The Gilmore International Keyboard Festival 2006

Margaret M. Barela (1946-2009)

viernes, 21 de julio de 2006

It seems that piano competitions have been facing an identity crisis of sorts for several years now. The Van Cliburn, which represents my most direct experience with the phenomenon, is a microcosm of what has been going on lately. I attended the semi-finals in 1993 when Italian Simone Pedroni won the gold, and the finals in 2005, when Russian Alexander Kobrin followed in Pedroni’s footsteps. As the years pass, it becomes difficult to keep track of the many medalists of that one competition, let alone winners of the many international keyboard competitions that exist today.

What has been going on? And what effects are competitions having on the general state of music-making in the world today?

In an effort to fit the mold of what judges are looking for, pianist-competitors seem to aim for a technically dazzling performance with non-controversial, neutral interpretations that are acceptable to the widest range of tastes. In other words, to stay in the running and ultimately win, many competitors willingly sacrifice individuality to achieve the lowest common denominator. And the repertory demands are so great that competitions become more a test of stamina than artistry. Contestants are pushed beyond their limits to the point of breakdown, so that their weaknesses show. What judge (and potential agent) can resist evaluating and comparing on that basis? The “prize” of a big number of concerts is often a multiple of what the winners are used to playing in a year. So it should be no surprise that they burn out from the pressure of increased bookings.

This situation creates a dilemma for judges, as well. The solution? Some have toyed with the idea of not naming a first place winner at all. In one case, the 2001 Van Cliburn judges split the prize between Stanislav Ioudenitch and Olga Kern. What does that say?

A competitor who would deviate too far from that narrow band of acceptability is more likely than not to be eliminated before reaching the finals. Frederick Chiu was a case in point in the 1993 Van Cliburn. I found his playing compellingly original and intelligent, even though it was controversial. He didn’t make it into the finals. Yet today, he has a thriving performance and recording career.

Seemingly aware of this state of affairs back in 1989, the trustees of the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation in Kalamazoo, Michigan, wanted to avoid the same minefield in which other competitions have found themselves. They took two years to formulate a plan shaping an event, not around pianists, or competing to win, but around the keyboard (a special love of deceased Kalamazoo businessman Irving S. Gilmore). The Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival is now famous for being the “non-competition” competition. Calling it a “festival” is far more appropriate than calling it a competition for this quadrennial event.

The intention was to distinguish it from all other piano competitions by celebrating excellence in performance while drawing from the large volume and diversity of works written for keyboard (clavecin, harpsichord, forte-piano, and organ, in addition to the modern piano).

There is no upper age limit for award recipients, although they tend to exhibit the maturity and stamina required by performing career, be it solo or collaborative.

The closest comparison would be with the so-called MacArthur “genius” Award. Contenders never know they are in the running until selections are made, and the work of nominators and judges is complete.

Arriving in Kalamazoo to attend this unique festival, one can’t escape noticing the palpable atmosphere of celebration and triumph. The laureates have already won. Not only can they relax and be themselves, they are being recognized precisely because they have pursued their art without self-consciousness. They are not under pressure to conform to someone else’s expectations.

What a difference!

Now a two-weeks-plus event, the Gilmore is a reunion of sorts, where pianists meet “cousins” they had never met, who share an unspoken bond and passion. This year’s festival ran from April 22 to May 7.

Argentinian-born Ingrid Fliter, 33, living in Milan, Italy, is this year’s Gilmore Artist. She may be the fifth selected since 1991, but she is the first woman, following David Owen Norris, England, 1991; Ralf Gothoni, Finland, 1994; Leif Ove Andsnes, Norway, 1998; and Piotr Anderszewski, Poland, 2002.

All the previous winners returned this year to welcome the newcomers to a growing family of artists. They are Fliter and the two Gilmore Young Artists Yuja Wang, 19, and Natasia Paremski, 18.

Besides concerts by previous laureates, and the newly anointed Gilmore Artist (one chosen every four years) and Young Artists (up to four chosen every two years), there are open master classes, a film series of great piano teachers, a jazz segment, and an educational component for kids to seniors. It’s a showcase of the keyboard in typical and atypical works and settings.

This year’s “most atypical” spotlight fell on Rossini’s operatic-sounding Petite Messe Solemnelle for chorus, soloists, two pianos and harmonium, and a highly entertaining Canadian play with music cast for two actors by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, Two Pianos, Four Hands.

Although Ingrid Fliter, 33, is the fifth winner, she is the first woman to be selected. Born in Argentina, she lives in Milan. She never studied with Marta Argerich, a compatriot and mentor, but there is ample evidence of the latter’s influence on her.

Avoiding a splashy program, Fliter chose a recital of appealing yet smaller, more intimate works demanding considerable musicianship: Haydn’s Sonata in E Minor Hob.16:34; Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C Minor and his Sonata in E-flat Major Op. 31:3; and works by Chopin: Nocturne in D-flat Major Op. 27:2; Polonaise in F sharp Minor Op. 44; Scherzo in E Major, and Ballade in F Minor.

Perhaps it was the unresponsive piano with a dull upper register that sparked her case of nerves. It just wasn’t the same playing as the passionately intelligent pianist who played with such fiery assurance in a thrilling recording of her remarkable 2003 performance at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. In her recital, misses, near-misses and body language betrayed a fear of taking the wrong turns at key forks in the road. An assuring aural smile was missing in witty passages. One could blame the pressure of sudden success, or the pianist having an off night, or a dull piano whose upper register was unresponsive to her consistent efforts for colorful sparkle and subtlety. It was as if a Fliter look-alike with a case of nerves had substituted for the real Gilmore Artist.

So, it was good that Fliter had another opportunity to introduce herself again. That marvelous pianist of the CD showed up a few days later to prove that the solo recital was the off night. Fliter fully redeemed herself by playing a shimmering G Minor Concerto by Saint-Saens and a deeply felt Emperor by Beethoven with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra (KSO) conducted by Raymond Harvey. The Emperor’s last movement was an exuberant dance. So magnetic was her tensile rhythmic sense, that the already sympathetic Harvey and KSO were in irresistible synch with her. This time, a (Steinway) piano with a ringing upper register responded to her rich imagination for color and nuance.

Another aspect of Fliter’s solidity became apparent with another comparison. An amateurish sounding KSO was tellingly unfocused in the evening’s opening piece, Bartok’s Dance Suite. But due partly to Harvey’s pliant guidance, the KSO pulled together to stay right with Fliter, offering her enthusiastically willing support. Harvey was a good accompanist, but the striking difference in the crispness of their delivery was primarily because of Fliter’s clear rhythmic command. The balance was wonderful.

Some pianists never make a successful leap from solo to concerto playing because they don’t know how to signal their intentions, particularly regarding tempo changes. Fliter marks the beats subtly while keeping the larger phrase alive and well-shaped. Like a magnet, those little markings hold the orchestra together irresistibly. The result is a rhythmic vitality that is infectious and full of variety. Her rich imagination for color is enhanced by this key ability. For the first time, all four previously chosen Gilmore Artists returned to Kalamazoo for performances and master classes. Not all the previous winners were heard in concert.

Of those that were, England’s extroverted and energetic Norris, Gilmore’s first laureate, was a deservedly popular draw. Sonnerie, a first-rate British chamber ensemble, joined Norris, playing early period instrument replicas to complement his program for the fortepiano, a forerunner of the modern piano. Norris performed on a 2005 replica of a 1781 instrument built by David Sutherland of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Forbidding on paper, 'The World’s First Piano Concertos' was a scintillating program full of witty intelligence and charm. It included a work by the “fattest man in England” (Philip Hayes), and some 18th century Hungarian gypsy pieces in the virtuoso folk tradition, along with a little Mozart and J.C. Bach.

Norris multi-tasks as a composer, broadcaster, harpist, and artistic director. But he thinks of himself as a pianist, first.

It is difficult to understand Piotr Anderszewski’s appeal, judging by his less than satisfying recital. By far, the most persistently introverted and brooding of those heard, he not only seems misanthropic, his ideas tend toward the eccentric. More than one audience member expressed the feeling they were intruders -even though they had paid to hear him, and he had agreed to play in public.

Anderszewski’s slow readings of Mozart’s usually paired C Minor Fantasy K. 475, and Sonata K.457, were dark and dreary. His Bach (English Suite in D Minor) was eccentric, peculiar. Bright spots were the two lovely little 'Gavottes'. Only in the technically challenging music of his compatriot, Karol Szymanowski Métopes Op. 29, did he seem fully at home. This work provided the evening’s most engaging and colorful moments. Three of Beethoven’s six Bagatelles Op. 126 served as an encore. Strange indeed. An audience shouldn’t be made to feel like voyeurs, invading a performer’s “space”.

A regal quality informs the playing of Leif Ove Andnes who wears the Gilmore’s 1998 mantle with admirable ease. Playing with resilient strength and at times, understated elegance, he delivered a program reflecting his patrician taste: Schumann’s rarely heard Four Pieces Op. 32, and three fragments of unfinished piano pieces by Schubert, leading into a profound reading of Beethoven’s late Sonata in A-flat Major Op. 110, and an unfamiliar but richly satisfying version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

It is here that one can come to appreciate Andsnes’ artistry. Rimsky-Korsakov’s brilliant orchestration of Pictures, imprinted so deeply in the memories of many audiences, has challenged pianists to try matching the color and power of the orchestral version. Many fail. But Andsnes, shattered expectations of yet another hackneyed performance of this war horse by employing his remarkable imagination and skill to overcome the monochromatic limitations of the instrument. He coaxed and coerced a dazzling array of colors and characters from the piano. His thinking was orchestral. His command of timing and structure imbued the work with fantastic drama.

Perhaps the biggest compliment to Andsnes was the audience’s rapt attention. He responded with several encores.

While the “big” festival is held every four years, a junior version of the Gilmore takes place every two years, where up to four Young Gilmore Artists (YGA) are chosen in the same fashion–unbeknownst to the nominees.

This years two YGAs, Yuja Wang, 19, and Natasia Paremski, 18 were strikingly different from each other. Like salmon swimming upstream, both pianists fought overly-voiced, unresponsive pianos with dull upper registers in different venues.Unfortunately, both inexperienced young players tried using force to meet the challenge of uncooperative pianos. Rather than producing a luxuriant sound, both banged. Yet each revealed good reason for having been chosen.

The scuttlebutt was that the pianos they played had been voiced to accommodate another, more experienced pianist in the festival. (Even Fliter seemed unhappy with the piano she had to play for her recital in yet another venue.) So the less-experienced pianists were forced to adapt in ways showing them at less than their best. A rationale was offered by the Gilmore administration: “In the real world, pianists need to be able to adjust to less than ideal circumstances--bad pianos, bad acoustics, etc.” Even though this is true, it is, at the least, unkind for an organization, especially a keyboard festival, to throw such a curve at neophytes. These young pianists were the least able of all the performers there, to deal with those “realities”. This was in deference to a seasoned professional (Ralf Gothoni), who was in a better position to do the adjusting.

Wang, more the “pianissimist”, plays with a quiet elegance and understated intensity. She is at her best in intimate passages requiring a refined sensibility. In a program of what were more like encores pieces by several composers, she was most poetic in her softer range. Her sound, pointed rather than rich, tended to splatter and become harsh in louder passages.

Paremski is a fierce race horse capable of an enviable abandon. After a less than satisfying Chopin Sonata in B Minor, the passionate Paremski threw away caution, and unleashed a gripping performance of excerpts from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, displaying an astonishing imagination. It was her piece, without question.

Two concerts of “non-winners” were heard: William Bolcom and wife Joan Morris in an enjoyable afternoon of American cabaret music from the early 1900s (It is what it is); and Peter Serkin in a program of Bach and Beethoven at their most eccentric: Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and Beethoven’s 'Hammerklavier' Sonata Op. 106. The modern instrument he played was tuned to mean temperament, becoming twangy the further the music moved away from C Major. Yet in this context, despite eccentricity, the Bach sounded daring. And one could hear an over-wrought, strangely intelligent understanding of an already deaf Beethoven going between irrational outbursts and transcendent acquiescence. On reflection, while it was somewhat discomforting to watch and listen to Serkin, his performance was somehow revelatory.

The switch from earlier festivals, where duties were split between two directors (executive and artistic) to one director now, seems to have given the festival both focus and breadth. The peripatetic Executive Director Dan Gustin appears to have settled into a nice cruise control guiding his second quadrennial festival. He steers a counterpoint of activities in Battle Creek, Lakeshore and Grand Rapids, along with several in Kalamazoo venues.

Interestingly, though those in the running are drawn from an international pool, Gustin describes the Gilmore as a regional festival. With the quality of artists the Gilmore is introducing, surely he doesn’t think he can keep it a secret for long.


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