Monday, August 12, 2013


Severance Hall
August 9 & 10

Finalists Khristenko, Tarasevich-Nikolaev, Dumont and Sun.

It’s all about the Russians these days, from the Snowden affair to Putin’s crackdown on gays. So it seemed perfectly in keeping with the zeitgeist to have two Russians in the final four of the Cleveland International Piano Competition. And written in the stars when Stanislav Khristenko, 29, won the competition on Saturday night, with his fellow countryman, Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev, 20, placing second.

In fact, five of the original 28 contestants were Russian. One should perhaps not read too much into this – there were also five Chinese, and four Americans (with names like Ben Kim and Kwan Yi). And the head count is arguably more a measure of each country’s resources and devotion to musical training than a measure of its young talent.

Still, the Russians have a proud tradition of great pianists; names like Sergei Rachmaninov, Vladimir Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter come immediately to mind. This critic is also a fan of contemporary Russian players, in particular the amazing Nikolai Lugansky. But for what it's worth, neither of the Russians in the finalist competition earned his vote.

After a week and a half of solo performances, the two concerts featuring the four finalists opened on Friday night with François Dumont, 28, bringing a distinctly French touch to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1, Op. 23. Dumont plays with a fluid, lyrical quality that took the sharp edge off the high-volume demands made of the soloist, especially in the first movement. He has a well-developed voice that was most evident in his refined handling of the second movement, though his playing was uneven, almost coy at times. Like an athlete, Dumont reached deep for a colorful blaze of fireworks at the finish.

He was followed by Tarasevich-Nikolaev playing Rachmaninovs Concerto No. 2, Op. 18. The Russian was more of a technician, superbly skilled but lacking Dumonts dynamics. His sound was mechanical at times, though in his best moments, Tarasevich-Nikolaev gave the music a lush, painterly quality. He has soft hands that seemed to glide through the cascades of the famous melody in the third movement, a fluency not yet matched by a clear voice. Though he didnt show the command of the other finalists, given his age, Tarasevich-Nikolaev might have been the purest raw talent among them.

Scintillating Sun.
Jiayan Sun, 23, also chose Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 to open Saturday night. His may have been the most polished performance of the weekend, with more bite than Dumont had, superb control and dazzling dexterity. Sun was also noticeably more connected to the orchestra, playing a dialogue and expertly echoing the sound of solo instruments. In his phrasing he seemed to be exploring the music rather than just covering it, though he knows how to work a crowd well enough, cranking up an exhilarating finish. Particularly for a person of his diminutive size, it was a big, impressive performance.

The finalists had a choice of 20 pieces to play, and Khristenko picked Brahms Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, which at first blush seems an unlikely selection. There is a long introduction that does not include the soloist, nor are his hands on the keyboard at the finish. But Khristenko is a dramatic, moody player, and the deliberate quality of the piece fit his style well, giving him an opportunity to work breathtaking phrases, particularly in the second movement. There is not a single note in Khristenkos playing that seems out of place. Still, long stretches sounded uninspired, almost too considered. Deep, yes; brilliant, perhaps another time.
All the right moves.

But the judges liked what they heard from Khristenko best. In retrospect, he seemed the favorite going in. A former Cleveland Institute of Music student, Khristenko placed third in the 2005 competition. He was the last of the finalists to perform this year, a placement that automatically affords an edge over the earlier players. And the Brahms offered the maximum posturing potential: Khristenko spent his time either hunched over the keyboard like a diamond cutter, or staring off into space, as if he were receiving divine instruction.

This critic cast his vote for Sun, who was not the flashiest player but seemed to have the best balance of ability, insight, technique and a voice with something to say. He finished last in the jurys voting, and no argument with that – they are an international group of well-regarded pianists who know their business. But Sun won the Audience Prize, so he apparently did the best job of connecting with his listeners.

And the best job of connecting with the Cleveland Orchestra. Very few finalists in any competition get to play with an orchestra of that caliber, and this one performed with the energy and passion of a regular-season concert, providing powerful, elegant support. Its the kind of class act both audiences and contestants have come to expect from this gracious, well-appointed, refreshingly cosmopolitan festival.

For more on the winners and this year's other contestants:

Photos of finalists and Stanislav Khristenko by Roger Mastroianni


Blossom Music Center
August 11

An old friend with a flair for summer fare.

A pops concert with substance is not necessarily an oxymoron. Back in his old slot at the Blossom podium on Sunday night, Jahja Ling added some gravitas to a program of Rossini, Vivaldi and Mendelssohn while keeping the sound light and the tempo brisk, a perfect combination for a summer night.

What most impresses about Ling is how effortless he makes it look. The smooth, gliding conducting style, the lyrical quality he gives the music, the occasional casual touch – Ling is not above a shake of the hips to get the effect he wants – and his nonstop, 100-watt smile make it all seem like a relaxed meeting of old friends. Which in one sense it was, given Ling’s 21-year association with the Cleveland Orchestra (1984-2005), which included six seasons as director of the Blossom Festival.

He opened with the Overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie), using rifle-shot rolls of the snare drum to announce the piece and drive the introduction to Rossini’s beguiling melodies. The strings were as golden as the last rays of the setting sun, and Ling kept them moving, sometimes surging ahead of the orchestra and pulling the players along. The key to the piece is developing a headlong momentum without losing any of the detail, which Ling delineated nicely. As an opening confection, it was both thrilling and sweet.

The soloist for The Four Seasons was Ray Chen, a Taiwanese-Australian violinist who at 24 seems to have it all: impressive playing skills, a growing list of awards and appearances with major orchestras, and the kind of good looks and fashion sense that merit a spread in Vogue magazine. Oh, and a pretty nifty instrument, too, a 1702 Stradivarius with a dark, rich tone that sounded especially warm in contrast to the orchestra’s silken strings.

Young man with a Strad.
Chen can play – he knows how to get exactly the sounds he wants, and brings impeccable technique and focused intensity to his performance. He also brings a cheerful energy to the music, clearly enjoying his work. But The Four Seasons may not have been the best piece for his debut appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra. He veered back and forth between early and modern styles of playing, slipping into Baroque mode when accompanying the orchestra, then amping up the solos like a race car driver.

The modernist streak was so strong that during intermission, a musician in the audience noted Chen’s Armani sponsorship and compared him to Wayne Newton. This critic is inclined to give Chen the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that works by Prokofiev or Stravinsky, which he will be playing in Lucerne later this month, might be more in his wheelhouse. Though admittedly, they would not have drawn the capacity crowd that The Four Seasons did.

Ling closed with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (Scottish), keeping it upbeat and bright, even in the few darker passages. While the sound was not deeply developed or especially transparent, it flowed beautifully, a seamless and cohesive construction. The woodwinds had a marvelous floating quality, shining brightly above the melodies, and the strings soared, carrying an ebullient third movement to a triumphal finish. Overall, the reading encapsulated the entire program – pleasant and buoyant, with a palette and range that marked the hand of an experienced professional.

With a substantive touch for lighter fare.

For more on Jahja Ling:

For more on Ray Chen:

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Blossom Music Center
August 4

Slick with the baton, quick with a quip.

One could be forgiven for thinking that a stand-up comedian had taken the podium at Blossom on Sunday night. British conductor and composer Bramwell Tovey has a nifty resume and a nice touch with the baton, but what he really excels at is one-liners. The kind that would fit neatly into his side gigs as a jazz pianist, or go over big in a group of musicians.

Like the jibes at violists – always the butt of orchestra jokes, for reasons only the players understand – that Tovey reeled off after the opening piece, Prelude and Fugue: The Spitfire, a musical homage to the World War II fighter plane. What’s the difference between a viola and a Spitfire? One is a thing of grace and beauty. Or: You can tune a Spitfire.

There were more, but you get the idea.

This sort of banter goes over well with the summer set, and Tovey’s chatty demeanor was a good fit with the first half of the program, which opened with The Spitfire suite. Created as a film score by British composer William Walton in 1942, it was later reworked into a concert piece brimming with patriotic fervor. Or at least what passes for fervor among the Brits.

To American ears, the music was less stirring, invoking mostly opening and closing credits and a noisy scene in an airplane factory. Tovey gave the piece a regal bearing and pleasant gloss, but otherwise there wasn’t much to recommend it, other than as a bit of British arcana delivered with aplomb by a British conductor. This was the first time the Cleveland Orchestra performed Spitfire, and at least for the foreseeable future, likely the last.

Of more interest was another inaugural performance by the orchestra – the second piece, Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto (Op. 22). As Tovey noted in a lengthy introduction, aside from his 1936 Adagio for Strings, Barber’s music does not get played much. It’s a puzzle why, since the American composer was highly regarded during his lifetime (1910 – 1981), winning two Pulitzer Prizes for his work. A dearth of memorable melodies may have something to do with it. But Tovey probably nailed the main reason in his description of Barber’s Cello Concerto: “It’s really difficult to play.”

A strong showing.
That was evident from the first bars of the opening movement, a seemingly random series of intonations and phrases erupting from different parts of the orchestra in a wonderfully inventive structure that led organically to the soloist, Mark Kosower, the orchestra’s principal cellist. Kosower was very good, showing command of a complicated part played completely from memory, and running through a full inventory of techniques, from sharp pizzicato to warm, emotional lines in the lower register played against the orchestra’s high-gloss violins.

According to Tovey, Barber had finished the concerto when he got word of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, whereupon he tore up the third movement and completely rewrote it. That might account for its more somber tone, new themes, feelings of anxiety and notes of distress. Kosower rose to technical challenges that grew increasingly conplicated, and Tovey drew an equally sophisticated performance from the orchestra, keeping the sound clean and balanced. In all, it was an impressive and satisfying presentation of a piece that deserves to be heard more often.

The second half brought what everyone came to hear: The Planets, written by the British composer with the Germanic name, Gustav Holst. Tovey joked that he “never came across anyone in England who knows anything about space,” and noted that the source of the composer’s inspiration was astrological, not astronomical. Nonetheless, Holst created evocative portraits of seven planets that have become an orchestral staple.

Tovey offered a comparatively controlled reading of the piece, never quite hitting the maelstrom that characterizes more adventurous versions of “Mars” and “Uranus,” and employing rhythms that came alarmingly close to oom-pah-pah in “Jupiter.” His skill lies mainly in his craftsmanship, and there were some truly fine moments of that – elegant, luminous strings in “Venus,” aching chords and a subtle internal vibration in “Saturn,” and a vivid, shimmering “Neptune” that provided a transcendent close.

After a heady night of rockets and airplanes, where did that leave Barber? As the most interesting composer on the program. Here’s hoping the orchestra brings him back soon.

For more on Bramwell Tovey:

Mark Kosower photo by Hyun Kang


Blossom Music Center
August 3

Bringing fresh energy to a well-worn classic.

Summer is traditionally the time for lightweight programs and performers. It’s also the preferred time to roll out old chestnuts like Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, a seminal work that has suffered from overexposure. It takes a world-class artist to pump new life into the piece, and offer a reminder of why it has become one of the world’s most popular concertos.

Gil Shaham did that and more in his appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra on Saturday night. A virtuoso player who well deserves the 1699 Stradivarius tucked under his chin, Shaham is the rare violinist who combines impeccable technique with fluent expression. He can step up to the challenge of high-volume major works like the Tchaikovsky concerto without missing a note, or drop back to understated chamber music recitals and personal projects like Nigunum, a collection of Hebrew folk melodies recently recorded with his sister, pianist Orli Shaham. It all sounds equally alive and accomplished.

With visiting Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits at the podium, Shaham strode onto the Blossom stage dapper and smiling as usual, and set a lively pace from the opening notes of the concerto. Along with a zesty brio, he played with crystal clarity and seamless elegance, making the complicated filigrees and daunting cadenzas look easy. And his control was breathtaking, particularly in the fine lines of the second movement, which he evoked with the grace and delicacy of raindrops on a pond.

Ultimately, what marks the very best players is their mastery of the music. It’s one thing to play a piece. It’s quite another to own it in the way that Shaham did, showing a deep understanding of the score by adding grace notes and other flourishes that put a personal stamp on it without obscuring any of Tchaikovsky’s original intent. Most violinists do well just to keep up with the impossible demands of the part; Shaham nurtures it, finding gentle nuances in the tender melodic passages and blazing through the complex runs.

Shaham also has a fine sense of how to present a piece, down to small details like angling his violin to achieve the right sonic effect. He prowled the stage like a jazz player, working off different sections of the orchestra and standing tall for solos next to the podium, where he could stay locked in with the conductor. His enthusiasm was evident in playful body English and dance steps – at one point, he literally pounced on a new phrase.

With a slice of Bach’s Partita No. 3 for an encore, Shaham capped the single best performance this critic has seen at Blossom this year. No one else has come close to matching his technical brilliance, rapport with the orchestra and generosity of spirit. It was an exhilarating experience, and a reminder of how even a well-worn piece can sound fresh in the right hands.

Karabits provided a smart orchestral backdrop for Shaham, modulating the sound and drawing sonorities out of the horns and woodwinds that contrasted nicely with the violin. On the other pieces, however, he did not fare as well.

The opening work, Glinka’s energetic Overture to Rusian and Ludmila, had plenty of pep and good-natured gusto. But the sound was one-dimensional, thick in the middle and lacking definition on the high and low ends. The closing Symphony No. 5 by Prokofiev had some of the same problems, which was unfortunate. A work of dazzling depth and dimension, it came out like sausage, all bunched together in a long, linear stream.

Generally speaking, the fewer instruments playing, the better the music sounded. Karabits got some crisp work out of the percussion section and big sounds from the horns, but overall the symphony never caught fire, only occasionally revealing its full color and depth.

Prokofiev should be in Karabits’ wheelhouse, so the poor showing was a disappointment. The conductor’s intelligence and ability are clear. But if this appearance was an accurate indication, he’s not quite ready to lead a world-class orchestra.

For more on Kirill Karabits:

For more on Gil Shaham:

And Shaham’s label, Canary Classics: