Last Sonatas, Final Words

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT

(Ann Arbor, Feb. 23, 2016)

It’s the Tuesday after the last of Sir Andras Schiff’s “Last Sonatas” concerts – the final one was at Hill Auditorium Saturday evening — and I have a hangover.

More precisely, I have a ceaseless rotation of snippets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert playing in my head. The alternately whirling and grave scherzo from Schubert D. 960 gives way to the consoling radiance of the Arietta of Beethoven Op. 111. The wit and merriment of Haydn Hob. XVI:52 –and the final bristling burr of the left hand accompaniment – cede to the little bee-sting kisses of the Allegretto of Mozart K. 576. It’s all great, and though it’s an endless soundtrack, playing all night long, it has the virtue of having replaced my last earworm – the Andante from Schubert’s Grand Duo sonata for piano four hands (D. 812), which has been boring into my brain for weeks on end.

These three concerts by Sir Andras, presented under University Musical Society auspices and offered – lucky us! – within a week’s time — were simply extraordinary. In advance, there was the allure of the musical riches contained in these last sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. In retrospect, there is also Sir Andras’s playing, which was, as the French might say in praise, impeccable: exquisite in fit, clarity, tone and dynamics and consideration of detail.

Though the final concert contained Beethoven Op. 111 and Schubert D. 960 – ultimate diamonds in the crown of each composer’s final three sonatas – it was not, for me, the most moving of the concerts. I might chalk that up to Hill Auditorium, which while acoustically superb, is just about three times the size of Rackham Auditorium, site of the first two concerts in the series. Schiff’s playing spoke no less brilliantly in Hill than Rackham, but the intimacy of contact with the music was less.

No less striking Saturday than in previous concerts, though, was Sir Andras’s eloquence with the bass line and inner voices (particularly those in the left hand), which gave such definition, structure and texture to his playing. He had the stentorian power of the Bosendorfer instrument at his disposal, and he made generous and pronounced use of it. (And while we are on pianos, a digression on piano placement: I’m sure I wasn’t alone to notice the unusual, sharp, upstage angling of the piano’s tail; fascinating to think how this affected our acoustic impressions, perhaps by altering the way the sound waves bounced and traveled.)

One suspects, though, that Sir Andras would exploit the bass of any instrument at his disposal, at least in this repertoire. And like the composers on the program, he is masterful in exploiting register. I also think his long experience with J.S. Bach’s music surely influenced his keen reading of counterpoint and counter-melodies in the last sonatas on the programs.

If these qualities in Sir Andras’s playing were key to the vitality of his interpretations, I think they were also key to my disappointment with his performance of the last Schubert sonata, which was rich in pointillistic detail directed at local events. I think that made me feel somehow outside this enormously profound music, so touching and consoling as it evokes the joy of being alive, the struggle to accept life’s brevity, the serenity to be found as the door to the hereafter opens. I was highly interested and admiring rather than affected.

But these were revelatory concerts, ones that will stick with the lucky concertgoers, I think, for a long time. I’m so grateful to have heard them and to have those Schiff earworms coursing through my head. If you’ve got one you can’t identify, it could be Saturday’s limpid encore: Mozart’s Adagio in C Major, K. 356/617a (for glass harmonica).

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Last Sonatas: Before the End, the Middle

 

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT

(Ann Arbor, February 20, 2016)

Thursday evening, Sir Andras Schiff returned to the Bosendorfer piano and the Rackham Auditorium stage for the second remarkable installment of his “Three Last Sonatas” project. Middle children – rather astounding ones – got their chance in the limelight.

It’s Saturday morning as I write this – Friday just escaped me – and his last concert of last sonatas is coming up this evening. So just a few words before tonight’s final program, in which Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert bid adieu to sonata form. (Remember, there are later Beethoven solo piano works – give a listen to the ultimate solo piano Bagatelles, Op. 126.)

Andras Schiff 1 CU CA by Dieter Mayr

Sir Andras Schiff

First, as I alluded to in writing about Tuesday’s program, it’s a privilege to hear these works in such short, concentrated order, rather than spread out over a season or two – which has been the case elsewhere. The connections are clearer, and Thursday, Sir Andras again furthered a view of these concerts as a serialized trilogy with an encore of “scenes” from the next show (in this case, the sublime second movement of the last Schubert sonata).

Second, Thursday’s concert, once again in the “intimate” setting of Rackham Auditorium – tonight we are in the big hall, Hill Auditorium, more than 3,000 seats – was remarkable for the intimacy of tone of Sir Andras’s playing. There was a sweetness, an unforced, speaking-voice quality to the playing throughout. I kept looking to see if his left foot was on the una corda pedal – not so much because that pedal quiets the piano down but because of the round, dulcifying change in color it can produce. But no, this was a case of fingers, hands – and musical mind – at work. It was lovely, and gentle and unexpected in works that can be more forcefully declarative – even, for example, the opening Mozart B-flat sonata, K. 570.

Third and last (unless something more occurs to me that I can fit in now), it strikes me that on Thursday, and Tuesday, too, Sir Andras was rather committed to moving ahead at a steady pace in these works. True, he has occasionally marked the pauses between sections with a potent fermata to emphasize a musical shift of ideas or tonality. Overall, however, there’s been little rubato in the playing of these works, no dawdling as tour guide to point out a landmark, a great view, or the scent of those proverbial roses we’re supposed to stop to smell. This is not a criticism, just an observation. His methods may be other, devolving from the music’s internal workings: Think how often one notices inner harmonies, the bass line, or what that great supporting actor, the left hand, is doing when he plays.

OK, one more thing: I probably can’t hear the second movement of the last Schubert sonata too many times, and Sir Andras will have given us two opportunities this week, with his Thursday sneak preview and tonight’s full reading of the Schubert D. 960. His Thursday rendering of the andante sostenuto was relatively brisk but no less replete with meaning for his choice of tempo. I heard things I wasn’t aware of before – how Schubert eliminates things in the reprise of the A Section, for example – that had escaped me before. Life, like the music, itself, pares itself down as we, and it, reach our respective endings.

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Last Words, Part One — Andras Schiff

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT

(Ann Arbor, Feb. 17, 2016)

Tuesday evening at Rackham Auditorium, the pianist Sir Andras Schiff began a three-concert traversal of the final three sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, under University Musical Society auspices. This is amazing and extraordinary music in amazing hands, and Ann Arbor is exceptionally lucky not just to hear these concerts – the town is one of only six U.S. cities in which Sir Andras is playing the complete set – but to hear them in the space of a week.   Tuesday evening opened with delightful Haydn and ended with sublime Schubert. Herewith, some highlights from Tuesday. More bulletins to follow after Thursday and Saturday’s concerts!

Schiff: Night One

Striking things:

The piano: A Bosendorfer with a hearty, giant, resonant bass and a bright top. Sir Andras exploits the bass to emphasize the gravity, the growl, the blackness in Beethoven Op. 109 and Schubert D. 958, particularly. But throughout, it grounds the music as he brings out bass lines and inner voices. The bass and the top give a 3-D effect — the music takes shape, figuratively, between these poles.

The pedaling: It’s spare mostly, but then misty or cloudy in passages where you don’t expect it. It’s an interesting effect – from Haydn, through the Mozart, and into the Schubert. In the Beethoven, it’s mostly a wet vs. dry contrast. The finger work is crystalline, so the pedaling is alluring rather than muddying. It makes you hear the music very differently – it’s not usual pedaling, but rather a gathering of sonorities into a slight haze. It really makes you listen.

The ruptures: Sir Andras plays the four sonatas tonight without an intermission. It’s maybe that, plus his structural ideas, played out in pauses between sections – between the major and the minor in the Haydn XVI:50 second movement, for example – that bring out how much disjunction there is in these late works from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. There are stops and starts, abrupt shifts of light and mood, halts in mid-air, plunges into the deep. It’s thrilling, and dramatic.

The Old Made New: Who hasn’t butchered the Mozart Sonata Facile, K. 545, (too easy for children and too difficult for artists, to paraphrase Schnabel) as a child? I hereby volunteer my name. Sir Andras renews the piece and restores it: charming ornaments, beautiful tempi, a soprano line that sings in the first movement, some of that misty pedaling in the slow movement, all the repeats. Lovely.

Back to the Future: Beethoven 109! Ahead of its time then, still making us listen hard now. The variations, in Sir Andras’s hands, are awesome, in the old sense of the word. Eventually, all the world – at least all the piano – seems to vibrate and hum, so much so that when the theme returns, quietly creeping back in, it sounds like silence. The last cadences are so perfectly timed, they bring tears to my eyes. Sir Andras holds the audience silent till the last string has quieted.

Stern Stuff: Life is made of it, and Schubert can be made of it, too. If the alternation of light and dark is a running theme in his works, in the last three sonatas, the currents are even deeper and stronger. In D. 958, the first of the last three, Sir Andras seems to hear less a cri de coeur than an admonition to us all about life’s struggles. You hear that in his handling of the second of the two chords in the opening theme (held down, rather than released in an exclamation), and in the handling of the last movement. The march of life is inexorable, in Sir Andras’s interpretation. It’s leavened by periods of sweetness, but don’t be fooled by the light periods, the happy skipping. Enjoy them, though, why not? It’s what buoys us. Until, we, like the music itself, wear down and out.

Small hall, quiet audience: Ann Arborites are not known for suppressing their coughs or stirrings. Rather the opposite, in fact. But Tuesday night, there was only a very occasional hack. I’m going to say that’s because Sir Andras’s playing, and the music itself, was so compelling. It was also a treat to hear a piano recital in Rackham, a relatively small hall at a little over 1,000 seats, rather than at giant, though acoustically satisfying Hill Auditorium. Closer, my piano god, to thee.

Bonus track: A preview of Thursday’s concert, with the exquisitely sorrowing and thundering Andantino of Schubert’s D. 959. A substantial encore after a substantial program. Didn’t Sir Andras once offer Bach’s entire Bach B-flat Partita as an encore here, or am I inventing that?

Till Thursday!

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Camille A. Brown & Dancers: The Play’s the Thing

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT

(Ann Arbor, Feb. 7, 2016)

 

Note: This article is a slightly edited version of the story I wrote for the February 2016 Ann Arbor Observer.

When Camille A. Brown choreographed “Black Girl: Linguistic Play,” she had both personal and political motivations: to “remind myself of the beauty of who I was before the world defined me,” she explained at the show’s premiere run, which I caught at New York’s Joyce Theater in September. The dance is an essay on black girlhood that’s high on joy, spunk, and tenderness.

“I didn’t see anything that reflected my childhood,” she told the Joyce Theater audience. Hence this dance, for herself and five women from her company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers. The company presents “Black Girl” Feb. 13 at Power Center for the Performing Arts, courtesy of the University Musical Society.

Drawing on the oral and kinetic vocabulary of black-girl childhood games — an early inspiration was a book by ethnomusicologist and U-M alum Kyra Gaunt, “The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop” — Brown’s dance is rich in rhyme, rhythm, and history. It’s about unspoken language and gesture, culture, connection, and self-defined identity. The lexicon is particular; the communication, universal.

A prolific choreographer with numerous awards for her dance and theater work, the thirty-something Brown is also a powerhouse dancer. “My name is Cami, and I am small,” she sang out in an exhilarating game-song episode that elicited audience participation in New York. “But when you see me, you think I’m tall.” That’s precisely the impression the petite, compact Brown makes as she starts the show, reaching up into space as if to summon her past, a soft babble of voices in the background.

Set designer Elizabeth Nelson gives Brown an urban playground for “Black Girl,” with platforms of various heights to dance on, around, and in between. Behind the highest, a blackboard wall rises, chalked with swirls and squiggles, flowers and fireworks. Overhead, mirrors reflect novel views of the dancers’ moves. Pianist Scott Paterson and electric bassist Tracy Wormworth, who composed music for the dance, share the stage. Some movements occur to silence, but they are always so vivid you “hear” as well as see them.

Brown’s opening solo quickly rises in pitch. Braids and feet fly, hips swing, hands fan. She kicks up a chalk storm, her arms the treble to the bass of her sneaker-clad feet. She’s cat light even when driving like mad into the playground macadam.

Brown’s intensity redoubles when Catherine Foster enters for the first of the dance’s several duets. This one is all call-and-response: black-girl games taken to darting, Double Dutch virtuosic heights.

The girls grow up in the succeeding two duets. There’s definitely a teen feeling –rivalry and bonding, preening and pouting — to the next duet, for Fana Fraser and Beatrice Capote. The last duet, for Yusha-Marie Sorzano and Mora-Amina Parker (whose role Brown will assume in Ann Arbor), feels more introspective and almost maternal. And then, dance language having had its say, it’s time for actual talking: a moderated dialogue that’s part of each performance.

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Pianist Paul Lewis, and Beethoven, to the rescue

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT

(Ann Arbor, Nov. 21, 2015)

It came as a disappointment that pianist Leif Ove Andnes had to cancel his Nov. 20 University Musical Society recital at Hill Auditorium at the last minute – as in the day before – because of illness. An ear infection and virus prevented him from flying from San Francisco to reach us.

But UMS found someone who could fly, though it wouldn’t be easy, and play like a dream: English pianist Paul Lewis. UMS had wanted to snag him for a while, it appears, and he was willing to do the sort of dash that mileage-craving airline passengers do at year-end to reach their preferred elite-status tier.

He played at the Wimbeldon International Music Festival Thursday, took an early Friday flight from London to reach Ann Arbor by early afternoon, played his Friday concert, departed by car for Chicago directly after, and Saturday, if luck held, departed on an early flight home so he could get to Dublin for a Sunday recital. Wow! That’s moving at presto speed.

Some of his recital did that, too. His chosen program – played a few days earlier in New York at the White Light Festival – was the last three Beethoven sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, those pensive and still strange capstones of Beethoven’s 32 essays in the form. He chose to play them, as he did in New York, at one take, no intermission, and only brief pauses in between. Maybe it’s like keeping eating so you don’t know you’re full – or don’t realize you’re exhausted (it would have been 1 a.m. English time when he began playing). But there’s a good rationale for it. If Beethoven said he wrote the last three sonatas in a single breath, that is exactly how Lewis offered them. It made for exceptionally concentrated listening.

Occasionally the playing was as breathless as the format: phrases, particularly in faster movements, could elide just a bit too much, leaving punctuation marks absent. And Lewis’s pedaling often smudged boundaries, too, even though his playing was always very clear; fingers and facility are not issues.

On the other hand, in the slow movements of all three sonatas, Lewis’s playing was wonderfully expressive. He took his time within motives and phrases to point up peaks and valleys and make you ponder. The playing was dynamically and tonally stunning as well. Notes in the high treble could glisten like droplets of water falling into a still pool below. Trills were exquisite. And when Beethoven asked for song, Lewis sang like the most rarified of singers.

Hearing these sonatas at one take was a reminder of all they have in common, in form, shape and mood. Lewis excelled at bringing home just how, in these sonatas, motives and melodies seem to coalesce out of a mist of “unformed” material. He shed similar light on Beethoven’s explorations of the extremes of the keyboard. Here, the balances were finely calibrated, just as they were when the bass was a hive of activity against which the right hand had to project single-note melodies.

Unusally, Lewis was able to keep the audience quiet at the endings of the sonatas – he kept his hands on the keys — allowing the silence to be an equal part of the music, and thus permitting the music to settle.

It’s hard to know how or if to encore in a performance of these three towering works, but Lewis solved the issue with a sensitive performance of the Schubert Allegretto, D. 915. And then it was time to get out the door for the drive to Chicago and the flight to London. It was certainly a chock-a-block 70 minutes preceding.

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Chicago Symphony: Five and One, for a Perfect Ten

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT

(Ann Arbor, Oct. 31, 2015)

Wait … that’s not Beethoven Five. Wrong key, wrong notes. It’s … “The Victors.”

A few weeks back, at the first concert of its University Musical Society residency, the New York Philharmonic offered Michigan’s iconic fight song as an encore. Thursday evening, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went the Phil one better: CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti strode out on the Hill Auditorium stage to open the concert with “The Victors.” The house was packed – sold out for this UMS concert – and Muti soon had the multitudinous Michigan fans clapping along and cheering the orchestra’s best plays, like star turns for how-low-can-you-go brass and sudden drops to pianissimo with the orchestra roaring back to score brilliant touchdowns.

For the record, and in case “The Victors” becomes a new repertory staple for visiting orchestras (think of the hit CD you could make, with every orchestra playing it and giving it a personal spin!), the CSO’s “Victors” was more mellow and laid back than the Phil’s, a little slower, a little more plush. Loved it.

And just maybe, the CSO’s way with “The Victors” was a herald of what was to come, though the repertory that followed was certainly more exalted — we did get the promised Beethoven Five, as well as the scheduled Mahler Symphony No. 1.

At intermission and after the concert, I heard lots of comments from fellow audience members about how the CSO’s Beethoven had renewed this best-known of symphonies for them, allowed them to lift it from the well-worn grooves memory had laid down.

It’s true that for most classical music fans, Beethoven Five is so imprinted on the brain that you know and hear every note, every phrase, before it’s played. That can make you love almost any performance – you’re listening to what’s in your head, and it’s good – or it can dull the work with a patina of over-familiarity.

The CSO’s Beethoven Five made you be present. For many patrons I spoke with, it was the energy of the reading that prevailed. For me, it was more the restraint – which doesn’t imply lack of energy in any way. What I loved most was the connections that Muti and the orchestra brought forward: the ties between the last, long note of the opening fate motto and the long note that concludes it a few bars down the pike; the connections between overarching harmonic structures, the work’s scaffolding, and all the notes that get tucked in between those pillars. I loved the long-boned lines of Muti’s reading, the exquisitely controlled and calibrated dynamics and tonal palette, his unrushed tempi, and the graciousness, majesty and pathos of the Andante con moto, the considered-ness of every phrase ending. Every detail was attended to, but the effects never felt over-studied, just perfectly right.

This was the sort of playing that the orchestra brought to the Mahler first symphony post intermission. In the CSO’s performance, the thinnest thread of sound, like the fine-tuned hum of the natural world, admitted cuckoos and, finally, the emergence of song, coalescing from the amorphous prelude. In the second movement, the orchestra brought out the music’s slightly sarcastic, proud rusticity and the contrast with the graceful dance of the trio. The third movement enjoyed its quirky combination of materials, intoning Mahler’s minor-key“ Frere Jacques” like an early Hebraic melody and opening the door wide to klezmer musicians who happened to be in the neighborhood after a funeral march and before the mourning had really begun. The musical gestures were acute, and the effect was to conjure a lost world. The gestures were no less acute in the finale, with silken meditations emerging from darkness and chaos, and with triumph signaled with resplendent brass.

Memorable playing, memorable evening.

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UMS/SMTD/NY Phil: The Combo Spells Contentment

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT

(Ann Arbor, Oct. 12, 2015)

The abbreviations resemble an alphabet salad, but the NY Philharmonic’s residency, presented by the University Musical Society, in conjunction with the U-M School of Music & Dance, had a letter for everyone this past weekend.

I only caught a fraction of the events, which included concerts, master classes galore, lectures, and an appearance by Music Director Alan Gilbert and the NY Phil’s brass at the U-M homecoming game. But I loved what I heard, and the good vibes of the weekend augur well for the two Philharmonic residency installments to come in 2017-18 and 2019-20 seasons.

There were lots of young people in the hall for Thursday evening’s kickoff concert, when you could have assumed that colleagues from the SMTD would show up to cheer the eight SMTD students playing with NY Phil principals in the Mendelssohn Octet and the Mozart C Minor Serenade for Winds, K. 388. That free concert, which drew only a medium-size audience to Rackham Auditorium, was a winner – for both its spirit of collaboration and for polished playing of these two iconic works.

But Friday’s Hill Auditorium crowd, there to hear the Phil in the first of three “Big House” concerts, also seemed to have downshifted in age. Silver hair did not dominate in the hall, and if the audience was younger, the repertoire also had a youthful vitality about it.

We’re not just talking about the “Victors” encore – for which Music Director Gilbert donned the white gloves and mandatory Michigan cap he would wear to conduct the Michigan Marching Band in Saturday’s landmark halftime show (first time ever for a symphony orchestra members to join a college band on the gridiron). First on the bill was the newly minted “Vivo,” by former NY Phil composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg, premiered just two nights earlier at the Phil’s glittering Carnegie Hall opening-night gala.

As the title indicates, “Vivo” is lively, an 8-minute slip of an overture in which chords pile up in successive, little waves – but never quite reach shore till the very end. It’s the building, the expectation of resolution, and the withholding that that make us stay tuned – as well as shimmering sonorities and progressions that reference Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” which was also on the Carnegie bill and to which Lindberg wanted “Vivo” to relate.

But if the orchestra’s energy and focus in “Vivo,” just about the newest thing in its rep, was high, it flagged not in the well-worn, well-loved Beethoven staples that followed: the first piano concerto and the Symphony No. 7.

For the concerto, pianist Inon Barnatan and the orchestra seemed of one mind: play light, precise and buoyantly, ride the air currents in the outer movements, let seamless lyricism flourish in the central Largo, keep the sound free but controlled. It was exalted playing, and it was riveting.

The same could be said for much of the Symphony No. 7. The winds and brass and lower strings were particular marvels, and Gilbert’s attention to detail, and his ability to make those details sing out, kept the ear firmly anchored in the music. I found the first two movements more satisfying than the last two (the finale was on the mega-traffic-ticket side of speedy, with the ear struggling to get all the details as they flew by). Of the four movements, the second was the real knockout — for beautiful details, for finely calibrated dynamics and tonal sensitivity, for heart as well as intellect.

I had to miss Saturday’s Hill Auditorium concert, with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “L.A. Variations” and R. Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben.” But I returned on Sunday for some major Brando and Bernstein, with the NY Phil live on stage to play Bernstein’s only original film score as we watched Brando (and an incredible supporting cast) in the still totally compelling 1954 “On the Waterfront” on the Big Screen overhead.

There was a superb, standing-room-only pre-concert talk beforehand, offered by U-M musicologist Mark Clague, U-M film specialist Caryl Flinn and conductor (and distinguished film-score composer) David Newman. And the event that followed was wonderful beyond expectations.

Maybe lowest on the tally of what made this great was the company of some 3,000 fellow patrons to react, sometimes audibly, to the film. Film-going is a social event, and Sunday brought that home.

Beyond that, there was the thrill of seeing, yet again, how this film holds up, and of seeing it on a really big screen. We had the rare opportunity to appreciate the Bernstein score as live music and to see how much it contributes to the cinematic experience in a way you really can’t when it’s part of the soundtrack. The whole, in short, was way more than the sum of its parts, and the parts themselves were potent. After the concert, the NY Phil members may have been boarding buses to return to Detroit Metro Airport and on to New York, but those of us exiting Hill were still very much “On the Waterfront” and in the zone.

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