s declamatory opening in its concluding moments.

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The dramatic setting of the Galvin Recital Hall
The second half was devoted to Debussy’s substantial second book of twelve preludes, a panoply of pianistic watercolors requiring a formidable technique.  Brouillards was given a limpid reading, the coloristic washes of sound suggesting the titular mists.  Contrast was soon to be had in the barren Feuilles mortes, and Osorio struck an ideal balance between the fiery and the sensuous in the faux-Spanish La puerta del Vino.  The quicksilver Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses was fantasy-like, and the resonant bells of a distant cathedral were suggested in Bruyères.  Osorio imbued Général Lavine – eccentric with its requisite eccentricity, one of Debussy’s rambunctious appropriations of the American cakewalk and ragtime music (and incidentally, this concert occurred on the 100th anniversary of Scott Joplin’s death).

The moonlight shimmered in La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, and how apt it was given this prelude and the Beethoven sonata that concertgoers would leave the hall to the sight of a beautiful crescent moon.  Ondine was perhaps the most impressionistic of the set in its fantastical evocation of the titular water sprite.  The bombast of Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. was countered by Canope, which for Osorio was a study in the beauty and purity of tone.  While Les tierces alternées sounds like the name of a dry Czerny etude, here the alternating thirds were used for solid musical purposes rather than mere technique.  The Préludes concluded with the unrelenting technical tour de force that is Feux d’artifice, and Osorio delivered it with panache and élan.

No Osorio recital would be complete without music from the Spanish speaking world, and the two Granados encores filled the gap.  Both were extracted from the 12 Danzas españolas: a jaunty “Andaluza”, fittingly paired with the touchingly lyrical “Orientale”.

A Steve Reich celebration at Northwestern

Northwestern University Contemporary Music Ensemble
Northwestern University Percussion Ensemble
Alan Pierson, conductor
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall
Evanston, IL
February 9, 2017

Reich: Clapping Music
Reich: City Life
Reich: Music for 18 Musicians

As winner of the 2016 Nemmers Prize in Music Composition, Steve Reich is undertaking a pair of residencies at Northwestern University, the first of which culminated in a performance by the university’s Contemporary Music Ensemble and Percussion Ensemble.  Much attention has been given to Reich in recent months, coinciding with his 80th birthday last October (incidentally, a threshold which minimalist compatriot Philip Glass crossed just a couple weeks ago, acknowledged locally by the Bruckner Orchester Linz).  Three of Reich’s most representative works were programmed, expertly performed by student ensembles, and an engaging onstage Q&A between Reich and conductor Alan Pierson served as an intermezzo before the final selection.

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Steve Reich and Alan Pierson, photo credit Todd Rosenberg

The evening began with Reich’s iconic Clapping Music.  Dating from 1971, it was the product of the composer’s aspiration to write music that solely relied on the human body as an instrument.  Ten pairs of performers were onstage, with one clapping a fixed pattern and the other navigating the intricate rhythmic shifts, eventually coming full circle to conclude in unison.  Pierson gestured with his head to punctuate each new segment which ensured all 20 performers remained together, and he was paired with Reich himself – in an age when composition and performance have become increasingly separate disciplines, it was a rare treat indeed to see a composer perform their own work.

The first half was rounded off with the most recent work on the program, City Life (1995), a bustling and not altogether charitable portrait of New York City.  The scoring included two sampling pianos, loaded with an arsenal of prerecorded sounds as a veritable digital incarnation of the prepared piano.  Seamlessly woven into the fabric of the work, the sound samples used functioned as instruments in of themselves.  Ambient mood lighting illuminated the stage, changing color to mark each of the five movements, and added an additional visual dimension to the performance.

It opened with earthy harmonies, almost reminiscent of Copland, before shifting to Reich’s more familiar textures.  The second and fourth movements were the only ones to eschew speech samples and were dark and often tragic in character.  In the central “It’s been a honeymoon – can’t take no mo’”, frenetically repeated figures were marked by rhythmic precision and a detailed use of phasing.  The concluding “Heavy smoke” was the most arresting, with the stage ominously shrouded in a deep red.  The sirens from the opening movement returned, which Reich indicated were an artifact of the World Trade Center bombing of 1993.  Matters ended seemingly peacefully with the stage now a softer blue, but this was an apotheosis of questionable authenticity.

The Music of Steve Reich
City Life, photo credit Todd Rosenberg

The monumental Music for 18 Musicians was the evening’s highlight, and was preceded by a brief discussion with Reich – a fascinating look into the mind of the composer himself (a very short clip can be viewed here).  Reich touched on his ambivalent relationship with New York City that informed the contents of the previous work, described the medium of Music for 18 Musicians as a “large chamber ensemble” (i.e. not requiring a conductor), and spoke with admiration of the Northwestern student performers.

Conductor-less indeed, the final work took its cue from Balinese gamelan and others where the musicians themselves serve as conductor from within the ensemble, obviating the need for a separate entity.  Here, the metallophone functioned as a de facto conductor, cueing the start of each section.  Spanning the continuum of nearly an hour, it’s difficult to describe the sheer aural impact of the work, one that should surely be on the bucket list of every concertgoer.  Throughout the duration, the effect was singularly mesmerizing, often reaching ecstatic heights.  I was particularly struck by the ethereal voices of the four singers, incidentally, the only performers to be amplified.  The cohesiveness and stamina the titular 18 musicians exuded was a sight to behold, sustained through the otherworldly final moments wherein matters were distilled to the solo violin.

Reich’s next residency and associated concerts will take place in November 2017 – much to look forward to indeed.

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After Music for 18 Musicians (Steve Reich on stage at far right), photo credit Todd Rosenberg