When it comes to the music of Prokofiev, I now have a transformative experience on which to draw: sitting 8 feet away from piano star Daniil Trifonov as he plays a two-piano arrangement of the “Romeo and Juliet Suite.”
It’s hard to imagine any venue in the country letting you sit closer to a world-class pianist than the Keyboard Concerts series, which presented the Russian pianist Trifonov and his mentor, the acclaimed Armenian-American virtuoso Sergei Babayan, in a rousing recital Friday night at the Fresno State Concert Hall. When a concert sells out, as this one did, chairs get added to the front of the hall, not the back, with the result being that audience members can get even closer to the piano.
During the first half of the concert I sat about six rows back. For the second half I moved as close as I could get, in the front row — I’d never sat that close before at a Keyboard event — and while I can’t say I recommend the experience for everyone (or, for me, every time), it was absolutely thrilling to be in the company of the dynamic Trifonov. It was like sitting in the front seat of a roller coaster.
The Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series at Fresno State offers two for one tonight: a double concert by world-class pianists Sergei Babayan and Daniil Trifonov. I recap the concert in Friday’s issue of 7:
To call Trifonov the student of Babayan doesn’t seem like it does the relationship justice, considering that Trifonov is what Keyboard Concerts’ artistic director Andreas Werz calls “the hottest 23-year-old pianist in the world right now.” But it’s accurate: After winning the prestigious 2011 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition for young artists, an event held every four years, and the 2011 Rubinstein International Piano Competition, the Russian-born Trifonov continues to study with Babayan in Cleveland even as he pursues his own concert career.
The duo will play one piece for four hands on one piano and three pieces on two facing pianos. In terms of musical firepower, this is one of the highlights of the Keyboard Concerts season.
Andreas Werz, artistic director of Keyboard Concerts, points out that Biss played the same program at Carnegie Hall in New York a couple of weeks ago and will present it right after his Fresno concert at Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. “His career has definitely taken off,” Werz says.
I’m interested, too, in the ways that Biss has embraced technology. In September he taught a five-week course on Beethoven’s piano sonatas to 35,000 participants in partnership with Coursera, a MOOC (massive open online course). The course will begin a repeat run featuring the same lecture videos and fresh assignments on March 13. You can get more details at his website.
AND THE GRAMMY MIGHT GO TO: The Fresno Philharmonic’s own Theodore Kuchar, the orchestra’s music director, is up for a Latin Grammy Award:
“Latin American Classics,” the compact disc on the Brilliant Classics label featuring Theodore Kuchar and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela, has been nominated for a Latin Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Album. Kuchar is artistic director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela, based in Caracas. The 14th Annual Latin Grammy Awards will be held on Nov. 21, in Las Vegas.
Do you think The Bee will pay for me to travel to Vegas with Kuchar for the awards? Something tells me he’ll be able to find the coolest after parties.
By the way, several pieces on the nominated album will be played during the Fresno Philharmonic’s Nov. 1-3 ”I Got Rhythm!” concerts.
It was Denk’s triumphant performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, which concluded his program, that left the lasting impression. (He preceded the piece with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor, a major influence on Beethoven.) Denk took time before the piece to explain why he feels the piece is one of the most affecting moments in the classical music literature, speaking of Beethoven’s determination to go on creating groundbreaking music even with his reputation firmly cemented. Denk’s interpretation was somehow muscular and gentle and fierce and tender, all rolled into one, and the prolonged trill in the Arietta movement — which I swear nearly created sparks in the Fresno State Concert Hall — was something I’ll never forget. The sonata storms to a near cacophony of rhythmic turbulence and repeated key changes, but it manages, wondrously, to resolve. As Denk says, it’s as if Beethoven was telling us that no matter what happens along the journey, we are not lost.
Many audience members at piano recitals prefer to sit on the left side of the house facing the stage so they can watch the keyboard and see the pianist’s fingerwork. I never get to Keyboard Concerts recitals at Fresno State early enough to grab one of those prime seats. And, besides, sitting on the other side of the house gives you a great view of the pianist’s face as he or she plays.
In the case of Jeremy Denk, who wowed an appreciative audience with a memorable concert Wednesday, I was glad to sit where I did. Denk is about as far from pretentious as you can get when it comes to his music — read his notable blog and you can see how he makes merry with some of the more poseuristic aspects of the genre — and he never grandstands while he plays. But to watch his face, his head, as he plays is revelatory: at times holding it aloft as if he’s inspecting the ceiling, shaking it back and forth at other times ever so slightly, his features practically quivering. Beginning with Bartok’s rarely played Sonata and continuing on with four Liszt pieces in the first half of the program, Denk truly caught me up in the moment, though that description pales compared to the music he made. The “Dante” Sonata, with its inferno section like a freight train roaring through, left me feeling as if a zealous spring cleaner had scrubbed away all the cobwebs in my brain.
Once again, the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series delivers a much-talked-about pianist for a solo recital. Jeremy Denk, perhaps best known for his ongoing collaboration with the violinist Joshua Bell, will play a program tonight at the Fresno State Concert Hall that includes Bartok’s rarely played Sonata, a four-piece suite of Liszt’s piano music and Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor.
Denk is also an accomplished writer, and I encourage you to check out his witty and insightful blog.
Here’s my roundup on Denk from Tuesday’s Life section. And here’s a recent Boston Globe review of Denk playing the same program he’ll present in Fresno.
1. MEET THE FRESNO STATE TRIO
Fresno State music professors Andreas Werz, Limor Toren-Immerman and Thomas Loewenheim make up the new Fresno State Trio chamber group. They perform 8 p.m. Friday at the Fresno State Concert Hall as part of the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series. Here’s my story in Friday’s 7 section. (Bee photo by Eric Paul Zamora.) [Details]
1. FRESNO GRAND OPERA’S ‘LA RONDINE’ Tonight’s opening night performance is a big deal. It marks the first time Fresno Grand Opera will attempt a fully staged performance (with lights, set and costumes) at the Shaghoian Hall. With only about 750 seats, this venue is about a third smaller than the Saroyan Theatre, where the company has staged operas for more than a decade. Fresno Grand Opera picked an intimate opera for this more intimate venue, and I’m curious to see the results. I wrote about the venue change — and checked in with lead singers Rebecca Davis and Chad A. Johnson — in my Sunday Spotlight column. And I focus on the Italian conductor Valerio Galli, pictured below, who is making his American debut, in Friday’s 7 section. [Details]
Besides doing “The Time Warp” with the outstanding local production of “Rocky Horror” at the Severance Theatre …
1. LISTEN TO A GREAT PIANIST
Israeli-born pianist Alon Goldstein has performed with many of the great orchestras of the world — San Francisco Symphony, London Symphony, you name it — but he’s just as well known for his solo work. He’ll perform tonight at Fresno State as part of the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series. I had a terrific and fascinating phone conversation with Goldstein that I wrote up for Friday’s 7 section. If you’re interested in the mind of a classical pianist, check out his intriguing blog, which I reference in the story. [Details]
The esteemed French pianist Jean-Philippe Collard has been to Fresno so many times to perform he could probably make his way blindfolded from the airport to Fresno State’s Concert Hall. Collard will play at 8 p.m. Wednesday as part of the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series. You can read the pianist’s long and distinguished resumè here. As always, I remind readers that the general admission ticket price of $18 is a steal compared to what you’d pay to hear an artist of this caliber in a bigger city.
Artistic director Andreas Werz is dedicating the concert to the memory of former Bee arts writer David Hale, who died Oct. 12.
1. ENJOY A LITTLE NIGHT (OR MATINEE) MUSIC
It’s the last weekend for StageWorks Fresno’s handsome production of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Here’s my review. [Details]
The scene: It’s about 15 minutes before concert time on Sunday afternoon, and crowds of people are lined up in front of the box office at the Fresno State Concert Hall. One line is for people putting their names on a waiting list for the sold-out show; the others have had their names called for a seat and are waiting to pay.
The artist: Emanuel Ax, one of the top classical pianists in the world. He’s a longtime supporter of Keyboard Concerts.
The concert: I’m not sure how many of those people waiting outside actually made it inside, but the performance has to start late as the lucky standby winners are squeezed in. There’s something exciting about sitting in the middle of a jammed concert hall that people have clawed (at least figuratively) their way into. When Ax ambles out, giving a shy smile on his way to the piano, the audience roars.
The first half of the program: Ax starts with the most challenging piece for the audience first: Aaron Copland’s “Variations.” It’s a vibrant, cacophonous jolt of music, its dissonance drilling into my ears, but the piece has a solid, majestic ambiance. He follows that with a gorgeous and lyrical selection by Haydn, Variations in F Minor, followed by Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue in E-flat Major.
The second half of the program: Ax returns to perform Schumann’s powerhouse “Etudes en forme de variations,” a marathon collection of a theme plus a dozen etudes ending in the boisterous “Allegro brillante.” It’s amazing to watch and listen to Ax play. His sound alternates between silky-smooth spry and battleship powerful, with his trills — ah, those trills! — like whipped honey. The audience is on its feet for one encore, then two. It’s a treat to welcome someone who regularly plays the great concert halls of the world to the intimate Keyboard Concerts venue.
1. HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT
Fresno State’s theater department tackles an exciting and risky musical: Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” which opens tonight. I write about the show in today’s 7 cover story. [Details]
Alison Luedecke is looking forward to her 3 p.m. Sunday concert in Fresno with the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series. She’s never played the Elizabeth Lyles Pipe Organ in Fresno State’s Concert Hall, but she’s played on other organs designed by its builder, Martin Ott, and his reputation goes a long way.
I caught up with Luedecke, a co-founder of prestigious Millennia Consort, a nationally recognized ensemble with organ, brass quintet and percussion, via email to talk about her concert for a story in Friday’s 7 section. Here’s the extended version of that interview:
Can you pick a few pieces from your program to highlight?
Because I always try to make my programs show off the organ to its best, I’ve chosen pieces that are mostly Baroque. I will trace the origins of the prelude and fugue culminating in one of the greatest examples by Johann Sebastian Bach, the “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue in E-Flat Major. It is named this because the first theme of this triple fugue (three sections each with a different theme/subject) is the beginning of the chorale tune “St. Anne,” commonly known by many as “O God our Help in Ages Past.” There are two subsequently faster themes, one in each section. Bach shows off his genius by combining all three in a grand finish. The prelude is equally amazing with five sections in a “rondo” form — “ABACA.” The opening “A” section is based in the style of the French overture. The “B” and “C” sections are different and show off fancy hand and foot work. The program begins with a vibrant Prelude by Brahms. He wrote little for the organ, but what he did compose is amazing. This is, in my humble opinion, the most impressive and virtuosic of the works.
In the classical piano world, Garrick Ohlsson is a very big deal. He’s also a longtime friend of Fresno. He’s actually lost count of how many times he’s played for the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series at Fresno State, but one thing he does know: He loves coming here because of the attentive audience and the intimate venue in the Fresno State Concert Hall.
Ohlsson originally came to Fresno in the 1970s because of his friendship with Lorenz, who started the series, now in its 40th season. Ohlsson, who performs at 8 p.m. today, is dedicating his performance to Lorenz, who died 20 years ago.
You can read my interview with Ohlsson that ran in Tuesday’s Life section here.
Some performers seek out a bond with the audience, and you can feel an immediate crackle of chemistry with them. The Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky, who on Friday graced the stage of the Fresno State Concert Hall for a memorable recital with the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series, is a little more distant than that. He’s almost shy. There were more than a few moments in his muscular half-and-half program of Chopin and Liszt pieces that he turned his head to the left as he played, toward the wall and away from the audience, almost as if he were striving for a bit of privacy — a hard feat to accomplish when hundreds of pairs of eyes are fixated on your every move.
But this diffidence gives Lugansky an added appeal, especially when he lets it all hang out emotionally, so to speak. Head bowed so low at times he nearly touched the top of the piano, he poured so much of himself into Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, say, that his shyness became endearing. And in a triumphant finale to the evening — a fierce and passionate interpretation of two of Liszt’s demanding “Transcendental Etudes” — the quiet reserve became thunderous intensity. The sold-out audience loved it.
The weekend before Thanksgiving is always one of the busiest of the year in terms of local events — and this one is no exception. Check out today’s 7 section for lots more options.
1. EXPERIENCE A ‘GREAT’ SYMPHONY WITH THE FRESNO PHILHARMONIC
They call Shubert’s Symphony No. 9 the “Great Symphony” because of its length — and to distinguish it from the composer’s other symphony written in C major, the 6th. (How’s that for a piece of trivia you can offer before the concert begins?) The orchestra will also play the Sibelius Violin Concerto featuring up-and-coming young Bulgarian violinist Bella Hristova. I have a roundup in today’s 7 section of the two Masterworks concerts offered this weekend: one at 8 p.m. Saturday, the other 2:30 p.m. Sunday. It’s a busy weekend for the orchestra: There’s also a family concert 2:30 p.m. Saturday featuring the “Classical Kids LIVE!” with an installment titled “Mozart’s Magnificent Journey.”
1. GO OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD AND HEAR THE MUSIC LIVE
Sometimes things just fall into place. Our esteemed artist for the 7 section, John Alvin, had already prepared our cover for the Fresno Philharmonic’s “Oz with Orchestra” performance when I interviewed conductor Theodore Kuchar for my cover story. When I asked Kuchar which parts of the film had particularly affected him over the years, the first thing he mentioned was the flying monkeys. I had to smile knowing this was our cover:
I was incredibly moved Sunday at the Armenian pianist Vardan Mamikonian’s wrenching opening recital at the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series. When the tall, demure pianist walked out to begin his recital, he betrayed nothing of the emotion that would permeate the following two hours. But when he sat down to play his opening piece, Franz Liszt’s dark “Lalugubre gondola II,” I could just tell from the long pause he took before playing the moody opening note that this was an artist who planned to put heart and soul into his program.
His performance of the Chaconne in D Minor by Bach/Busoni was a blend of the fiery and the astonishingly introspective. (At one point, the pianist bowed his head so far forward that his chin nearly touched the top of the instrument.) His selection of Chopin etudes likewise danced between light and dark.
But it was Mamikonian’s interpretation of the powerhouse Sonata in B Minor by Liszt that involved the true heavy lifting. There were times that the expression on Mamikonian’s face approached anguish as he negotiated the darker elements of the piece. I could feel the emotional calories burning with a white-hot heat. I’m rarely moved to tears, but they flowed in the closing moments of the piece. I was almost surprised he was able to rouse himself from the keyboard after it was all over. And I almost wish we could have skipped the two encores — although the enthusiastic, sold-out audience certainly would have been disappointed — if only to let the Liszt linger. Bravo.
1. LIFE IS A CABARET
After tonight’s performance of “Ragtime” at the Cal-Arts Severance Theatre, StageWorks Fresno will host a cabaret show. Cast members and other special guests will showcase their own musical styles. StageWorks Fresno has hosted two of these cabaret events before, during the runs of “[title of show]” and “The Light in the Piazza,” and they’re always a great way to hear your favorite singers tackling everything from the classics to hot new Broadway tunes. The show starts at 11 p.m. Tickets are $10 (separate from “Ragtime” admission) and will be available at the door. [info]
This young-and-hip Israeli percussion duo PercaDu teams up with the Fresno Philharmonic 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. I interview Adi Morag, one-half of the duo, in today’s issue of 7. Also on the Philharmonic program: Barber’s “School for Scandal Overture” and the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 1.
1. A SMOOCH FROM THE YOUTH PHILHARMONIC
Valentine’s Day weekend is jam-packed with worthwhile events, many of them benefits. (Mike and I write about eight of the options in Friday’s 7 cover story.) One concert that looks especially promising is “Love Conquers All,” a fund-raiser for the Youth Orchestras of Fresno. Guest artist and acclaimed tenor Scott Piper joins the orchestra in a selection of favorite romantic arias. A dessert auction following the concert will give you a chance to satisfy your sweet tooth as well. Below, Piper works with Henry Woolf and Sophia Liang.
1. LET THE BAY AREA COME HERE FOR A CHANGE
If you’re a dance fan, you most definitely do not want to miss “Best of the Bay 2,” which is bringing an all-star lineup of professional Bay Area dance companies to the Saroyan Theatre for one performance only. The show is 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Read my story in today’s 7 section for more details.
1. BUY AN ORIGINAL PRINT Spectrum Art Gallery’s big fund-raiser of the year, its annual print auction, is Saturday, and if you’re looking for great buys on exquisite shots from professional photographers — some of them nationally known — this is the place to be. Below is one of the prints up for auction by John Sexton.
It isn’t often that a visiting pianist to the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series shows up to play a piece dedicated to her specifically. But that’s the case with acclaimed Russian pianist Elena Kuschnerova, who performs 3 p.m. Sunday at the Fresno State Concert Hall. The piece is Prelude and Theme with Variations, written by A.L. Lokshin (1920-1987). I caught up with Kuschnerova in New York City via email and asked her about the concert.
Question: Can you tell us about the piece and how you were so honored?
Answer: Lokshin is a great Russian/ Soviet composer who for political reasons was very rarely performed. He wrote almost everything for orchestra and voice. He wrote only two piano pieces: Variations for piano, written in 1952 for the pianist Maria Grinberg, and his second one — “my” Variations. He was my mother’s professor at the Moscow Conservatory in 1947-8 and he heard me in a concert during my study at the Moscow Conservatory. I asked him if he could write something for me. He wrote this composition in only a few days. I have performed it in many countries and recorded it many times. It is “my” composition. I am really very glad and honored by that. It was the very first composition written especially for me, and I was very young!