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A pianist who is not afraid being SHAI about conducting

New York
Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92 Street Y
10/27/2019 -  & October 23 (Memphis), 25 (Philadelphia), 2019
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, op. 95 (arr. Gustav Mahler)
Clara Schumann: A Love Suite (compiled and arranged by Michi Wiancko)
Francesco Geminiani: Variations on La Follia (arr. Wiancko)
Christopher Cerrone: The Air Suspended (New York Premiere)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 14 in E flat Major, K.449

Shai Wosner (piano)
The East Coast Chamber Orchestra

(© Archives 92 Street Y)

Two chamber orchestras appeared recently on the stage of Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall of the 92 Street Y: the first one was a Swiss group – Basel Chamber Orchestra – on Oct.16, the second, only eleven days later, an American group, ECCO (East Coast Chamber Orchestra). Both of the ensembles presented in their program a piano soloist performing Mozart piano concerto(s). The Swiss musicians featured a well-known Polish pianist, Piotr Anderszewski, the American group an equally well known and highly regarded Shai Wosner, born in Israel but for decades now a Manhattan resident.

Anderszewski played and conducted from the keyboard not one but two Mozart piano concertos, Wosner performed one Mozart concerto and one contemporary work for piano and string ensemble. He was not so much conducting as barely nodding his head toward his colleagues from the orchestra. I stress that point for I often wonder how necessary it is for a pianist to flay his arms and pretend that he/she is conducting, when in reality any relatively seasoned orchestra would play as well, if not better, without their soloist telling them what to do. Of course those “leading-from-the-piano” stars rarely venture to perform with the school orchestras, where their “conducting skills” would really be exposed, i.e. show their true inability to conduct. So for once I was very glad to see Mr. Wosner performing Christopher Cerrone’s The Air Suspended and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 without a visible attempt to conduct: all the details must have been worked out during the rehearsals and later, in the true chamber-music manner, there was no need of further “instructions” from the pianist.

It is interesting that the first of the two Mozart concertos performed by Mr.Anderszewski, No. 12 in A Major K. 414, belonged to the group of three (Concertos No.12-14), that Mozart supposedly affirmed as a possibility to be performed with the string quartet. Now, I challenge anyone to show me a pianist who will be instructing/conducting his colleagues from the string quartet. So it was in a way not only refreshing but also instructive to see Mr. Wosner eschewing the “customary” flaying of the arms, getting up from the piano-stool for the tuttis and/or otherwise disturbing his quite capable colleagues. Then, as if a very gentle reminder of how much can be gained when one abstains from conducting, our performers offered a lovely, beautifully rendered encore, the last movement Allegretto from the Concerto No. 12, performed by Anderszewski on the same stage just a few days earlier.

To conclude my pre-review musings, it often seems to me that conducting from the piano, as opposed to allowing an orchestra leader to take the reins, is too often nothing more than soloist’s ego trip. Those, who are not in need of boosting their self-esteem, and Mr. Wosner proved to be such a musician, just leave conducting to conductors or in case of conductor-less ensemble to the leader. Usually they are not all that inefficient.

For all practical matter ECCO, could as well change its name to DECCO: the letter D would stand for Democratic. There are tons of democratic aspects in their demeanor. They all play standing up, just as if they were all soloists, similarly to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra they trade leadership for each of the compositions performed, the majority of players are women, and even the arrangements of some of the works on the program were done by the members of the orchestra. How much more democratic can you get? Oh yes, the last piece in the program was lead by the sole male in the violin section: a true sign of democracy! Except that unlike other Demo-critically-lead institutions (pun intended) – government or otherwise – the ECCO really perform well and seem to know what they are doing.

How good they are, and in their rank there are some first rate solo players, was evident from the first notes of the Beethoven Quartet in F minor: these quartets, more than any other string works of Beethoven are punishingly difficult even for a seasoned string quartet, so to achieve the instrumental level of the ECCO players and the unity of intonation was very impressive indeed. There was ferocity in attacking the leading motif of the Quartet and that sense of engagement never left the seventeen players who offered a very forceful and compelling performance. Interestingly, doubling, or actually quadrupling, the violas and cellos, as well as adding the resonance of the double-bass, made the work even more convincing and some details of the score more pronounced. As the saying goes, it is not the music for the faint-hearted, and definitely none were present on stage that afternoon.

Beethoven’s work was followed by some charming music by Clara Schumann, whose 200 anniversary of birth is being celebrated this year. With the three “love songs” arranged for the string ensemble by ECCO’s former violist Michi Wiancko, and called for the purpose of the program A Love Suite, we heard beautiful, charming melodies heavily influenced by Mendelssohn and probably best utilized as encore pieces. Fortunately we did have, already mentioned, some substantial encore, so here I cannot complain too much. I did however have some reservations regarding Variations on La Follia, which in the program was declared as work of Geminiani, who was indeed Corelli’s student and champion but not the author of that work. In the violin literature, La Follia Variations are not only presented as a work of Corelli but also played with much less fuss than the clever but a little over-the-top arrangement by Ms. Wiancko. We were treated in the piece to some Spanish effects, some fandango and wood sticks imitating castanets, some obligatory virtuosity for all instruments and some Brittenesque dissonances too, yet to these ears the full 14 minutes of this eight measure tune long overstayed its welcome.

After intermission, we heard a New York premiere of a Christopher Cerrone (b.1984) piece for piano and string orchestra, The Air Suspended. Mr. Cerrone called this work a piano concerto, though as far as I could tell it was rather a CINO or Concerto In Name Only. Still, it had three interconnected movements, its titles derived from literary works: the first, “From Ground to Cloud,” came from Ben Lerner’s poem Mean Free Path, the second, “Dissolving Margins,” had its inspiration in Elena Ferrante’s book My Brilliant Friend, and finally the last segment, “Stutter, like rain,” again drawing its title from Ben Lerner. However the title of the work itself was derived from yet another literary source, a line from T.S. Elliot’s poem Four Quartets. It seems to me that a lot of young composers nowadays feel who almost uniformly feel that having no literary inspiration they would be unable to compose. Thus almost every composition has to rely on some literary quote or text, lest the composer be deemed uneducated and/or ignorant. Also, it is almost de rigueur to supply the name of new work using lower-case letters. At least Mr. Cerrone’s gallantly avoided that trap.

Our composer appeared on stage before the music started and offered a brief introduction, in effect repeating what we have already read in the program notes, but also added that the piece we were about to hear was half chamber music and half orchestra music, then assured us, that unlike in the Beethoven Quartet, heard earlier, which has only four lines of music, in his The Air Suspended each of the 17 instruments has a separate line. We were also told that the music is about the weather. I was eternally grateful that is was not about the weather related to the “man-made-climate-change”. The composer’s printed explanations were intriguing and showed his very impressive knowledge of literature. Though the literary fragments were also meaningful, I got yet a completely different description of the piece from a very musical and very insightful friend who heard this work just two days earlier in Philadelphia. So shall we trust our own sensations, impressions or should we succumb to what the composer wants us to hear in his work? Traditionally the works called concertos demonstrate different themes, motifs, a dialog between the instruments and development of the music material. Not much of that, per se, was evident in Mr. Cerone work and perhaps CINO is after all an apt description.

This concerto starts with the rumble like some machinery in the huge factory or a forge...oh, wait, this supposed to be illustration of a ground-to-cloud lighting. See, I already got confused. But there is a growing intensity with the piano part moving into higher register and punctuation by shrieks of strings. That creates an effect of uneasiness, menace, alarm, disturbance and anxiety. By now the piano employs the whole rage of keyboard, sounds intensify as an atmosphere of some swarms of insects, or billowing primal sonic effects very akin to the sound of a jungle is created. Could the ground-to-cloud lighting, just by chance, happen also in the jungle? So much for exactness of composer’s own suggesting his own descriptions or impressions... The more evocative is the second link and in that part we experience again a slowly mounting intensity growing with layers upon layers of fabric, plucking sounds in the lower strings, yet I was not quite able to harness the picture the composer had in mind. Actually this segment came closest to portraying sounds of rain, stuttering or otherwise, and was most cinematic, which is not a bad thing in creating new works. In the third part of the triptych, from the initial stillness grows a somewhat primordial atmosphere, with the repeat of previously heard material and then the rhythmic movement reminiscent of tribal dancing. Then we go back to the sound of a swarm of insects. There is also sort of solo cadenza with a delicate accompaniment of strings, some repeated material from earlier movement and a return of frenzy. I felt that we don’t necessary have to be swayed by what composer imagined in his music, and can allow ourselves to create our own images, which again is not all that harmful, as at the very least, our imagination is stimulated by the music.

So in these 16 minutes of music, we experienced some compelling sound effects that on occasion created vivid music landscapes, yet the pervasive, omnipresent element of sameness or minimalistic techniques was hard to ignore and almost obliterated what could have been striking effects. There was nothing in composer’s biographical note ( the program booklet was overtaken by the literary quotes) to let me know if he plays piano or how well does he do it, but this concerto didn’t make me believe that it was written by a pianist. It treats piano either as a percussive instrument or a very percussive instrument. In the orchestra parts, I have not noticed much individualism, even though there was some unusual percussive treatment of the lower strings, some whip-sounding punctuation, all of which could easily illustrate any part of nature, weather included. Since traditional concertos feature in each movement different themes, motifs, a dialog between the instruments and development of the music material and not much of that per se was evident in The Air Suspended.

When the audience realized that the piece came to an end, the musicians and composer, back on the stage, were heartily applauded. For a reviewer to evaluate any performance, he often asks himself a question: to what degree such performance was perfect, what could be improved, how does it compare with other performances and did performer(s) do justice to the score? It is much harder to do it in case of a premiere, but I was convinced that it would be hard to find a pianist more effective and successful in bringing off this work, than Mr. Wosner. He is one of those rare musicians who shows his passion for new music, is eager to exploit it and thrives presenting new works regularly. He is often imaginative and audacious in choosing repertory –as his Bridge-to-Beethoven project demonstrated a few years ago – and in new compositions always shows understanding of what this music is about. Even if the music is about “changes of weather and enormous reserves of energy required to accomplish such transformation”.

Since neither in the work of Mr. Cerrone nor in the following piano concerto by Mozart Mr. Wosner was acting as a real conductor, it remains a little puzzling that he there was a need for him to sit at the piano with his back to the audience. Yes, it is popular with pianists who decide to lead from the keyboard, yet it rarely produces better sound from the piano. After all, if taking lid off and placing the piano perpendicularly to the stage was acoustically a better solution than a traditional piano placement, we would probably see it all the time. But Mr. Wosner’s sound is so incisive and pointed that even that unfavorable piano placement did not much affect either the balance between the strings and solo instrument or sound projection. As in the first half, the players were hovering around piano and the feeling was that of chamber music. What made the performance a little different was that our pianist was accompanying the orchestra, probably filling in the missing oboe and French horn parts. The very sound of both the strings and the piano was not particularly warm or caressing: Wosner, in a manner of some other great Mozart interpreters such as Robert Casadesus, in this music generally concentrates on its architecture, pristine clarity, precision and perfect execution of the notes rather than a lush tone or truly vocal treatment of the phrase. Yet there were many lovely aspects to the performance such as an unassuming simplicity in the Andantino and nice interplay between piano and ensemble in the finale Allegro ma non troppo. Combine that with the perfectly etched phrasing and superb control of the keyboard and we ended up with a masterful and very enjoyable performance. And I have already mentioned it the beginning of my review their delightful encore.

Roman Markowicz



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