MYA April 24, 2016
Pick-Stainer Concert Hall
The final spring concerts for Midwest Young Artists are always emotional affairs, with artistic director Dr. Allan Dennis bidding farewell to his senior class, many of whom have been a part of MYA for five years or more. At the Symphony Orchestra concert Sunday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall at Northwestern University, the event was even more personal than usual, thanks to a solo appearance by Carrie Dennis, violist and daughter of the conductor.
To say that papa Dennis has reason for pride is an understatement. A 1995 alum of MYA herself, the violist was appointed Associate Principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra after graduating from the prestigious Curtis Institute, and soon after became Solo Violist of the Berlin Philharmonic, arguably the most illustrious ensemble of it’s kind on the planet. She returned stateside in 2008 to take the principal chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the behest of maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Bartok’s Viola Concerto, commissioned by legendary violist William Primrose, is seen by some as the weaker sibling to his other concertos. This assessment is made in part because he left the work unfinished at his death, though it was eventually completed by his close friend and former pupil Tibor Serly in 1949. This version was then significantly revised by son Peter Bartok and violist Paul Neubauer in 1995, the edition used in this concert.
From the opening pages it was clear that this was a performance to be reckoned with, both father and daughter bringing a determined common purpose to the thorny score. The opening unaccompanied lyrical line was lovingly traced before a quick transition to agitated figures traded back and forth with the alert orchestra. Ms. Dennis threw herself in the performance with utter commitment, digging into the angular lines with riveting intensity, but never letting her interpretation turn ragged or overindulgent. One minute she was negotiating leaps and double stops with pinpoint accuracy, and the next pulling her multi-hued sound back to a whisper.
If the finale betrays the influence of Serly as much as Bartok himself, in Ms. Dennis’ hands there was no hint of diminished inspiration. This movement brims with folk song (the last time Bartok would mine this particular source), and orchestra and soloist gave a scintillating reading, from the illusion of the droning bagpipes to the last scalar flourishes. It was a bravura performance all around, and exhibit A of the essential role Midwest Young Artists plays in the Chicago area cultural and educational landscape.
The concert opened with a memorable account of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, a work originally intended to open the opera Fidelio. But even during it’s construction it was understood by the composer to work better as a stand alone concert work. The slow introduction was a marvel of restraint, marked by simple lovely octave passages in woodwinds and upper strings, with delicate arpeggios intoned with ease by principal flutist Lucy Wu. Dr. Dennis chose a zippy tempo for the main allegro, and his forces played with fire and conviction. Trumpet player Hanna Nussbaum provided a gleaming solo from backstage, meant in the opera Fidelio to signal the arrival of a minister from the capital to inspect the prison which is unjustly holding Florestan. The superb upper strings dug into the rapid fire scales that begin the coda, and the orchestra brought the heroic work to a rousing completion.
Dr. Dennis is fond of picking orchestra standards that will push his young musicians to explore their limits, a strategy that paid handsome dividends in this concert thanks to a vivid reading of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. Hushed rumbles in lower strings and low brass set the stage in the forbidding opening introduction, and bassoonist Sarah Gibes and clarinetist Torin Bakke lead their sections in setting the mood. Horn player Lindsay Aaronson contributed many fine solo turns, while the oboe solos were expertly rendered by Lucy Chavez.
Chavez and Gibes shone once again in the Lullaby, and the final pages were brought home with brilliant intensity by the crack percussion section, bass drum featured most prominently. The parents in the audience gave the ensemble a richly deserved stranding ovation, and another fine class of talented seniors bid farewell to MYA and entered a new phase of promise and independence.
MYA - Walgreens Competition
February 28, 2016
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall
The Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Symphony Orchestra gives several splendid concerts each year, showcasing the cream of the crop of Chicago area young instrumentalists. For many, including this listener, the most highly anticipated of these performances is the winter concert that features the annual winners of the Walgreens Concerto Competition. In addition to thrilling concerto performances by two brilliant young artists, Dr. Allan Dennis presented compelling performances of two orchestra standards at opposite ends of the tempo spectrums.
The overall winner of the Open Division of the competition was 16-year-old violinist Zachary Brandon, using as his vehicle arguably the most challenging movement in concerto literature, the finale of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, amusingly dubbed “a polonaise for polar bears” by Sir Donald Tovey. From the restless, edgy opening in the instrument’s lower register, to the angular dotted rhythms that send the instrument soaring into the highest realms, Brandon kept the audience on the edge of their seats with a performance of unflagging energy and youthful dynamism. Of Brandon’s numerous musical attributes, most impressive was his steely sound that projected easily over the orchestra to the farthest seats in the hall.
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is an equally stern test, even for seasoned professionals. In the concert’s sprawling first movement, 15-year-old Kimie Han, winner of the MYA Division, seemed unfazed by any of these difficulties, either digitally or musically. She dug into the swift scaler passages with ease, and held nothing back during the composer’s wryly dissonant outbursts and blistering scalar passages. Her feisty reading combined equal measures of vigor and polish, and she tended to the movements’ odd lyrical moments with a delicate touch.
Richard Strauss once wrote that he could only compose when confronted with some kind of dramatic or literary inspiration, and he harnessed this ability to depict character and incident through music to bring the musical form “tone poem” to life. Franz Liszt’s tone poems may have had vague extramusical associations, but Strauss’ creations captured the visual world with much greater specificity. (He once boasted that he could depict a glass of beer in musical form!). He is generally not considered a radical composer from today’s viewpoint, but when the 21-year-old decided to pay a musical tribute to a certain famous lady’s man after seeing Nikolaus Lenau’s Don Juans Ende in 1885, his imagination was fired to white hot intensity. His tone poem Don Juan debuted in 1888 to a rapturous reception, paving the way for several more tone poems and 17 operas. The orchestration places unprecedented demands on musicians, and to this day is the source for many of the most feared passages in orchestra auditions.
Such challenges might be assumed to put the piece out of range for teenage musicians, but the orchestra pulled off a performance that was as riveting as many a professional ensemble. The opening cascades of 16th notes are meant to convey a “tempest of excitement” (in the composer’s words), and Dennis and company threw themselves into the bustle with infectious brio. Once the hyper-activity subsided, the spotlight shifted to a series of nicely turned solos and section work. Concertmaster Robert Sanders’ solo passages were spun beautifully, while oboist Lucy Chavez brought a lovely touch to Strauss’ extended cantilena, a representation of the protagonist’s second conquest. Special kudos to the horn section, whose massively powered call perfectly captured Don Juan’s impatience as he rushes off on another amorous adventure.
If Strauss left little doubt as to the inspiration behind his tone poems, Barber’s Adagio for string orchestra is a shape-shifting marvel. It has been appropriated by an endless parade of film directors and pop artists, from “Platoon” and “Elephant Man” to studio producer William Orbit and rapper Sean Combs. Some conductors try to wring every drop of pathos from the score with lethargic tempos, but Dr. Dennis’ more reasonable pace kept the structure in tight focus. The students responded with a warm, moving performance that left their proud families clearly moved.
Midwest Young Artists Symphony Orchestra
Young Scholars from the Lang Lang International Music Foundation
International Summer Music Summit
Dr. Allan Dennis, conductor
August 23, 2015
Jay Pritzker Pavillion, Millennium Park
by Michael Cameron
Conductor Allan Dennis and his Midwest Young Artists Symphony Orchestra have ample experience partnering with young soloists in concerto performances, with 20 years worth of concerts accompanying winners from the Walgreens Competition, one of the most prestigious contests of its kind. Those winners have been featured in many concerts with the orchestra at Northwestern University’s Pick Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston, with a mix of string and wind players, as well as percussionists, singers and pianists. More recently, MYA has teamed with the Lang Lang International Music Foundation to provide concerto opportunities for many of its young virtuosos, seven of whom performed Sunday afternoon at the Jay Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park in downtown Chicago.
The orchestra itself has built a reputation for superb performances that rival those of ensembles populated by mature professionals, and hearing them collaborate with outstanding musical prodigies made one feel genuine hope for the future of musical standards in this country. Anyone who happened upon the outdoor concert by accident could be forgiven for assuming that the performers were fully formed professionals.
In order to give opportunities to as many pianists as possible, Dr. Dennis programmed two entire concertos, but with different soloists in each movement. It is tempting to think that our musical academies churn out young pianists by the bushel, all hewing to the same, “average” interpretations of the classics. What I found most rewarding about this concert was the variety of personalities that came through, no doubt reflecting various teaching philosophies and the differing cultural backgrounds each pianist brought to the concert grand.
First up was Avery Gagliano, a remarkably mature artist from Washington, DC with many appearances with symphony orchestras already under her belt. She launched into the opening Allegro maestoso of Liszt’s Concerto No. 1 with complete confidence and poise, showing no signs of being intimidated by the sense of occasion. Especially impressive was her natural understanding of romantic era rubato and her ability to tease out the lyricism so essential in the concerto.
Among the most impressive soloists of the day was Indonesia native Janice Carissa, currently a student at Curtis Institute of Music under the guidance of legendary pedagogues Gary Graffman and Robert McDonald. She has also amassed an impressive resume for someone of her age, with solo turns with the Philadelphia Orchestra and several other ensembles, as well as an appearance at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall. Her reading of the second movement Adagio of the Liszt Concerto was richly textured and colorful, with an innate lyricism and idiomatic flair.
Hong Kong native Matthew Chan showed signs of discomfort at the opening of the Allegretto vivace, but he soon settled into a groove, dispatching some of the concerto’s most difficult passages with flair and panache. Also hailing from Hong Kong, Sheri Lun tackled the bruising finale with pinpoint clarity and convincing bravura, while the lighter moments danced with an impish joy that brought the audience to their feet after the final bars.
If anything Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (premiered in 1921 across the street from Millennium Park by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Frederick Stock) is an even bigger challenge to conquer than the Liszt, and the three soloists didn’t disappoint. Before the soloist entered in the first movement, the audience was treated to some lovely clarinet duos by…….? It’s hard to imagine any 12 year old being up to the formidable challenges of the first movement of this concerto, but 15 year old Juilliard Pre-College student Maxim Lando launched into the opening bars with panache, excelling in the fiendishly difficult perpetual motion passages.
The second movement’s theme and variations are a mini-concerto of their own, and San Francisco Pre-College student Elliot Wuu handled it’s twists and turns with assured confidence. Exuberant one moment, calm and introspective the next, Wuu’s had the goods to deliver a professional and confident performance.
Seasoned concert goers know better than to equate physical size with sound production, but the strapping Clayton Stephenson coaxed the biggest and boldest sound of any of the soloists. It was easy to understand why this promising young virtuoso won the Jury Discretionary Award at the 2015 Van Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and the Juilliard Pre-College Piano Competition whole concerto. He boasted all of the requisite subtleties needed to make the movement sing, but it was his infectious dynamism that had the Pritzker audience eating out of his hand.
For a concert opener, Dr. Dennis led his orchestra through a radiant reading of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. Its colors ran the full gamut from sparkling to lugubrious, and it’s final, amusing snap was a sheer delight. The remarkable accomplishments of the pianists seemed almost magical at times, so it was appropriate that Dennis choose Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice as the afternoon’s finale. Violist Sofiya Kyrylyuk was just one of many young artists that made the familiar score seem fresh.
http://chicagoclassicalreview.com/2015/07/conlon-cso-and-osorio-vivid-and-stylish-in-brahms-and-zemlinsky-at-ravinia/CONLON, CSO AND OSORIO VIVID AND STYLISH IN BRAHMS AND ZEMLINSKY
Igor Levit - Bach, Beethoven, and Beyond
Ravinia summer program cover feature
When a Ravinia audience welcomes 27-year-old Igor Levit for an all-Bach program this summer in his Chicago area debut, they will hear only a small sampling of the many musical styles that have occupied the brilliant young pianist in his short but burgeoning career. He has been a known commodity in Europe for a few years, but domestic audiences have only recently begun to take notice. On the occasion of his North American debut in 2014, the New York Times last year proclaimed “…a major new pianist has arrived”.
Classical music lovers could be forgiven for assuming that the path to stardom is paved with strategic maneuvering by publicity agents and managers. According to this formula, a recording of a Rachmaninoff concerto (faster, cleaner, and more self-indulgent than the last wunderkind version) is followed by designer apparel and lucrative endorsements. While much of Levit’s attention has been devoted to standard repertoire, with a little digging it becomes clear that the pianist’s restless intellect and uncompromising idealism have led him down some surprising musical paths. In a wide ranging interview from his home in Hanover, Levit was quick to emphasize his passion for a broad spectrum of possibilities. “I listen to so much music, and a huge variety of music, from 15th century Renaissance to American hip hop from 2015.”
While Levit’s path to stardom may include some unconventional choices in repertoire, his career was jump-started by early successes on the competition circuit, including a Silver Prize at the 2005 Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv in 2005. Although he was the youngest participant in a crowded field, his versatility was recognized with prizes as the best performer of both chamber music and contemporary music.
The Russian-born pianist moved with his family to Germany at the age of eight, later completing his studies at the Hanover Academy of Music with the highest performance and academic scores in the history of that institution. The uncompromising intellect and unquenchable curiosity that emerged early in his life continue to inform his compelling performances and distinct choices of repertoire.
After inking an exclusive recording deal with Sony Classics in 2013, he recorded a debut disc that featured the five last sonatas of Beethoven, a choice that raised more than a few eyebrows among critics who assume that decades of concertizing are needed before plumbing the depths of this profound music. The gamble payed off handsomely. The recording was universally praised for it’s surprising maturity, structural clarity, and rigorous attention to detail, earning him the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Young Artist award, the BBC Music Magazine Newcomer of the Year award, and the ECHO 2014 for Solo Recording of the Year. I asked if he was bothered by accusations of arrogance for tackling these sonatas at such a young age, with so little life experience from which to draw. He answered politely, though it was clear he was a bit weary of addressing this subject so often.
“As simple as it sounds, the short answer is, why not? For the last couple of years this has simply a major part of my core repertoire. In my particular situation, I never thought about what might be the best move for my career, but rather what was most natural for me at the time. I play all of the Beethoven sonatas, and all are rather demanding. My desire to concentrate on the late sonatas began during my intense study of the Diabelli Variations, which naturally led me down the path of various Beethoven sonatas, and more specifically the late ones. I also heard a performance by John Elliot Gardiner of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and this changed almost everything for me. It completely altered the way I was working on Diabelli. I soon began to work on Op. 110, 101, and 106. Why shouldn’t the Hammerklavier be suitable for a young man?”
His follow-up disc for Sony also featured works not typically associated with a budding young concert artist, the complete Partitas of J.S. Bach, and the same collection he will tackle at Ravinia. I asked if he has any general preference for a single composer program versus a mixed one.
“There is no preference one way over another. When I decide on a program, I think a lot about how the pieces speak to each other, or at least how I think they speak to each other, which of course is entirely subjective! I don't do single composer programs often - in fact Ravinia will be only the second time I will be doing this particular all-Bach program, and actually I’m not sure that anyone should do it that often, since it’s three hours of music!”
Does the programmatic context affect how you perform, say, a Bach Partita? “Absolutely, there is no question that my performances will vary depending on the rest of the program They couldn’t be more different. If I know that after a Bach Partita I will be playing a piece by Liszt or Prokofiev, the Bach will naturally vary. And vice versa, my Liszt or Shostakovich will sound different coming after Bach than it might coming after a Beethoven sonata, a work by Cage, Bill Bolcom, or whomever. The climate in the room depends very much on the entire musical context. And this is what makes listening to music a new experience each time.”
So does this mean that when you’re preparing a work, you leave open the possibility for flexibility, depending on context?
“Any musician whose goal is to play the same program exactly the same 15 times in a row isn’t dealing with human reality. It’s dangerous, and beyond ridiculous You wake up in the morning as a different person, and you have different experiences during the day. You meet different people, you eat different food. No day is exactly the same, and these experiences affect how music flows through an artist.”
The stylistic variations one encounters in performances of Bach continues to be hotly debated. I wondered what specific performers have helped him formulate his own approach.
“Bach has always been a central component of my listening habits. Fortunately, it seems that we’ve always had great interpreters of Bach, including harpsichordists, violinists, cellists, etc. I have always cherished the Bach Collegium Japan recordings with Ton Koopman. I listened to these for years. and they are certainly ones that I emulate musically.”
At this point in the interview I realized that so far he hasn’t singled out any keyboard players as models. I asked him to expand this seeming reluctance. He hesitates for a moment, perhaps wishing to not leave out any important pianistic models. “Murray Perhaia’s Goldberg Variations are an incredible achievement, and Andreas Staier’s version on harpsichord is amazing.”
If Levit’s tastes seem unusually inclusive, there are some surprising gaps in his repertoire. He rarely performs Chopin, feeling that others engage with this repertoire more persuasively than he could. He is equally reluctant to play Mozart, finding his music to be incompatible with the modern concert grand. If the pianist’s insight into standard repertoire was consistently illuminating, he became particularly animated when the discussion veered toward more contemporary music, including the American composer Frederic Rzewski.
“A few years ago I came across a recording of Rzewski’s ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated.’ The discovery of this amazing piece really shook me. I quickly found a score, and decided not only to add it to my repertoire, but to contact the composer, who has been living in Europe for many years.” Their subsequent meetings not only gave him valuable insight into the massive, hour-long set of 37 variations, Levit mustered the courage to ask for a new piano work for him to premier.
Rzewski’s cycle of “Nanosonatas” for solo piano began life in 2006, and he has since added eight sonatas dedicated to Levit. Their collaborations will continue this season with Levit’s premier performance of the composer’s “Dreams II”.
He has since explored other modern modern music off the beaten track, including the quiet, freely flowing works of Morton Feldman and the politically virulent and populist music of self-described Maoist composer Cornelius Cardew. Levit also maintains a close working relationship such leading German composers as Wolfgang Rihm and Jorg Widmann. He has performed Stockhausen’s Klavierstück VI, but is equally drawn to the work of Renaissance master Josquin and the relatively unheralded 17th century composer George Muffat.
Given the pianist’s recent passions, it’s not surprising that his next recording will consist of three colossal sets of variations: Bach’s Goldberg, Beethoven’s Diabelli, and Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” Aside from the identical genre, this may seem like a trio of strange bedfellows. For Levit, it is a natural outgrowth of a rather dizzying array of explorations. “For me, at this point in my life, these are the three most significant sets of piano variations in the repertoire. I love the concept of variations - taking a germ of an idea, beginning a series of explorations, and finally arriving at a conclusion. Very much like life itself!”