NEW YORK—The stage of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall became a veritable United Nations of talent, as the New York Concerti Sinfonietta presented winners of its 2013 International Concerto Competition and Shining Stars Debut soloists in a pair of concerts.
Reflecting the international character of the Concerto Competition, prizewinners performing at the Carnegie concert included a Polish pianist playing a Chopin concerto, a Mexican pianist playing a rarely encountered concerto by his countryman Manuel Ponce, a German pianist performing a work by Max Reger, and a Korean pianist playing Rachmaninoff.
Gifted youthful prodigies were represented by an extraordinary 11-year-old female African-American cellist playing Elgar, a precocious 11-year-old Japanese violinist performing a Sarasate showpiece, and a talented 10-year-old Filipino-American pianist in a Bach concerto.
The concerts were held at Carnegie’s Weill Hall on Feb. 25 and at the historic Church of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village on Feb. 26. Twenty-one musicians of the professional New York Concerti Sinfonietta performed at the first concert; the orchestra was expanded to 33 players the following evening. Principal conductor Paul Hostetter sympathetically directed the orchestra at both concerts.
Dr. Julie Jordan, founder and artistic director of the New York Concerti Sinfonietta’s International Concerto Competition, is an accomplished pianist and a faculty member of The Juilliard School Evening Division, where she has taught for the past 27 years.
The Feb. 25 concert began with three young debut award winners. Leading off the program was Seito Nakazawa, who just turned 11, performing Pablo de Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen” (“Gypsy Airs”), op. 20. There was something endearing about watching this pint-sized player who is young enough to be in the fifth grade. Meticulously bedecked in formal concert wear—including tuxedo, pleated shirt, and black bow tie—he exhibited a poised stage demeanor.
Despite his diminutive stature, he dug in hard with the bow to get a full tone, employed a wide vibrato, and even delivered a generous dollop of Gypsy schmaltz. He coped manfully with the work’s arsenal of violinistic tricks: double stops, trills, high harmonics, rapid figurations, left-hand pizzicatos, ricochet bowings, and wide leaps up the scale.
His intonation could best be described, however, as serviceable; this may have been due to nerves. A repeat performance the next evening was more assured. His pitch should solidify as he matures, and he will no doubt play with greater freedom.
Next was Sujari Britt, a remarkable 11-year old who attends the Precollege Division of the Manhattan School of Music. First Prize winner of the New York Concerti Sinfonietta’s Young Artist Debut award, Sujari performed the first two movements of the Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, op. 85.
Sujari played the work with deep feeling and complete command, displaying a rich, burnished, velvety tone. Sujari’s intonation was flawless over the entire range of the fingerboard. Her phrasing and dynamic variation placed her among the elite.
More important than the technical accomplishment was her preternatural musicality, showing an involvement with and sensitivity to the music far beyond her years. It was a memorable interpretation, by turns plaintive, passionate, and—in the concluding scherzo—playful (the manner in which she nonchalantly tossed off the ending was delightful).
In November 2009, Sujari, then 8 years old, performed a duet with noted cellist Alisa Weilerstein for President Obama at the White House. Dr. Julie Jordan is to be commended for affording Sujari this appearance with the New York Concerti Sinfonietta at Carnegie Hall. I felt I was witnessing the emergence of a major talent. Sujari’s Elgar eerily evoked memories of the late Jacqueline du Pré. With the right training and career guidance, it is no exaggeration to say she could achieve greatness.
Next, Benjamin Rossen played the first two movements of the Bach Piano Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056. The movements were heard in reverse order, beginning with the celebrated, lyrical “Arioso” slow movement and concluding with the vigorous opening movement. Currently 10-year-old Benjamin is also enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music Precollege Division.
In the Arioso, which is accompanied by pizzicato strings, Benjamin played very dryly, without pedal, in accordance with the latest trend in historically informed performance practice. (András Schiff recently played Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” in New York without using the piano’s sustaining pedal, on the theory that the harpsichord lacks one.) Benjamin’s concept was cool and anti-Romantic, with judicious ornamentation.
In the concluding movement, Benjamin’s playing was strongly accented: accurate, stable, and secure. He devoted admirable attention to the bass line and to emphasizing scale progressions. Benjamin exhibited a stylistic awareness unexpected in one so young. The orchestra’s sensitive accompaniment avoided covering the soloist.
Competition Winners Play
After youth had held sway, it was time for the adult competition winners to play. Mexican pianist and conductor Abdiel Vázquez, who has studied with James Tocco and Oxana Yablonskaya, performed the “Concierto Romántico” by his compatriot Manuel Ponce. Primarily famous for his guitar music, Ponce, who was a virtuoso pianist, wrote the concerto in 1910. It is comparatively unknown; there is no recording of the work currently in print.
Written in three movements played without pause, the work combines Lisztian bravura (and a touch of bombast) with Wagnerian chromaticism, at times sounding like a newly rediscovered Liszt piano concerto. Its cascades of scales, figurations, and arpeggios present the soloist with a real workout. Mr. Vázquez was equal to the challenge, dispatching its difficulties with aplomb and panache. His playing manifested improvisatory freedom, sonorous climaxes, and formidable octaves.
Mr. Vázquez cut a handsome figure. With his authoritative playing and curly-haired, matinée idol good looks, he earned a cheering demonstration and bouquets of flowers.
Polish pianist Grzegorz Niemczuk, previously First Prize winner of the 40th National Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2010, currently studies with Jeffrey Swann. As First Prize winner of the 2013 International Concerto Competition at Carnegie Hall, Mr. Niemczuk gave a highly accomplished and artistically distinguished interpretation of the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, op. 21.
The slow movement wove a spell like a Chopin Nocturne, with expressive phrasing and perfectly gauged rubato. This was Chopin playing of the highest order, refined and subtle, inspired by bel canto singing. His elegant performance of the mazurka-based finale captured its dance-like essence.
Mr. Niemczuk’s playing was notable for its fluidity, extremely wide dynamic range—from resounding fortissimos to whisper-soft pianissimos, variety of tone colors, and dazzling virtuosity. Maestro Hostetter and the orchestra were responsive and supportive partners.
The final two performers at the Feb. 25 concert played works for solo piano without orchestra. German pianist Robin Giesbrecht, who currently studies at The Juilliard School with Jerome Lowenthal, performed Max Reger’s fugue from “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Telemann,” op. 134.
The five-minute-long work begins innocently enough in neo-Baroque fashion but soon veers off in unanticipated directions. The fugue’s finger-twisting, chromatic complexities held no terrors for Mr. Giesbrecht. Even the most difficult passages were dispatched with floods of tone and organ-like sonority. Played with stunning bravura and seemingly unlimited virtuosity, it was the most interesting performance I have ever heard of the work.
Korean-born Jin Hwa Lee had performed the Brahms First Piano Concerto with the New York Concerti Sinfonietta on Dec. 11. Tonight she played the first movement of the infrequently heard Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, op. 28.
Choosing to begin the movement in a more lyrical and gentle manner than is customary, she nicely caught the nervous intensity of the middle of the movement, rising to a fortissimo climax. It was enjoyable to witness a performance of Rachmaninoff that concentrated on musicality rather than muscularity. The First Sonata was a welcome choice of programming; it deserves to be heard more often in the concert hall.
The following evening, three additional performers were heard with orchestra at the Church of St. Joseph. Korean-born Benjamin Kim, a 2012 International Concerto Competition winner, repeated the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, op. 33, which he had performed at Carnegie Hall Nov. 13. His playing, by turns swift and soulful, confirmed the essentially positive impression he had made at his last appearance.
Born in Tokyo, Tomoe Sato had performed a solo piano work of Ravel at Carnegie on Nov. 13. A 2012 master’s graduate of Mannes College, she played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488.
Ms. Sato gave a shapely, well-proportioned reading of the genial first movement that highlighted her enviably even technique and her refreshing stylistic appropriateness. The yearning, long-breathed melodies of the slow movement were highly expressive within a classical framework, while she deftly conveyed the bubbly, comic opera mood of the finale. Maestro Hostetter gave the orchestra’s excellent solo winds a chance to shine.
Concluding the concert, Beatrice Soderberg gave a sonorous performance of the opening movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, op. 23. Ms. Soderberg’s startlingly powerful opening chords riveted the audience’s attention. It was as if the 7-foot Yamaha concert grand piano had suddenly grown by an additional two feet.
Ms. Soderberg is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. Hers was an exciting—if not always fastidious—risk-taking interpretation that flung caution to the winds. The solo episodes and cadenza were daringly improvisatory. She gave a powerhouse performance, suffused with adrenaline, flaunting precipitous octaves so speedy that they could have captured the trophy at the Daytona 500.
Ms. Soderberg’s Tchaikovsky concerto was a thrilling roller coaster ride, capping two days of impressive performances by International Concerto Competition winners. In all, the pair of concerts was a cornucopia of musical riches, introducing ten soloists of outstandingly high caliber.
Future concerts of the New York Concerti Sinfonietta’s International Concerto Competition winners and Shining Stars Debut soloists will be held May 5 at the Church of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village and May 19 at St. Gregory the Great Church, as well as in the fall of 2013. For information or to apply for forthcoming competitions, contact www.newyorkconcertisinfonietta.com and www.juliejordanpresents.com.
Michael Sherwin, a Rockefeller and Fromm Foundation Fellow in music criticism, currently writes for The Epoch Times and Wagner Notes.
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