Monday, May 20, 2013

Marc-André Hamelin
Chicago Symphony Center
May 19 2013. 3:00pm

•Piano Sonata, Op. 1

•Impromptu No. 2 in F minor, Op. 31
•Barcarolle No. 3 in G flat major, Op. 42

•Gaspard de la Nuit


•Variations on a theme by Paganini

•Prelude from Book 1: Reflets dans l'eau

•Jeux d'eau

•Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 36

Yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to meet and hear one of the most technically stunning pianists of our time. Often called a "supervirtuouso"because of his transcendent technical ability, Marc-Andre Hamelin, if you haven't heard of him, has been creating a name for himself by making short work of the arcane and recondite works by the forgotten composers of history.

In 2000 he released a recording of Leopold Godowsky's thrilling and perilous "Studies on the Chopin Études", 53 of the most staggeringly difficult piano pieces ever put to paper, and in the recording, Mr. Hamelin made them all seem like the sort of child's play that anyone with some spare time on a Sunday afternoon could pull off. Based on what I heard in the recordings (I've heard that record so many times, I could sing them all complete with Hamelin's individual nuances.) in the last 13 interim years, I suspect that Hamelin has gotten perhaps 100% better. I can't know for certain because his music making exists on a plane I don't have the tools to measure.

I'd never heard the Berg sonata before, and I was spell bound by the piece's bewildering beauty and the way it almost casually walked in and out of the world of tonal harmony. Hamelin was masterful in the way he kept us captivated with his emotional generation of tone all the way up to the very last note. He made me wish that there wasn't the convention of clapping after pieces, because after the sonata was over, a hundred years of silence would have been like permission to bask in a century of bliss.

After the conclusion of the Berg, about one-quarter of the audience came in to be seated late, and Mr. Hamelin was left sitting alone on stage, almost ignominiously, while the ushers loudly ushered. It was such a painful reawakening that a quotation by George Benard Shaw forcefully jumped to mind: "Without art, the crudeness of the world would make reality unbearable." Hamelin took us out of reality for 12 and a half minutes, but the world didn't waste a second to pull us back into the room.

After a pregnant silence (without a departure from the stage between the pieces), the first Fauré piece came like…a spray of wondrous colors and sounds that rippled into the air in a way that's probably best left to the visual arts to depict. I was dumbstruck by the quality and number of his touches. Subtleties like these are how I know that this man's limits lie solely in the bounds of his imagination. The second Faure piece was lovely I believe, but it didn't stick with me like the first one, because at that point, Hamelin was already up to two outstanding moments, and my unprepared nervous system couldn't handle much more.

Gaspard was Gaspard. 500,000 notes, 256 colors, and Hamelin covered them all. This is how we know he deserves the title of supervirtuoso: In a world where the virtuosos look at that piece and rank the quality of a performance in terms of percentages (of 500k and 256), Hamelin was beyond all that, and could be heard experimenting with the larger structures of the work as a whole. Men build cities and bridges to cope with the limitations of gravity. Supermen bend the seas and move the continents to suit their vision. I've seen vitruosi. Hamelin is a Supervirtuoso.

After the intermission (where I barely had time to eat a sandwich and catch my breath), he played his own variations, and made the audience laugh with his musical antics. I've heard the piece before when he played it at Chicago Piano Day, so the jokes weren't fresh, but it was still great fun.

I don't need to talk about the rest of the program. What you should do is thank your parents for allowing you to be alive at the present moment, and go out and see Hamelin while he still is. He's 52, but he's in excellent shape, so you're in luck. Buy all his recordings and watch him when you can. End of review.

p.s. He played two encores, Rachmaninoff's g sharp minor prelude, Op. 32/12 and Chopin's Waltz in D flat,  Op. 64/1 with a "modified" ending. The audience went wild.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Jorge Federico Osorio Review

Jorge Federico Osorio
Chicago Symphony Center
May 5, 2013. 3:00pm

•Sonata in G minor
•Sonata in D major
•Sonata in D flat major

Manuel Ponce
•Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Handel

•Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel


Mallorca, Barcarolle in F sharp Major, Op. 202

•Barcarolle No. 2, Op. 30, No. 2

Barcarolle, June from "The Seasons", Op. 37a

•Pictures from an Exhibition

I almost didn't attend this concert because the program had too many unfamiliar hispanic sounding names on it, but I decided at the last minute that's the perfect reason to go.

Looking at the roster of pianists for this season and the 2013-2014 season, and their repertoire, without getting too pessimistic, one might get the impression that, in the entire history of western art music, no Hispanic composers ever wrote anything for the piano worth hearing. For much of recorded piano performance history, German, French and Russian repertoire constituted the heavy bulk of what people learned and performed in the world of the piano. I love a lot of that repertoire, but somewhere when I was in college I stopped, stepped back and looked at a map and wondered, where's the music from everywhere else?

Bach: German
Brahms: German
Beethoven: German
Chopin: Polish/French
Fauré: French
Grieg: Norwegian
Haydn: Austrian
Liszt: Hungarian/French
Mendelssohn: German
Mozart: Austrian
Schubert: Austrian
Rachmaninoff: Russian
Scarlatti: Italian
Scriabin: Russian
Schumann: German
Tchaikovsky: Russian

It's easy to make the erroneous supposition that Hispanic music (or Nordic for that matter) isn't as well represented in the piano canon as, say, French, German or Russian, because it simply wasn't as good. I think an investigation into why this music isn't heard as often is beyond the scope of this review, but the issue of under-representation wasn't ignored by Mr. Osorio, and in the 2012-2013 lineup, I think he stands alone as the pianist most willing to take the bold stance of choosing and performing compelling works from parts of the world less heard, by names unfamiliar.

Before the house lights went down, I scanned the crowd and saw that Mr. Osorio was not playing to a sold out room. Far, far from it. He had about 1/3 of the seats filled, and I suspect that his daring program choice may have had something to do with it. There were huge, classic numbers on the program–in western piano repertoire, the Brahms and the Mussorgsky are as white bread as they come–but the inclusion of four (4!) unfamiliar names on the program might have been too much for some people. Granted, Albéniz is not a second tier name among minor western composers, but still, he's not a name that people might find easy to pronounce. I think that might be the secret. Americans want to see names on a program that are foreign-ish (The last half of the twentieth century taught us to be wary of american composers since American composers were often trained to be avant-garde) but that they can pronounce. So, I suspect a composer with a last name like Jackson or Walker wouldn't go over too well with an audience, but a tamer foreign name like Mottishaw, Avaulée, or Simokat might have more success. Gupta and Guzik are too "ethnic sounding", but Slavova might pass because we've been conditioned to know what to expect out of slavic sounding named composers. (I have no idea what might be the expected reaction from a program rife with Eastern names like Ho, Shan or Tsui, or Ng. Who knows, this might fly in the face of my theory because those names are all one syllable–easy to pronounce!)

Anyway, the program was perfectly balanced in terms of length and order. I think he wanted the Albeniz, Castro and Tchaikovsky to be played as a group, without interruption, as an exploration of the barcarolle. That was an excellent idea, but the person writing the program wouldn't let him get away with it. They were separated by line breaks in the program when I think they should have been grouped, because while Osorio acknowledged applause between those pieces, he didn't get up, and clearly wasn't expecting it.

One of the standard practices in classical performances is that groupings of pieces [without breaks for applause] are usually only done within the same composer. This process works, because the German and French masters that so heavily make up the canon wrote extended pieces as well as pieces which fit together as suites. As concertgoers, we're conditioned to expect that, and that when there's a single piece by a single composer, we expect it to be a stand-alone work with no connection to the surroundings. Mr. Osorio's choices didn't play to that expectation, and I think the audience, sadly, wasn't receptive to what he was trying to achieve. I was disappointed, but not surprised.

His playing? Unmannered to say the least. I'd call him a pianist's pianist; He's the guy I'd trust to interpret pieces I've never heard of sight unseen. In all the pieces he played he found an emotional hook to play upon and made the piece work.

Some works have what might be called elusive emotional qualities (Some Chopin mazurkas, Fauré character pieces, the late Beethoven sonatas are a few examples that immediately jump to mind) and have the potential to go dead in a person's hands if they don't know how to handle them. I would trust Osorio with tricky pieces like that. I believe Osorio makes good choices and plays pieces that he can make work. And judging by his adroitness with the major works on the program as well as with his compelling interpretations of the shorter works, he's the complete pianist. You should see him.