Passionate Piano in Hill Hall

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Behzod Abduraimov. Photo: Cristian Fatu.

 

Carolina Performing Arts presented Uzbek-born pianist Behzod Abduraimov in recital April 18 in the Moeser Auditorium at UNC’s Hill Hall.  I don’t remember having been as moved by a pianist since I heard the young Vladimir Ashkenazy play Chopin in 1969. At that time, he would have been just a few of years older than the 27-year-old Abduraimov is now (of course, Ashkenazy looked mature to me then; Abduraimov looks so very young to me now). It is such a splendid age for music-making in artists who’ve achieved mastery so young. Their technical strengths and abundant energies disciplined, they can go exploring, pushing their potential for subtlety and power in emotional expression.

Before the concert, I met in the lobby a gentleman who is on the board of the International Center for Music in Kansas City–he had brought a friend to hear Abduraimov, who he has known as student and now artist-in-residence there. This man was effusive in his enthusiasm, saying that Abduraimov was very special, the kind of pianist who comes along rarely, one who illuminated disciplined technical brilliance with soul.

Yes.

The Bach was beautiful, infused with warmth and wit; the Schubert sorbet was smooth and refreshing; the Beethoven “Appassionata” was the most beautiful and heart-touching rendition I have ever heard. The lower notes were matte, almost velvety, umber and burnt sienna, ivory black, while the high notes were crystalline sapphire and amethyst; the middle range was occupied by the strange blue-greens of a Caspar David Friedrich painting, and vermillion and amber flashed out of their shadows. It was very Romantic. But the amazing thing was not the passionate Romanticism but the joyous, youthful buoyancy that propelled the music over its own rocks and chasms.

The entire audience leapt to its feet at its conclusion, and Abduraimov had to take three bows before the intermission.

After intermission came Prokofiev’s Sonata for Piano no. 6 in A Major, Op. 82, which also provided an ample field for Abduraimov’s enormous talent. The third movement, Tempo di valzer lentissimo, was particularly beautiful, especially at the instant it changed, shooting out like a champagne cork, into the fourth movement Vivace. After taking several more bows, Abduraimov concluded the evening with an encore, the Nocturne from Tchaikovsky’s Six Pieces for Piano, op. 19. It was a perfect concert.

That it was perfect is due in part to the wonderful room. The acoustics are excellent, and can be varied to suit the music. It has good sight lines and is very comfortable–and holds just 450. It is within the UNC-CH Music Dept., and some of CPA’s more intimate events are now held there. By next season, the word will have gotten around that this is a great venue, so pay attention if you want to hear anything there and get your tickets early.

 

 

An Unprecedented Opportunity, Coming Up at Carolina Performing Arts

I rarely write previews, because–you don’t really know ahead of time. But sometimes the risk of an event turning out not so well is negligible, and the odds of it being astounding are very good.

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Maestro Long Yu conducts the China Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo: Yan Liang.

 

Carolina Performing Arts is bringing the China Philharmonic Orchestra to Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill, for one of five US performances. Maestro Long Yu will conduct. The odds of it being a particularly gorgeous night at the symphony are about 99.9%

In my lifetime China has changed convulsively. It has gone from destroying its high culture and its practitioners during the Cultural Revolution, to cultivating it and them in a big way: evidence for this includes the China Philharmonic, founded in 2000 from the China Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra. (Like North Carolina’s own Symphony, the China Phil is a division of a state agency.) By 2009, Gramophone Magazine was calling the China Phil “one of the world’s most inspiring orchestras.”

But wait! There’s more! The program will open with the US premiere of a concerto for piano and orchestra commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts from the distinguished composer Chen Yi for UNC Associate Professor Clara Yang, who is a concert pianist. Four Spirits represents in sound the four spiritual animals of ancient Chinese tradition: the Blue Dragon of the East; the White Tiger of the West; the Red Phoenix of the South; and the Black Xuanwu, a turtle-snake hybrid, of the North.

The premier Chinese government-sponsored orchestra will play a new work based in ancient culture, by an expatriate Chinese woman, written for another expatriate Chinese woman soloist. That the performance in Chapel Hill will not be the world premiere, is because that recently took place in Beijing, in a new auditorium in the ancient Forbidden City, palace of emperors. Tectonic cultural plates have shifted. This kind of superb cultural diplomacy was completely unimaginable earlier in my life. Who knows if it will continue uninterrupted by new geo-political complications. Carpe diem–or rather, seize the night, this Thursday, December 8. Even if this orchestra returns one day, they wouldn’t be playing this new music.

“It is a big deal,” Clara Yang told me. “To perform with the premier orchestra in China, in the Forbidden City Concert Hall, was incredible. It meant so much to me to work with these incredible musicians. It was even more meaningful to have my family there, and on top of that, my childhood teacher from when I was very young, she came.” Yang was born in Tianjin, near Beijing; her family emigrated to the California Bay Area when she was 13.

But how did this whole thing come about?

“The whole commission started with Emil Kang,” says Yang. Kang is executive director of Carolina Performing Arts, and a very forward-thinking man. Amy Russell, CPA’s director of programming explains:

“We are great admirers of Clara Yang and Chen Yi.  Clara is of course our colleague at UNC, but we have also collaborated with her many times in the past and she is not only a fantastic pianist and interpreter of new music, but also a vital creative partner.  Almost two years ago, we were made aware that the China Philharmonic would be touring the US and we jumped at the chance to present them, with their brilliant Music Director Maestro Yu.  At that time, they also invited us to participate in selecting the repertoire for their performance in Chapel Hill, and we realized the opportunity to make more of this than even a night of great music.  As we always have Clara in mind for new projects, we proposed to the orchestra that we commission Dr. Chen to write a piece for Clara and they agreed to perform it on the program.  Dr. Chen was immediately enthusiastic to write the concerto, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Kang connected pianist Yang and composer Chen via email, YouTube, CDs, etc, but, says Yang, “before she started writing, I got to meet her and stay at her home [in Kansas City]. During the visit a sort of friendship developed. She is such a gracious person, so warm.

“Her music is full of life, of colors, of excitement, beauty–everything is in there!” says Yang. The concerto Four Spirits is “based on a few Chinese folksongs, but she goes off from there, she incorporates many techniques. Each movement sounds completely different, because is represents a different animal. The orchestration is very beautiful, very full.”

After Yang’s Beijing performance, she went into the audience to hear the rest of the program–Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, the same work the China Phil will perform after intermission in Chapel Hill on the 8th. “They sounded really really great.”

Hear for yourself. Tickets here. Showtime 7:30.

 

Troubadour: Richard Thompson at CPA

I’m a lucky person when it comes to music. I was introduced to all sorts of sounds early in life, and never forced into a single narrow allegiance, except to quality. Some of the best listening experiences, it turns out, come when one thinks one has already heard THE definitive version, only to have it capped.

An example: the first time I heard a recording of the band Fairport Convention. I was 14, up in my friend Sheila’s room in Ithaca, New York, 1969. She had several records of the new British electric folk, recordings that included some of the marvelous ancient ballads that came to this country and took root in our mountains. But that afternoon, she put on the new Fairport Convention album Liege and Lief that included “Matty Groves,” which I thought I knew all about from the Joan Baez recording. Well! I didn’t know much. Amazing forthright singing by Sandy Denny of lyrics that varied somewhat from the version I’d heard–but it was the guitar, the muscular ringing guitar propelling and belling under the words that blew my mind. That was Richard Thompson. You can listen to that version here.

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Richard Thompson. Photo: Pamela Littky.

 

Last night, Richard Thompson, now 67, played like that, only more so. Alone on Carolina Performing Arts‘ Memorial Hall stage, he performed songs from all his decades of music-making, from the 1960s to the 2010s. He did not play “Matty Groves,” but otherwise it was a choice selection from 50+ years as a troubadour, 50 years during which he has continually strengthened and refined his crafts, and his songwriting art has grown like a wild grapevine, sending his songs through the voices of many of the era’s singers.

Thompson’s songs are marvelous, and marvelously unclassifiable, as has been said in many ways by many reviewers: trenchant, with poetical word choices and surprising phrasing–often dark, sometimes sad or bitter or nostalgic or just aghast; but there are just enough gorgeous bright ones to get by on. Don’t want the audience to expire of emotional overload.  But the guitar! There was one man on the stage, with one instrument, but he made that box sound like five or six guitars at once. And separately: Thompson has a huge range of styles, all of which he is master. The driving force in the picking and sliding is irresistible.

Thompson was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2011, but it appears to have made no difference. His show has zero flash. He’s a workingman, a craftsman, and he stood stalwart for the long, unbroken set with three extensive encores, legs sturdy in blue jeans; muscles dancing below dark shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows, his trademark beret in place. Not a celebrity, not an entertainer, he was there to do a job of work, some of the best work there is, bringing music and stories to the people.

That he was at Carolina had to do with a professor named Florence Dore, who, as a Fellow at the National Humanities Center this year, is working on a multi-part project called “Novel Sounds: American Fiction in the Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Thompson took part in a panel discussion today as part of it. I’m surprised that anyone is surprised that there would be a reciprocity between storytelling in song and storytelling in novels, but there it is. And naturally the rhythms and tones of popular music infiltrate non-song writing, just as the ways of telling in novel and song influence each other. But Richard Thompson’s inclusion on the CPA schedule also fits with CPA’s admirable interest in older musicians, as well the new pathbreakers, and in presenting them these experienced artists in ways that make clear certain things one wants from art can come only from time spent living.

Thompson closed his last encore with “The Dimming of the Day.” Best version I ever heard–but we are both older now.

 

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