Friday, December 4, 2009

"Lost Souls" A (new) Piano Concerto

The world premiere of "Lost Souls" - A piano concerto, by Avner Dorman with Michael Stern conducting the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra and Alon Goldstein soloist, November 2009.

Two and a half years ago my manager Frank Salomon initiated the idea of commissioning a new piano concerto for me, and last week the premiere took place in Kansas City. Has it really been that long for the whole project, from its inception to the premiere? Well... Yes!

From the choice of Avner Dorman as the composer, to "seducing" the right conductor (Michael Stern) and his orchestra (KC Symphony), to raising the sufficient funds, etc etc - all went quite smoothly, and yet it took two and a half years! And what an experience it was - a week of discovery, and revelation, of witnessing the birth of a wonderful new piano concerto.

When I perform with an orchestra, whether Mozart or Beethoven, Schumann or Rachmaninov, the days of rehearsals are devoted to building the interpretation, the performance. We don't have to "worry" about the piece. It has already proven itself. It transcended time and place. It is settled. Our time is spent on making our understanding of the piece work.

When premiering a new piece, the center of our attention falls on helping the piece settle as a new entity. Similar to helping a new baby stand on his two feet, we help the piece stands on its 337,486... notes. Of course a good performance helps.

What was so revealing, so rewarding, intriguing, and interesting was to witness how through the course of the week a miracle - a new piece - is taking shape in front of our eyes (and ears). The "new" notes start to gravitate towards each other like magnets - one note equals one letter, together with another note... they become a syllable. Three notes - perhaps already a word. Four notes, then five, adding rhythm... we are on our way to making a sentence, a phrase. A few of these and we have a paragraph, then a page, a chapter, and before we know it, we have a whole story!

Lost Souls is very much "of our time" - Multiculturalism. It brings a spirit from the past into the present and examines what happens when it clashes with our age. As Michael Stern told the orchestra at one point: "think that you are sitting in the "Oak Room" in New York around a few Jazz players having a Martini with Rachmaninov..." Or as Michael McCurdy from Schirmer publications wrote that in this "globalized culture Art Tatum and Johann Sebastian Bach converse on the Ouija board of the 21st century."

Avner and I were contemplating about the reasons why in the last sixty years there has not been a piano concerto that entered the repertoire in a way that Bartok and Prokofiev have been. Is the genre obsolete? Is the content the problem? The composers? Do we need another piano concerto?

The answer is a resounding... No!
...and Yes!!
No, because the orchestra does all that it can to drive the spirit away at the end. But Yes, because indeed we have a new piano concerto which in time, I hope, will enter the repertoire.

I am not the Father of this new concerto. That would be Avner.
I am also not the Son... would that be Michael?
How about the Holy Ghost....? I think that actually works perfectly with the content!

To understand that, though, as well as to read more from the composer and the press I suggest clicking on Lost Souls.

The Lost Souls will conjure again, this time with the Fairfax symphony on March 13, 2010.

Alon Goldstein

Friday, September 25, 2009

Eternal Bach

One of the most intriguing aspects for me in writing a blog is the fact that I really do not know what to write about. To further clarify, the urgent need to write and share something, express it in words, whether it is about a concert, or a person, an event, illumination, reflection etc etc - this is very elusive as well as unpredictable. Many thoughts, ideas come and go. A number of them linger for a while, and a few decide to stay. The same holds to experiences.... a few will stay with me forever.

In mid August I gave a solo recital at the Mormon University in Jerusalem. This university was built on the side of Mount Olives overlooking the ancient city of Jerusalem. The auditorium if this very unique place has no backstage area. Instead, there is a gigantic glass wall, and the magnificent landscape of Jerusalem is revealed, almost feels like being excavated. What this glass wall does is somehow bring into the auditorium the scent, the smell, something of the aura of Jerusalem. It is incredibly powerful, so difficult to put into words. The audience is sitting, looking down at the stage with Jerusalem just behind, literally within a hand's reach. My recital began when the sun went down, and the lights of the city "went up." The program included works by Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Ginastera.

As I walked on the rather big stage, to my right is the sight of a full house, while to my left the city which is holy to so many people - such an inspiring sight yet so intense. This city is a volcano of emotions - good and bad, triumphant and tragic, uplifting and harsh in their reality. All these contradictions unite here in an explosive way.

I suddenly had a revelation: Here, now, at this very moment, under these circumstances I could not start with the Beethoven that I had prepared. I needed something else. It needed something else... different... a Bach! And so without a word I sat at the piano and played Bach's "Jesu, joy of man's desiring", the choral from Cantata no. 147 arranged by the legendary pianist Myra Hess - an eternal prayer of hope. There was such silence I would never forget that. It was not in the program, yet it always is. People didn't know, yet they always knew.

The much revered musician Richard Goode told me a few months ago that when he played with the Budapest Festival Orchestra the rehearsals always began with playing Bach chorals... to get into a special state of concentration. I would like to give Richard then, and the Budapest orchestra some credit for this idea, which came to me (and stayed...) at the most appropriate moment.

After the Bach playing "the rest" of the program not only made sense, it had a sense... of purpose!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Lost World

At the end of March a very special person passed away, quietly, with some anonymity, probably quite lonely. I believe, however, that in many ways she will always live in many people's hearts.

Maria Curcio

I got to know Maria in 1997 when I decided to move from Baltimore, where I had studied for the previous four years, to London. I remember coming down the narrow stairs which led to her tiny little basement apartment located in the lower class neighborhood of Kilburn. Maria opened the door and escorted me in. It was a very simple looking apartment, somewhat dark, unassuming, and without much room to move or something that catches the eye, only a few historic photographs of great musicians including one of the legendary Artur Schnabel. A grand Yamaha piano was waiting at the corner.

As I walked in I instantly felt certain intensity and inspiration. This was a place for music and for memories.

Maria looked quite fragile yet incredibly radiant. Her laser beam eyes were extremely penetrating. They projected nobility and at the same time childishness with a hidden smile. It was so unique, so rare.

After pouring both of us "hand made" espresso, she immediately questions me about my musical preferences, choices, goals and so on. There was such fierce attention in her. Thereafter, I sat down to play for her. I remember so vividly on that occasion, as well as on many others how acute was her aural perception. Whether it was Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven or Ravel, she would describe in just a handful of words the exact detail that ended up transforming our experience of the music, our experience of that particular passage on its own and as a part of the whole piece. She had her way of clarifying the music as well as the technique to achieve what her inner-ear was asking for.

At times she would sit at the piano to demonstrate. Any person who had the privilege to hear her play would never forget how the piano sounded in that gloomy dry space; her velvety sound, like melting gold. Her pearl like touch was haunting. In her hands the piano was limpid, translucent and above all it sang! Nothing seemed to matter when listening to her. It was pure music, pure poetry, and it sounded so simple, so right. She would then get up and assert: "we must hear what we see and see what we hear!"

I knew that this was my new home.

Maria had the ability to adapt to each student, and in time to make him feel liberated. She liked quoting her revered teacher Artur Schnabel: "if you cannot sing it you cannot play it Schnabel used to say." Vocal, singing line was of highest importance. From years of working with singers, she had a natural understanding of the shape of a phrase - when to breathe, when to inhale, and when to exhale. One could never escape hearing Maria speak about that: "pianists have to take breaths as singers do."

And then there were dinners in which she invited different students and close friends. She would make her own Pasta. "Would you like today green pasta (with basil) or red pasta (with tomatoes)?" she would ask. Getting fresh ingredients - fresh salmon, home made Italian ice cream - was of utmost importance! This was a family affair, and she made us feel very close to her heart. We probably were. We listened to Maria's forthright views - both positive and negative. I always admired her strong held opinions and the directness that she expressed them. Her shy exterior would only conceal these opinions from those she would not want to share them with.

She would embody many characteristics that seem to me of a different time, of a lost world - her generosity, her dignity and nobility, as well as her unique elegance when being in a company of people. I will never forget that, and I will never forget her piercing eyes and ears when she was in the company of music.

Maria I miss you!

with lots of love,

Alon Goldstein

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wolfgang Amadeus Bartok

On performing Bartok's concerto no. 3 with the Rhode Island as well as the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestras - February 28 and March 14, 2009.

In the midst of a February month dominated by playing four different concerti (Schumann, Brahms 1, Mendelssohn 1 and Bartok 3), I suddenly discovered something which at first seemed totally absurd - that Bartok has potentially more in common with Mozart than say Schumann or Brahms. To be more specific, I realized that by thinking in Mozartean terms I would reveal more of the mystery in this piece (Bartok 3), get closer to its core, its ultra sensitive quality, its unique intimacy.

As I walked on stage I saw a magnificent sight - a huge instrument comprised of nearly eighty musicians - string players, wood winds, brass and percussionists who were playing a wide range of instruments in all shapes and sizes. The stage was completely packed.

During the first run-through of the piece I recognized much more Stravinsky and Debussy in our playing than say Bach or Mozart. I believe there is a strong misconception of Bartok as being an aggressive, heavy-handed composer. I often hear his music being played loudly and with some brutality. In music history of the twentieth century, Stravinsky's use of the simplest rhythmic patterns being repeated, and elevated above melody is called "primitivism." We also use the same term when addressing Bartok's melodic lines which are derived from folk melodies and especially peasant songs from Hungary and the neighboring countries (Romania, Bulgaria). Yet, these melodies, simple as they may sound, use quarter tones in a melodic scale, which is far more elaborate than "our" major or minor scales. Their rhythmic ingenuity juxtaposes similar recognizable rhythmic patterns in a way that creates entirely different stresses and tensions within the phrase. So different than Stravinsky. Primitive would not be the word I would use.

We begin again. This time I ask the orchestra to "Think Mozart". The scoring of the opening is so thin, so minimal - no tutti, just strings, timpani and piano. The very first notes, rather than create a Debussy-like murmur, I ask the strings for the precision and clarity that would characterize a Mozart accompaniment. The timpani should sound like as if it is playing "pizzicato." On top of that I could introduce my folkish dance. This intricate and very peculiar dance is deceptively simple. Its complexion is due to the displacements of strong beats and weak beats within the bars. It needs extreme attention to agogic, stresses and overall phrasing. A different kind of listening is asked for. Transparency is crucial. When this opening theme reaches its climax and brass instruments are added, it is still with the same sense of clarity and style that defines the classical era, rather than the full blown thick massive sound of late romanticism.

In the second theme, piano, strings, winds and percussion participate. Sounds big...? Well, "yes", however the result is quite
the opposite. In this subtle interplay between the various instruments, piano is the leading voice while the other
instruments add spices, colors and missing beats. The use of each instrument - triangle, side drum, horn, clarinet, violins is so economic, so sparse. What is even more fascinating is that to my ears, Bartok is asking the percussion instruments to sound like string pizzicato, the strings are asked to sound like wood-winds or alternatively like light percussion instruments (i.e. triangle), the wood-winds sound somewhat like a piano, and the piano... well, with music that has such purity and directness of expression, the piano needs to combine the clarity and precision of an early fortepiano with the infinite resources that the modern instrument can provide.

Let's think about that - asking a percussionist to sound like a wind player... or the latter to sound like a piano... This is a revolution to our common notions of sound. But that belongs to another entry.

Early in his life Bartok was most influenced by the composers he emerged from - Brahms, Liszt, Strauss. As he evolved, during the 1920s, Debussy and Stravinsky became a great source of inspiration. Now, late in his life (with the present piece), he is looking back to Mozart and even further... to Bach! It is in the first movement that I felt the greatest benefit in listening through Mozart "Ear-glasses." In the following movement, the slow second movement, an altogether different atmosphere is created. Its religious state of mind, its choral as well as polyphonic writing resurrect another very familiar figure, that of Johann Sebastian... Bartok.

Alon Goldstein

Thursday, February 12, 2009

From Schumann's diary...

Robert Schumann documented nearly every day of his life since his teenage years. On Oct. 1, 1853 a young composer age 20 came to visit. On that day Schumann wrote in his diary just one line:

"A visit from Johannes Brahms (a genius)"