Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Plasencia Offers Thrilling Senior Recital

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Wed, Mar 24, 2010 at 1:29 PM

I first became acquainted with pianist Benny John Plasencia over four years ago, during his freshman year at the College of Charleston — not long after he came here from his native Peru on scholarship to study with piano guru Enrique Graf (who runs one of the country’s finest piano pedagogy programs). After hearing him informally, I was immediately impressed with both his technical ability and innate musicality, and I thought his future at the college certainly looked bright. But then — though we still heard occasional comments about his extraordinary talent — we heard rather little from him in performance, aside from occasional memorable Piccolo Spoleto appearances (you can hear several of them HERE). While I never discussed it with him in detail, it seems a debilitating eye condition and associated problems were conspiring to keep him away from the concert stage.

But Benny was still very much around, keeping busy as a student: pursuing strong academic sidelines in foreign languages like Russian and German (and perfecting his English, too), while appearing occasionally as a keyboard collaborator or accompanist. I wasn’t the only one who wondered if we’d ever get a full solo recital from him. Thus, when he recently announced his impending senior recital, I was determined to be there — especially when I found out what he would be playing.

So — along with a small, but select crowd — I showed up at the Simons Center recital earlier this month to hear him play two very demanding works: JS Bach’s Partita No. 2 is one of the German master’s finest (and trickiest) keyboard works — and then there’s Russian pianist-composer’s near-impossible Piano Concerto No. 3, heard with a second piano serving as an ersatz orchestra. This work is widely regarded as one of the world’s two or three most infernally difficult and exhausting concertos. It seems Benny was looking to make up for lost time — and to prove that he has what it takes.

The Partita — a six-movement suite of stylized dances — came off very well: Benny has a bold, yet sweet touch with Bach. I was surprised by his speedy, yet legato approach in the dramatic opening Sinfonia movement, once the dramatic opening passages were past. His playing was clear and fluid, with deft handling of Bach’s magical, but tricky counterpoint. He was supremely expressive in the following Allemande, bringing out the music’s heady content, with all of its inherent grace and elegance. He infused the next-to-last Rondeaux movement with an elfin lilt and spirit — before rendering a headlong and exciting gallop through the final Capriccio, with fleet and flying fingers that missed very few notes. It wasn’t quite perfect (what live performance ever is?) — and I wished for just a bit more delicacy to his playing here and there. Still, I could listen joyfully to Benny’s Bach all day.

And, ah — the Rachmaninoff! Remember, this is a work of legendary difficulty — requiring nearly superhuman dexterity and stamina. The composer “gave” the work to super-virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz not long before he died (at least according to Horowitz), because nobody else could pull it off like he could. In the movie Shine (dramatizing a true story), the work’s notorious, knuckle-busting demands drove an already troubled young artist over the brink into insanity. Few college-level pianists are accomplished (or brave) enough to even attempt it. But Benny dove, head-and-fingers-first, into this seething musical cauldron — and, in the end, emerged not only intact, but triumphant.
Again, it was hardly flawless — but then I’ve never heard a perfect performance of this piece, not even in the best recordings. He appeared — quite naturally — to be laboring grimly as he plowed through some of the most difficult and spectacular passages — but, every now and then, we saw little smiles creasing the corners of his lips as he played, as if to say, “Yeah, I nailed that one!” And he accomplished much more than just hitting most of the notes — often at breakneck tempos, to boot. His understanding of Rachmaninoff’s tortured psyche shone through from beginning to end, in emotionally wrenching, ultra-romantic passages that caught the music’s often fevered neuroticism and melancholic resignation.

The performance’s only major frustration was hearing the piece with the orchestral part coming from a second piano. While local piano standout Irina Pevzner played her considerable part splendidly (she’s Charleston’s favorite “piano orchestra”), the overall sound tended to get a bit mushy and indistinct when both pianos were going hard and heavy: unless you knew the music well, it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing what. But that’s how you hear concertos in most college settings.

So, finally, with this daring display of pianistic skill and deep musicianship, Mr. Plasencia has indeed proven himself to be a young keyboard artist who must now be taken seriously — and as someone who reflects distinct credit upon his school and his teacher. Mr. Graf’s proud smiles and comments afterwards certainly bore that out. While we may have wondered if such an evening would ever come to pass, it was certainly worth the wait. Bravo, Benny!

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Native Son Mikhail Agrest Returns to Conduct CSO

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Tue, Mar 16, 2010 at 12:44 PM

Technically, conductor Mikhail Agrest is not exactly a true native— having emigrated here from St. Petersburg, Russia as a boy with his parents in the 1980’s — but we’ll gladly claim him anyway. His parents, Alex and Rosolita — who had been prominent musicians back home — soon found work and warm acceptance with the Charleston Symphony as members of the strings section. Cynthia Branch, CSO’s director of patron services, remembers admonishing little Mikhail to stop dashing up and down the Gaillard’s hallways during rehearsals. She, along with many others, also remembers the time when — as a brilliant young teenaged violinist — he appeared with the CSO as featured soloist in the Mendelssohn concerto. At about the same time, I heard him perform splendidly along with his parents as part of a string quartet.

Well, Mikhail is all grown up now, with a family of his own. And he’s also got a fabulous career going, as a busy and highly successful young conductor who has performed on four continents. His advanced education (supported by patrons in Charleston) took him to Indiana University’s legendary music school. From there it was back to St. Petersburg, where he studied conducting and landed his first position with the Marinsky Theater. There, he became assistant to — and a protégé of — Valery Gergiev, Russia’s greatest Maestro. This led to acclaimed appearances worldwide, wherever the Marinsky’s famous ballet & opera troupes performed — including New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He’s also been in considerable demand as a guest conductor with more of the world’s top orchestras than you can shake a baton at.

So — while we can't begrudge him his burgeoning succes — his debut appearance conducting the CSO has been long overdue ... but better late than never. The occasion was the hometown band’s latest Masterworks event, which took place at the Gaillard Saturday before last, in front of a regrettably sparse crowd. But imagine how he must’ve felt, directing the orchestra with which he first appeared as a boy-wonder violinist … and with his proud daddy beaming at him from the viola section.

He led a choice program of symphonic favorites from German and Russian masters, beginning with the overture to Oberon, one of Carl Maria von Weber’s operas — and one of his finest short orchestral compositions. Under his deft baton, our players delivered a bracing account, with standout contributions from Brandon Nichols’ horn and Charles Messersmith’s clarinet. From there it was on to one of Peter Tchaikovsky’s most delightful creations, the Orchestral Suite No. 4, nicknamed the “Mozartiana.” Tchaikovsky idolized the Austrian master, and honored him by basing this piece on actual themes from some of his more obscure works, but presenting them with his hallmark romantic orchestral richness. Agrest led a happy and affecting performance, catching every last bit of the music’s charm and sunny spirit. The highlight for me was the final movement’s sparkling ‘Theme and variations,’ featuring a protracted and beautifully played violin solo from acting concertmaster Amos Lawrence.

After intermission, Mikhail preceded the final selection with a short and moving speech about his remarkable musical journey, and how he traces it all back to Charleston, his adopted home. Then, as the evening’s final thank-you, he mounted the podium for a noble and emotionally potent performance of Johannes Brahms’ mighty Symphony No. 1. Tormented by the lingering shadow of Beethoven, Germany’s supreme symphonist, Brahms struggled for many years with this one — but posterity agrees that it’s this work that established him as the older master’s true successor.

After the somber and brooding introduction, Agrest propelled his players fearlessly into the first movement’s sweeping theme, with its magnificent orchestral hammer-strokes — while skillfully defusing the prevailing tensions in contrasting lyrical passages. In the following ‘Andante sostenuto’ movement, he and his players melted our hearts, capturing the deepest essence of this serenely pastoral music while doing justice to its ominous undercurrents. They nailed the similar contrasts in the ‘Un poco allegretto e grazioso’ movement, in music that ranged from flowing and graceful to dark and unsettled. In the intense and varied finale, they took us on a glorious and thrilling tour of the composer’s psyche, touching on more moods and feelings than you could count.

Undersized or not, the strings sections outdid themselves, managing — for the most part — to produce the kind of weighty, burnished tone that Brahms so often calls for. Their sound was especially luscious in the finale’s famous main theme, heard as a glowing chorale from the lower strings. The woodwinds sang sweetly throughout, and the assorted brasses sounded terrific. Timpanist supreme Beth Albert got a real workout, too. The orchestra’s technical cohesion and sense of ensemble were exemplary, in music that’s not easy on either players or conductor.

But the evening's triumph belonged to Mikhail. It’s about time he came home for more than just family visits. Let’s all lobby to get him back to conduct our wonderful orchestra more often. After all, though he may be one of the world’s finest emerging young conductors, he’s also one of our own … and we deserve to share the fruits of his prodigious talent more often.

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Reflections on a “Wunderkind”

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Fri, Mar 5, 2010 at 10:27 AM

It’s been several weeks since 15-year-old Micah McLaurin became the youngest-ever pianist to perform a full recital under the auspices of the College of Charleston’s International Piano Series. This series is one of our most prestigious local musical institutions, having brought nearly a hundred distinguished pianists to town — including keyboard legends like Earl Wild and Leon Fleisher. And it’s taken me awhile to process the amazing experience.

I’ve been following this local prodigy’s phenomenal artistic development ever since he was eleven, when I staged the first of his three public recitals at my old Millennium Music classical room. In addition to providing him with quite a bit of press exposure (also click HERE), I’m pleased to have become one of his minor “mentors” along the way. I’ve taken him to quite a few classical concerts (mostly Spoleto) and advised him on the best piano CDs — even loaning him quite a few from my own collection. We’ve often yakked back and forth online about music. We’ve joked about him saving me a front-row ticket for his Carnegie Hall debut — and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if that comes to pass.

How then, you might ask, can I write an honest review about a performance by a young man in whom I’ve taken a quasi-paternal interest? How can I, being one of his biggest and most wonder-struck fans, pretend to any degree of objectivity? Still, I believe my insights into his wondrous talent are as deep as anybody’s. So, here goes — but don’t expect a conventional review.

His program was a particularly difficult and ambitious one, encompassing every major period of classical music from the Baroque era through the twentieth century. Having written his concert program notes, I first thought that he was setting himself a well-nigh impossible challenge — but his teacher (and IPS director) Enrique Graf had faith that he could pull it off — and Micah has never ceased to surprise all of us with his accomplishments.

To begin, every great composer bequeaths us a little bit of his soul in his compositions — which is what makes music perhaps the most “immortal” of the arts. It takes a certain musical maturity, on top of finely attuned sensitivity, to catch these wisps of the composer’s deepest essence, and to express them with the characteristic sound and style that best brings his creations to life in the listener’s ear. Then there’s the matter of period style: touch, tone, pedal technique and expressive devices all vary considerably from one period to the next. Even among accomplished adult pianists, you’d be hard-pressed to find one who’s a master across the board.

That’s part of the miracle of Micah’s playing: he has the uncanny ability to capture just about any composer’s unique sound and spirit and convey them to his listeners. Micah’s most special touch is for the great romantics: his interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s blazing Sonata No. 2 — which ended his recital — was an absolute marvel, wringing every drop of this emotionally tormented composer’s feverish, neurotic passion out of the music, while delivering the usual spectacular bravura display — almost as an afterthought. In his earlier rendition of Chopin’s deep and bittersweet Ballade No. 4, he expressed that composer’s subtler, more introspective emotional language to near-perfection, while laying down some brilliant virtuosity that never called attention to itself. Technical prowess rings hollow without a heart and soul behind it.

The rest of the program was nearly as remarkable. His Haydn sonata (No. 38) was a model of restrained classical-era grace and clarity. His go at Prokofiev’s brief, but wide-ranging Sonata No. 3 offered thrilling contrast between the composer’s hallmark motoric drive and his more lyrical side. Only in Bach’s French Suite No. 5 — the recital’s opening work — did Micah sound a little out-of-touch with the old master’s unique keyboard style. Don’t get me wrong: he delivered the clean articulation and contrapuntal clarity that Bach demands, along with several moments of real charm — but his playing was a bit stiff and straightforward, with only minimal ornamentation and little of the improvisational flair that the best pianists bring to Bach. It was as if Micah has not quite come to terms yet with Bach’s mind-bending cerebral complexity … but give him a year or two. Micah continues to improve by leaps and bounds — and, as his bright future unfolds, the sky’s the limit.

The rousing standing ovation — from the biggest (sold out!) crowd to ever pack the Sottile for this series’ recitals — brought us the same encore that had followed Micah’s concerto performance (with the Charleston Symphony) a few evenings before: Liszt’s shimmering and sensual transcription of Wagner’s Love-Death. And — as before — it was simply breathtaking: perfectly paced, with crystalline tone and aching emotionality.

As he told me afterwards, he was a little upset that he made more mistakes than he had hoped. But they were mostly minor slips that only stuffy old music critics like me (and other pianists) might catch — and he recovered nicely from all of them: yet another characteristic of a true piano pro. But, with all said and done, it’s about time that — with two back-to-back public appearances at major local venues — a pretty good chunk of Charleston’s music lovers have now heard him; in the process, many of you have experienced your first true musical Wunderkind. And — trust me — he’s just beginning to hit his full stride. So, now that many of you have joined his growing throng of marveling fans, just join me in watching him go. I’ll be keeping you posted.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

CSO, Young Talents Amaze at the Gaillard

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Sun, Feb 14, 2010 at 11:30 PM

A substantial crowd was on hand to witness the local orchestral debuts of two extraordinary young artists at the Charleston Symphony’s Masterworks concert last Saturday. Maestro David Stahl led his wonderful musicians in a delightful and satisfying all-Mozart program that featured several of the Austrian master’s best-known works.

The Maestro and his minions got things started with the overture to the composer’s final opera, The Magic Flute; a work that — despite its often frivolous characters and many comic moments — is loaded with Masonic philosophy and symbolism. The three solemn opening chords presage the opera’s darker themes, but the music soon takes a lighter, more spirited turn before proceeding — amid several major-minor key shifts — to its glorious close. Stahl and company offered a glittering performance, while executing the music’s many mood-swings perfectly.

The vocal treats that followed were from the same opera: the two spectacular and beastly difficult arias from the “Queen of the Night,” the work’s primary villain. Mozart delighted in writing near-impossible material for the finest sopranos of his day, and he outdid himself in this formidable pair. Vocal honors fell this night to Amy Lynn Call, a fabulous young American dramatic coloratura soprano who is just emerging from her student years — but already has an impressive record of appearances in Austria and Germany. One of her mainstays there is just this role: one that — at any given point in time — perhaps ten sopranos worldwide are capable of performing to major-metro standards (the late Beverly Sills got her start with it).

Based on Call’s performances here, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see her join this elite class of singers — and soon. Singing with confident poise, she electrified her audience with her lovely tone, tremendous range and stupendous vocal agility. Her highest notes were perfectly controlled, bouncing acrobatically around the vocal stratosphere with dead-on pitch and articulation in passages where many sopranos can only screech. I wonder if I’ve ever heard better performances of these numbers anywhere — even at a couple of the world’s best opera houses. She certainly earned her raucous standing O.

Then came a second cause for thunderstruck wonder: an appearance by 15-year-old local pianist Micah McLaurin, who is rapidly establishing himself as our most brilliant hometown prodigy. The most remarkable aspect of his playing is his uncanny interpretive maturity and deep emotionality. A student of the College of Charleston’s piano master Enrique Graf, Micah already has an impressive record of awards and competition wins — and he showed us why here.

His scheduled work was the glowing slow (Adagio) movement from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which he delivered with delicate grace and deep expression — beautifully supported by Stahl and company. But still, this incredibly lovely music hardly showed us everything Micah is capable of. So, not far into the audience’s noisy standing ovation, he offered an encore (which I later learned was planned in advance): piano master Franz Liszt’s ravishing keyboard transcription of Richard Wager’s Liebestod (Love-Death), from his operatic masterpiece Tristan und Isolde. This is some of the most passionate music ever written, and Micah brought it to gut-wrenching life: with ravishing tone, perfect linear control and devastating sentiment. Many of us heard our first true prodigy here.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to deliver Mozart’s ingenious Symphony No. 40 in G minor — one of his two magnificent final works in the genre. Stahl led a chiseled and lively account, bringing out all of the work’s subtleties as well as its sense of nervous tension and dramatic glory. Mozart achieved some of his finest orchestral counterpoint in this one, and our players saw to it that we didn’t miss a note of it.

This wonderful evening of musical riches proved yet again that — even in a financially distressed season — this orchestra doesn’t need more than their core numbers — or flashy, big-name soloists — to deliver world-class performances of the greatest classics to appreciative audiences.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

CSO Spiritual Ensemble Offers Fresh Cultural Treasure

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Wed, Feb 10, 2010 at 10:44 PM

I’ve loved spirituals ever since I sang some simple arrangements of them with my very first choir, as a fifth-grade boy soprano. Even though I knew nothing at the time of the genre’s roots, I instinctively felt that no other music we sang held such sad yearning, gripping emotion or downright exuberance. Since then, my personal musical journey has brought me ever closer to them, both as a singer and a music writer.

I read with great interest of the spiritual’s colonial-era origins, when music was perhaps the only means of expression that an enslaved people could call their own. And I learned that spirituals stand as one of the main pillars of American musical culture — alongside the many other Afro-American styles (ragtime, blues, jazz) that have influenced our nation’s unique contributions to the world of music. Whether you’re black, white, or of any other cultural origin, spirituals belong to all Americans.

I was thus delighted to learn last year of the formation of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Spiritual Ensemble: a select sub-ensemble from the CSO’s popular Gospel Choir. Charleston already has a well-known spiritual choir — the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals — that honorably strives to sustain the old spiritual tradition. But it’s mostly a bunch of genteel, historically sincere white folks who perform spirituals much as they were sung in their heyday: very simply, and with little harmonic or rhythmic sophistication.

But spirituals have inspired many gifted composers to transform them into mainstream choral music — and none of them did a better job of that than Moses Hogan (1957-2003). His untimely passing deprived the world of its finest arranger of spirituals; nobody else — before or since — has matched his achievements in elevating the genre to modern levels of classical complexity and sophistication, while preserving its hallmark characteristics and boosting its appeal to singers and listeners alike. When I learned that Charleston’s new Spiritual Ensemble was slated to perform an entire program of Hogan’s arrangements to celebrate their first anniversary, I knew that nothing could keep me away.

I’ve heard this group — a true rainbow coalition — twice before: in their appearance last fall in the Charleston International Festival of Choirs, as well as in a prior rehearsal. I was immediately struck — not only by their fabulous sound and spirit — but by the way their gifted director, Nathan L. Nelson, held them to high standards of rhythmic precision, dynamic variety and tone production. And last Saturday’s concert at Trinity United Methodist Church revealed even further growth and refinement as a performing entity.

I can hardly imagine another group that could — or would — handle sixteen Hogan arrangements (almost all of them a cappella) in a single concert: they are NOT easy to sing. We heard many of the best of them: from relatively subdued pieces like “Hear my Prayer” and “There is a Balm in Gilead” to rock-‘em-sock-‘em numbers like “The Battle of Jericho” and “Elijah Rock.” And our singers brought them all to vibrant life — with commendable precision, accurate intonation, lush tone and deep sacred sincerity. I marveled at how Nelson — a charismatic conductor — drew Hogan’s hallmark sounds and effects from his committed singers.

Guest soloist Laquavia Alston melted our hearts and made the rafters ring with her magnificent mezzo voice. We also got spirited and sonorous solo work from soprano Theodosia Boston, tenor Lee Pringle (also ensemble founder-president), and baritone Vanceto Blyden. The only minor flaws I noted were a couple of slightly ragged choral entrances. And, as good as their male singers are, the group could still use a few more of them — especially deep basses — to further enrich their already impressive sound.

At last, Charleston can claim a first-rate choir that does full justice to a vital part of our region’s cultural heritage. As with any fairly new performing ensemble, I expect them to keep improving as over time — but, as they are, you can count on them to touch your heart, while making your listening experience a toe-tappin’, head-bobbin’ good time. So be sure to watch for their future concerts (via the above link): these terrific artists certainly deserve your attention and support.

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Lindsay Koob

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