The Lively Arts (redux)

Art and Music in Denver and Beyond

CSO Opener for the 2021-2022 Season

Colorado Symphony | Denver, CO 80202
Boettcher Concert Hall –

Could you hear it in Westminster or all the way south in Castle Rock? It was the sound of a standing ovation, the kind that brings a soloist back onstage before intermission for an encore.  Friday night’s CSO opening at Boettcher Concert Hall featured conductor Peter Oundjian and the celebrated pianist Emanuel Ax, whose career spans decades of recording and performing recitals. He’s collaborated with Yo Yo Ma and the world’s major orchestras.

The CSO’s return on September 18th may well rival the rest of the season. In recognition of the lives lost on 9-11 and from COVID, Conductor Oundjian led the orchestra in a resounding transcription of the Star Spangled Banner,  For obvious reasons he requested that the audience not sing along. Everyone in the hall, except the cellists, stood for the tribute. Each musician wore a mask while they performed with the exception of those in the woodwinds and brass section who were not separated by distance nor dividers.  Audience members sat side by side in masks.  It was a valiant return that did not nod towards the Delta Variant but rather made a declaration about the healing power of live music.

The second half of the program put the orchestra under Ouindjian’s baton for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  It is a grand piece  of music originally written for the piano in 1874 and transcribed for orchestra by Maurice Ravel. Its first orchestral performance was in Paris in 1923.  The pieces represent an exhibit of Victor Hartmann’s art  in 1874.  The timpani pounded and roared with the brass as the intensity of the strings rose to the highest rung of seats.  The Promenade theme, revisited through the piece, intoned resilience and determination.

Hartmann’s The Great Gate of Kiev –

After the impromptu Sousa anthem, the string players remained on the stage to open the program with Barber’s Adagio for Strings, an ethereal evocation of remembrance that was especially moving after everyone in the hall observed a moment of silence.Concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams led the strings with a somber tone that acknowledged the presence of COVID in our lives in September 2021, nearly a year and a half after shutting down the CSO performance calendar and sending musicians to their living rooms to instruct and give occasional Zoom concerts.  Without applause they could only watch each face disappear as participants left the meeting.

Emanuel Ax – official Facebook page

When Maestro Ax strode onstage in his N-95 mask the audience greeted him as the returning prodigal son.  It was a wonder to see him sit at the Steinway side by side with the violin section while Ouindjian raised his baton and swept the orchestra into the opening notes of Chopin’s Concerto #2 in F minor Op. 21.  In 1829 Chopin was either in love with a young singer or he was simply in love with being in love. Whichever was to blame didn’t matter because the passion that he felt stirred him to compose his 2nd Concerto,  which he wrote before his 1st concerto.  It was the Larghetto, the 2nd movement, that silenced the one audible cough.  The sweetness turned melancholic like a fading September rose with petals like memories that carried so many of us through the absence of family.  The rush of runs and Chopin’s signature intricate figures still linger in my mind. This performance by one of the preeminent pianists of our time made the late summer evening all the more precious with the valiant return to Boettcher.

Manny, as many call him, left the audience with a parting gift after a lengthy standing ovation.  His eyes sparkled above his mask and then he sat back down on the bench and played an elegant Chopin Nocturne. The familiarity of it was like sitting at the table with extended family.  And, aren’t we connected like family when we listen to live music?  Welcome back CSO.  Welcome back live music to Boettcher Concert Hall.

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Hypercube plays Iceberg

The expectations weren’t clear for ‘Iceberg Music with Hypercube’, a name that suggested the frigid February temperatures outside New York’s Tenri Cultural Center. Hypercube, presented genre-bending chamber music by six young composers on February 15th. The Iceberg New Music collective, founded in 2016, celebrates new music with concerts and awards to pre-collegiate composers from under-represented backgrounds. Iceberg’s first album recorded with Jenny Lin from Sono Luminus records was released last year.

Many shy away from contemporary music fearful of abrasive sounds without a melody, but on Saturday night the music was meditative, compelling and had elements of rock. The chamber quartet Hypercube is comprised of a percussionist, a saxophonist, a guitarist and a pianist. The percussionist relied on a drumset and a xylophone.  During one piece the pianist left her keyboard to beat the timpani. Composer Drake Anderson appeared on stage with his laptop for his Courses. 

Featured composers:

  • Reverence, Lost is Derek Cooper’s response to his mistreatment as a teaching fellow at Manhattan School of Music.  He is a doctoral student whose music has been performed in New York and Pennsylvania. The Allenstown Symphony Orchestra gave him an honorable mention for his work, Daybreak.
  • Peal by Max Grafe relies on a refrain that he expanded organically. He received a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and teaches in the pre-collegiate division at Juilliard where he is working on his doctorate.  His music has been performed by the New York Philharmonic, the FLUX quartet and the Tanglewood Music Center.
  • HYPARTITA by Stephanie Ann Boyd is a dance suite in three movements: Slow, Last and Break.  She wrote Open House, New York, for the opening of the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport. The NY City Ballet has commissioned her work as she’s written 5 ballets.  Her violin sonata Amerigo has been performed in nearly all 50 states.  In April the Wyoming Symphony will perform her Suffragette Symphony which will celebrate 150 years of women’s suffrage in Wyoming.
  • Poison Comes in Small Bottles by Jug Marković is a quick intense piece. For a Dublin choir festival, Serbian poetry served as the text for his composition. The European Network of Professional Chamber Choirs awarded him a Young Composers Award. He is working on a chamber opera, Eurydice in the Underworld for the Festival D’Aix Provence
  • Courses by Drake Anderson allows the performers to shape the piece with “new paradigms of interaction” with “software algorithms.” He’s a sound designer for theater and dance and a doctoral student at CUNY.  His music is often electronic and improvisational.  
  • Bosquejo Bop Serio translates as Serious Bop Sketch.  Victor Baez, a native of Mexico City, studied in piano and composition in Vienna.  A Fullbright Scholarship brought Victor to New York. His work as a composer is to translate “impulse into the language of sound.”

  Members of the Hypercube chamber ensemble:

  • Erin Rogers, Saxophone
  • Jay Sorce, Guitar
  • Andrea Lodge, Piano and Accordion
  • Chris Graham, percussion
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Miró String Quartet celebrates 25 years in Denver

Photo credit Richard Replin

Miró String Quartet, winner of the 2005 Avery Fisher Career Grant, celebrated their 25th season in Denver with their third appearance with Friends of Chamber Music. They first appeared with pianist Shai Wosner in 2009 and again in 2012.  The Texas based quartet, formed in 1995, has been in residence at UT Austin’s Butler School of Music since 2003.  Violinist Daniel Ching is a founding member as is cellist Joshua Gindele. Violist John Largess joined two years later. In 2011 violinist William Fedkenheuer replaced Sandy Yamamoto, Daniel Ching’s wife and current professor at Butler.  Fedkenheuer was a Canadian national fiddle champion before studying at Rice and Indiana Universities.

In 1998 The Miró won first prize at the Banff International String Quartet Competition and in 2005 they were awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant, the first for an ensemble.  They reflected on their longevity with the Archive Project that celebrates the lineage of revered string quartets like their mentors, The Juilliard String Quartet.  In November they released a new recording of all of the Beethoven string quartets.  While the Friends of Chamber Music program was conservative, audiences at the 2019 Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival heard Home, a new quartet written by Kevin Puts for the quartet’s anniversary.  When I spoke with Joshua he said he could be content to just play Schubert.  His favorite quartet by Schubert is Quartet #15 in G Major. Although it isn’t performed often, he referred to it as an explosive work.  

Despite an unfortunate occurrence with John Largess’s viola and the heel of someone’s shoe before another performance, the group credited their ability to simply get along for their longevity.  When asked if they ever took retreats together to reignite their energy, Joshua confessed that they had met with a psychologist and he felt it really helped their connection. Now they have plans in the middle of February to perform and stay at a Wellness Retreat in Baja California, Mexico at Rancho La Puerta for chamber music.  A difficult assignment!

The Denver audience was swept to their feet at the end of the first half by Beethoven’s String Quartet #10 in E Flat Major, Opus 74, known as the ‘Harp’ quartet for the composer’s use of plucking in the second movement.  This resounding performance was preceded by Mozart’s Quartet #17 in B flat major, K. 458, “The Hunt,”  that was elegant and eloquent as expected from a quartet dedicated to Haydn. 

The members of the Miró were as a married couple celebrating their 25th anniversary in  Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet #14 in D Minor,  finishing one another’s sentences as they anticipated the others’ breath and bowing.  The second movement of the Schubert was both persuasive and tender. The Maiden vehemently defies Death, protesting her secret understanding of Death’s tender touch.  The tension propelled the push and pull that was unleashed in the final movement. Daniel’s violin led the Presto movement with fervor. It was a march that unleashed Schubert’s conflicting emotions about Death and exhibited the finest quartet playing Denver audiences have heard this season.  

Q & A with Dazzle’s Matthew Rathkey

When did you start piano lessons?

While Matthew isn’t clear he knew he was quite young. Sometime in his teenage years, he became “irrevocably obsessed with music.”  He credits great teachers including his piano professor, Kenneth Huber at Carleton College and saxophonist Kenyon Brenner at the University of Northern Colorado for helping him focus on technique and musicianship.

Why switch from classical piano to a sax?  And why switch from sax to booking agent?

In 4th grade, Matthew had the chance to play a band instrument. “I can’t remember why I chose the saxophone, but I know at least that I wanted to play an instrument that would allow me to perform in both the symphonic and jazz bands.” He admitted to not practicing the sax as often as the piano despite his love of jazz band.  After graduating from Carleton Matthew found work as an actuary in Chicago but “missed music too much to continue working in that field. After slogging away at a job you don’t want for 15 months, what you do want can suddenly become crystal clear.” Without a piano in his studio apartment saxophone became his outlet and jazz became his genre. Trained as a classical musician he took on the challenge and was accepted into UNC’s graduate school as a jazz saxophonist. He performs with various groups in Colorado.  After Dazzle hired him as a booking assistant and to update the website, the owner “tapped me to be in charge of booking classical shows and creating this new series.” 

Why a weekly classical music series in a jazz club?

“I believe the demand is there. We’ve got loads of great classical musicians in Denver,” but not many chamber concerts allow diverse programming for “curious first-time listeners.” At Dazzle’s supper club one can sit at a  table with friends “against the stage” instead of being distanced from performers in a concert hall. He strives “to create a cozy, relaxed vibe.” Matthew insists that “art is communication — nothing more, nothing less” and should be savored like “a fireside chat with an old friend.”  “We’re very invested in forging a sense of community and shared experiences through this series, which is why we’re actively booking excellent local and student performers alongside national names. We want the Dazzle stage to be a symbol of community — a watering hole of sorts where musicians and music-lovers from all walks of life can come together and comfortably and enthusiastically share in the inborn joy of human expression.”

–Where can I hear you play?

“I lead my own New Orleans-style brass band, No Hands Brass Band, and we’ll be playing Mardi Gras (February 25th) at Dazzle.”  The band will also perform on February 22nd at the Tilt Pinball in Louisville.

What is on the lineup for 2020?

  • January 20th: Students and alumni from Lamont will present a tribute to black classical composers. A string quartet will perform pieces by  Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Price, and George Walker who according to Matthew are “criminally underrated composers!”
  • January 27th: CSO concertmaster, Yumi Hwang-Williams and pianist Hsing-ay Hsu will perform Beethoven.
  • February 10th: MAS Eclectic Concert Series will host a tribute to composer, conductor and performer David Amram, who is nearly 90. The evening of Chamber Music Duos featuring CSO Concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams, pianist Sara Parkinson, Principal, flutist Brook Ferguson, flutist Lausa Schulkind, and saxophonist Ken Radnovsky and pianist Yoshiko Kline.
  • February 17th: Duo970 with UNC Flute Professor James Hall and Susie Maddocks on piano.  Hall debuted at Carnegie Hall in 2004. He’s performed with legendary saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and violinist Jennifer Koh.

Now weekly in Denver: Classical music in a Jazz club

On Monday night January 6th, Matthew Rathkey inaugurated Classical Mondays at Dazzle on Curtis.  The Chandelier Stage welcomed the talents of Jason Shafer, Principal Clarinetist of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Joshua Sawicki, who recently performed with cellist Silver Ainomäe at Englewood Arts and Lamont adjunct faculty member Ian Wisekal.  

The Trio invited the January wine and dinner crowd at Dazzle to leap into spring with a pastoral program with settings by Schubert, Saint Saëns, Klugardt, and contemporary composer Loren Loiacono. Schubert’s song, Shepherd on the Rock, was originally written for soprano and clarinet. Ian’s transcription of the vocal line for the oboe blended with Jason’s clarinet and the piano like an English garden filling with the scents of lilac and roses. The program took a more serious tone as Jason and Joshua performed Saint Saëns’ Clarinet Sonata in E flat Major, Opus 167. The Sonata was composed in 1921, the last year of his life, for the virtuoso Auguste Périer. It is reflective but not morose.  The theme recurs as an echo throughout the four movements. Even in the third Lento movement when the piano and clarinet descend to their lowest registers, the composer seems to see the grassy slope of his life as sundrenched. The dense contrast with the last movement’s lighter tone lent a meditative quality to the final hushed notes.

Ian returned to the stage for the 21st-century composer Loren Loiacono’s setting of three Edna St. Vincent Millay poems, “Some Figs from Thisles” that he and Jason commissioned her to write. The first, My candle burns at both ends… , was jazzy with a drumming rhythm from the percussive piano.  Despite being mostly restricted to a single note Josh built tension throughout the short piece.  When asked later how he managed, he explained that he used his index and middle fingers to control the volume and the consistency of his touch.   

The Trio took the audience to the banks of the Danube with Klughardt’s 1872 composition, Schilflieder – 5 Fantasy Pieces for viola, oboe and piano. Without a viola in the Trio,  Ian transposed the viola part for Jason’s clarinet. Each piece was based on a poem written by a tragic Austrian poet. The first of the five, Langsam, träumerisch sounded like spun cotton candy, both melodious and sweet but not cloying or sentimental.  Ian’s oboe expressed tender longing. The demands on the clarinet were met deftly by Jason’s fine playing. Klughardt’s meeting with Lizst around the time when the piece was composed may have contributed to the texture of the five pieces that were an assortment of after-dinner dark chocolate truffles.  

Watch these youtube videos featuring members of the Sawicki-Shafer-Wisekal Trio. 

Jason Shafer:

Ian Wisekal:

Josh Sawicki:

Englewood Arts: Silver for the Holidaze 12/14/19

Sharon Park – violin, Andrew Giordano – violin, Josh Sawicki      – piano Silver Ainomäe – cello and Leah Kovach     – viola

Silver Ainomäe, the former principal cellist with the Colorado Symphony, came back to Denver for some snow and a concert with friends. The Artistic Director of Englewood Arts and associate principal cellist with the Minnesota Orchestra was absolutely celebrated by a sold-out audience. The afternoon performance featured some of the finest musicians in Denver.  Sharon Park is Executive Director of the Denver Chamber Music Festival that launched last June and returns in 2020.  Andrew Giordano plays in the Altius String Quartet and Leah Kovach is a violist with the CSO.  Josh Sawicki performs with the CSO, the Greeley Philharmonic and other regional orchestras. 

Silver’s first gift was Prokofiev’s C Major Sonata for Cello, Opus 119 which was composed in 1949  for a young Mstislav Rostropovich. The first movement, Andante Grave, began with a melancholy question that yearned for an answer.  The movement continued with broad dissonant gestures as the melody tenderly veered away from C Major.  The C Major of Prokofiev is not the C Major of Mozart or Beethoven. Never have I heard C Major yield to such lyrical resolution. Silver matched Prokofiev’s required athleticism while Josh’s keyboard skills kept the music grounded with undulating chords. The second movement opened with staccato notes from the piano and pizzicato from the cello.  Josh’s understanding of 20th century Russian music was especially intelligent when the instruments blended in unison. After a standing ovation, the pair offered an encore of the Fauré’s dreamlike Apres un Reve.  It was a sigh like the quiet of a winter morning.

Violinists Sharon Park and Andrew Giordano and violist Leah Kovach joined Josh and Silver for César Franck’s infrequently performed Piano Quintet in F Minor. Throughout the three movements,  Franck explored his central motif of a single note, then a half step up, a return to the original note, a whole step up and another return. The Quintet began with strident chords that dissipated into off-kilter arpeggios. When the movement concluded with somber tones the audience was prepared for the meditative notes that introduced the Lento con molto sentimento.  The piano’s lower register lent a rhythmic repetition beneath Silver’s long up bows and the other strings in a waltz perfect for ice skating.  In the final movement, the violins’ and viola’s short bows fluttered with tension that culminated in the final chords. The immediate rupture of applause praised the performers and Silver’s commitment to showcasing fine musicians on the Englewood Arts stage.  He will return for a Leap Year concert on February 29th that will include a Boccherini String Trio, a Beethoven String Trio and Dvorak’s Terzetto in C Op. 74.  Based on how packed the room was with standing room only I’d secure those tickets now.

musicAeterna at The Shed

Verdi’s Requiem – musicAeterna Orchestra and Chorus, The Shed, Hudson Yards, NY, November 2019

The Shed: Industrial components; enormous wheels locked into place at the ready to roll back and open the roof to the sky, welded steel staircases and stadium-style seating inside the McCourt Theater. The factory appearance, the bronzed shell and the darkened theater felt cold and unsettling. Onstage, music stands outnumbered the chairs. None of these prepared me for a single blue light to guide the entrance of Teodor Currentzis, the very fine conductor and founder of musicAeterna Orchestra and chorus noted for their authentic performance practices of Baroque and classical music. Somehow the black-cloaked musicians and chorus found their spots on the stage and on the risers in the dark where all but the bassists and cellists would stand for the 90-minute performance. The first notes of the Kyrie began with the faint voices of the chorus pleading for mercy, like the shallow breath of the dying. The audience sat supplicant and this performance was anything but a penance.  In the triple pianissimo, Currentzis exerted control with his outstretched hands while the tension that Verdi intended steadily grew. The act of listening was a physical feat to pay attention and allow the sound to wash over me.  

All four soloists were standouts.  The Agnus Dei paired the mezzo and soprano voices of Clémentine Margaine and Zarina Abaeva in a prayer.  Their voices were not two but one that floated above the orchestra and the audience like angel hair.  Bass, Evgeny Stavinsky commanded the room in the Dies Irae when he sang, “When the damned are silenced and given to the fierce flames, call me with the blessed ones..”  The tenor soloist, a last-minute substitution, sang with exquisite control at his top.  In the Dies Irae the soloists, chorus and orchestra elevated the holy sound in the large hall so carefully designed by architects, Diller, Scofidio and Renfro. Projected above the musicians two screens displayed in duplicate a film of nature and flowers, humble imagery, shot with an iPhone by Lithuanian Jonas Mekas who was a leading filmmaker of avant-garde cinema and author of the “Movie Journal” column in the celebrated Village Voice. He was 96 when he made the film.  He died on January 23, 2019.  

When I stood to applaud the riveting performance I was no longer cold.  The components of the Shed from the layers of steel to the utilitarian seating seemed just right.  The massive sound from the Currentzis’ musicAeterna Orchestra and Chorus had filled all the corners of the McCourt theater. Director Alex Poots’ vision for The Shed as a radical new space swept away the unnecessary elements for the public to experience the highest quality performances.  Plan a visit in 2020.

Photo credits – David Spira

Newport Music Festival – Francisco Fullano Bach’s Long Shadow

Francisco Fullano, who grew up on the Iberian island of Mallorca, stitched together a program in inspired by Bach on a 1735 Guarneri del Gesú ‘Mary Portman’ that was owned by Fullano’s idol Fritz Kreisler with steel strings and a more modern instrument with gut strings.  He began his July solo recital on the stage in the Newport Art Museum with Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D. Minor BWV 1004. The six movements with their repeats shone with his extra flourishes.  The Guarneri sounded bell-like, so clear as the Courante spilled off his bow.  There was no fourth wall in the room as he did not use a music stand for the Bach.  The Gigue expanded the joyful tone established in the initial Allemande. The Chaconne belonged to Fullano: fully expressive and rapturous as Bach can be.  Only the Rhode Island humidity disrupted the flow of the evening as he often needed to adjust the tuning of the fine instruments.  

After the Bach, he switched to his contemporary instrument with a darker sound for Korean-born composer Isang Yun’s Königliches Thema (King’s Theme) written in 1976.  The theme that rooted Yun’s piece was improvised and performed by King Frederick II for Bach. It uses all but one note in the chromatic scale.  Each variation of the theme relied on a serial technique. Yun was kidnapped from his adopted home country of West Germany in 1967 and sent to a Seoul prison for espionage. The torture and forced confession do not enter into the piece that worships at Bach’s feet. Yun’s mathematical feat of building on the variations was flashy fun in Fullano’s hands. He filled the corners of the room and exposed light with his unwavering up bow added to the contrapuntal line that mimicked a partita.

The Paganini Caprice No. 24 lived up to its virtuosic reputation in Fullano’s passionate playing. The Guarneri was his tool for digging into the edges of the showstopper.

The balance of the second half of the solo recital was weighted with Eugune Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata Op. 27. No. 2 for Jacques Thibaud which Ysaÿe dedicated to the legendary violinist who performed with Pablo Casals and pianist Alfred Cortot  Ysaÿe’s six Sonatas were inspired by Bach’s six Partitas and each is dedicated to a different musician.    Sonata No. 2 began with the first bars of Bach’s Preludio from the E Major Partita, then Ysaÿe’s voice emerged with Fullano’s harplike plucking in the Sarabande, the 3rd movement. Two of Bach’s themes  – Dies Irae and Preludio – recur in the piece,   

The final Partita No. 3 in E Major BWV 1006 transported me. Fullano’s elegant playing on the Guarneri was precise and expressive. The winner of Austria’s 2014 Brahms International Violin Competition closed the program with a showpiece that displayed his virtuosic power, Fritz Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice, Op. 6. He played ferociously as if to give homage to his idol on the violin that Kreisler may have used during his 1910 premiere of the piece.

Fullano studied wth Midori at USC Thornton School of Music after studying at Juilliard. He received the Avery Fisher Career grant in 2018.  In 2018 he recorded the album Through the Lens of Time with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conductor Carlos Izkaray.  In 2018 he was chosen as a CMS II artist in residency with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center which has booked him for a Rose Studio Concert on October 24, 2019.  He’ll appear with the fine clarinetist David Shifrin and violist, Paul Neubauer. He will again play with Shifrin at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on November 19th.

Music Happened in Helsinki and St. Petersburg


There was a plan. If the winds in Espoo permitted racing to commence by 1:00 pm my partner would be off the water in time to take the Metro into Helsinki for a concert, but if the wind wreaked havoc we’d miss the opening piece. In June daylight wasn’t a concern. After my museum visits and his Lightning Boat World Championship races we hoped to hear live music in Helsinki. We already had tickets for the Philharmonia in St. Petersburg. 

On my first day in Helsinki I turned a corner from the Kamppi Metro Station and heard a cello.  Beside a storefront a young woman was playing one of the Bach Cello Suites on an instrument that was scratched and distressed. In front of her splayed feet was a felt hat for euros.  Her earnest Bach alerted me to tune my ears for the music I’d hear in the next 10 days.

Choir at the Ateneum Museum, Helsinki

Later that afternoon I walked into the Ateneum, Finland’s National Museum.  It was a free day in Honor of Helsinki Day. I climbed the grand staircase and wandered into an exhibition titled Silent Beauty that paired Japanese art with Finnish art.  Voices wafted into one of the galleries. Assembled on the same staircase I’d climbed earlier, 30 or so singers congregated on the steps.  Spectators lined the balcony, sat on museum stools and squatted on the steps above the choir. The sponge of early 17th century acapella music drew listeners of all ages into a sort of holy communion. 

The following day I took a ferry to the island of Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sweden spent 40 years constructing the fortified embankments – 1748-1788. The stone fortress  and the hidden harbors defended Helsinki’s own harbor into WWII. Across the bridge from Artillery Bay Quay I heard a violin but I was on a mission to find the warships on the Dry Dock. Two great wooden boats rested on hoists but beyond a bridge was the mast of a great schooner.  She was grand, but I was distracted by a mahogany boat festival in the marina. One Italian motorboat resembled a souped-up Chevy with Tiffany Blue trim. The owners sat beside their manicured teak helms and gleaming stainless steel trim. When I remembered the violin I retraced my steps. There wasn’t a violin. Instead the Finnish Guards Woodwind Band was rehearsing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622 arranged for two clarinets.  Every few bars the young conductor would walk to the back of the hall still waving his arms.  Their rehearsal concluded with a military march much to the delight of the tourists gathered in the back of the hall.  

Finnish Guards Woodwind Band, Suomenlinna

The winds were with us so we secured tickets to hear the Russian pianist Denis Matsujev at the Helsinki Music Centre which opened in 2011 with undulating acoustic walls designed by Yasuhisa Toyota who also designed the acoustics for the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and Disney Hall in Los Angeles. The concert was rescheduled so Matsujev could judge the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.  He was at once a showman who began his solo recital with Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 2, No. 3 in C Major.  His exacting technique was tooled by his incredibly fast fingers.  With his 6’6” frame one can imagine his great hands reaching more than an octave and a half.  The balance of the recital was reserved for the Russians. Matsujev, who rebooted the Rachmaninov Competition in 2018 with his good friend Putin’s approval, showed his mastery of the keyboard in Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme by Corelli.  The theme, La Folia, an 8 bar melody in G minor, was written as early as the 15th Century.  Corelli used it in a 1700 Sonata for violin and harpsichord and Lizst relied on the theme for his Rhapsodie Espagnole.  Rachmaninov wrote 20 variations of the theme. It’s said that the number of variations he’d play was in proportion to the amount of coughing from his audience.  One night, violent coughing shortened the piece to 10. 

Rachmaninov expanded Corelli’s refined complexity with scripted ornamentation, but it was  Matsujev who loosened the great layers of sounds from the Steinway keyboard. An Intermezzo bridged the first 13 variations to the final 7 variations, returning to the initial Andante with added weight and determination. In Matsujev’s strong hands the ensuing Piu mosso agitato plunged the listener back into a reformed Andante. His precision was both romantic and explosive. 

The final half of the concert was the Tchaikovsky Meditation Op. 72, No. 5,  a piece that revealed Matsujev’s tender side.  His shimmer of color was sweet enough to elicit bouquets of roses from the seated audience who clapped in rhythmic unison but did not stand for an ovation until he’d played five encores!  The hall was not sold out but those in the seats clearly came to worship. Denis Matsujev has a date at Carnegie Hall – October 20, 2019.

Denis Matsujev, Helsinki Music Centre

My final day in Helsinki included getting lost on my way to the monument dedicated to Finland’s national composer, Jean Sibelius.  Two parks on either side of a four-lane road offered equal possibilities, but the giveaway was two oversized tour buses parked on the opposite side of the road. Through a copse of trees, the 28 foot tall welded steel pipe structure appeared like an organ in a grand cathedral, minus the keys. The 1967 tubular sculpture by Eila Hiltunen had music of its own when the wind blew through the textured pipes. Adjacent to the monument was a  bust of the composer mounted on a stone wall. Of course a Finnish violinist, accompanied by a Bluetooth speaker, worked through the phrases of Sibelius’s iconic Violin Concerto Op. 47 in D Minor.  The young man’s violin case was open for euros.  The monument would have felt empty without him.

Musican unknown, Sibelius Monument

St. Petersburg

On April 16, 1917 Lenin returned to the adulation of the Bolsheviks. His sealed train car and engine were encased in glass at St. Petersburg’s Finland station. Many painters memorialized the moment.  One fictionalized the event by painting Stalin at Lenin’s side. We didn’t see that painting but we soaked in all that the Hermitage and the General Staff Building offered. The Masters were on display in the Hermitage and the Impressionists and 20th Century artists could be seen in the General Staff Building.  So much marvelous art including many Matisse paintings that couldn’t be seen outside of Russia.  

After a quick search on the Mariinsky website, I discovered The Stars of White Nights Festival featured a chamber music concert at the Mariinsky Concert Hall that was renovated after  a 2003 fire. Toyota of the Helsinki Music Centre designed similar wavelike walls with blocks resembling the exterior’s brick walls. The chamber musicians included the veteran violist, Wilfried Strehle, who had played in the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert Von Karajan for twenty years, first violinist Dina Zikeyeva of the Mariinsky Orchestra and the young Dutch-Finnish cellist Jonathan Roozeman, a finalist in the 2015 Tchaikovsky competition. The ensemble played a crisp Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor, KV 478 with the expressive pianist Zarina Shimanskaya. Later this year, she’ll perform at the 13th Mariinsky International Piano Festival.  A second violist was added for Mozart’s String Quintet in C Major, KV 515.  The program’s second half was reserved for the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34.  The Brahms was a particular showcase for Roozeman who we discovered lived in Espoo, Finland near the marina where the Lightning Boat races took place. The Finnish Cultural Foundation loaned him his 1707 cello.

Mariinsky Quintet, Mariinsky Concert Hall

The next afternoon while walking back from the Palace Square to the hotel we took a circuitous route under an arched entryway and found the Capella Glinka, site for the Summer Music Academy. Rows of chairs were arranged in front of an outdoor screen televising the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition from Moscow.  We joined the crowd and were equally mesmerized.

Anton Yashkin, 21, Russia, Tchaikovsky Piano Competition from Moscow

The following evening was the only concert we’d secured tickets for months earlier: the St. Petersburg Philharmonia conducted by Yury Temirkanov accompanied by pianist Polina Otenskaya in a program dedicated to Polish composers, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) and Witold Lustoslawski (1913-1994).  

Otenskaya was born in Moscow and began performing across the USSR from the age 5.  She frequently appears with the Philharmonia. Her sensitive touch added expression to her grand gestures in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op.11. The Grand Hall’s white columns and chandeliers were nearly muted by its history of performances by Lizst and Clara Schumann, and the world premieres of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Otenskaya’s charm at the keyboard made the audience swoon. Rhythmic clapping elicited an encore before giving a standing ovation.  The Chopin Waltz was the perfect sendoff for a white night in St. Petersburg.  We walked to find the moon rising at 11:45 pm and discovered the brightly lit bridges over the Neva River.  They would raise one after the other at 1:15 am and then at 1:30 am. We stood on the Alexander Nevsky bridge to watch the Palace Bridge rise under the glow of a light show.  

Polina Otenskaya, Grand Hall of the Philharmonia

The Tchaikovsky piano competition was underway in Moscow, but the cello competition was just starting in St. Petersburg.  Seats were available, so after touring the General Staff Building we took a cab to the Small Hall of the Philharmonia and arrived early enough to secure a program and a seat to hear the last two cellists for round one. The fine cellist Mischa Maisky was one of the judges.  Each cellist was assigned a list of required pieces. The Danish cellist, Jonathan Swenson, began with the Pezzo Capriccioso Op. 62 accompanied by piano.  His dexterity and fine command of Tchaikovsky’s descending line were exquisite.  His next piece, the Caprice #11 in G Major by Piatti, posed a challenge for any virtuoso cellist.  Exactitude was achieved, but his expression showed he not only memorized but learned the music by heart.  He was able footed avoiding the brambles in the garden. In his single movement of the Shostakovich Concerto in D Minor, he was the Dutchman carefully performing the Russian master’s music. For the required Bach he chose the Sarabande from Cello Suite in C Minor. It seemed purposeful to position the C Minor after the Shostakovich. With Bach’s blueprint, his playing was heroic enough to earn a spot in the second round.  

Jonathan Swenson, Small Hall. Philharmonia St. Petersburg

The next cellist, German Benedict Kloeckner, began his first round with a Bach Prelude and Sarabande. Like the Dutchman he had technique, he’d memorized the music and knew how to collaborate with a fine pianist, but who could say what the judges expected from his rendition of the required pieces. Kloeckner seemed to look heavenward for intervention during his Pezzo Capriccioso Op.62 only to go in deeper into the music with the repeat.  His grasp of Tchaikovsky’s Romanticism cleared him for the second round.  He saved for last the Shostakovich Cello Sonata in D minor which premiered in this city in December 1934 with the composer at the keyboard. Shostakovich composed the sonata after falling in love with a 20 year-old student.  He divorced Nina, but when he learned she was pregnant he remarried her. The piece exposed Kloeckner’s artistry in his pizzicato and his chosen tempo.The performance honored the Russian composer’s legacy.  

Benedict Kloeckner, Small Hall, Philharmonia of St. Petersburg

When the nights were ‘white’, music happened in Helsinki and St. Petersburg. Music was happening back in the states:  violinist Francisco Fullano at the Newport Music Festival, Stephen Hough in Millenium Park in Chicago and cellist Kian Soltani at the Colorado Music Festival…   Tune your ears and create a list of your choosing. It just happens.

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