The Lang Lang International Music Foundation is now in its second decade of extraordinary public service, including the establishment of partnerships with organizations dedicated to instilling a drive for musical excellence in young people across the globe. None of these collaborations has been more fruitful than their partnership with Midwest Young Artists Conservatory. Each summer in August, MYAC plays host to several of these remarkable young pianist/scholars for week, making music, breaking bread, and engaging in every manner of cultural exchange. Normally there are a few holdovers from previous summers among the soloists, but this year all eight were newcomers.
Conductor Allan Dennis was at the podium Sunday afternoon once again with his MYAC Symphony Orchestra at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, introducing budding pianists and engaging in conversation with each before launching into selections from several canonic piano concertos. The students shared thoughts about their time in Chicago, from card-playing with fellow scholars to the enormous portions of food served up Midwest style.
Before the soloists took to the stage, Dr. Dennis led his orchestra in an ebullient account of Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. The statements of the snaking theme in octaves were neatly rendered by the orchestra’s superb woodwinds and strings.
It was a perfect appetizer before thoroughly compelling performances of the last two movements of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major. 13-year-old Hong Kong native Wilson Lung gave a polished and remarkably flexible reading of the Adagio, adopting a leisurely tempo that allowed him to tenderly sculpt the composer’s poignant, singing lines. Shuheng Zhang, hailing from Michigan, gave an invigorating, incisive, and note-perfect account of the finale, establishing an agreeable report with Dr. Dennis as they exchanged pleasantries in the composer’s conversational rondo.
Victor Shlyakhtenko, a 16-year-old award-winning artist from Los Angeles, already has performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall and Carnegie Hall to his credit. He gave a winning performance of the Andante of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, spinning long melodic lines with warmth and tenderness.The finale of the concerto is unabashedly virtuosic, with fist-fulls of blistering passagework and rapid-fire octaves. It stretches credulity to imagine a 12-year-old taming this monster, but Katerina Cheung of Hong Kong did just that, delivering immaculate scales with a robust sound, all while maintaining a crystalline transparency so necessary in the composer’s scores.
Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 bears some kinship with the Mendelssohn piano concertos (and shares the same key as the second), with its quick, boisterous arpeggios and ample melodic charm. And like the Mendelssohn, it was written in a comparative flash, over a three week period for the occasion of Anton Rubenstein’s conducting debut in Paris. While the composer famously disliked the concerto, it has become one of his most popular works. 13-year-old Chicago native and current Juilliard Pre-College student Aliya Marie Alsafa ably demonstrated its appeal, capturing the movement’s wit and joie de vivre with apparent ease.
The final three students in the showcase each performed a movement of another popular warhorse of the repertoire, Grieg’s Concerto in A minor. It was the first piano concerto ever recorded (in 1909), and was the only concerto completed by the composer. Though written at the tender age of 24, Grieg made revisions throughout his life, the last ones coming just a few weeks before his death. Folk elements abound in its melodies, and perhaps because of the outdoor setting for this concert, these qualities seemed amplified on this occasion.
From the opening timpani roll and the cascading keyboard octaves, 16-year-old New Yorker and Juilliard Pre-College student Jeffrey Chin had the full measure of the opening movement. He coaxed a full-throated sound from the concert grand, capturing Grieg’s grand gestures in impassioned outbursts.
After tranquil and hushed opening bars from the orchestra’s muted strings in the opening bars, Carey Byron (age 14) presented a searching, warm reading of the Adagio, tracing the melancholy melodic contours with grace and sensitivity. It’s little wonder that the Los Angeles native has picked up numerous prizes, including first prize at the Los Angeles Young Musician International Competition and second prize at the American Protégé International Competition, the latter leading to her debut in Carnegie Hall.
It was up to Jasper Heymann to close out the Grieg, and he rose to the occasion with an impassioned delivery of the final Allegro moderato. From the blistering opening flourishes to the breakneck pace of the first bristling melodies, the 15-year-old New Yorker and multiple competition winner was if full command, delivering a dazzling performance that brought the audience to their feet.
Dr. Dennis chose to conclude the program the same way it began, with an engaging reading of a seminal opera overture. He lead the young ensemble in a glowing, atmospheric account of Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz, an influential opera from 1821 that foreshadowed many characteristics of the looming Romantic style. The work is as much a tone poem as it is an overture and, as in the Grieg concerto, Dennis underlined the vivid folk references that inform much of the music. Special kudos to the horn section - their mellow, gleaming sound set the stage for an evocative performance that drew a justifiably enthusiastic response from the audience. Once again, listeners no doubt had to remind themselves repeatedly that the musicians on stage were students, not professionals, so thoroughly engrossing were the performances.