Who could ask for anything more? George Gershwin’s last piano makes U-M debut

Grijalva poses with the unrestored Gershwin piano shortly after its arrival. Courtesy photo

Grijalva poses with the unrestored Gershwin piano shortly after its arrival. Courtesy photo

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Oct.9, 2014)

S’wonderful. Marvelous, too.

The last Steinway grand piano owned by famed American composer George Gershwin – the one on which he most likely composed “Porgy and Bess” – has a new life.

Donated to the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance in 2013 by Marc Gershwin, George’s nephew – the crowning gesture of a partnership between the Gershwin families and U-M during the creation of the U-M Gershwin Initiative – the fully restored piano makes its debut Friday evening at a free School of Music Hill Auditorium concert.

The Gershwin Initiative provides U-M with complete access to the Gershwin archives to develop the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition and comprises student performances, new courses and scholarly symposia. (On Friday, afternoon and pre-concert panels focus on the piano itself and Gershwin’s music.)

‘The piano is the star of the concert,” said U-M Associate Professor of Musicology Mark Clague, a co-director of the U-M’s American Music Institute who heads up the Gershwin Initiative and is editor-in-chief of the critical edition.

It should well be the star. It is only one of three Gershwin-owned Steinways in the U.S. (one resides at the Library of Congress, another at the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame). It will also be the only one of the three to see frequent, regular concert use.

If the piano, in fact, figures in every piece on this all-star program featuring student and faculty performers – for example, in Gershwin’s “Three Preludes,” and in selections from “Porgy and Bess, including the Heifetz violin and piano arrangement of “My Man’s Gone Now” — it unquestionably gets top-of-the-marquee billing in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

That work is a concert headliner for numerous reasons: It receives an emblematic performance in its original 1924 jazz orchestration for Paul Whiteman’s band, The Palais Royal Orchestra, prepared from a Critical Edition score; and the newly refurbished piano that the evening’s soloist, Gil Chapman, plays is the one Gershwin took possession of as he prepared for the 10th anniversary tour of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Gershwin took delivery of the piano, a 1933, 6’4”-long Steinway Model A3, in January of 1934. It stayed with him until his untimely death at 38 in 1937, when it moved to the New York apartment of his mother, Rose Gershwin. When she died, in 1948, Marc Gershwin’s parents, Arthur and Judy, occupied the apartment, and so did the piano – until it left for the U-M in spring 2013.

Hardly played during that time, it was in need of a serious overhaul if it was to become the concert instrument destined for regular use that Marc Gershwin wanted it to be, rather than a Gershwin relic, venerated as a museum piece.

The job of restoration fell to the U-M’s Robert Grijalva, director and assistant professor of piano technology, who enlisted the aid of Patrick DeBeliso, proprietor and artisan/craftsman of PianoCrafters, Inc., in Plymouth, Mich. The Gershwin piano is the latest of several collaborations between the two, who speak about each other’s work with great reverence.

Grijalva has kept a fascinating blog of the piano’s progress, which you can find on the Gershwin Initiative website. In a recent phone conversation, this veteran of many a Steinway restoration said it was a long time before it really hit him hard that this was Gershwin’s piano.

“It didn’t happen until I was voicing the hammers,” he said, referring to the process of tone regulation, near the end of the restoration, through needling and otherwise treating the felt of instrument’s hammers.

“It was not till I actually sat down and stuck the first needles in that I thought, ‘I could screw this up,’ Grijalva said. I had a few false starts, but in the end, after that, it was almost like an easy voicing. The piano cooperated so well, it told me right away what direction it wanted to go. It took me no more than six or seven hours in the end. Beyond that, I could just sit back and relax and listen to the thing. I was sitting there in awe of the sound.”

So were pianists like the U-M’s eminent Martin Katz, said Grijalva, who stopped by for a play and sat to extemporize a la Gershwin. Grijalva says the instrument has a sound that is “classic American, both rich and clean.”

It’s also one that’s worthy of a piano longer than its 6 feet 4 inches. “It’s really a lot bigger than the size of that piano,” said DeBeliso by phone.

In fact, noted Grijalva, one of the reasons Steinway discontinued production of the A3 – it was made only between 1914-1942 – was because this shorter and less expensive instrument was too much competition for the pricier Steinway 6’11” Model B, an instrument coveted by serious pianists. (Steinway recently resumed making the A3’s shorter cousin, the 6’2” Model A.)
Since the Gershwin piano was destined for active performance, many of the decisions regarding its restoration were clear from the outset, Grijalva said.

The sound board, against which the strings vibrate, had lost its its vital crown. It also had a “Grand Canyon running down the middle of it,” Grijalva said. The moving parts of the action were worn, the ivories of the keyboard “dished” from all Gershwin’s use (You can imagine George Gershwin playing — he did that to this keyboard,” it has his DNA,” said Grijalva), and the hammers deeply grooved from repeated strikes of the strings.

As DeBeliso put it, who would want to sand those hammers to smooth them? “Those string marks created “Porgy and Bess.”

And so it was an easy decision, both say, to rebuild the instrument completely while at the same time preserving the old keyframe, keys and action intact. That way, they could leave those Gershwin grooves alone, leave the old action and keyboard alone (“I couldn’t see myself unscrewing action parts and putting them in a garbage can, as decrepit as they are,” said Grijalva. “They’re spent parts, but they’re George Gershwin’s spent parts.”) The action will be on display at the School of Music and – very important – can still be reinserted into piano when the occasion calls for it, providing a another tangible connection to the man himself.

Meanwhile, DeBeliso and Grijalva went about a meticulous replication of the piano’s original mechanisms and parts. “He had the belly, I had the action,” is how Grijalva describes the division of labor.

“Belly work” meant removing and duplicating the old soundboard.
Each Steinway bellyman, DeBeliso explained, had his own idea of how the board should taper around the edges.

“We made an exact replica of the original,” he said.
The new board has the name of the bellyman who signed the board back when it was made in 1933, and “then there’s our name and this year. You’ve got to pay homage those guys, they helped make this piano sound the way it sounds.”
The cast-iron plate was regilded, new strings installed. DeBeliso also forefinished a new keyboard, a requirement with Steinways. Forefinishing is the tedious and exacting process of hand-fitting the keyboard to the instrument.

“I can’t tell you how many people wanted to have their picture taken with the old keyboard,” DeBeliso said. “So many! They would say, ‘I just want to touch it.’ It’s so great that it’s preserved, and if someone is a Gershwin aficionado, all they have to do is slide the new action out and Gershwin’s in, and it’ll work and play.”

“I was blessed that Bob (Grijalva) asked me to do it,” DeBeliso added. “And Bob really nailed that action so nicely. It’s really impressive.”
“Once we had it all together, it just clicked,” said Grijalva. Patrick and I are kindred spirits when it comes to restoring a Steinway. I think if George was around, he would say, ‘My goodness, I love this piano.’”

If the piano sounds the way it might have when it was taken off the dolly in George’s apartment back in 1934, it also looks a bit the same: Grijalva took the same approach to the piano’s case as he did in restoring the Steinway that resides in the U-M Museum of Art – clean the case up, but leave it alone so that it looks of its period. “When you are walking up to it, it looks like a 1933 Steinway that has been used. We certainly wanted to retain that.”

There are those who may wonder, is it really Gershwin’s piano if all the innards are new? Grijalva has a ready answer, one that he relayed in our phone call and that he reiterated online, in the New York Times, in response to a reader comment following an article about the piano.

“The case of the piano and, to an extent, its iron frame are what define the soul and essential character of a Steinway,” he wrote. “As we like to ascribe pianos with human characteristics, the soundboard is the heart, and just like with humans, the heart of a piano can be transplanted with a new one, but the soul remains. As a rebuilder with experience in hundreds of Steinway restorations, I can attest that old Steinways with new boards still retain the sound of the era during which they were built. Pre-war Steinways, with their rims glued together with animal hide glue, don’t come out sounding like the current production pianos, which are assembled using different glues. This can only be the ‘fault’ of the case.”

Each rim on a Steinway, he told me, is “truly unique,” the product of its glues, the way the wood adapted itself to its new shape as it sat in the conditioning room for several months. “That’s what gives the piano its soul,” he said.
“I have a lot of faith that we treated this with all its due respect to George Gershwin and his family. And you can’t argue with the beautiful results.”

Who: Faculty and students from the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance

    • What: All-Gershwin concert to unveil the historic, recently restored George Gershwin piano.
    • Where: Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave.
    • When: Friday, 8:30 p.m., with pre-concert talk at 7:30 p.m.
    • How much: Free! For more information, visit http://www.music.umich.edu
      Also: Free panel discussion at 2:30 p.m. Friday, Hill Auditorium, on the piano’s restoration.

Read the original at MLive!

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It’s all in the hands: Charleroi Danses’ ‘Kiss & Cry’ is made for dancing fingers

Photo by Marteen Vanden Abeele

Photo by Marteen Vanden Abeele

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Oct.9, 2014)

She is a choreographer and dancer. He is a cinematographer. They are a couple.

Together with a team of collaborators, they’ve made a theater piece that, like a child, is at once something of both of them and yet totally unique.

It’s “Kiss & Cry,” a “nano-dance” about memory and love from Belgian artists Michele Anne De Mey (an associate artist at Belgium’s Charleroi Danses) and Jaco Van Dormael (“Toto the Hero,” “The Eighth Day,” “Mr. Nobody”). The University Musical Society brings “Kiss & Cry” to Power Center for three performances Friday through Sunday.

“Kiss & Cry” is in the truest sense a digital work. That is, it’s made for dancing fingers (De Mey’s and those of her partner, Gregory Grosjean), not feet. If the action is writ small, it is projected large – filmed as it happens live on a mini-set on stage, giving the audience micro and macro views. And it contemplates big, poignant themes — like where do people go when they disappear from our life?

It all started on a kitchen table, Van Dormael said in a September Skype interview from Belgium, joined by De Mey.

“We’ve been living together for like 14 years,” said Van Dormael. “I’m a cinematographer, but we never succeeded to work together. It’s very difficult to film the dancing. If you get the face, you miss the body, and if the body, you miss the face, We were looking for something different, where one art form was not serving the other. We started in the kitchen with two friends and cameras.”

The question before them, said Van Dormael, was: “Is it possible to make a long feature film only on a kitchen table, for Michele to dance only with the hands, to use tiny spaces but to look big on the screen?” What would happen when a viewer had simultaneous access to both the live action and its live projection on screen?

They started without a script, without anything, “to see what it is possible to make in tiny boxes, tiny spaces, with tiny lights,” Van Dormael said. Could they make characters? A body? Animals? They created deserts with sand, the sea with some tissues, a sunset with a flash. They were fascinated by the mix of scales: a hand asleep on a pillow might look small; as it rose, however, it looked bigger than the whole bed, Van Dormael remembered.

Eventually, over a four-month period (“Short compared to making a film,” Van Dormael noted), “Kiss & Cry” coalesced. It would be a theater piece, a show – what De Mey called in French “un spectacle” — in which the miniature action, live on stage, would be matched with film that shot the action fresh, as it was happening, in front of the audience.

“The audience sees things with their eyes which the camera doesn’t see,” said Van Dormael. “All the nine people on the stage make a sort of choreography. And what is too small to be seen with the eye, the camera can show.”

But what would the action be about? After the first month – which was all about seeing what it was possible to make with hands, miniature sets and cameras – the collaborators were looking for a story.

A friend with whom Van Dormael had written scripts had the idea of an old woman remembering the first time she fell in love. She was on a train, and she was 11; for just a few seconds, her hand touched the hand of a boy on the train. She can recall the hand, but not the face or the name. And all her life she has been looking at the hands of men around her, searching to find the man this boy has become.

“Kiss & Cry” became a poetic meditation on love and loss. “It’s five love stories,” Van Dormael said, “about the woman and the five men she loved in her life.” Its title alludes to love’s joys and sorrows, but the show actually takes its name from the “kiss and cry” area at skating competitions, where competitors await their scores, Van Dormael said. There is, however, a romantic skating scene in the nano-dance.

In making “Kiss & Cry,” all the artists were out of their comfort zone.

“Everybody had to learn something new,” Van Dormael said. “For me, it was not like making a film. For Michele Anne, it was not like making a choreography.” And, he pointed out, the experiment would not have been possible even 10 years ago: the tiny cameras on the tiny train of the set, for example, had not been invented.

While Van Dormael pondered storytelling technique (“As a filmmaker, I’m used to making the film go on; and here the job was to make the story sometimes stop, to have another type of story that is only with the skin and senses and goes to another part of the brain and sensibility”), De Mey, an experienced dancer and choreographer, had to relearn those skills as they pertain to hands.

“It came little by little,” she said in French, “working with Gregory. But we didn’t do any gymnastic training. On the other hand, we did realize that when someone on the team had to be replaced – not only Gregory or me, but anyone on the whole team – it was important for everyone to be there: cameraman, dancer, lighting person. Everyone is as important as anyone else.”

Everything in the piece, she added, is quite fixed and precise, from choreography to camerawork and sound. “Because everything is filmed in real time, it’s down to the centimeter,” she said. There is no improvisation.

But there is spontaneity.

The show, after all, is “the making of a film,” as De Mey noted. “That’s the theater piece that the audience sees – the film projected on the screen connecting to the imaginary world we construct, the music, the play of memory.”

For Van Dormael, the miniature “toy” world they create takes him back to childhood – “When playing as kids, what I remember is that the toys were in our hands; I don’t see bodies, only hands and toys,” he said.

He adds: “It’s the funniest thing to see how people, when they see Michele Anne after the show, they look at her hands, not at her face. They want to touch her hands.”

”Kiss & Cry”

    • What: “Kiss & Cry, a “nano-dance theater piece from Charleroi Danses, Belgium
    • Where: Power Center for the Performing Arts, 121 Fletcher St.
    • When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m.
    • How much: $26-$44, University Musical Society, Michigan League Ticket Office, (734) 764-2538, and online at ums.org

Read the original article at MLive!

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UMS Scores Big with Emerson String Quartet

15909198-mmmain Susan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Sept. 29, 2014)
On a day when the U-M team fumbled the ball yet again in the Big House, sending fans fleeing well before the fourth quarter, an evening’s entertainment that began with a quartet named “Serioso” seemed eerily appropriate.

But with the Emerson String Quartet on hand to play that particular Beethoven quartet, No. 11, Op. 95, the mood was anything but somber in Rackham Auditorium, where the University Musical Society was presenting the first concert of its 2014-15 Chamber Arts Series.

This “Serioso” quartet was part of a jubilant start to the season, striking all the right chords: great playing; chance to hear the Emerson’s newest member, cellist Paul Watkins; chance to encounter the seriously schizophrenic Shostakovich third quartet in a brilliant performance; chance to catch the world premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s haunting new Quartet No. 5, Op. 126.

The Liebermann was a UMS co-commission with its partners in Music Accord. It was also, it turned out, part of the first of many chamber music concerts to be endowed by U-M Professor Emerita Ilene Forsyth. Her gift to UMS, President Kenneth Fischer announced, would endow a Chamber Arts Series concert annually — in perpetuity.

It wasn’t till the second movement of the Beethoven that we really got to hear cellist Watkins, making his entrance with a beautifully shaped slow scale. But the blend was great in the first movement – with Watkins fitting in seamlessly with violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton. The ensemble’s sound was scrappy and blustery, a scribble of contained energy.

That energy was evident, too, in the scherzo, where the group’s precision and rhythmic acuity gave the movement an all-elbows-and-angles geometry.

If the Beethoven was all bristle and burr, a different sort of sound world prevailed in Liebermann’s quartet, which unfurls all in one movement. With Watkins leading the procession with a low grinding moan from his cello, the other three instruments slowly enter; they are ghostlike presences, with sound as white and coreless as shades. The first violin takes up a lamenting melody in which the others join; a sorrowing stasis, a sense of waiting, prevails. And then there’s declamation, and a singing duet for the two violins before all the players climb to central section that feels like a tower room up a dizzying chromatic staircase. When they descend again, it’s back into a world that mirrors the beginning and that fades back into sheer breath.

Liebermann was there to bound onstage and bow with the musicians, and he is likely to be doing a lot of that as the piece makes the rounds of Music Accord co-commissioners and beyond; the quartet seems likely to find a permanent place in the repertoire.

That’s a place, of course, that the Shostakovich quartets have had for some time; certainly, they are old friends for the Emerson, which has recorded the whole cycle.

Saturday, this particular old friend, the third quartet, got a reading from the new Emerson Four that was compelling and incisive. I particularly liked how the group played the quartet’s jump-shifts from cheer to sarcasm, light to darkness. They fully embraced each state, and yet they never neglected the cracks in the surface that foreshadow the change to come. The viola plays a big role in this quartet, and Dutton was exemplary, calling out a stern waltz in the second movement, and taming beasts in the sinister circus of the third, a frightening, brutal dance in which all seem to be fiddling for their life.

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Emerson String Quartet arrives in Ann Arbor with new player, new work


Emerson String Quartet (Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Sept. 27, 2014)

The Emerson String Quartet is one of the world’s best-known quartets. But in Ann Arbor, their visits are so frequent – no fewer than 15 appearances under University Musical Society auspices since 1989, plus one coming up Saturday night at Rackham Auditorium – that folks around here have taken to calling them “The Emersons,” as if they were neighbors you’d invite over for a weeknight dinner.

Familiar they may be, but their Saturday appearance, which opens the UMS Chamber Arts Series, has not one, but two novelties: a new “family member,” cellist Paul Watkins; and a freshly minted quartet, from American composer Lowell Liebermann, that receives its world premiere here in Tree Town.

The Liebermann’s String Quartet No. 5, Op. 126, is a commission for the Emerson from Music Accord, an organization in which UMS is one of 10 members and co-commissioner. The group was founded to support the creation of new works and ensure their presentation.

The program also includes Beethoven’s Quartet No. 11 in f minor, Op. 95 (“Serioso”); and the Shostakovich Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Op. 73.

The Emerson’s chemistry with audiences has its roots in the chemistry among the players. The quartet’s roster – violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, who alternate in the first and second violin seats; violist Lawrence Dutton; and cellist David Finckel – stayed as rock steady for decades as the tempo of a good march.

Then, in the 2012, the Emerson announced what would be its first member change in 34 years: cellist Finckel, who joined the group in 1979, would leave at the end of the 2012-13 season, to devote more time to his personal artistic endeavors.

Changes of this nature can wrench apart quartets, but the Emersons were confident they’d found the right addition to their family in cellist Watkins. Audiences and critics have agreed, and Saturday is the Ann Arbor audience’s chance to weigh in.

Watkins, a cellist and conductor who hails from South Wales, has had a brilliant career — BBC Symphony Orchestra (principal cello at 20); concerto soloist and recitalist around the globe; collaborator with top musicians; member of the Nash Ensemble; winner of the Leeds Conducting Competition in 2002; conductor of leading orchestras in Britain and elsewhere; and now cellist of the Emerson.

He’s also just become director of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival – so Detroit and Ann Arbor, which he visits for the first time Saturday, may get to see and hear a lot more of him than just Emerson appearances.

Watkins, who is 44, just moved to the U.S. about a year ago. The change, he said in a late-summer phone call, has been “massive, absolutely massive.”

“It’s still going on. It’s been just enough time to find my feet. Now it’s a question of planting them and growing in the States. My family has taken to it like ducks to water. My wife is originally from New York, but it’s the first time the kids, 6 and 11, have lived in the U.S.”

Watkins’ wife, Jennifer, is the daughter of the great American pianist Ruth Laredo, born and raised in Detroit; that connection was one of the reasons he accepted directorship of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. “Plus the city of Detroit itself is an iconic place for Brits,” he said. “Like any other young boy, I liked my cars, and I still like my cars. Coming from South Wales, a former industrial area of the UK, I’ve seen a similar progression of decline and the need to reinvent itself. Detroit is a great city in great crisis, but there are green shoots of recovery starting to come up.”

Finding his feet in the States has of course included finding his feet with the Emersons. Whether working on something that’s new to all, like the Liebermann, or on established repertoire, Watkins has taken on the “happy challenge” of becoming part of the family.

Rehearsals, he said, are a little bit like “grabbing onto a train that’s moving already. You go flying, and you just try and keep up and see what works, see who was injured and who not, and take it apart again. I don’t want to slow their progress in any way.

“That’s the amazing thing about the quartet, it keeps developing all the time. They’re so eager to do new things, to look at pieces that have been in the repertoire a long time in a new way. There is a certain sort of speed and urgency to the work that is great.”

Speed and urgency can be key when the score for a new work flies in the door. Commissions have a way of arriving later than they’re supposed to, even as concert dates approach.

But the Liebermann quartet had arrived before Labor Day, and Watkins had lots to say about it when we spoke.

“It’s a beautiful piece, all in one movement, which is rather reminds me a little bit of one of the Bartok quartets that’s all in one movement,” he said. “It actually has a rather slow burn. There’s a dark start, a kind of grinding thing in the cello, and snatches of music in the viola. He’s a very lyrical composer, and there’s a beautiful singing section. But there’s also some pretty dramatic stuff and also a fleet-footed section in the middle — very running music, a kind of lopsided fugue in 5/16, the trickiest part of the piece technically. It dissolves into thin air and then there’s a recapitulation of the rest of the movement. It’s like the Bartok, with a kind of arch form with a presto in the middle; it arches back from the original and ends as it began. It’s very well written for the string quartet.”

And, hopefully, well-matched to the Emerson.

Said UMS Director of Programming Michael Kondziolka of Music Accord’s commissions: “We try to marry works to soloists or groups to create a probability that the work will have a life beyond its premiere.”

UMS, he adds, views it as part of its mission to support composers in the creation of new repertoire.

With its colleagues in Music Accord – they are top presenters in the U.S. including the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Library of Congress and Tanglewood Festival/Boston Symphony Orchestra — UMS has co-commissioned 67 new works since 1989. UMS has also commissioned works or revivals outside of the organization – for example, the reconstruction of “Einstein on the Beach” in 2012. This year, UMS has commissioned a work from composer John Harbison for violinist Jennifer Koh, partnering with the 92nd Street Y and Cal Performances. Koh will present it on her UMS “Bach and Beyond, Part III” program in February.

Through Music Accord, composers affiliated with the University of Michigan, like William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty and Bright Sheng, have received commissions. That’s a mark not just of UMS’s participation in Music Accord (there’s a rotating decision-making board), but of the stature of these U-M composers.

With 10 presenters in Music Accord, only one gets to give the world premiere of a work the group commissions. And while Music Accord members are not bound to present the work commissioned, most try to include it on their series, Kondziolka said.

“Every so often it’s nice to have the world premiere; to the degree people care about such things, it’s nice for the excitement,” he said. “But at the end of the day, sometimes it’s better for the artist or ensemble to have time to live with the piece, to decide what they have to say.

“This time, for the first of concert of the chamber music series, it’s a great way to start – and to trumpet our role as a commissioner, especially with a quartet that’s been here quite a bit.”

The Emerson String Quartet

    • Who: The Emerson String Quartet
    • What: Quartets by Beethoven, Liebermann and Shostakovich.
    • Where: Rackham Auditorium, 915 E. Washington St.
    • When: Saturday, Sept. 27, 8 p.m.
    • How much: $26-$52, UMS Michigan League Ticket Office, (734) 764-2538, and online at ums.org.

See the original article at Mlive.com

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Review: Itzhak Perlman, with John Root, serves up delicious recital for Hill Auditorium audience

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Sept. 15, 2014)

Of the great musical artists before the public today, there are a select few who generate not just feelings of admiration but of affection. They are the ones we greet with extended, warm applause just because they’ve walked on stage. They are the ones we often think of by first name, though they’re not in any way our chums.

That’s why I was not at all surprised to get this message from a friend while I was gone Sunday evening: “I suppose you’re out hearing Itzhak,” she said.


Itzhak PerlmanCourtesy photo

Itzhak, of course, is superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman, who opened the University Musical Society 2014-15 season at Hill Auditorium Sunday in a recital with pianist John Root. I don’t know him personally, but like many in the hall, I think, I have the sense of a relationship that reaches past the footlights.

You could say that Sunday’s UMS recital, filled with sonatas by J.S. Bach, Franck and Ravel, was pretty far from Perlman’s more personal “In the Fiddler’s House” shows, relaxed programs of traditional Jewish music (and Yiddish story- and joke-telling) that have audiences sometimes dancing in the aisles.

But if we weren’t in the fiddler’s house, we were definitely in his living room – shoes off, comfy for his announced repertoire, and ties really loosened for the mini-salon he offered to finish the concert, filled with patter and jokes and lots of whiz-bang, gee-whiz violin baubles.

There was a collective “wow” exhale after the virtuoso pyrotechnics of the Wieniawski Caprice in a minor, Op. 18. And you had to love the tango rhythm in the middle of Kreisler’s “Tambourin Chinois,” a sign that Perlman was on target when he quipped that, regardless of its title, the piece was neither French nor Chinese. A hybrid by way of Vienna, what the piece was, was fun.

So was the rest of the program – all actually French except for the Bach.

The Bach work, which opened the bill, was the last of the composer’s six sonatas for violin and keyboard, in G Major. Here, the keyboard instrument was not a harpsichord but the modern Steinway, and there was equal work for both pianist Root – a terrific musician — and Perlman. I found myself wishing for a more three-dimensional dynamic soundscape from the two players, but they were champs for fleetness, ornamentation, a light touch and judicious use of vibrato.

They really came into their own, though, in the Franck Sonata. The textures, which can be turgid and thick here, given the piano writing, never even came close (thank you, Mr. Root), and the piece spoke amazingly from the get-go, with Root’s hazy, Impressionist-colored opening in the piano and Perlman’s tremulous response with his violin. Speech was the word that kept coming to mind as I listened to this music in the hands of this pair. There were soliloquies and confessions, passionate outbursts, declamations, recitations. And obsessions, stubborn repetitions like those of a dream you cannot escape. Here, you didn’t want to. It was fantastic.

No less pleasing was the Ravel sonata, with all that jazz, you know? Perlman was full of bent notes and slides and portamento stretched to fit the modern age. It was delicious music, deliciously rendered. And it was the perfect dessert before the little Viennese-French mignardises Perlman served up in his salon to end the evening.

Read the original article at Mlive.com

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Ann Arbor Symphony and Andre Watts deliver crowd-pleasing Beethoven Festival


Andre Watts (Photo by Steve J. Sherman)

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Sept. 14, 2014)

Two 5’s and a 3 make 13.

And 13 is clearly a lucky number for the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, which launched its 2014-15 season Saturday evening at Hill Auditorium with a roof-raising Beethoven Festival.

On the bill were three of Beethoven’s greatest hits: The Symphony No. 5, the Piano Concerto No. 5 (“The Emperor”) and the “Leonore Overture No. 3.” The program – and, certainly, the presence of internationally renowned pianist Andre Watts to play the “Emperor” – drew a capacity crowd to Hill, where the A2SO plays on special occasions rather than at the Michigan Theater, its usual home.

And special this occasion was.

For A2SO Music Director Arie Lipsky and the orchestra, inviting an artist of Watts’ caliber was an announcement of its own caliber, notice that it, too, is ready for prime time and worthy of a place on the national map. It lived up to that in its performance, thrillingly so.

Opening a season with pieces so well known as these by Beethoven is both a boon and a risk. Sure, folks will show up. But when lots of those folks “know how it goes” and could hum the next strain (or the rest of the piece) from memory if the orchestra happened to go on strike mid-phrase, there’s a danger of disappointment and staleness, too.

Once or twice on Saturday, in some bridge passages in the “Leonore,” it felt a little bit like Lipsky and his musicians also knew how it went. But the rest of the evening was electric.

The opening of the “Leonore,” for example, was arresting, the orchestra intoning its descending octaves with such hushed intensity and intense dynamic concentration that even if you didn’t know the plot of “Fidelio,” the opera for which this “Leonore” was once intended, you knew something dramatic (like the descent to Florestan’s dungeon) was underway. The playing was everywhere operatic, in the best sense of the word, urgent and, ultimately, joyously Beethoven-heroic. And you can’t do better than trumpet playing like William Campbell’s, whose offstage fanfares were glorious heralds from first note to last tapering finish.

There are lots of ways to play the opening motto of the Fifth Symphony – the famous short-short-short-long of Fate knocking at the door. Fate was in a pretty fair rush to be admitted in Lipsky’s conception, pressing fast and furious into the room in a whirlwind of haste.

Once inside, Fate calmed down, but the drama never ceased, happily so, until it was overtaken by the triumphant celebration of the final movement, powerful in its force much like the finale of the Ninth. Yes, we know all these notes, and yes, they are great when they are played well, especially in a live performance. Here, however, it was wonderful to be overtaken by the performance, to be surprisingly overcome by the score’s enduring power and promise of transformation.

The clarity of the playing was remarkable in the Fifth Symphony (and throughout the evening), The balances were superb among sections and voices. And the wind and brass choirs were more than on their game when they had the spotlight, which is early and often in this symphony. The cellos and violas, in the opening of the slow movement, suggested an ample view at the top of their phrases with the slightest of expansions. And after the menace of the scherzo, the orchestra was out of the shadows and into the sunlight, saving some of that solar energy for a blazing finish.

That was the score at half-time.

The way to top that in the second half was sure: Leave that virtuoso concerto for last. And absolutely not least.

There’s good reason, we are reminded, why these pieces are warhorses and evergreen in the right hands.

Watts’ hands are some of those. He played with both impetuosity and consideration. The opening cadenzas – the piano so impatient to find its place that it gives the orchestra just one chord before it comes in – unfurled in a rush of energy up the keyboard. And if Watts’ could produce steel when needed, if he could roll up his sleeves (he at least pushed back his cuffs) for blazing passages in the finale, he could also produce the most glowing of pearls, the most even and delicate of trills. The Adagio was pure night music. And the finale, a rollicking, unbound caper, was played with panache as well as finesse.

From where I sat, orchestra right, the balances between soloist and orchestra seemed ideal and the hand-offs between them, seamless. If the orchestra was a fine accompanist, so, too, was Watts, making his accompanimental figures count when the orchestra had the tune.

It was heady stuff. The music done, the crowd bounded to its feet to offer multiple ovations. Watts received roses. He plucked one out to offer it to Lipsky. Everyone deserved a bouquet.

See the original article at Mlive.com

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What’s in a name? When violinist Itzhak Perlman plays Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium, plenty


Photo: Akira Kinoshita

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Sept. 12, 2014)
You can pretty much count on the fingers of one hand the classical musicians who can fill a hall without announcing what the heck they’ll play when they finally show up in town.

My informal poll, limited to living musicians (no fair naming Horowitz, folks!) and conducted at dinner parties, at lunch with friends and in chats with classical music aficionados here and elsewhere, turned up (in alphabetical order) mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, soprano Renee Fleming, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Murray Perahia and violinist Itzhak Perlman. (Who would you put on the list?)

Perlman, of course, just happens to be opening the University Musical Society Choral Union Series, with a recital at Hill Auditorium Sunday at 6 p.m., accompanied by pianist John Root.

And, on name and iconic status alone, the 69-year-old violinist almost sold out Hill before he got around to declaring at least some repertoire for the recital as Labor Day approached. At this writing only a few clusters of rear balcony seats remain.

Read the rest at MLive.com

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An Emperor’s Feast: All-Beethoven, with Andre Watts, at the A2SO this weekend


Photo: Steve J. Sherman

Photo: Steve J. Sherman

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Sept. 9, 2014)
By his own admission, Arie Lipsky, music director of the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, likes to change things up. “I like contrasts,” he said in a recent phone call.

That said, the orchestra’s season-opening concert, set for Saturday evening at Hill Auditorium, is a little unusual for Lipsky, with only one composer and no lesser-known gems from that composer as the fare.

But who needs more when it’s Beethoven, right? Or when you have a pianist like the internationally celebrated Andre Watts soloing in the “Emperor” Concerto? Or when the great Fifth Symphony and the “Leonore Overture No. 3” are also on the bill?

And yet, there will be contrasts aplenty in Saturday’s gala “Beethoven Festival with Andre Watts,” on many levels. For one thing, the concert is a sort of calling card for an orchestra that has come of age and is on the ascendancy, an announcement of its maturity and stature.
Read the rest on MLIVE.com

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Momix dancers bringing their magic to the Ann Arbor Summer Festival


Momix performing Botanica

Susan Nisbett
Ann Arbor, Mich. (June 19, 2014)
What Moses Pendleton, founder of the deliriously imaginative dance company Momix, really wants is for you to see his garden in Connecticut – eye-popping acres of deep orange Moonsong marigolds, iris rearing their purple heads, sunflowers soon to tower over all.

Failing that, he’s inviting you to Power Center Saturday evening, where Momix brings the dance of the seasons indoors with “Botanica,” an eye-popping, imagination-opening, kaleidoscopic tour through the flora and fauna of winter-spring-summer-fall that arrives courtesy of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. (Note that the Sunday performance has been canceled. A Saturday afternoon master class is still on the schedule.)

“The transformative power of nature and of our own nature.” That’s what “Botanica” is all about, Pendleton said in a phone call as he tended that very Connecticut garden last week.

“I spend a lot of time in the gardens, in the sun, in the rain. I call myself the ‘avant gardener,’” said Pendleton, as fond of wordplay as he is adept at the play of images on stage. “I’m a druggie for nature, that’s where I’m nurtured.”

Read the rest at MLive.com


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Familiar faces: You may be sorry if you miss out on these top-tier musical talents

Lyle Lovett arrives Aug. 9 at the Michigan Theater

Lyle Lovett arrives Aug. 9 at the Michigan Theater

Ann Arbor, Mich (May 28, 2014)

Veteran acts who’ve played here before, a relative newcomer with Ann Arbor ties,
and even star of stage and screen are all ahead on Ann Arbor music stages this summer.

These shows are hot: Get your tickets before you get burned with a sold-out sign.

Booked are:

Elvis Costello (June 13 at the Michigan Theater)
Judy Collins (June 22, The Ark)
Jackson Browne (July 10, Michigan Theater)
Nickel Creek (July 12, Michigan Theater)
Lyle Lovett & His Large Band (Aug. 9, Michigan Theater)
Jeff Daniels and the Ben Daniels Band (Aug. 17, The Ark)
Michelle Chamuel (Aug. 21, outdoor stage at Liberty and South Division streets)
*Note that the Chamuel gig is part of the free Sonic Lunch series downtown – arrive
early for this one, no ticket needed. Chamuel, who has musical ties to Ann Arbor,
recently came in second on the TV singing competition “The Voice.”

Costello’s return is a real treat. For the last several years, he has been playing about
a month of solo dates in the U.S. a year, region by region. They are some of the most
adventurous and praised performances of his career, and the Ann Arbor stop is next
on the list.


Judy Collins (June 22, The Ark)

Collins, who was an Ann Arbor Folk Festival headliner in 2011, proved then
that she’s still capable of charming a crowd. She may be in her early 70s, but age
appeared not to have diminished the folk icon’s voice or passion. Her instrument
may be more delicate now, but on songs such as “Diamonds and Rust” and “Both
Sides Now” proved it is still capable of great power.

Consummate singer-songwriter Browne, who also performed here in 2011, proved
to be a master of the intimate acoustic show, sounding (and looking) like someone
years younger as he charged though most of his hits “The Pretender,” “Running on
Empty,” et al) and a few unknown tunes.

Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne


Michigan grad, Chamuel

Bluegrass hitmakers (yes, that is odd enough to be almost qualify as an oxymoron)
Nickel Creek – Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins – are back from hiatus
with the new CD “A Dotted Line.” It will be interesting to hear what they have been
up to together and apart.

Four-time Grammy winner Lyle Lovett came on the scene in the 1980s during a
nanosecond of Nashville openness that also spawned the career of k.d. lang. Is
his music country? Singer-songwriter folk? Big-band western swing? The correct
answer would be all of the above, with equal parts wry humor, dark and edgy
undertones and charming cowboy Romanticism. He’s played at The Ark and the Ann
Arbor Folk Festival, but this is his first full-scale show in Ann Arbor with the Large
Band in recent years.

In the case of actor and blues musician Jeff Daniels, it’s an example of like father
like son (or maybe the other was around). The elder Daniels, who has played the
Michigan Theater before with the Ben Daniels Band, has proved by now that he is
also a capable blues singer, guitarist and storyteller. The Ben Daniels Band includes
Tommy Reifel on bass, George Merkel on guitar, Wesley Fritzemeier on drums and
mandolin, and singer/songwriter Amanda Merte on vocals. All, including Daniels,
call Chelsea home.

Rounding out the list is Michelle Chamuel, a former University of Michigan School of
Music student and vocalist for the popular local bands My Dear Disco/Ella Riot from
around 2008-2011 before she wowed viewers on “The Voice” in 2013. Appearing
with her musical pal and collaborator Theo Katzman, her first full-length solo album
is due this fall. Expect a large crowd in the small Liberty Plaza area.

Get tickets for Michigan Theater shows at ticketmaster.com and all Ticketmaster
locations. Charge by phone at 800-745-3000.

Tickets for Ark shows available at http://www.theark.org or 734-761-1800.

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