Barenboim in Bordeaux: A long, standing ovation

by Michael Johnson Added 13.01.2018
Nearly two hours of Debussy’s solo piano music at one sitting can be, for some, too much impressionistic color to digest. And indeed a woman beside me fell asleep during the twelve Préludes, Book One. But I was engulfed by the variety and the sheer freshness of the sound created by this most original of French composers, and never flagged.  And under the hands of conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim, playing his new custom-built grand, the...

Charles Ives’s “Kŏn’kôrd” Sonata: The Vestibule of the Temple

by Jack Kohl Added 30.12.2017
  If I were to help a new listener grapple with Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”, I would share my story of first seeing the score’s opening page. I might supplement my case by directing him or her to Ives’s own Essays Before A Sonata and to its recent bookend, Kyle Gann’s extraordinary new study: Charles Ives’s Concord: Essays After A Sonata. One is in consummate hands with both of these books, and with many...

The Liszt Sonata in B Minor: At the Temple Door

by Jack Kohl Added 29.11.2017
Piano practice is like having a dog. If one has lived long enough with such an unnecessary but at the same time critical circumstance, one wonders how others live without it. Thus even when concert work figuratively dies for me – when I have no cause to go to the piano for considerable stretches of time – my hours and days are still ruled by its compulsion, just as my life continues to be a ruled by a dog who has recently passed away. I rise...

New England trio matches colorful cultures

by Michael Johnson Added 29.11.2017
In the world of classical music trios, there are few combinations as natural as the cello, guitar and piano. Operating mostly in the same register, attacking and retreating equally, the instruments can blend beautifully if played with discipline and heart.  A new CD featuring three New Englanders --  Rebecca Hartka on cello, Jose Lezcano on gujtar and Barbara Lysakowski at the piano – displays a high degree of heart and total control....

An orgy of the senses: Merging the eye and the ear

by Michael Johnson Added 03.11.2017
  A California polymath has electrified the music world with his images of classical music in visual form, capturing more than 165 million hits on his Internet postings in just a few years.  Only pop singers or weird videos do better.  And the best is yet to come. Says Stephen Malinowski, the pianist cum computer programmer who raised the animation concept to new heights, “We have barely started learning” how to do this.  For me, it was...

Australian solo piano : ambience with depth

by Michael Johnson Added 30.10.2017
Ukrainian-born Evgeny Ukhanov, based in Australia for the past 20 years, is an established performer of new music originating in his adopted homeland. Now he has teamed up with friend and Melbourne composer Alan Griffiths on a new CD of selections regrouped under the title “Introspection”.  This isn’t “new music” in the contemporary sense but a coherent assemblage of Griffiths’ favorite solo piano pieces. Griffiths tells me he selected these...

Why Bach makes you shiver

by Michael Johnson Added 09.09.2017
  If music makes you happy or sad, you are probably an average listener. If it leaves you indifferent, you might be considered insensitive. But if it gives you goosebumps you are in a very special group with connections in your brain anatomy that others may never feel. It is a gift to treasure. New research has studied individual differences in what the doctors call “aesthetic reward sensitivity”. True music fans, they say, get an extra kick...

Como Academy: Why the Chinese call it ‘piano heaven’

by Michael Johnson Added 31.08.2017
  Lake Como, known as the “magic lake” of Italy, has inspired writers and composers for centuries with natural surroundings so conducive to creative expression. Stendhal wrote The Charterhouse of Parma there, Verdi composed La Traviata, Liszt composed his Dante Sonata and Bellini composed Norma there. Liszt’s daughter Cosima was born in Bellagio, near the lake. Somehow the magic seems to inspire today’s International Piano Academy students...

Elvis's voice: like Mario Lanza singing the blues

by Adrian York Added 16.08.2017
Much of the mythology that surrounds Elvis Presley, who died 40 years ago, tends to surround his rags to riches story, his film-star looks, his outrageous stage outfits, his marriage to child bride Priscilla and his descent into overindulgence and drug addiction at his Graceland mansion. In death, Elvis has become to millions a kind of cautionary tale of celebrity, sex and scandal that has at times threatened to engulf his legacy. But...

Piano history: The legacy of the Labèque sisters

by Michael Johnson Added 02.08.2017
Katia and Marielle Labèque -- the glamorous French keyboard siblings -- have achieved a solid legacy of exuberant performances in the two-piano repertoire, ranging from experimental contemporary works to traditional classical-romantic composers. Now in their 60s, they have published the first account of their rise to stardom. Every pianist should read this book. I first heard the Labèques three years ago in the Bordeaux Auditorium. I was...

Piano clusters: How to frighten the old ladies of both sexes

by Michael Johnson Added 24.06.2017
I was flipping through my copy of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 recently and spotted his two “col pugno” markings. My memory took me back many years to the day I first encountered these violent directions. At the time, I didn’t know what to think. Measure 143 calls for the pianist to bang “with fist” on the four-note cluster chord. Prokofiev later said he wanted to “frighten the old ladies in the audience”. It probably worked for him. In...

Vengerov and Saïtkoulov wow a formal-dress Bordeaux audience

by Michael Johnson Added 21.06.2017
  One of the world’s greatest living violinists, Maxim Vengerov, accompanied by an equally accomplished pianist Roustem Saïtkoulov, dazzled a full house at the 18th century Grand Théâtre of Bordeaux Sunday night (18 June) with a faultless concert. The two Russians raced through pieces by Brahms, Franck, Ravel and Bazzani, and capped the evening with four encores. The audience, heavy with formally dressed couples from the big Bordeaux wine...

Bergmann interview: Unlocking music from the unconscious mind

by Michael Johnson Added 17.06.2017
  A classical-trained German pianist working in a range of musical disciplines has just launched his most audacious experiment yet – an original piano sonata consisting almost entirely of creations from his unconscious mind. Boris Bergmann’s “Hölder/Scriabin Night Sessions” (SAMM 0152) is a powerful statement from the dark recesses of his brain. He calls it “a successful experiment”. I agree. The result is explosive. In the context of free...

Sounds of Soviet Russia  are revived  in Bordeaux

by Michael Johnson Added 05.06.2017
  The Orchestre National de Bordeaux Aquitaine added another feather to its cap last week (June 1-2) with the engagement of a leading international guest conductor, Michail Jurowski, who led the ONBA in two demanding orchestral pieces, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 6 and the Prokofiev Cinderella ballet music. Jurowski brought with him a heavyweight legacy of his own Russian family antecedents plus his formative years alongside the great...

François Dumont interviewed: The music never stops

by Michael Johnson Added 24.05.2017
Taking a break in gaps between a Mozart piano concerto in Izmir, Turkey, (No. 9, “Jeunehomme”), a recording session of three Mozart concertos in Rennes, France (Nos. 1, 24 and 27), and a performance tour in China, François Dumont graciously responded last week to a list of questions on how he squeezes all these demands into his burgeoning musical life. François Dumont Based in his home town of Lyon, France, the affable Dumont, 31, is...

Uchida in fine form with a Mozart classic

by Michael Johnson Added 15.04.2017
Pianist Mitsuko Uchida delivered a sparkling Mozart piano concerto No. 20 in D minor (K.466) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons on Thursday, the eve of Easter weekend, to an enthusiastic full house at Symphony Hall. Ms. Uchida was the clear favorite of the program which also featured Anton Bruckner’s rather heavy Symphony No. 6 in A. It was a pairing of opposites. Ms. Uchida was strongly applauded as she walked onstage,...

Review of Seattle Opera’s production of Katya Kabanova

by James Bash Added 08.03.2017
Tragedy can happen anywhere. That’s why the 1950s setting in the United States looked comfortably appropriate in Seattle Opera’s production of “Katya Kabanova.” Designed by Genevieve Blanchett and Mark Howett, the white picket fence, the expansive living room of a ranch house, and the video projections of wild rivers updated the setting from a village near the Volga River in the 1860s to a small town that could easily have been in the...

Relax, it’s just contemporary music

by Michael Johnson Added 02.03.2017
A friend of mine in Italy who has recorded some of John Cage’s prepared piano pieces struggles with many of the new keyboard works coming down the pike, devoting hours of practice to the mind-bending notation. He concludes, alas, that the level of contemporary composition has “plunged dramatically” in the past few years. I am with him. Too much of it is computer-aided, offhand or just awful. My least favorite works are those that thump and...

Voltaire comes home with an American accent

by Michael Johnson Added 28.01.2017
The Leonard Bernstein incidental music for Voltaire’s Candide seems even fresher today than it did 60 years ago when it flopped on Broadway. Over time the production has been reworked, massaged and matured, and now is finding remarkable popularity in the United States and around the world. As musicals go, it is vintage New York – with creative staging, energetic choreography, acting/singing by a large cast, and of course Bernstein’s...

Impresario Leiser fears young piano talent will get left behind

by Michael Johnson Added 17.12.2016
  Veteran impresario Jacques Leiser, summing up his 60 years of toil with some of the world’s greatest performers, is worried about today’s drift in the music business. He believes that too many young artists fail in their first few years because professional management no longer guides them through the labyrinth confronting them. “They can’t do it on their own, and sadly they get left behind,” he says. Jacques Leiser What has gone wrong...
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