Thursday, July 28, 2016

Chamber Music Northwest's "Piano Concerto Extravaganza" excels

By guest reviewer Phillip Ayers

On a warm and humid, but very pleasant evening Chamber Music Northwest presented a unique concert of piano concertos. This might seem unusual, as these summer concerts don't usually feature solo instruments in concertos with an accompanying orchestra. Three composers - Bach, Stravinsky, and Mozart - won the evening (Tuesday, July 19) at Lincoln Performance Hall with a varied program that included J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto Number 5, Igor Stravinsky's Concerto for Two Solo Pianos, and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414.

Technically, one could say that the Bach work is really a concerto grosso, with a concertino (solo group) consisting of violin, flute (or recorder), and cembalo (often harpsichord, but on Tuesday, performed on piano); and a ripieno ("background," for want of a better term) of a small string orchestra. The orchestra on Tuesday was a string quartet of violin, viola, cello, and contrabass. The feel of a concerto is made evident early on, with the solo piano taking center stage with an extended solo, more than ably performed by Hilda Huang. Actually, all three instruments in the concertino figure prominently and are, with the keyboard, the only instruments in the charming and stately second movement.

Knowing this piece intimately as I do, I thoroughly enjoyed it. One of my first purchases of an LP record as a green 18-year-old freshman was the complete Brandenburg Concerti performed by the Boston Symphony, directed by Charles Munch. In the fifth concerto, Lukas Foss was the piano soloist and I have worn out the record - which I still have. I was hooked forever! I'm a wannabe keyboard player (piano and organ), but I have never, ever attempted the first movement of the Fifth, or even the third, but have had some success with the second movement, as it is mercifully slow in tempo.

It was hard to find fault with last week's performance, but the solo violin, played by Theodore Arm, was not prominent enough in terms of volume. Arm is one of the steady, committed elder statesmen of CMNW; now he is in his 42nd season with CMNW, and in retirement as a professor at the University of Connecticut. The flautist Tara Helen O'Connor, in her sixteenth season with CMNW, was excellent. (O'Connor has an impressive dossier in the biography in the concert program, but I do wonder if "Purchase College," where she teaches, is SUNY Purchase, near New York City?). Pianist Huang was very much "with" the music, although her tempi at times varied overly much, especially in the elegant and difficult solo passage in the first movement. That particular passage in the annals of keyboard literature is always difficult to bring off, and Ms. Huang did a sterling job with it. She is, at a young age (21, if I did the math correctly), an experienced player of Bach and has won two top prizes at European Bach festivals. Simply hearing this movement never ceases to thrill the listener and when the artist is so involved and attentive to the music, it makes the experience even more enjoyable.

The Stravinsky piece is another unique contribution to piano literature and, in the estimation of this reviewer, very much a "concerto." It would be easy to describe it as a two-piano extended (four-movement) sonata. Yes, there is no "accompanying" ensemble, just the two pianos. No, one piano is not accompanying the other. (We know of many transcriptions of piano concerti where one piano is solo, the other plays an orchestral reduction.) Stravinsky wrote this work to play with his son Soulima. Each pianist is a soloist. The program notes explain: "This concerto … draw[s] inspiration from the etymology of the word concertare: to harmonize, but also to compete."

This is another piece that certainly is not easy to play. Nor is it easy to convince an audience that it is a concerto. But the pianists Hilda Huang and Melvin Chen gave it their best. Con moto, with motion, the first movement, is truly with motion and the artists rendered all of it with percussive power. Perhaps a few more hours of rehearsal together would have resulted in a more polished performance, yet hearing this work for the first time, whetted my appetite to listen to it many times on You Tube or seek out other live performances. We have CMNW to thank for introducing this work to many of us, although Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments is probably better known. The piece comes from the composer's neo-classical era and is clearly not in the same genre as Rite of Spring!

Reading the program notes, it is amazing to learn that these players each have (or shortly will have) degrees in chemistry. Chen possesses a PhD in physics and chemistry (Harvard) but now is the deputy-dean of the Yale School of Music, where he is associate professor of piano and teaches, among others, Huang! This makes us think of those musicians we know, or have known, who also are/were accomplished scientists, thereby not living and working in two separate worlds, but integrating the two: scientific and musical.

The concluding concerto on the program could seemingly be misconstrued as a piano sextet, but it too is actually a concerto, W.A. Mozart's No. 12 in A Major, K. 414, in fact. Chen brought to it a fine, rather understated performance, executing the four cadenzas very tellingly. Some of the players from the Bach Brandenburg concerto returned to the stage for the Mozart and all were very much involved in the music. This concerto, utilizing a small ensemble rather than a full orchestra, was written to be playable both ways. In Mozart's own words: "…[it is] very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. … there are also occasional passages from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction" [program notes].

Mozart's music always delights the ear and mind and one never tires of it. At least, this listener doesn't! Everything musical was given the utmost attention and the players obviously enjoyed making music together the entire evening. They were bodily involved and anything-but-bored. Neither was the audience.

It is always a great treat to hear Hamilton Cheifetz play the violoncello, even if last week he was part of the ripieno (we might say "back-up") in the Bach and a string quintet in the Mozart. This man knows ensemble-playing, we might be bold to say, "like the back of his hand." He is a long-time member of the Floristan Trio at Portland State University and a long-time participant - 30 years - in the summer series of CMNW.

The attractive program book, with full concert notes and biographies of the artists (except I could find nothing about the bassist Curtis Daily, who expertly played with German bow). Lincoln Hall was perfect - I'd not been in it since the remodel, forgive me, please! - except for a glitch with the lighting. The lights "went up" right at a crucial spot in the Stravinsky, but somehow seemed appropriate and not distracting. Some of us tittered and wondered if it was by design?

Hearing and reviewing this concert came at the end of a long and profoundly sad day as I bade farewell, with many others, to one of the modern saints of the Episcopal Church, Edmond Lee Browning, Presiding Bishop from 1985-1997, and a resident of nearby Hood River. I could not help but feel that this concert came at a good time to remember the good bishop and I felt that way particularly in the Bach Brandenburg Five's middle movement, so steady, profound, and yet playful, just like he was. Also, this concert was an excellent foil to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland held that same week: in Lincoln Hall there was no braggadocio, no bullying, no false promises, but the "real deal."

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