Saturday, July 31, 2010

Millennium Stage - Mozart, Li, Glinka, Ginastera, Liszt, Yu, Chopin, Wei, Barber, Zhu & Chang - 07/31/10

W. A. Mozart: Sonata in C, K545 (1st) - Gloria Cai
Chun Kuan Li: Dance - Gloria Cai
Michael Glinka: The Lark - Elizabeth Hu
Alberto Ginastera: Rondo on Argentine Children's Folk Song - Michelle Bao
Franz Liszt: La leggierezza - Evelyn Mo
Da Cheng Yu - Variations - Evelyn Mo
Frederick Chopin: Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise - Michael Mei
Qu Wei: Theme and variations - Michael Mei
Samuel Barber: Sonata Op. 26 (Fugue) - Kimberly Hou
Gong Yi Zhu: Overture (Small Stream) - Kimberly Hou
Li-Ly Chang - Capriccio - Sangmi Yoon

One more time I want to extend my most heart-felt thanks to the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center for injecting some attractive live music in Washington during this culturally lackluster summer. This evening, it was the International Young Artist Piano Competition which was presenting its young prodigies, and when I say young I mean between the ages of 7 and 18. Founded by Li-Ly Chang in 1986, its goal is not only to encourage budding musicians to work on their craft, but also to build a bridge between Western and Eastern cultures. Accordingly, today we heard all Chinese students (or of Chinese descent) performing Western and Chinese pieces.

The seven young artists were appearing on the stage from the youngest to the oldest, and seeing how much of a difference even a couple of years can make was as interesting as astounding. The first pianist was 7-year old Gloria Cai, who was resplendent in her bright red dress and her sparkling silver shoes. Non-plussed by the large audience, she delivered her short Mozart piece with endearing graciousness.
One funny thing to notice was that as the skills became more and more pronounced and nuanced with the performer's age, and the biographies predictably more impressive, the outfits turned out to be more subtle and sophisticated too, all the way to the delicately bead-embedded black dress donned by 17-year old Sangmi Yoon. Her Capriccio by Li-Ly Chang was fun and infectious.
Among this rainbow of colors (each female musician had a different color dress), 14-year old Michael Mei stood out as not only the only male of the group, but also the most remarkable musician of them all. His treatment of Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise clearly demonstrated solid talent and unflappable poise, and has been one of my summer's highlights so far.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Millennium Stage - Verdi, Mozart, Bottesini & Dvorak - 07/25/10

Conductor: Elizabeth Schulze
Verdi: Overture to La Forza del Destino
Mozart: Concerto in A Major, K. 622 - Allegro - Benjamin Chen
Bottesini: Concerto No 2 in B Minor - Moderato - Samuel Suggs
Dvorak: Symphony No 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 ("From the New World")

After a big bad thunderstorm tore through our suffocatingly hot July weekend, finally making the air outside somewhat breathable, I dared to step out of my apartment on Sunday afternoon to head for the Kennedy Center for the final concert by the promising students of the National Symphony Orchestra’s Summer Music Institute Orchestra. Culminating four weeks of intense training, the last performance is typically “the real thing”. Although it is scheduled as part of the daily Millennium Stage, it takes place in the concert hall and lasts almost two hours, including intermission. We never know what is on the program until we get there, but it rarely fails to please the vast majority of the audience. This year again, a smorgasbord featuring Verdi, Mozart, Bottesini and Dvorak sounded like the perfect send-off for musicians and audience alike.

As any good old-fashioned Italian opera, Verdi’s La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny) mixes and matches the themes of love, death, friendship and revenge. All are unmistakably present in its attractive overture, but the hight point is undoubtlessly the spellbinding flute melody impersonating Fate. Under the dynamic baton of ever-cheerful Elizabeth Schulze, the youngsters on the stage quickly appropriated the piece and gave it a spontaneous, energetic spin.
Next we got to enjoy Benjamin Chen’s clarinet playing skills as he worked his way through the first movement of Mozart’s lovely Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A Major. Although it is entitled Allegro, the soloist is mostly there to highlight the intimacy and gracefulness of Mozart’s composition. And so he did.
Double-basses very seldom take center stage, but Bottesini’s Concerto for Bass and Orchestra No 2 in B Minor gives them just the perfect opportunity. Yesterday, we enjoyed that special treat infused with remarkable panache thanks to the virtuosic talent of Samuel Suggs, our second soloist for the evening. Another up-and-coming talent to watch.
To conclude this unique occasion, what could be more appropriate than Dvorak’s majestic New World symphony? Bristling with intense drama and subtle darkness, indirectly inspired by Native American and African-american music, this powerful evocation of the United States, where the Czech composer was residing at the time, remains his most popular work and regularly appears on concert programs all over the world. This new generation whole-heartedly dwelled into it with rousing gusto, and if not everything fell perfectly into place, their boundless enthusiasm at tackling such a meaty work more than made up for it. The last, famously hair-raising, movement was a most appropriate grand finale to a symphony, and a concert, to remember.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

BSO - All-Tchaikovsky - 07/17/10

Conductor: Christian Colberg
Capriccio italien, Op. 45
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 - Sirena Huang
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 - Conrad Tao

Although its regular concert season was over, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra pulled one more not-to-be-missed program out of its seemingly bottomless hat last night with the double-whammy of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto and piano concerto. Two of the world's most rightfully popular musical masterpieces, they are particularly welcome on a leisurely summer evening when their luscious melodies and virtuoso tricks offer a perfectly seasoned dish of top-quality comfort food. Both concertos would be performed by disgustingly young and talented musicians, violinist Sirena Huang and pianist Conrad Tao, who at barely 16 already have careers most adult musicians would kill for. And they're apparently just warming up, so let us be warned. Last, and in that case probably least, the Russian master's delightful Capriccio italien was set to open the evening in the impressively crowded Strathmore concert hall.

Alternating powerful fanfares and lighter tunes, Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien was a welcome breath of fresh air, reliably prepping our ears for the bigger and better things to come.
Tchaikovsky's stunning violin concerto needs no introduction, mostly because the public decided a long time ago that the unsuspecting critics who mercilessly dissed the piece when it first came out were just a bunch of hopeless ignoramuses. Moreover, they eventually all died while the concerto has lived on, so there. Although still in her teenage years, Sirena Huang immediately demonstrated plenty of technique and heart while assuredly churning out Tchaikovsky's sparkling melody lines. Unlike some of the lightning-fast versions I've heard in the past, this concerto was blissfully allowed to soar and breathe, giving us the opportunity to seize and savor its myriads of multi-layered intricacies. Can't wait to hear her tackle the Brahms!
Then we were on to the next prodigy of the evening, Conrad Tao, who was playing children's songs on the piano at 18 months and gave his first recital at the ripe age of... 4. Here again, the work was originally pronounced an utter failure, this time by no less than the composer's close friend Nikolai Rubinstein, eminent pianist and conductor. Again, the master, shaken but not stirred, carried on with the enthusiastic support of celebrated pianist Hans von Bülow and the piece has remained part of the classic répertoire ever since. Embarking on Tchaikovsky's piano concerto No 1 may be one of the most daunting rites of passage for any aspiring pianist, and yesterday we were only too happy to be part of it. Brazenly opening with the startling horns, the concerto quickly launched into the famously sweeping melody that will never be heard again. From the grand Romantic feelings to the more subdued poetic moods, Conrad Tao handled it all with more stamina than thoughtfulness, but that perfect balance definitely sounds within his grasp.

As the clapping was winding down, the Russian Romantic vibes lingered on as our pianist came back for a happily perky Prelude in B-flat Minor Op. 23 No 2 by Rachmaninoff. A lovely ending to a lovely evening that even the usher next to me, loudly unwrapping candies during the violin concerto and energically scratching her ear during the piano concerto, did not manage to spoil.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Millennium Stage - Wagner & Tchaikovsky - 07/09/10

Conductor: Elizabeth Schulze
Wagner: Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 - John Chen

After a week of scorching heat and decreased activity, it is with much anticipation that I was heading back to the Kennedy Center yesterday evening for a very special Millennium Stage. Still free and still at 6:00 pm, the performance this time would take place in the concert hall and feature the 58 budding musicians (from 31 states and 3 countries) participating in the National Symphony Orchestra's Summer Music Institute alongside some members of the orchestra. As every year, their enthusiastic supporter maestra Elizabeth Schulze was there to present, assist and, of course, conduct. A little Wagner and full-fledged Tchaikovsky sounded just want the doctor ordered for a Friday night, so there I was, among a very eclectic crowd, all ready for the musical feast.

Wagner's prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg contains just the right combination of expected power and less expected lightness, thus providing the music students with the perfect opportunity to show off their range under the watchful eyes of their mentors, who were playing along right next to them. It all went down very well, thanks to no small part to Elizabeth Schulze's dynamic direction.
Seeing Tchaikovsky's piano concerto No 1 on a program never fails to set my heart aflutter, and this time my being there would also encourage a local talent in the person of John Chen, a seemingly unflappable 16-year old from Leesburg, VA, who is currently studying at The Juilliard School after winning a bunch of awards and performing in various prestigious venues. And if yesterday's remarkable feat is any indication, this is just the beginning of a brilliant career. Solidly back by the NSO musicians, he whole-heartedly plunged into the sink-or-swim challenge with plenty of energy and sensitiveness. Even the wild clapping after the first movement, which he sweetly acknowledged with a quick get-up-and-bow, did not break the mood of what remains a true masterpiece of the Russian Romantic répertoire. More wild clapping (legitimate, this time) and a standing ovation saluted the shyly smiling young man and brought this short but wonderful concert to a resounding conclusion.