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Thursday 11 January 2018

Samson Tsoy, piano

Schubert – Four Impromptus, Op 90

Rachmaninoff – Five Preludes Op 23

Two composers writing 75 years apart, both 30 and both entering significant periods of intense creativity in their compositional lives. By 1827 Schubert knew his life was drawing to a close. Ill with syphilis and the side-effects of its treatment since 1823, the year before his death, when his composed his Impromptus for piano, signalled a period of remarkable output. 75 years later in 1902 Rachmaninoff marries his cousin Natalia Satina and embarks on his Second Piano Concerto, the Cello Sonata, and Second Suite for Two Pianos, in addition to the Preludes Op 23.

Both sets of works are infused with their composer’s distinct psychology. Schubert’s bittersweet nostalgia, his markedly shifting moods, his long-spun melodies and the lilting rhythms of the ländler and the waltz run through the Four Impromptus Op 90, creating a unifying thread, and Samson Tsoy revealed these special qualities of Schubert’s writing with sensitivity and poise, from the desolate opening of the Impromptu in C minor, to the warm poetry of the fourth in A flat. This was refined and mature playing.

Rachmaninoff’s Op 23 Preludes are confident and exuberant, never more so than in the famous G minor, and Samson responded to with equal confidence and spirit, offering a rich palette of musical colours presented with stylish panache and an evident relish for this music. A special warmth and elegance was reserved for the D major Prelude.

A most enjoyable and rewarding lunchtime concert.

 

The Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head, a riverside pub in Barnes, SW London, more usually vibrates to the tunes, rhythms and vibe of the genre from which it takes its name, but last night the intimate space was filled with altogether different sounds in a concert given by two highly acclaimed classical musicians – David Le Page (violin) with Viv McLean (piano).

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In addition to his solo, ensemble and orchestral work, David Le Page is also a composer of beautifully-crafted, imaginative and highly evocative music. His latest album ‘The Book of Ebenezer’ (release date TBC) is inspired by The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G B Edwards. Set in Guernsey through the late nineteenth century up to the 1960s, the novel takes the form of a fictional autobiography narrated by Ebenezer Le Page, a typical “Guern’ man, deeply engrossed in his life on the island. David Le Page also hails from Guernsey,  no relation to Ebenezer Le Page, though as David said in his introduction to his music, the name Le Page is as common in Guernsey as Smith is elsewhere in the UK. David has taken moments in Ebenezer’s life as recounted in the book as the inspiration for an album of 10 exquisite miniatures for violin and piano.

In the slower, more reflective pieces, the music is redolent of the spare grace and meditative stillness of expression of Arvo Pärt, while the more lively pieces have folksy intonation and foot-tapping rhythms. Several of the pieces use Guern folksongs, and one is based on Sarnia Cherie, the national anthem of Guernsey. All the music is highly evocative, infused with a tender poignancy which speaks not only of the eponymous hero’s reminiscences and reflections but also of David’s connection to the island of his birth, its landscape and its weather. There are haunting bird calls, as if heard from afar, the gentle wash of the sea rippled by the wind, the glint of light in water – elements which give the music a filmic quality and serve as a narrative thread which runs throughout the suite of pieces.

Purists may balk at hearing classical music in a venue normally reserved for jazz, but the small size of the jazz room lends itself to the right kind of concentrated listening and intimacy of expression which this music demands and offers. And David Le Page and Viv McLean create a very special intimacy of their own – these musicians work together regularly and their empathy and mutual understanding is palpable in every note they play.


David Le Page and Viv McLean return to the Jazz Room at the Bull’s Head for a special concert for Valentine’s Day on Wednesday 14 February – details here

Is Baroque music about composers or performers?” mused Lindsay Kemp in an article ahead of the launch of his new festival of Baroque music at the splendid venue that is LSO St Luke’s. The inaugural concert was given by Joanna Macgregor in a programme which sought to confirm Kemp’s assertion that Baroque musical festivals don’t have to be about historically informed performances (HIP), or period instruments and people in periwigs.

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Kemp, who was artistic director of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music (LFBM) which morphed into the London Festival of Baroque Music when Lufthansa withdrew funding, is clearly well-versed in presenting ambitious musical ventures (he’s also senior producer at BBC Radio 3 and a writer on music), and in creating Baroque at the Edge he decided he wanted to do something that was not just another early music festival, but rather a festival of music which “anyone can come and enjoy” (surely all music festivals and concerts should be thus?). Hosting the majority of the concerts of the weekend festival at LSO St Luke’s is symbolic for Kemp too – “an 18th-century church on the outside, and a beautiful modern concert hall on the inside“. The programmes in Baroque at the Edge seek to celebrate Baroque music for what it is – wonderful music first and foremost for anyone to play without worrying about HIP and all that it encompasses – combined with music from other eras and genres. In short, a modern “no rules Baroque festival” to attract the kind of audience who wouldn’t normally go to Baroque or early music concerts, and also people from the locale in which St Luke’s is situated – trendy Shoreditch, Hoxton, Islington and the City.

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It was good to see the first concert so well-attended. Joanna Macgregor’s programme offered a typically provocative and eclectic selection of music on the theme of birds (in the first half) and ground basses/the Chaconne (second half), grouping works by Couperin, Daquin, Rameau, Poglietti, Byrd, Purcell and Pachelbel with music by Janaček, Messiaen, Birtwistle, Glass, Liszt and Gubaidulina. The programme opened with a triptych of Baroque works recalling birdsong (cuckoos, nightingales), characterful works delicately enunciated, written for the court, yet tender and intimate in expression. Macgregor introduced the sets of pieces: more softly-spoken than the first three works, she would have benefited from some amplification for those of us towards the back of the hall (or even some programme notes, though one of the stated aims of the festival is “no programme notes, no lectures”). The twentieth-century works were more satisfying, in particular the bird pieces by Messiaen from his Petites esquisses d’oiseaux and Birtwistle’s melancholy Oockooing Bird (written when the composer was just 16) with some lovely musical colours and highly evocative filigree chirruppings in the upper register. These were reflected in Poglietti’s Aria bizarre del Rossignolo, an early example of descriptive instrumental music where the nightingale’s song appears throughout the work in various virtuosic passages, replete with trills and short, syncopated attacks. Here was Baroque truly at the edge – the music freed from its courtly cage to take flight in a series of vivid improvisatory episodes.

The second half focused on the ground bass, a repeated pattern in the bass over which a series of variations or improvisations are played, and closed with Sofia Gubaidulina’s monumental Chaconne, preceded by a reflective Chaconne in F minor by Pachelbel, expressively played by Macgregor. Two works by Philip Glass were intended to demonstrate the use of the ground bass device in modern music, but these pieces felt rather flat; in fact, in this half, the Baroque pieces were far more rewarding. Joanna Macgregor offered one final work on a ground bass, Handel’s magnificent dramatic Passacagalia in g minor, HWV 432, as an encore.

This was an interesting and varied selection of pieces, elegantly presented. While I enjoyed most of the music, I was not fully convinced that this programme said anything new or different about Baroque music, nor felt particularly “edgy”. But perhaps the programme did at least serve one of the key aims of the festival: to allow artists like Joanna Macgregor to take Baroque music and see where it leads them, freed from worries of ‘authenticity’ or being ‘correct’, and this programme demonstrated that composers from any era can take a theme or concept and work imaginatively with it, be it birdsong or the ground bass.

 

Friday 5 January 2018, LSO St Luke’s

Joanna Macgregor, piano

Programme:

Rameau – Le Rappel des oiseaux

Daquin – Le Coucou

Couperin – Le Rossignol-en-amour

Janáček – The Barn Owl has not flown away! (from On an Overgrown Path)

Messiaen – Le Rouge-gorge (Petites esquisses d’oiseaux)

Sir Harrison Birtwistle – Oockooing Bird

Couperin – Les Fauvétes plaintives

Messiaen – Le Merle noir (Petites esquisses d’oiseaux)

Hossein Alizâdeh – Call of the Birds

Couperin – Les Coucous Bénévoles, sous des dominos jaunes

Poglietti – Aria bizarre del Rossignolo: Imitatione del medesimo ucello

Rameau  – La Poule

Byrd – Hughe Ashton’s Ground

Philip Glass – Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi)

Philip Glass – Knee Play No. 4 (from Einstein on the Beach)

Purcell – Ground in C minor

Liszt – Prelude on Bach’s ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’

Pachelbel – Chaconne in F minor

Sofia Gubaidulina – Chaconne


Baroque At the Edge

Meet the Artist – Joanna Macgregor

Guest review by Jennifer Mckerras 

One of the great joys of lunchtime recitals is having the opportunity to see young performers at the beginning of their professional careers. And two such were given a prime performance opportunity at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 24 October. Chanae Curtis (soprano) and Ella O’Neill (piano) garnered a large and appreciative audience for their recital, including a half-term crowd of families with children of all ages.

Curtis and O’Neill began their programme with Beethoven’s Ah! Perfido, Op.65. They continued with Three Poems of Fiona MacLeod by C.T. Griffes, and concluded with a selection of lieder by Strauss.

Chanae Curtis has a truly superb voice: velvety caramel in tone. She also has a tremendous range of colour and force, which this programme fully exploited. The very first item (Beethoven) is a long and complicated piece for both singer and accompanist, and requires several mood changes. Curtis and O’Neill guided the audience through all the twists and turns of the aria, and received justifiably rapturous applause at its end.

It was, however, in the American repertoire that Curtis really shone. She seemed to relax and connect with the audience in a way that had not been as present in the Beethoven. The Griffes songs are perhaps a little less well known by British audiences, and really deserve to be known better. Curtis’ handling of the texts was deft and well-nuanced, though sometimes the very full acoustic of the church building caused the text to be lost.

Ella O’Neill is currently undertaking postgraduate studies at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama with Simon Lepper. In this recital she was a masterful accompanist, and I think has a tremendous future. She navigated the twists and turns of mood in the Beethoven with aplomb, and her handling of the Griffes and the Strauss lieder was delicate and assured. O’Neill has a great stage presence: calm and unfussed, she has developed the gift of allowing the music to speak for itself. This is a tremendous ability in a player at the beginning of her professional career! She is also adept in giving both soloist and audience total confidence in her playing; one feels that very little could shake her.

The Strauss lieder were delivered with great assurance from both performers, and were hugely enjoyed by the audience. The encore was a spiritual, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, in an arrangement by Margaret Bonds. Again, Curtis found a new level of connection with the audience and the text – she positively glowed as she sang. It is a pleasure to see a performer wholeheartedly inhabit the music in this way.

The reception for Curtis and O’Neill was overwhelmingly positive; even the half-term passers-by stayed captivated until the end. These performers are certainly a pair to watch for the future.

I Musicanti
 
Leon Bosch, conductor
Arensky – Tchaikovsky Variations
Tchaikovsky arr. Stephenson – Rococo Variations
Alexandra Harwood – Sinfonia Concertante ‘The Secret Ball’ (world premiere)
Shostakovich, arr Stasevich – Sinfonietta after the String Quartet No. 8

4th November 2017, St John’s Smith Square, London

 

On (almost) the eve of the centenary of Russia’s October Revolution, I Musicanti presented a programme which spanned the old and the new: music from Imperial, Tsarist Russia (Arensky and Tchaikovsky) to an elegy to post-Revolution, post-war Russia in Shostakovich’s searing String Quartet No. 8 (here arranged for string orchestra with timpani), and the world premiere of a new work written by a fifth great granddaughter of Catherine the Great, Alexandra Harwood.

Following on the success of their first series at St John’s Smith Square, I Musicanti’s latest series ‘Alexandra and the Russians’ showcases brand new works specially written for the ensemble by Alexandra Harwood alongside well-known pieces and lesser-known or neglected gems of repertoire. This is proving a very successful and satisfying “formula” for I Musicanti: the juxtaposition of old and new, familiar and lesser-known offers interesting comparisons and contrasts within programmes, and brings to the fore music which may otherwise have lain dormant and unheard (for example, Schubert’s Quartet in G D96 for flute, viola, cello and guitar, which was part of the May 2017 programme). The programmes are also just about right in terms of length, no more than 40 minutes maximum per half – an important consideration for those of us who have a longer train ride back to the leafy suburbs after a concert.

Perhaps the most significant facet of the success of the I Musicanti formula is the selection of musicians. The ensemble is flexible – sometimes a quartet, sometimes at septet, depending on the repertoire; on this occasion a small string orchestra, led by Fenella Humphreys. The musicians are hand-picked: as Leon Bosch, the driving force behind the ensemble, said to me after the first concert (which included Peter Donohoe on piano), “I can choose the best people to work with” – and this shows in the quality and commitment of performances and performers. This is not flashy, ego-driven playing, but really exceptional playing driven by common purpose and a shared love of the music.

The concert opened in Russia’s Imperial age with Arenksy’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, written as a tribute to the recently-deceased Tchaikovsky, and which begins, choral-like, with a motif which mimics the sound of male voices in a Russian Orthodox Choir, expressed in the dark sonorities of two cellos, violin and viola. A lyrical work with seven variations of differing tempi and moods, it was an affecting and genial start to the evening, elegantly presented by I Musicanti.

For Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, a work inspired by the composer’s love of Mozart, the ensemble was joined by South African cellist Peter Martens for a performance which combined understated virtuosity (the work contains some fiendish technical challenges for the cellist and few opportunities for the soloist to rest) with a delightful interplay between soloist and ensemble. This arrangement, by cellist and composer Allan Stephenson, restores the variations to their original order and assigns the original wind solos to the string principals (in this case Fenella Humphreys, violin, and Richard Harwood, cello, who both brought colour and verve to the music). Peter Martens’ tone was rich and colourful, balancing wit with seriousness to create a performance of great variety, character and warmth. This was the first performance of Allan Stephenson’s arrangement, the scoring for strings bringing a clarity to the music with no less texture or richness than the original.

After the interval, the world premiere of Alexandra Harwood’s Sinfonia Concertante: The Secret Ball, a work scored for string quintet surrounded by orchestra inspired by a story by Alekxander Afanas’ev (1826-71). A single movement takes the listener through a series of dances, opening with a grand, if slightly raunchy waltz followed by a polonaise, tango, polka, mazurka, tarantella, sarabande (using fragments of melodies from Corelli and Bach), minuet (with a fragment from Mozart), Bourree (Bach quoted again), Badinerie (Corelli), Galop and finally another waltz, the music fading away to nothing, as if the dancers are disappearing into the dawn. Alexandra is a noted composer of film music and the piece had, for me at least, a very visual quality with a clear narrative. In the lively, foot-tapping fragments of dance, one could easily picture the secret ball, dancers twirling on the dance-floor, while unspoken scenes and assignations perhaps took place in side rooms.

This work provided a striking contrast to the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 (in an arrangement for string orchestra and timpani by Abram Stasevich) which followed. Here was a work of great emotional power which takes Shostakovich’s motto theme DSCH as its starting point, the motto returning in various guises throughout. The timpani provide an underlying martial character to the work (said to be dedicated to “to the victims of fascism and the war”, but also perhaps dedicated to the composer himself who in July 1960 discovered he was suffering from a debilitating muscular weakness). This was a compelling, sombrely elegaic and tautly managed performance, and a fine close to what I feel was I Musicanti’s best concert so far in their residency at St John’s Smith Square. This concert also represented a debut of sorts for double bass player Leon Bosch as it was his first appearance in London on the conductor’s podium, a role he seems to relish.


Further I Musicanti dates at SJSS

Sunday 21 January 2018 at 3pm – music by Arensky, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere), and Tchaikovsky

Sunday 3 June 2018 at 3pm – music by Prokofiev, Smirnov, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere) and Glinka

Do go – I promise you won’t be disappointed.

 

Meet the Artist interview with Alexandra Harwood

Guest article by Shirley Smith Kirsten

Facebook was abuzz with reminders of George Li’s touchdown in the Bay Area’s glittering Davies concert hall, a venue that absorbs a splash of pastel beams from the neighboring flagship government building. Glass panels reflect back montages of color that provide a rush of excitement for ticket holders slipping into seats right under the bell.

FB “friends” and faithful George “followers” were page-alerted to a ‘meet and greet’ event in the lobby following the recital. It would be a shower of support for a pianist we’d seen and heard by livestream from exotic locations including Moscow and Verbier. Frames in progress had included George’s Silver Medal triumph at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, magnified on computer screens around the world!

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The Back Story

From my humble perch in Berkeley, I’d set aside 75 conscientious minutes to get to Davies Hall. It was a conservative travel measure, given lax Sunday train schedules and my propensity to get mired in Civic Center traffic as a clueless pedestrian in foreign urban terrain. (San Francisco’s maze of complex street crossings and intersections, bundled in congestion, had always seriously confused me, impeding on-foot progress in any direction).

Yet, despite well-intended, precautionary travel efforts, I couldn’t have anticipated a vexing single platform BART crisis that launched a crescendo of complications right up to my shaky finish line arrival at Davies. There, at its entrance, my concert companion/adult piano student stood patiently, dispatching block-to-block text messages to keep me on track.

With good luck and concerted teamwork, we made it to our first tier balcony seats just as George advanced toward a shining model D Steinway grand.

It was a pure bliss erasure of prior travails:

Melted deceptive cadences rippled through a crystalline rendering of Haydn’s B minor Sonata (No. 30) as trills and ornaments immaculately decorated clear melodic lines in a liquid outpouring of phrases. The middle Minuet movement was charmingly played passing with grace to a culminating Presto in brisk, bravura tempo with unswerving attention to line, shape, and contour.

Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata in F minor, op. 57, followed with tonal variation and keen structural awareness. The performance was both gripping and directional, wrapped in ethereal tonal expression.

Li’s singular sound autograph permeates his performances amidst an array of varying nuances and articulations. He has what pianist, Uchida terms “charisma” and a singular tonal personality.

Meaning and musical context are core ingredients of Li’s artistry and his wide palette of colors are at his liquid disposal through deeply felt effusions of expression. (While Li is a natural, intuitional performer, his sensitive fusion of aesthetics and intellect is always on display, exposed, as well in media interviews.)

A Presto Classical set of queries elicited thoughtful responses.

http://www.prestoclassical.co.uk/interview/1893/George-Li-Live-at-the-Mariinsky

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The Davies Hall recital, continued after Intermission with a rippling roll-out of works by Rachmaninoff and Liszt, all imbued with a permeating spirit of mature music-making that’s intrinsic to Li’s ongoing ripening process. And as a cap to a memorable evening of inspired artistry, George played his final encore – a pyro-technically charged Bizet/Carmen transcription that drove listeners to their feet in a chorus of BRAVOS!!!

(This snapshot was provided by a friend who had permission to publicly post it, thanks to Li’s generosity and that of his representatives)

In a culminating MEET and GREET event, post-recital, audience members had an opportunity to share IN PERSON enthusiasm and appreciation of George’s artistry, while purchasing the artist’s newly released CD.

For me, a tete a tete with George, provided an opportunity to thank him for his generosity as a teen when he delivered well-conceived responses to my reams of technically framed questions about practicing, technique, and repertoire.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/my-interview-with-george-li-a-seasoned-pianist-at-16/

Finally, here’s an encore of gratitude to George for his inspired love of music, and for his reach into our hearts with each memorable performance. Come back soon!


 

Shirley Smith Kirsten is an American pianist and teacher who blogs at arioso7.wordpress.com