Saturday, April 8, 2017

American Pianists Awards' Discovery Week enters the homestretch

With the torrential coda of Brahms' Piano Quintet ringing in everyone's ears, the Chamber Music Series of the American Pianists Awards wrapped up early Friday afternoon. The glorious tumult opened the door to that evening's "Gala Finals" concerto concerts with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra just across Monument Circle at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Alex Beyer played some exciting Brahms with the Pacifica.
Alex Beyer was the last of five finalists to collaborate with the Pacifica Quartet in chamber music at Christ Church Cathedral, just as he will be the last to display his large-scale concerto chops tonight at the second "Gala Finals" concert. After the jury deliberates, the winner of the Christel DeHaan Classical Fellowship will be announced, closing out the classical competition for another four years (the American Pianists Association's jazz piano contest comes in between, two years from now).

I can't do better than to quote Melvin Berger's description of the Brahms work's conclusion: "an unrestrained whirlwind of orchestral sonority." Beyer and the excellent Pacifica players — violinist Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad, and cellist Brandon Vamos — came fully up to the mark. Earlier, the blossoming quality the musicians imparted to the first movement was exceptional: A haze that could be taken for slight imprecision was actually reinforcement of the three-against-two rhythmic simultaneity beloved of the composer.

The second movement carries the intriguing heading "Andante, un poco adagio." It means roughly "going or walking, but a little bit slowly," and this performance represented that direction perfectly. Gustav Mahler in his symphonies often advised "nicht schleppend" (not dragging). In this movement of Brahms, a little "schleppend" is just the ticket, and it was wonderful how subtly that pace was applied. The crisp energy of the Scherzo was full-bore. (The Pacifica's new Cedille recording of the work with its Indiana University colleague Menahem Pressler is disappointing only in this movement — it's a little too mellow. Yet the recording is well worth attention because the nonagenarian pianist doesn't otherwise show his age.)

Beyer's solo piece in the noontime concert was an earnest, stylish account of Haydn's Piano Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI/20.

Henry Kramer shone in the Ravel G major concerto.
For the internationally webcast debut of the Gala Finals that evening, the always charming Ravel Concerto in G major got the concerto performances off to a fine start. Henry Kramer had plenty of ginger in the outer movements in partnership with Gerard Schwarz's conducting, which brought forth full use of Ravel's shrewdly deployed palette. Everyone had suavity and sass to bring to the table where those qualities were applicable. There were several fine ISO solos, notably from Roger Roe on English horn in the second movement, which is like a massage chair for the spirit. And oh, that harp! And that E-flat clarinet in the finale!

Drew Peterson showed mastery in Prokofiev's 2nd.
Sergei Prokofiev will be heard from tonight, when Beyer is the soloist in the third concerto. That's a beloved repertory staple; his Concerto No. 2 in G minor, which Drew Petersen played Friday, is most definitely not. Much of the frankly rebarbative quality that was noted with distaste at the work's premiere more than 100 years ago still clings to the music. There is no slow movement; the closest thing is the third movement, Intermezzo, which the eminent Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter likened to "a dragon devouring its young."

Sam Hong caught the dreaminess and dash of Rachmaninoff.
Petersen, an artist of fearless temperament, showed that the four-movement monster holds no terrors for him. There are march
episodes in the first and third movements that actually seem among the more settled parts of the composition. The first-movement cadenza requires powerhouse energy straining at the leash. Petersen did not let loose the dogs of war, but came daringly close. The finale revisited the rhetorical extremes of aggression, a quality Prokofiev would pull back from once he returned to the Soviet Union for the rest of his rather short life, which ended on the same day as Josef Stalin's. The finale comprises some respite in a quite Russian-sounding, lyrical theme; once again, there's a startling cadenza. Petersen and the ISO were appropriately rough and ready to put across this product of Prokofiev at his most modernist.

After intermission, it was Sam Hong's turn to reset the concert on more familiar ground: Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. The piece, which features Rachmaninoff's endearing characteristics of romantic sweep and gentle pathos fully in flower, called forth the finalist's insightful, unfussy manner and allowed him to show off his fleet technique and limpid tone. The title of the old pop song drawn from the instantly memorable tune in the finale — "Full Moon and Empty Arms" — encapsulates part of this concerto's perennial appeal. But that doesn't say it all, as Hong and the ISO made abundantly clear in their captivating performance.

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