Monday, December 9, 2013


Cleveland Institute of Music
December 4

World-class music from two star player/pedagogues.

From the moment that Ivan Ženatý and Sandra Shapiro walked onstage at Mixon Hall on Wednesday night, it was clear that the audience was in for something special. Coming off a six-city American and European tour, the duo was the picture of sophisticated elegance, with Ženatý in formal black tie and tails, and Shapiro resplendent in a glittery silver-grey evening gown.

Their music was even more impressive. Ženatý is a virtuoso Czech violinist who embodies the Central European sound – warm, full, richly emotional and technically precise. He plays with a regal bearing and beautiful purity of tone enhanced by his instrument, a 1740 Guarneri. Shapiro is a piano prodigy and Juilliard graduate who imparts a bright, sensitive quality to everything she touches, a skilled chamber music performer who plays with intelligence and grace. Both are seasoned performers on the international circuit as well as faculty members at CIM.

The caliber of the music they play together is world-class, though in some ways their recital was equally interesting as a demonstration of how to play duets. Ženatý is a punctilious, intensely focused performer who will not start while there is the slightest noise or distraction – not as an ego exercise, but as a show of respect for the music. He and Shapiro have distinct voices that fit together seamlessly when they play, matching surges of expression and nuances of phrasing and tone, or opening up space for each other to dash off a dazzling line. Their sound is airtight and commanding, with sharp, precise beginnings and endings on every piece.

Their opening selection was a gift: Dvořák’s Romantic Pieces for Violin and Piano (Op. 75), music that runs in every Czech player’s blood. Ženatý rendered it with drama and flair, putting passionate fervor in the familiar “Allegro Maestoso” melody, and tugging at the heartstrings in the “Allegro appassionato.” Shapiro provided propulsive rhythms and an array of subtle colors, adding tasteful accents to the music. Their dreamy fadeout in the closing “Larghetto” was soft as a whisper.

Textbook duet work.
Schumann’s Sonata in D minor for Violin and Piano (Op. 121) offered both a visual and musical study. Standing next to Shapiro, Ženatý would lean in to draw out extended notes and phrases with her, driving their interpretation of the piece and keeping it in perfect synch. Their tandem work was riveting, but the divergent melodies were even more compelling, linked together so intricately that they spoke with one voice. Overall, the shading and expression were so polished that it sounded like the two had been playing together for years.

The second half also opened with a taste of Czech music, Smetana’s Z domoviny (From the Homeland). It is not a very difficult or flashy piece, but Ženatý and Shapiro played it with such invigorating spirit that a split-second after their rousing, pulsating finish, a student in the audience exclaimed “Wow!” He wasn’t being a wise-ass, just voicing the open-mouthed astonishment everyone in the room felt. 

The concluding work, Strauss’ demanding Sonata in E flat major for Violin and Piano, was uncommonly fluid (especially for Strauss, who tends to be harsh) and authoritative, with every single note carrying emotional weight and quality. The piano runs its own way in much of the piece, highlighting Shapiro’s superb technical skills and liquid touch on the keyboard.

Presumably CIM audiences are the most educated in town, and this one called Ženatý and Shapiro back for four encores – something this critic has never seen at Mixon Hall before. Rachmaninoff, Dvořák, Strauss – and there would have been more if an obviously drained Ženatý hadn’t announced “last one” for a Schumann finale, two and a half hours after the concert began.

Another thing this critic never heard at Mixon Hall before: an absolute, almost reverent silence between movements. Ženatý expectations for a quiet, attentive audience clearly had something to do with that. But ultimately it was about the music, and the respect it commands when it’s played by serious professionals.

For more on Ivan Ženatý:

For more on Sandra Shapiro:

Photos: CIM/LDennison

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Severance Hall
December 5

A living symbol of the Szell era and overcoming adversity.

It would be hard to imagine a moment more freighted with history than Leon Fleisherʼs entrance onstage at Severance Hall on Thursday night. The musicians acknowledged it immediately, tapping their bows and applauding Fleisher as he was making his way to the podium, lauding him before he had conducted a single note.

The Cleveland Orchestra has special relationships with many musicians, but none with the longevity of Fleisher, a keyboard wunderkind who gave his first performance with the orchestra in October 1946. George Szell was conducting and over the next two decades adopted Fleisher as his go-to pianist, making a series of recordings with him that include definitive versions of the Brahms and Beethoven piano concertos.

Fleisherʼs career seemed over in 1965, when two fingers on his right hand froze. Undaunted, he started treatment while developing a left-handed performance repertoire and a second career as a conductor. When he had recovered enough to play two-handed again, his first performance was with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall (Mozartʼs Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, Christoph von Dohnányi conducting, April 1995).

So Fleisher embodied both an institutional legend and personal triumph over adversity when he took the stage. He was scheduled to conduct another virtuoso pianist, Mitsuko Uchida, in two Beethoven concertos. But Uchida is nursing a thumb injury, so she was replaced by Jonathan Biss, 33, who studied with Fleisher at the Curtis Institute and has built a successful career as both a concert pianist and recital artist.

The program opened with Mendelssohnʼs Hebrides overture, which gave Fleisher a chance to show that he knows how to run an orchestra. He pulled off some smooth technical moves and gave the piece character, emphasizing tonal and textural contrasts and putting some pop in the familiar melody. Fleisher seemed to linger a bit in the sole mournful passage, perhaps reflecting his opening dedication of the concert to Nelson Mandela.

In replacing Uchida, Biss took on a Herculean load – Beethovenʼs Piano Concerto No 2 before intermission, and Piano Concerto No. 3 after. The formidable program highlighted both his strengths and weaknesses.

Stronger solo.
Biss is an exceptionally fluid player who can glide through impossibly complicated passages, then shift into slow motion to craft elegant, achingly beautiful solo lines. Those were his strongest moments of the night – when he played alone and was free (especially in the No. 2 cadenzas) to shape the sound and drop single notes like flower petals, breathtakingly soft and sensitive. In the classic style of a recitalist, he seemed to go into another world during his solos, following a muse that only he can hear.

This works fine in recital, but less well in orchestral performances, where the soloist and orchestra are supposed to be in dialogue. Or at least listening to each other. In No. 2, Biss was so focused on ending each of his solo passages with a fortissimo bang, his timing was off. Instead of being seamless, the handoffs overlapped, literally bumping into each other. At times, it seemed like Biss and the orchestra were playing separate pieces – not in how they sounded, but in his complete detachment.

That was surprising, given the circumstances. A substitute soloist would normally defer to the orchestra, especially with his mentor conducting it. Biss is gifted enough to get away with a different approach, but it lacks the transcendence that a player like Uchida achieves by working with the orchestra – indeed, conducting it herself from the keyboard in some performances to achieve pinpoint precision and present a unified voice.

However, this orchestra could play Beethoven in its sleep, and in Fleisher's hands the music had a commanding, authoritative tone, reminiscent of Szell. It was probably unrealistic to hope for a reprise of the magic that Szell and Fleisher were able to create together, but this certainly could have been a stronger collaboration. As a pianist in the audience noted after Biss bowed and left without an encore, “If he had played an unaccompanied solo, that would have been redundant.”

For more on Jonathan Biss:

Monday, December 2, 2013


Severance Hall
November 29

A persuasive advocate for the American repertoire.

It’s always a treat to see Marin Alsop. Now in her sixth season as music director and principal conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Alsop, 57, is one of the world’s foremost proponents of making classical music accessible to wider and younger audiences. Along with regular conducting engagements on three continents, she stays busy creating and promoting music programs for children and discussing great classical works on National Public Radio.

Though she does not present herself as a female conductor – the music comes first – Alsop regularly and quietly sets new benchmarks for women in her field. She is the only conductor ever to receive a MacArthur Award. In September she became the first woman to conduct closing night of the BBC Proms, a serious honor in European music circles. And she hung tough in 2007, when members of the Baltimore Symphony protested her appointment as the first female music director of a major American orchestra. Alsop has been so successful there, her contract was recently extended to run through the 2020-21 season.

Most importantly, she does a first-rate job at the podium. Alsop may not have the depth of some of her contemporaries. But the breadth of her repertoire is impressive, ranging far beyond the core canon. A one-time protégé of Leonard Bernstein, she is an active supporter of contemporary music and the work of American composers.

Thus the opening piece in her Thursday night appearance at Severance: Samuel Barber’s Essay No. 2 (Op. 17). An early work that sparkles with fresh ideas and colors before turning solemn and a bit overwrought, the piece sounded thick and murky, at least by Cleveland Orchestra standards. It was hard to tell if that was Alsop’s approach, or a case of lingering jet lag after the orchestra’s month-long European tour. Either way, it was an unmistakably American work, big and boisterous.

An abrupt 100-year rewind brought Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor (Op. 54), notable chiefly for the composer’s unprecedented integration of piano and orchestra. Instead of providing background for dazzling solos, the orchestra is an equal partner in the piece, matching and trading phrases, and carrying on an animated dialogue. In that respect it sounded superb, with Alsop skillfully balancing the two elements and then driving them in tandem to a fiery finish.

Clockwork keyboard.
The soloist, David Fray, was less impressive. Though he comes with a great reputation and long list of accomplishments, particularly for 
a 32 year-old, Fray played in a totally straightforward, choppy manner, without a hint of lightness or lyricism. The nimble quality of the orchestra made him sound even flatter. Fray is a facile player with an exceptionally clean style and distinctive sound, but this performance mostly brought to mind a line from a Joni Mitchell song: “The band sounds like typewriters.”

Alsop slipped into instructor mode to start the second half, introducing the audience to Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 with a short lecture and musical excerpts played by the orchestra. It was an illuminating few minutes, though in explaining her choice of the piece for Thanksgiving weekend, she seemed intent mostly on assuring audience members they weren’t in for anything scary or new. “You may think you don’t know this piece,” she said. “But you do. It’s part of our culture here in America.”

Indeed it is. The symphony is essentially a long-winded expansion of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which he wrote several years earlier. The piece can become tedious if, as Alsop suggested, you spend most of it waiting for the familiar part to appear (at the end). In her hands, however, it was everything American music should be – fresh, rhythmic, and expansive, redolent of wide vistas and unlimited horizons. The number of players required to bring it to life filled nearly the entire stage, with six percussionists jumping up to add cannon blasts and electric charges in the final movement.

Few conductors provide inspiration along with great music. With Alsop, it’s routine.

For more on Marin Alsop:

For more on David Fray:

Marin Alsop photo by Grant Leighton


Cleveland Institute of Music
November 22
Cleveland Museum of Art
November 24

Expressive players with a passion for their craft.

The holiday season brings an explosion of music, in the most literal sense of the word. Suddenly the concert halls and churches are bursting with seasonal sing-alongs, boisterous brass and other noisy Christmas fare. The audiences tend to be just as raucous, primed for family fun and lacking in concert etiquette.

Fortunately, there is an alternative for serious music fans. Chamber concerts attract smaller and smarter audiences, offering refined programming and an opportunity to see skilled musicians at work close-up. Even better for aficionados in Cleveland, many of the concerts are free.

The premier chamber event this month is the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Winter Chamber Music Festival (more in the sidebar at right), which kicked off in late November with a performance by the Cavani Quartet. All faculty members at CIM, the foursome bring an enthusiasm for their craft to their performances, playing with verve, intelligence and generosity of spirit.

The first of their two programs in the festival (the second is on Dec. 11) opened with Mozart’s String Quartet in A major (K. 464). Beethoven is said to have characterized the piece as Mozart’s way of saying to the world, “Look what I could produce, if only you were ready for it.” The quartet did not seem quite ready for it, playing with precision but none of the lilt that is integral to Mozart’s music. The form was there but not the substance, a beautiful shell with no core.

The mood and period shifted abruptly with the second piece, Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2. It demands a sharper, energetic approach that nearly lifted first violinist Annie Fullard out of her seat at times. Slow to start, the three-movement work picked up drama and authority as it developed, though didn’t plumb the depths of grief that Fullard promised in her opening remarks.

Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor is a seminal work that changed the rules of chamber music, and the quartet was up to its technical challenges, slicing off impassioned pizzicato lines, weaving gauzy textures and putting a glimmering finish on the tender, fleeting melodies. As a technical showcase, it was a tour de force. The group showed its lighter side with the encore – “Midnight Child,” a contemporary piece written for the Cavani Quartet by pianist and composer Charles Gregory Washington.

We are in the Year of Italian Culture, which has brought a ton of opera and great musicians like Maurizio Pollini and Fabio Luisi to American audiences. For Clevelanders it offered a chance to hear pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi – again. He was the winner of the 1999 Cleveland International Piano Competition, has taught at Oberlin, and is currently a staff instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Cultural ambassador.
The Italian Consulate co-sponsored his recent recital at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where Pompa-Baldi presented the program that he played for the American Liszt Society in San Francisco in June. It was a bit short on Liszt – only three pieces, one a “paraphrase” of Verdi – and long on works dedicated to or inspired by Liszt: Chopin’s Twelve Etudes (Op. 10), and tributes by Russian composer Sergei Lyapunov and Italian composer Roberto Piana.

The variety gave Pompa-Baldi a chance to show his considerable technical prowess. He is a fluent player who blows through complicated passages with jaw-dropping dexterity – so fast at times that his skill squeezes his expression. The Chopin Etudes in particular were beautifully fluid, but played at such an uptempo clip that they lost their lyrical quality. When Pompa-Baldi slowed down a bit, as in Liszt’s Ballade #2 in B minor, the music sounded more sensitive and resonant.

The performance also had a spoken segment, with the pianist opening the second half by talking about the program, how he approaches the pieces, and what he hoped to convey with some of them. After what seemed like an effortless first half, it was interesting to hear him reveal the physical strains that some of the pieces impose, and the ideas behind others. His comments on the closing work, Piana’s Aprés une lecture de Liszt (After a reading of Liszt), were particularly helpful, as it contains some tongue-in-cheek humor that Pompa-Baldi explained and then executed nicely.

The concert was part of the Tri-C Classical Piano Recital Series, which returns to the museum in January. All the performances are free, as are all the concerts in CIM’s chamber music festival. For edifying winter warmers, one could hardly do better.

For more on the Cavani Quartet:

For more on Antonio Pompa-Baldi:

Cavani Quartet photo by Christian Steiner