Monday, June 28, 2021

Mini-recitals by five APA finalists precede announcement of top prize to Kenny Broberg

Perhaps falling in love with the Three Tenors as a toddler inclined Kenny Broberg toward fascination with immediate appeal through music. It may have planted the seed for the kind of direct communication that won him the Christel DeHaan Fellowship of the 2021 American Pianists Awards Sunday afternoon.

Kenny Broberg displayed direct insights on way to Fellowship.

The biographical tidbit was part of a series of video sketches and on-site remarks by co-hosts Sylvia McNair and Terrance McKnight about the five finalists in the American Pianists Association's concentrated classical competition. An unusually large audience (in immediately post-pandemic terms) at Indiana Landmarks Center waited in suspense for the jury's decision along with, thanks to live-streaming, a worldwide audience of indeterminate size.

Before the big announcement, itself preceded by speeches of thanks and congratulation, the finalists played brief solo recitals that should count as the Awards' performance finale, not the concerto round of the night before (as I said in my post about that event). My take on those performances is elaborated below, uninfluenced by Broberg's eventual victory.

Doré's depiction of Paolo and Francesca
I'll start with him, however. His account of Franz Liszt's "Dante" Sonata concluded the mini-recital series. I was impressed by his ready grasp of the music's drama, which derives from the effect of reading the ill-starred love story of Paolo and Francesca and their punishment in Hell as described in Dante's "Inferno," the most vivid part of the epic poem titled "The Divine Comedy." The episode has tugged at the heartstrings of several composers; Tchaikovsky's best tone poem is arguably "Francesca da Rimini."

Avoiding the temptation to overcolor the music, Broberg went right to the heart of the conflict and the illicit lovers' suffering. He conveyed a sense of the geography of Dante's hell, the jagged terrain reflecting the loneliness and torment of souls assigned to  its inhospitable circles. The work requires a unique structural sense, something to me evoked by the engravings of Gustave Doré in one of his most potent series of literary illustrations. This is music that needs its gradations of black and white outlined and its blended grasp of motion and emotion, as in Doré's evocative engravings.

Liszt's romantic extravagance and feeling for dynamic movement had opened the mini-recitals with Mackenzie Melemed's playing of "Funerailles," in which funeral ceremonies are caught up in martial splendor. The dramatic and lyrical sections were well-defined and compellingly contrasted.

Spotlighting other impressive interpretations: The vigorously articulated gusto of Dominic Cheli's performances of Brahms' Rhapsody in E-flat major from op. 119 and Scriabin's Fantasie in B minor, op. 28 highlighted the contrast between the composers' way of handling thick textures. Cheli's  solid balance of harmonies in the Brahms was exemplary; in the Scriabin, without blurring, he applied lots of pedal, which worked to maximize the way sporadic gatherings of energy become convulsive in the Russian mystic's music.

The pedal was judiciously applied to help make the most of Sahun Sam Hong's artistry in Chopin's Scherzo No 2 in B-flat minor. In the main material, the sound was a little dry, which worked well to bring out the piece's rhythmic clarity; as the work progressed, Hong thickened the sound, using the pedal more liberally. His account amounted to the afternoon's  best performance of mainstream repertoire.

My fascination with Michael Davidman, so pronounced in an earlier report, continued in his playing of short works by Albeniz, Rachmaninoff, and Saint-Saens. He seemed to have a distinct plan for every bit of decoration and scrap of melody in Rachmaninoff's "Lilacs" and the French composer's Etude in the Form of a Waltz. Throughout, the tone was ravishing: irresistibly, I recalled Virgil Thomson's description of the Philadelphia Orchestra's string tone 80 years ago when it was first developing its sound under Eugene Ormandy. Thomson's New York Herald Tribune review said "the suavity of it" seemed "a visual and tactile thing, like pale pinky-brown velvet." 

That strikes home as part of Davidman's brand. But the Saint-Saens is borderline salon music, though at the difficult end of the spectrum. Without knowing anything about the jury's deliberations, I was tempted  to wonder if questions about Davidman's limitations of artistic temperament rose in its collective mind. Significant parts of the repertoire may not be to this gifted pianist's liking: I have a hard time imagining a Davidman "Appassionata" Sonata or his Brahms "Handel Variations." 

But well-equipped, flexible young artists like any of these finalists have ways of defying predictability. And that's part of what the American Pianists Awards are devoted to revealing. May their success long continue, even past the estimable artistic directorship of Joel Harrison, who is about to retire.

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