Author Archives: Kevin Chen

Quirks Exhibited by Pianist Jonathan Biss at Herbst Theatre

Jonathan Biss 4-16-16

Jonathan Biss’s performance this evening at Herbst Theatre on February 11 was by far the most interesting piano recital I have ever witnessed in a concert hall. After playing Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe (“Songs of Dawn”), Biss exited the stage and returned with sheet music scores, presumably of his next several pieces — selections from Volume VII of Kurtág’s Játékok. He offered an explanation from the stage, much of it unfortunately inaudible to me, and then proceeded to play, laying the sheet music on the ground after the end of each piece. He then played Chopin’s Polonaise-fantaisie, the second movement of Brahm’s Piano Sonata No. 3, and concluded with Brahm’s collection of Klavierstücke from Opus 118 and 119. Quite unexpectedly, he held the final chord of the E-flat minor Intermezzo (Opus 118) for a solid 27 seconds. For the encore at the end, he said, “the night is darkest before dawn, so I will return to where I started,” and played the first movement of Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe again. Read full story

Archived in these categories: 20th Century, Piano, Romantic Era

Pianist Arnaldo Cohen at Herbst Theater

Arnaldo Cohen - 2-18-16

I scurried into Herbst Theater this afternoon attempting to appear as though I were not absolutely losing my mind at the possibility of experiencing the Busoni transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s epic Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor, Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, and Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor live in one sitting. Part of the excitement stemmed from my confidence in Cohen’s ability to deliver fantastic performances, for I was quite familiar with his work (sitting on my bookshelf is his CD titled Liszt, from which I have studied his recording of the Sonata many years ago while I was learning it myself). As I made my way to my seat, I remembered the album photo of Cohen cliff diving into a lake, and wondered whether a man could play such a dramatic piece as Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca in swim trunks. My question remained unanswered for he appeared onstage in suitably appropriate attire and commenced to play.

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Archived in these categories: Piano, Romantic Era

Vrindavan: Widows, Devotion, Artistic Fervor



I arrived at Naatak’s 50th musical production, Vrindavan, unaware of its unique conception and unprepared for its vigorous sensual interplay, so naturally my back-of-envelope single sheet of paper would not suffice for all the notes I wanted to take. Only fifteen minutes into the musical did I forfeit the pen and submit simply to enjoying the sublimity of the music, drama, and dance. So much was going on that I could only hope to discern some of the technicalities—performance virtuosity, artistic motifs, thematic progressions that correlate music and plot—but the show was so harmonized and fluid that I could hardly penetrate its complexity. In my first attempt to critique classical Indian art, I had brought a bucket to catch a wave. Fortunately after the show, the music director, Nachiketa Yakkundi, graciously took time out of his busy schedule to discuss Vrindavan further, correlating what we felt during the musical with specific elements of style. The entire experience underscored a welcoming culture of open-armed willingness to share, through both expression and teaching, and I strongly recommend all to experience Indian theatre by Naatak for not only their artistic delivery, but also their engagement with momentous realities of the world today.   Read full story

Archived in these categories: 20th Century, Opera

San Francisco Youth Symphony — They Don’t sound Young
 Pianist Agata Sorotokin      

Conductor Donato Cabrera and the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra began the afternoon’s concert performing Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila with invigorating liveliness and impressive control, as if they were filling the hall with festive energy to compliment the beginning of this exciting holiday season. The atmosphere could very well have provided the setting for the beginning of a light holiday movie, so much so that I found myself slouching too comfortably in Davies Hall. Although the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra is composed of young musicians, nothing about their performance indicated that they were children — these seemed like full-grown artists, seasoned to perfection.

After the Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila, high school senior, Agata Sorotokin came on stage as soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major. I admired the way the orchestra embellished the opening clarinet solo with adventurous gusto, and the way Agata and Cabrera gained synergy throughout, so that the concerto assumed a life of its own. I particularly enjoyed the second more dissonant and mischievous theme of the first movement, which Agata projected with fire and passion. Her enthusiasm and flair for visual performance suited well the high energy of this first movement, yet she was able to become noticeably more subdued and brooding during the slow, ponderous portions of the second movement. The calm, menacing mood that Agata and the orchestra projected during the second movement was among the most impressive music making of the afternoon. Especially effective was the stark contrast in the fifth variation of the theme, which demonstrated a crazed and stressful synchronization of octaves between the piano and orchestra. Agata pulled out all the stops in the final movement. As she ended her performance, dozens of floral bouquets appeared like magic from various sections of the audience.

After intermission, Cabrera and his Orchestra ended the program with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, one of the great romantic masterpieces of 19th-century romanticism. The orchestra seemed to have relaxed to an enlightened state, as each young musician savored the art to which they were contributing with such practiced ease. In the last movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” the orchestra demonstrated more of the menacing energy we had heard during the Prokofiev. Moods vacillating from eerily loony to nervously cheerful kept the audience on its toes until the heart-racing finale. It was a great piece with which to conclude the concert, and it was performed to passionate perfection.



Archived in these categories: 20th Century, Concerto, Orchestral, Piano, Romantic Era

San Francisco Symphony — Adventure, Dissonance, and Control.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson

Last night in Davies Hall we enjoyed a thrilling concert featuring Steven Stucky’s Jeu de timbres, Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin,” and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor. We heard guest conductor Juraj Valcuha directing the San Francisco Symphony, Ragnar Bohlin directing the choir for a portion of the Bartók and Garrick Ohlsson as piano soloist in the Rachmaninoff Concerto. It was a night to remember and to treasure.

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Archived in these categories: 20th Century, 21st Century, Concerto, Orchestral, Piano