Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Eight-million-dollar Violin

When Richard Tognetti appears at the helm of the Australian Chamber Orchestra in their Spivey Hall debut on Friday, April 20th, he well might be playing a exceptionally rare and extraordinary instrument: a Del Gesu violin valued at 10 million Australian dollars -- just shy of 8 million US dollars at current exchange rates. It's been given to the ACO on permanent loan as a magnificent gift from an anonymous donor.

Check out the news from the Australian Broacasting Corporation's website, and read Richard's description of the violin's sound and character:

I certainly hope he'll bring this violin on tour! The prospect of hearing such an amazing instrument in the excellent acoustics of Spivey Hall is enticing indeed.

Tognetti, as leader of the orchestra, will in all likelihood be one of the featured soloists in Vivaldi's Concerto in B minor for Four Violins & Orchestra, Op. 3 No. 10, as well as the concertino soloist in Corelli's Concerto Grosso in F major, Op. 6 No. 2. This violin is believed to have been made in 1743; Vivaldi died in 1741. Baroque music played masterfully on a very, very, very fine baroque violin.

I'm sure it will also sound fantastic in Tognetti's hands in Haydn's C-major Cello Concerto with Dutch soloist Pieter Wispelwey, and Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence. With any luck, the Italian connection to this program just got a lot stronger.

"Truth-in-blogging" disclosure: I'm still in love with Australia. I used to work for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Based in Sydney and traveling regularly to Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart and Perth, I managed artistic planning and supervised artistic development programs for the six professional orchestras of the ABC. (They are now independent of the ABC, supported by a service organization called Symphony Australia.)

For four and a half years, I often heard two or three performances a week, either at the Sydney Opera House or the Sydney Town Hall, or several concerts in consecutive days in different cities, traveling to consult with the other network orchestras performing in their halls. The Australian Chamber Orchestra played in these cities, too -- the "competition" (as it were, if that's apt) to the ABC/Symphony Australia six.

So, when I finally had a free night, did I really need to hear another orchestra concert? Probably not...still, I couldn't resist hearing the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Why? Because of the energy, zest and appeal of their performances, and Richard Tognetti's imaginative programming that would explore interesting repertoire I'd otherwise not experience.

The ACO is a very hard-working and inspiring group: they have subscription series in several Australian cities and tour internationally every year, so they're constantly on the go. They've won a huge following in Australia and abroad, and I'm certain they'll make an amazing impression when they perform at Spivey Hall. To quote The Times of London: "This group must be the best chamber orchestra on earth. . .the Australian Chamber Orchestra is a ticket to musical bliss."

Looked at a globe recently? It's a l-o-o-ng way from Atlanta to Sydney -- though, I must say, not a difficult journey. Just 5 hours to LAX or SFO, change planes, stretch your legs, then hunker down for the 14 hours to Sydney (three or four films, several nice naps, a couple of meals), and there you are -- as simple as that. (Business class makes a big difference, though!)

No matter how long, it's a totally worthwhile trip. I was always very, very excited to return to Australia after being away for weeks at a time, talent-scouting conductors and soloists in Europe and the US to perform with the orchestras.

Australia is a fantastic destination, a country that cultivates and sustains a wonderfully vibrant and diverse cultural life. I've never known anyone who's visited Australia who didn't love something he or she discovered there. Making the long trek to the US for their tour, the ACO musicians bring with them a very special spirit of music-making. I'm proud they're making their Atlanta debut with us. We're in for another memorable night.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Enter the young: Laszlo Fassang and Xuefei Yang

Next weekend, on Saturday, February 3, we have two performances, both by extraordinarily talented young musicians...names you may not know, but whose immense musical gifts you will undoubtedly recognize when you hear them perform. Both are making their Spivey Hall debuts.

The ability to improvise is a talent more appreciated these days in jazz, perhaps, than in classical music, but remember that the young Beethoven first made a name for himself in Vienna as a pianist who could astound the noble gentility by the boldness and virtuosity of his improvisations. There are living, prominent pianists who improvise: Robert Levin often asks audiences to give him a theme, and he will create several short improvisations as part of a recital or concerto performance. Gabriela Montero (who made her NY Philharmonic debut with Lorin Maazel fairly recently) enjoys extended improvisation -- you may have heard her improvise if you listen to Performance Today, and I believe she's released a commericial recording of some of her classically-inspired improvisations -- Bach continues to inspire musicians. (Hey...why don't we have a Spivey Hall Spring Bach Festival? Whatta concept!) In a similar spirit, Mitsuko Uchida never plays the same Mozart piano concerto cadenza twice, preferring instead to capture the spirit of the moment and create something new for each concert, heightening the sense of occasion.

What was really sensational at the 2002 Calgary International Organ Festival and Competition (as I am told by those who attended, as well as by the newspaper reports) was the genius shown by the young Hungarian Laszlo Fassang in creating brilliant improvisations. He won the gold medal for improvisation and a highly enthusiastic response from the audience as well as the judges. Thus it's fitting he will conclude his Spivey Hall debut recital (Feb 3 at 3:00 PM, with a 2:00 pm pre-concert talk by Spivey Hall Organist-in-Residence Richard Morris) with an improvisation on a given theme. Mr. Fassang has also arranged and will perform Bach's Chaconne, BWV 1004 (originally for violin) and four Hungarian Dances by Brahms for the organ. Without doubt, there's a vivid imagination in Lazslo's approach to the organ, and we're in for a treat. The program also includes Bach's Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, BWV 564, and Franck's Choral in A minor, Op. 40, plus five Choral Preludes by Brahms.

Later that evening, at 8:15 pm, 28-year-old Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang (approximately "shwoe-fay yahng" -- more readily "Fei" to her friends) will be heard in Atlanta for the first time. She was the first guitar student to enter any music school in China, and the first Chinese guitarist to really attain prominence in the international guitar world. Fei now lives in London, and she's recording for the EMI label -- the first CD is being released now to coincide with her US tour. She recently peformed at London's Wigmore Hall, nearly selling it out (550 seats), and wins accolades everywhere. She, too, is giving us a highly imaginative program (a bit different than first announced almost a year ago):

ALBENIZ Asturias
BARRIOS Un Sueño en la Floresta
RODRIGO Tres piezas españolas: Fandango, Passacaglia & Zapateado

GOSS Blue Kite, Yellow Earth and Farewell My Concubine (written for her in 2004)

MOREL El Condor Pasa
LAURO Seis por derecho
VILLA LOBOS Prelude No.1 and Four Studies (Nos. 8, 7, 11 and 12)

Xuefei Yang is on the February 2007 cover of ClassicFM magazine (published in London) with the somewhat breathless subhead, "John Williams liked her so much, he gave her his guitar!" (an instrument by famous Australian guitarmaker, Greg Smallman). But it's true, and this is deeply significant, when you consider Fei's statement, "My parents had to save very hard to buy my first really good guitar, which cost them the same as an apartment." The review of her new CD, Romance de Amor, concludes with an emphatic statement: "Simply sensational." Fei's program includes some of the works on her CD, which will be available at her Spivey Hall recital, and she looks forward to greeting people after her performance.

Enter the young. Be prepared to be amazed.

Richard Goode program now features Debussy Preludes, Book II

We've learned that pianist Richard Goode will conclude his February 28th recital not with works of Chopin, as last was communicated, but with Book II of Debussy's Preludes, which (as those of you who know these works may agree) are some of his most inventive, imaginative, free-ranging, personal and profoundly original piano works.

Why, you may ask, has Mr. Goode changed his program again? For an excellent reason: he wishes to perform only the works he feels are truly the best he can offer. He believes that his current connection to Book II of the Debussy Preludes will result in a performance at that level. Richard Goode has extraordinarily high standards, for which we may all be grateful, thus we can look forward to another revelatory musical experience from him. The complete program will be:

BACH Partita No. 5 in G major, BWV 829
MOZART Rondo in A minor, K. 511
BRAHMS Fantasies, Op. 116
DEBUSSY Preludes, Book II


This will be the annual Spivey Memorial Concert, so there's a reception with refreshments for the entire audience after the recital, generously sponsored by The Walter & Emilie Spivey Foundation. (As if you needed another reason to attend!)

Roberto Sierra to attend Spivey Hall premiere of his SONGS FROM THE DIASPORA

Spivey Hall is proud to present the Southeast premiere of Roberto Sierra's Songs from the Diaspora on Sunday, February 4 at 3:00 pm, performed by the excellent St. Lawrence String Quartet, celebrated Metropolitan Opera soprano Heidi Grant Murphy and distinguished pianist Kevin Murphy. I've just had the good news that composer Roberto Sierra will attend this concert (thanks to the generosity of The Friends of Spivey Hall) and will speak briefly about his work at the free 2:00 pm pre-concert talk led by Dr. Kurt-Alexander Zeller. Roberto is a highly successful composer whose works have garnered international acclaim. More about Roberto at

This will be the fourth-ever public performance of Songs from the Diaspora, which receive their world premiere January 30th at Penn State, then are performed at Cornell University (where Roberto is professor of composition) and the University of Maryland in College Park before Spivey Hall welcomes them next Sunday. The musicians were in intensive rehearsals last week in New York preparing to give life to these songs, and I'm greatly looking forward to hearing them. Roberto may also speak to the audience from stage before the performance, which I hope will enhance the listening experience of everyone who attends.

Here's Roberto's program note about the Songs:

Roberto Sierra (born 1953, Vega Baja, Puerto Rico)
Songs from the Diaspora

In 1492 a royal decree from Their Catholic Majesties (that was their official title), Fernando de Aragón and Isabella de Castilla put an end to the largest and one of the most important Jewish settlements in Europe. The expulsion of these Spaniards who for centuries made important contributions to the arts and the sciences, who were an integral part of the fabric of the Spanish culture, was not only a tragic event for countless people who had to leave the land they called home, but also a great loss for Spain. This politically and religiously motivated expulsion forced the Jews to leave their Sepharad (the term they used for the Iberian Peninsula) and wander to find new places to live. With them they brought their language (Ladino), their music and their poetry. You can still find Sephardic poetry and music, largely unchanged by time, for many wonderful songs have been passed down from one generation to the next through the centuries. Not long ago it would not have been unusual to hear in Sofia (Bulgaria) an old grandmother singing a fragment from De las mares altas.

In my settings I selected some of those texts that reflected a sense of longing, and that made references to the Diaspora, as well as some of those that represented aspects of their lives as ordinary people. Many times what has remained is just a fragment of a tune, but in most instances the lyrics are found in several completed verses. In completing the melodic fragments, I tried to do so in a seamless fashion. When I wrote these songs I wanted to recreate the spirit as reflected in the melodic fragments, and to evoke with the accompaniment a sound world that reflected the beautiful and profoundly moving imagery expressed in the verses.

The cycle opens with the song titled From the High Seas (De las mares altas), which tells the story of how the Queen became jealous of a beautiful girl that came from far away lands dressed in gold and pearls, crowned with sapphires. The next song, Echate a la mar y alcançalo (Go to the Seas and find him), originates from Jerusalem and also makes references to the sea, to going away. Here the theme of the wanderer is paired not with exotic imagery but rather with the language of daily routines, almost childlike in its simplicity: the water of the ocean becomes the bath water where one is washed, purified.

El rey de Francia tres hijas tenía (from Izmir, Turkey), which resembles many medieval romances, tells the story of the three daughters of the King of France. The song describes how the princesses labored in the palace, and how one day the youngest one fell asleep while embroidering. As the Queen tried to wake her up, she tells her mother of the beautiful dream she was having, but the Queen quickly explains (perhaps a warning) the symbolic nature of the dream: “the moon is your mother-in-law, the star ‘Diana’ is your sister-in-law, the three birds are your brothers-in-law and the golden pillar is the son of the King, your boyfriend”. The mother-in-law as subject is a common thread in the Sephardic tradition, and it could not be more clearly exposed with all its negative connotations (“my mother-in-law is stronger than death itself…”) as in the song that follows: My mother-in-law the evil one (Mi suegra la negra), which originates from Filipopolis, modern day Plovdic in Bulgaria.

The next two songs are from Sarajevo. Caminí por altas torres (I wandered by the High Towers) brings us back to the Diaspora: “…I navigated in lands, where the cock doesn’t crow, where nobody knew me. Rain falls from the heavens, tears from my eyes.” De que lloras Blanca niña also tells us about crying and sadness, but this time it is a girl the one that cries for the love that goes away and never comes back. The cycle closes as it opened: with the ocean and a song from Sofia (The Siren). In this song the ocean is the world of the siren, that mysterious and mad creature who wants sailors to love her.

Songs from the Diaspora was commissioned by Music Accord for Heidi Grant Murphy, Kevin Murphy and the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

* * * * *

In addition to the Songs, the program includes Chausson's gorgeous Chanson perpetuelle featuring all the musicians, and the Quartet (hailing from Canada) will perform Mozart's C-major String Quartet K. 465 as well as Shostakovich's Quartet No. 3. The SLSQ's recording of the Shostakovich has earned fantastic reviews (The New York Times calls it "a suberb" and finds all sorts of expressive words to describe its emotional impact). This will mark a welcome return of the SLSQ to our series (I heard them last summer at the Spoleto Festival and they were simply magnificent) but the first appearance with their new second violinist, Scott St. John (also no stranger to Spviey Hall). This promises to be another great highlight of the season. Don't miss it -- there are good seats still available.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Heads up: Don't miss Paul Lewis and Joyce DiDonato

I've been on hiatus with the blog during the holidays and am actually posting this entry from New York, where I'm attending two conferences and meeting with artist managers to put the finishing touches to Spivey Hall's 2007/08 season. Good things are in store for us! We plan to announce the details of next season in April (subscribers and Friends of Spivey Hall will receive invitations to this event in March). Before then, there's a tremendous wealth of concerts still to come. We had such a terrific fall with vocalists Rolando Villazon and Angelika Kirchschlager and the triumphant return of Chanticleer. The great singing continues with American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who had a huge success in Santa Fe this summer in the title role of Massenet's Cendrillon (Cinderella) and enjoys a career that's strongly on the rise, especially in the opera houses of Europe. In addition to a beautiful voice and excellent musicality, she has a very lively personality. I eagerly await her recital, for I know she will infuse it with tremendous character -- the sort of music making that make songs truly come alive. We're now coming into a great line-up of pianists at Spivey Hall. Richard Goode and Ivan Moravec will be with us again; Richard's program has changed a bit since we first announced the season (be sure to see his revised program, which now features Fantasies by Brahms, and a second half of Chopin). I look forward to every note of both programs, for both of these musicians are undisputed masters who as artists have much, much, much to say. Both are major artists we're extremely proud to present. I am no less excited about the debut of British pianist Paul Lewis. Not infrequently, Spivey Hall patrons will tell me they were sorry to miss a concert that friends who had attended said was really marvelous -- and why I had not told them it was going to be so great? Well, this is one of those concerts you should not miss. Come hear Paul Lewis. He's new to this part of the world but is celebrated in Europe and rightly so. Other leading presenters and their audiences in the United States have discovered the magnificence of Paul's playing, and I'm delighted that metro-Atlanta music lovers finally have the chance to hear Paul at Spivey Hall. Paul is the midst of what is for pianists the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest: playing and recording all 32 of the Beethoven piano sonatas. This is a major, life-changing experience for a pianist, for these works are central pillars of the repertoire, some of Beethoven's most profound musical statements; they pose great intellectual and interpretative challenges in addition to testing the pianist's fortitude and stamina. Each generation must rediscover them anew. Transversing the Beethoven sonatas as a cycle is a transformational experience, and to witness a pianist undertaking this journey of the soul (even just one program of it) is a rare privilege. Some patrons may know Paul's playing from BBC Music Magazine, which has featured him on several occasions and included excerpts of his recordings on the free CD that accompanies the magazine. I actually first heard his Beethoven on a harmonia mundi release -- one of the earlier releases of his cycle. The "Moonlight" Sonata, which is part of his all-Beethoven program, is certainly one of the most popular of Beethoven's piano sonatas. Some people consider it a "warhorse" -- a well-known piece that rarely fails to please and which (in the minds of some) perhaps gets played too often. Sometimes Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" are labeled as warhorses, but I've never come away from a performance of either without learning something new about them. And that, to me, is a measure of a great work. I am of the opinion that warhorses are warhorses for a reason: they have an enduring power not only to move listeners, but also to inspire performers. Yes, the opening movement of the "Moonlight" is extremely familiar to our ears; but it's the final movement that I most yearn to hear these days. Thus I'm keen to experience what Paul will do with this piece, and I'm extremely curious to hear the rest of his program as well. Initially I was enthused and pleased that Paul would be on the series, and I must give credit to Sherryl Nelson for booking him -- he was one of the first artists early on in our 2006/07 season planning. Since that time, I'd sought out other recordings by Paul Lewis, to learn more about him as a musician, and found a copy of his Liszt B-minor Sonata at Tower Records in New York about a year ago now. (Sadly, very very sadly, Tower Records stores are no more. This was not news to me and is probably not news to you either, but still, it hadn't really sunk in until I saw the old store near Lincoln Center empty tonight as I walked by, following a reception in honor of the new President and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, Joseph Bankoff; Atlantans may consider themselves extremely fortunate indeed that he is at the helm of this most important organization. But the pleasure I was feeling after the reception was abruptly diminished when I saw Tower Records dark and abandoned; it really made my heart sink, for I'd spent so many happy hours there, finding new recordings, and discovering artists and repertoire through them. It has always been, for me, a favorite haunt, and dangerous place to be with a credit card.) Anyway -- for those who love the piano repertoire, the Liszt Sonata is an important measure of any pianist -- one of the truly transcendental works of the Romantic literature, and vastly revealing. I think my collection of recordings has at various times included some 20 versions by different pianists of this piece, and right now, I have about a dozen, with a very short list of favorites. Well... I put Paul Lewis's recording in the CD player one night late at the office, and was totally thunderstruck. The passion, the extraordinarily expressive nuance, the remarkable phrasing and "control of the moment," the imagination (!!!!), the power, and the architectural grasp of the piece his interpretation conveyed knocked me sideways! Paul's recording went straight to my shortlist. I was captivated. Through his recording, the sonata had been revealed to me once again, fresh and new. I was excited in so many ways. For someone who hears as much music as I do, it is such a pleasure to make a discovery of this nature! So... you can now see why I implore any of you reading this who haven't got a ticket yet, love Beethoven, love the piano, and want a "big experience" listening to these masterworks performed by a compelling artist, hear ye, hear ye: you do not want to miss this concert! I have very high expectations and feel quite confident they will be more than met. And of course I will be very interested to hear the opinions of patrons who hear this recital, and encourage you to post your comments.