by Michael Cameron
In the crowded summertime schedule of live musical events at Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, one late August event stands out as a consistent highlight. The supremely gifted young high school age musicians of the Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Dr. Allan Dennis team up with the Lang Lang International Music Foundation Scholars to present programs of excerpts of standard piano concertos.
Many in the audience were family members of the youngsters on stage, but at least as many were downtown strollers who stumbled on the concert by accident, struck by the professional quality of the music making from virtuosic pianists. On closer inspection, these chance listeners seemed amazed to find pianists as young as 11 years old performing with dazzling artistry and unruffled confidence.
While the audience witnessed only a two hour concert, the event was in fact the culmination of a week of intensive collaboration and fellowship between the pianist/scholars and MYAC members and their families. Clearly, the time together was wisely spent, with coaching on the concertos given by Dr. Dennis, and considerable cultural exchange between the local families and the visiting artists, some visiting from far-off corners of the world. The synergy between visitors and guests was a marvel to behold.
After an effervescent reading of the overture to Verdi’s opera La Forza del Destino, Dennis introduced the first soloist, 16-year-old Californian Elizabeth Zietz, taking on the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. This was a smart choice for a concert spotlighting the concert grand, as the opening bars are given to the piano alone. Zietz launched into Mozart’s burst of passagework with bracing urgency, bringing sensitive clarity to each section of the concert and showing deft pacing in the sparking cadenza.
Another beloved Mozart Concerto, No. 23 in A major, was the vehicle chosen by Amir Siraj, a 16-year-old whose many kudos include first prize in the Boston Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition. Siraj performed an emotive version of the justly acclaimed second movement Adagio. It’s in the unusual key of F sharp minor (the only such movement in Mozart’s vast input), and contains some the composer’s most tragic undercurrents outside his operas. While not technically challenging in any obvious way, it requires a mature touch to get under the surface, and Siraj’s poignant reading proved to be a highlight of the afternoon. The finale of the same concerto was given a sterling reading by 11-year-old Peter Leung, the youngest soloist of the afternoon. Though small in stature, Leung demonstrated confident elegance in a brisk and alert traversal of the Allegro assai.
13-year-old Jenny Kong traveled from halfway around the globe to contribute a blistering account of the finale of Mendelssohn’s Concerto No. 1 in G minor. The student from the Hong Kong Academy was fresh off her first prize win at the Burgos International Music Festival Competition in Spain, and it was clear from the first dazzling measures why she made such a keen impact with the judges. The concerto tests the speed of a soloist’s chops like few other works, and she made easy and fun work of the rapid-fire scales and darting chords.
Dennis spoke to the audience of his fondness for Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, and Raymond Feng’s’ account of the finale (Rondo-Vivace) understandably brought a smile to the maestro’s face. The 11-year-old Hong Kong native brought a calm poise and sure physical command to the formidable warhorse, vanquishing its many technical hurdles with an ease that would make many professional pianists wince with envy.
Chelsea Guo also choose the finale of a big romantic concerto as her calling card, this time the beloved Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor of Tchaikovsky. The 16-year-old student at Juilliard’s pre-college division launched the opening bars at a zippy pace, vanquishing the fiendish scales and arpeggios with masterful accuracy and idiomatic understanding of Russian romanticism. But for the all the fireworks, her moving account of the composer’s lush lyricism was most memorable.
Rachmaninoff’s single movement Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is far too long for a concert of concerto highlights, but pianist Eden Chen and Dr. Dennis patched together 10 minutes of highlights that held together quite well. The 18-year-old whiz will be attending Columbia and Juilliard in the fall, having already won the Platinum Prize in the Glendale Piano Competition. The excerpts covered a wide range of tempos and styles, but Chen had no problem switching gears, giving each variation a characterful and compelling reading.
16-year-old Kimberly Han is no stranger to fans of MYAC’s stellar music program. She is a potent double threat as violinist and pianist, three-time prize winner in the Walgreen’s Concerto Competition, and prize winner in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Youth Competition. Her dazzling reading of the finale of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major was also the finale of the concert, and what a splendid ending it was for both soloist and orchestra. Every twist and turn of the work was handled with ease, and the final bars earned the musicians a richly deserved standing ovation.
Every generation seems to fret over the future of classical music in our society. While the continued support of a fervent audience base may be a subject for legitimate concern, this concert is further proof that we need not fear a shortage of first rate talent for our concert stages.