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Great Liszt Performances from Classical New England

By Cathy Fuller   |   Thursday, October 20, 2011
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Oct. 20

With the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt coming up Oct. 22, now is a good time to reminisce about the great Liszt performances I've had the pleasure of hearing at Classical New England.

Liszt is still a misunderstood figure. He's often dismissed for being nothing but a flashy virtuoso, but that's not really a fair judgment. In a piano lesson with Liszt, a student was playing the famous A-flat Major Polonaise by Chopin. At the moment when the left hand begins its relentless march in octaves, Liszt burst out: "Do I care how fast you can play your octaves!? What I wish to hear is the canter of the horses of the Polish cavalry before they gather force and destroy the enemy!"

Why the thunderous reaction? Because Liszt deplored empty virtuosity. He was inspired by the communicative power of music, not by the deadening, hollow effect of technical facility on display. And he was determined to bring his students into his imaginative universe.

It's true that during his years of intensive concertizing (roughly 1839-1847), an emotional hysteria developed in Liszt's fans, and "Lisztomania" set in. But I'm more intrigued by the mesmerizing effect that Liszt seems to have had on his audiences. Biographer Alan Walker describes one scene in which Hector Berlioz and a small group of colleagues succumbed to Liszt's playing in a drawing room. The fire was nearly out and the lamplight was dying. Critic Ernest Legouvé accidentally turned the wick down instead of up and the room went nearly to black. Liszt began playing Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. It was too much for Berlioz, who couldn't control his emotions. The others could barely move.

Many accounts of Liszt's playing describe a strange magic, a hypnotizing focus. He wasn't presenting egotistical theatrics. He brought the audience to a new level of listening and put them, not him, on a higher plane. In such a state, listeners were given the chance to absorb his creations — new music that would belong more and more to the future, ultimately presaging the intricate coloristic effects of impressionism, and even evocative flirtations with atonality. His audiences also had a greater chance to absorb the works of composers he championed (Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata, for instance).

More astounding still is the fact that Liszt's gift for performance came with other unfathomable talents. He created the symphonic poem and the piano recital. He conducted, taught, transcribed and edited. His hundreds and hundreds of pieces reflect his love of life on Earth, his intimate experience with deep sadness and a fundamental yearning for God.

I'm happy that this year's focus on Liszt has encouraged a deeper look into the radical adventurer that he was. Here are some glimpses of Liszt's genius in piano performances captured by our Classical New England engineers here in Boston.

"Adelaïde" (Beethoven, arranged by Liszt)
Minsoo Sohn, piano

Liszt's devotion to Beethoven drove him to transcribe a huge number of works for solo piano so that more of the world could experience Beethoven's genius. The poem "Adelaïde" by Friedrich von Matthison features a text that yearns for an unattainable woman – a concept that resonated with Beethoven. Korean-born pianist Minsoo Sohn came to Boston to study with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory. He plays this transcription with the warm, singing sound Liszt was definitely after.

"My Joys" (Chopin, arranged by Liszt), and "Ave Maria" (Schubert, arranged by Liszt)
Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin grew up listening to Liszt's music. His father, an amateur pianist, had an abiding love for the captivating playing of the golden age pianists. "My Joys" is a gorgeous melody from the Six Polish Songs by Chopin. "Ave Maria" is an intricate elaboration of a Schubert song and presents interesting challenges. It's written on three staves with the tune in the middle, requiring the pianist to deploy some tricky fingerings to get a three-handed effect.

My Joys

Ave Maria

Spozalizio;  Petrarch Sonnet 47
Roberto Plano, piano

Liszt once expressed in a letter his love for Italy and its art, mentioning that "Raphael and Michelangelo helped me to better understand Mozart and Beethoven." "Sposalizio" (Marriage) was inspired by Raphael's serene painting "The Marriage of the Virgin," and the Sonnet springs from a beautiful love sonnet by Petrarch. Italian pianist Roberto Plano plays these homages to his own country with a sense of loving connection.


Petrarch Sonnet 47

Les jeaux d'eau
Gilles Vonsattel, piano

Swiss-born American pianist Gilles Vonsattel has what it takes to make the piano sparkle and sing. Writer Alan Walker reminds us that Liszt's fountains (jeux d'eaux) are spiritual: "Liszt turned his streaming fountains into mystical symbols, associating them with the verse from the Gospel According to St. John (4:14) which he quotes in the score: '... the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.'"

Ballade No. 2
Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano

Liszt wrote this Ballade shortly after finishing the Sonata in B minor. Its many moods are held together through the transformation of a single gesture. Italian pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi plays with tremendous strength and focus. He creates enormous contrast between what is ominous and what is sunny in Liszt's dramatic world. And like Liszt, Pompa-Baldi is a sought-after teacher, attracting talented students to the Cleveland Institute of Music and to master classes around the world.

Trauervorspiel und Trauermarsch
Cyprien Katsaris, piano

If you've never heard this Funeral Prelude and Funeral March, prepare yourself! Liszt's late pieces that contemplate death can have a terrifying modernity. The unique French-Cypriot pianist/composer/teacher Cyprien Katsaris was making his Boston recital debut and spent hours in our studios unleashing stories and music of all kinds. Like Liszt, Katsaris is blessed with a mind-boggling mastery of the keyboard.

Opera Boston's Béatrice et Bénédict

By Brian McCreath   |   Thursday, October 20, 2011
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Oct. 20

Opera Boston's first production of the season is Béatrice et Bénédict, an opera by Hector Berlioz based on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing

Another step in forging its reputation as a presenter of rarely performed works, Opera Boston turned to director David Kneuss for this production, and he chose to set the opera in an idealized Italy of the 1950's.

To learn more about the production, I met with David Kneuss and tenor Sean Panikkar at the Majestic Theatre in Boston.  Below, you'll find the interview, a slideshow of images from the production, and a preview video.  Also, visit ArtSceNE for Five Questions For Sean Panikkar.


What Does A Conductor Do?

Thursday, September 29, 2011
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Classical New England To Broadcast From Bryant University

Friday, September 23, 2011
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On October 6, public broadcaster WGBH and Bryant University will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony and live radio broadcasts to mark their collaboration in bringing full-time classical music to Rhode Island.

In early September, the University’s radio station, WJMF 88.7FM, began re-transmitting the signal from WGBH’s Classical New England, returning round-the-clock classical broadcasts to the Providence area.

“We are delighted that we can celebrate this collaboration in bringing classical music back to Rhode Island,” said Benjamin K. Roe, Managing Director of WGBH’s Classical New England. “Having the ability to broadcast live from Bryant University and celebrate this technology and education initiative is a proud moment for us and our listeners.”

Bryant’s student-run radio station now runs on several new technology platforms, including WJMF HD-2, smartphone applications, and uses one of WGBH’s mobile DTV channels. Bryant’s WJMF is the first student-run station in the region to be available on the groundbreaking new mobile service. Additionally, Bryant students now have the opportunity to learn from the best digital and broadcast technology experts in the business working alongside WGBH technicians.

“Our students could not be more excited over this technological overhaul of the station,” said Bryant University President Ronald K. Machtley. “This collaboration not only brings WGBH’s Classical New England to Rhode Island, but affirms Bryant University as a media technology leader in the region.”

“This ground-breaking collaboration gives us the unique opportunity to become pioneers in digital broadcasting by enabling a multiplatform approach,” said WJMF General Manager Ricky McLaughlin '12 of Hudson, N.H. “Although it moves WJMF’s traditional open-format student programming off of the analog FM dial, this phenomenal opportunity allows us to reach an increasingly national audience, especially as the technology continues to develop.”

On October 6, Classical New England will broadcast two live programs from the WJMF studios with classical hosts Laura Carlo (6-10am), and Cathy Fuller (2-6pm). At noon, WGBH and Bryant University leaders will gather for a ribbon-cutting ceremony on campus, followed by an evening reception in Providence marking the historic collaboration.

Alisa Weilerstein Wins MacArthur Grant

By Brian McCreath   |   Tuesday, September 20, 2011
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Sept. 20

2011 has proven to be a good year for cellists with Boston connections, with a Tchaikovsky Competition Gold Medal for Narek Hakhnazaryan.  The trend continued today when the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced that Alisa Weilerstein is one of 22 people chosen to receive so-called "genius grants."  The awards of $500,000, paid over five years, are given on the basis of "creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future,” according to a New York Times interview with Robert Gallucci, the president of the MacArthur Foundation.

Weilerstein, whose parents, Donald and Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, are on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, has rocketed to the front rank of concert soloists in the last few years, appearing with many major orchestras, including last month's appearance at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

She visited our Fraser Performance Studio in 2008, and you can hear that performance in the Live From Fraser archive, and there is more on the story at NPR Music.

In 2010, she was invited to perform Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in her debut with the Berlin Philharmonic.  Significantly, the conductor was Daniel Barenboim, whose late wife, Jacqueline DuPré, was closely identified with that piece.  Here is an interview from that week:

Britten's A War Requiem

By James David Jacobs   |   Sunday, September 11, 2011
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Sept. 11

I was ten years old when I first experienced Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. I was living in Berkeley, California, and my older brother was playing bassoon in the Berkeley High School orchestra, where the work was performed in the spring of 1972, just blocks from where Vietnam war protesters were being tear gassed and clubbed by the police. The performance was remarkable; above the stage there were supertitles and slides of war images, paintings by Otto Dix, Picasso's Guernica, and the like. The soloists were hired professionals, but the soprano didn't show up for the dress rehearsal, so the 17-year-old Lorraine Hunt was told to put down her viola and sing the solo, which she did flawlessly and much more powerfully than the singer who sang the public performances.

The work was just ten years old at that time. The War Requiem was written for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral (left), and was first performed there May 30, 1962. The millennium-old Coventry Cathedral had been destroyed during World War II and Britten was commissioned to write a piece for the ceremony marking the completion of its reconstruction. For the text, Britten interspersed the Latin Mass for the Dead with nine poems written by Wilfred Owen, a World War I footsoldier who was killed a week before the Armistice at the age of 25. Owen left behind a powerful body of work consisting of some of the most powerful war poetry ever written:

"I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense conciliatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful." - Wilfred Owen

Like Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the work is structured as a dialogue between discrete groups. The large orchestra, chorus and soprano soloist perform the settings of the Latin text, while the Owen poems are the provenance of the tenor and bass soloists and a 12-piece chamber orchestra. There is also a children's choir, always accompanied by organ, that can be heard in the distance periodically throughout the work.

Complete Text for Britten's War Requiem

After the Britten, we will hear On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams, written for the New York Philharmonic on the occasion of the first anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. It is scored for orchestra, adult and children's choruses, and pre-recorded tape, and won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music. About the work, the composer states: “Transmigration means ‘the movement from one place to another’ or ‘the transition from one state of being to another.’ But in this case I meant it to imply the movement of the soul from one state to another. And I don’t just mean the transition from living to dead, but also the change that takes place within the souls of those that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from that experience...I want to avoid words like 'requiem' or 'memorial' when describing this piece because they too easily suggest conventions that this piece doesn't share. If pressed, I'd probably call the piece a 'memory space.' It's a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions. The link to a particular historical event - in this case to 9/11 - is there if you want to contemplate it. But I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes beyond this particular event."

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