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Variations on Variations

In a post last spring, I noted that we were experiencing several major piano sonatas over the course of two Steinway Series concerts. Jeremy Denk’s upcoming program features four sets of another famed piano form: variations, or theme and variations. In this form, the composer presents a theme, or melody, either original or a preexisting tune, relatively short and unadorned. This theme is then subjected to various techniques—melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, and others—that decorate, elaborate, evolve, and transform the original material. This gives the composer an opportunity to embark on a kind of kaleidoscopic exploration of the melody. The variations of Classical composers also frequently stemmed from live improvisation in public performances. Theme and variations can be standalone pieces, as in the first half of Denk’s concert, or movements or sections of movements in larger works, as in the first movement of the Schumann Fantasiethat Denk concludes his program with.

We have heard theme and variations on many recent COPI concerts. To name a few: the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 109 performed by Conrad Tao; the Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, performed by both Inan Barnaton and Simon Trpčeski; and the unforgettable Brahms Paganini Variations Natasha Paremski dazzled us with. And a few months ago, many of us were fortunate to hear Rachelle and Robin McCabe perform the Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydnfor duo piano.

Unlike the “Hero’s Journey” of the piano sonata discussed last spring, theme and variations may come across as less existentially valiant, rather merely compositional or performative razzle-dazzle. As a pianist, however, I love performing this form, and I think I can speak for my colleagues in this regard. There is something profound about the ever-deeper, transformative examination of the music; the whole is always contained in all the imaginative elements, techniques, and surprises along the way. Playing them, I have felt like I’m a destroyer of worlds like Shiva, or the builder of the most monumental cathedral ever imagined. And just hear the way Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations contribute to such devastating effect in Rachelle McCabe and Kathleen Moore’s A Call to Lifeprogram.

About the time I was starting my Master’s program, I was deeply into the writings of Czech novelist Milan Kundera. His brilliant Book of Laughter and Forgettingweaves together seven stories that themselves read like theme and variations. I’ve never forgotten a musical discussion in one of the sections between father and son about this form, and I would love to share it here. Although their conversation regards the variation movement of Beethoven’s last sonata Op. 111, the words shine a spotlight on the variation form at large with extraordinary insight:

A symphony is a musical epic. We might say that it is like a voyage leading from one thing to another, farther and farther away through the infinitude of the exterior world. Variations are also like a voyage. But that voyage does not lead through the infinitude of the exterior world. […] The voyage of variations leads into that other infinitude, into the infinite diversity of the interior world lying hidden in all things.

Beethoven thus discovered in variations another area to be explored. His variations are a new “invitation to the voyage.” Variation form is the form in which concentration is brought to its maximum; it enables the composer to speak only of essentials, to go straight to the core of the matter. A theme for variations often consists of no more than sixteen measures. Beethoven goes inside those sixteen measures as if down a shaft leading into the interior of the earth.

The voyage into that other infinitude is no less adventurous than the voyage of the epic. It is how the physicist penetrates into the wondrous depths of the atom. With every variations Beethoven moves farther and farther away from the initial theme, which resembles the last variations as little as a flower its image under a microscope.

Milan Kundera “The Angels” The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

~Matt Goodrich

Looking Forward to Jeremy Denk

Happy Holidays to all of you from all of us at Corvallis – OSU Piano International. We wish you a music – and (hopefully) leisure – filled next few weeks as we look forward to 2019. The New Year immediately provides the requisite fireworks as extraordinarily gifted pianist Jeremy Denk takes on the magnificent LaSells Steinway on Sunday, January 13. This concert is considerably sooner than our usual winter slot, but when we found ourselves with the opportunity to get Denk, we jumped at the chance. This is the pianist consistently most requested by you, our audience, and we know you will consider this concert a “must-see.” Mark your calendar now!

Jeremy Denk, 2013 MacArthur Fellow

Denk is the winner of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship (2013) and the Avery Fisher Prize (2014), and in 2016 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He performs across the United States and around the world to rave reviews. The New York Times calls Denk  “a pianist you want to hear no matter what he performs.” He offers one of the most interesting programs we will have heard on the Steinway Piano Series, including sets of variations by Beethoven, Bizet, and Mendelssohn, a Liszt transcription of a famous Beethoven song cycle, and the extraordinary Schumann Fantaisie. I am eagerly looking forward to starting out my 2019 on such an inspiring note, and I hope many of you will join me in the LaSells audience for an unforgettable January afternoon.

~ Matt Goodrich

Sunday, January 13, 2019
4:00 PM
The LaSells Stewart Center, OSU

Delightful Czech Piano Music

I had the great pleasure of spending ten days in Prague, Czech Republic, in the mid-1990s, not so long after Eastern Europe opened up. At that time the city was not quite today’s scrubbed jewel case. Even though still a bit rough around the edges, Prague presented at every turn art and architecture to astonish, and the creativity and world-weathered humor of its citizens was palpable. Every afternoon we enjoyed dumplings and red cabbage, then attended inexpensive concerts (sometimes two in succession) in splendid silver-gilded baroque churches. Ambling around the Old Town and over Charles Bridge, one could hear the sounds of all kinds of music intermingling with the unforgettable fragrance of more lilacs than you could possibly imagine. 

When Czech pianist Lukáš Vondráček launches our 2018-2019 Steinway Series on November 4, 2018, he will offer a rare treat—piano works by three of his homeland composers. This is extremely attractive and well-crafted music. As Bohemia was part of the Austrian Empire, its musicians were well connected to the main line of European classical music. Czech composers, especially guided by Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana, infused this with melodic spontaneity and harmonic unaffectedness, incorporating traces of native folk melodies and popular dance rhythms to create a fresh and insouciant musical language.

Vondráček presents a unique set of works by Vítězslav Novák (1870-1949), Josef Suk (1874-1935), and Smetana (1824-1884). Novák’s Memories, in three sections, evokes romantic piano writing tinged with the contours and rhythms of folk music. Suk’s “Love Song” is passionate and 

lush. Smetana’s Czech Dances, based on actual folk dances, are so lively and tuneful that I challenge you not to smile and tap your feet. Whether the first weekend of November proves sunny or gray, these rarely-heard Czech piano works are sure to surprise and delight. I am grateful to Vondráček for sharing music from his homeland with us. 

~ Matt Goodrich


Lukáš Vondráček Concert

Sunday, November 4, 2018
4:00 PM
The LaSells Stewart Center, OSU

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Welcome to the 2018-2019 Season!

This weekend marks the autumn equinox, and the reddening leaves and cool, clear air give imminent promise of an exciting new season for Corvallis-OSU Piano International. Our flagship Steinway Piano Series presents three extraordinary pianists, and you won’t want to miss the first weekend of March, when a fascinating lecture concert anchors our People and Pianos Celebration.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of French composer Claude Debussy. In just a few weeks, one of the world’s foremost Debussy pianists and scholars—Paul Roberts—returns to Corvallis for his acclaimed three-day adult piano workshop. We are still accepting a few more participants; click here for more information. 


The Steinway Series begins in mid-November with Lukáš Vondráček. The Czech pianist impressed Portland audiences earlier this year with his program featuring works of Robert Schumann as well as three Czech composers. Next, early in 2019, Jeremy Denk—most requested by the COPI audience—presents one of the most fascinating programs we’ve seen. I knew Jeremy as a fellow Oberlin student who wowed us all with his ability to play anything—even while tackling a challenging double major in piano and chemistry! Capping this series in April is the brilliant South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son, silver medalist at both the Tchaikovsky and Van Cliburn competitions, offering a beautiful program of Chopin and Scriabin preludes. 







The first two days of March feature our lecture concert and People and Piano Celebration. Alpin Hong, known as a “modern day Pied Piper” and “pianistic firebrand,” examines musical theme and variations with sage insight and humor. The next day, the Corvallis Library becomes a pianistic carnival, with talks, performances, readings, our popular Children’s Concert, and cake! 

We look forward to sharing pianos and pianists with you. Thanks to the generosity of concert sponsors, we are able to continue packaging Steinway Series concerts as a $60 season ticket—an astonishing offer in this day and age for such a rarefied level of performance. And students always attend for free with school ID. Allow the magic of the piano to surprise, delight, and transform you in the months ahead, as cloudy days and cool rains invite us to nurture our inner lives while they replenish our beautiful land. 

~ Matt Goodrich

Thoughts on the Sonata Journey

As indicated in the program notes for Vadym Kholodenko’s April 29 concert at OSU’s LaSells Stewart Center, we will have heard six piano sonatas in two months—three from Garrick Ohlsson, three more from Kholodenko. What makes this category of music so compelling for our performers and audience alike?

I have come to believe that all of us inherently crave meaningful travel (literally and figuratively, in all “dimensions”). The sonata form (usually the structure of a sonata’s first movement) embodies journey. Musicologists have written many thousands of words analyzing the sonata’s evolution over the centuries, but even the basic facts illustrate this principle. In a nutshell, the form usually consists of three main sections defined by the various themes (melodies, or “tunes”) and their key (“home scale”) relationships. The first section, called the exposition, states the main theme in the tonic (home) key, then heads for a new key, usually the dominant (built on the fifth tone of the home scale) or the relative major, where a second, often contrasting theme appears. The exposition ends with closing material in the new key. The second section, known as the development, is a dramatic working out of the material from the exposition. The music goes through inventive tonal and rhythmic compositional treatment, then finds its way to a prolonged dominant. This resolves into the last section, known as the recapitulation, in which the thematic material from the exposition recurs more or less in the home key, concluding with a punctuating coda.

Last year, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I had the great privilege of experiencing Mary Zimmerman’s stunning stage depiction of Homer’s Odyssey—the ultimate example of the narrative known as the hero’s journey. Three and a half hours passed in a flash, and the audience was visibly moved by the experience. We relate to these epic quests—they are an inherent human evolution archetype—and their artistic representation in dizzying variety (we see countless examples in theater, opera, movies…) affect us deeply when beautifully done.

In an imaginative musicological presentation given some fifteen years ago, my colleague and duo-piano collaborator Dr. Lisa Harrington (University of Colorado) explained the power of sonata form in its exemplification of the hero’s journey. The exposition represents the travel of the hero away from home and family. The unfolding of subjects shows the hero’s circumstances (first theme) and voyage and separation (second theme in new key), with the threshold of adventure reached by the end of the exposition. The working-out in the development depicts the hero’s expeditions through strange lands, with the heightened metamorphosis of musical material corresponding to the drama of the hero’s encounters and challenges. The coiling tension of the extended dominant (fifth tone) at the end of the development represents the climactic battle against otherworldly characters or deadly forces. At last, the restatement of the main theme in the home key* (launching the recapitulation) celebrates the hero’s victory! The remainder of the movement illustrates the hero’s return passage and restoration of balance between good and evil (not always easy, as the Odyssey shows). The music tells a narrative in sound of a transformative voyage. (Discussion of the other sonata movements is beyond the scope of this little essay.)

While onstage, the solo performer is the hero, the community’s representative who willingly undergoes a transformative journey with our (the audience’s) real-time participation. In those truly memorable concerts people talk about for years, the performer’s transformation is so heightened that it fully catalyzes our own transfiguration. We are forever changed, and in turn we now affect the world around us differently. This is the key reason why live performance has always been an inseparable part of the human cultural experience—and always will be. The “technological machine” may constantly push on-demand media experiences with ever-increasing ease, convenience, and vividness, but nothing will ever replace the thrill and edification of live performance. This Sunday, Vadym Kholodenko will simultaneously create, traverse, and guide us on three sonata journeys within his “uber performance journey.” Because he is an incredible musician, we will leave LaSells as completely new people. We never want to miss these opportunities.

*In her presentation, Harrington humorously (and aptly) distilled the key-relation journey of sonata form as the musical riff: “Shave and a haircut, two bits.”

~ Matt Goodrich

Vadym Kholodenko Concert
Sunday, April 29, 2018
4:00 PM
The LaSells Stewart Center, OSU

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Anticipating Ohlsson Concert

I first learned about Garrick Ohlsson as I did about most of the famous pianists of the mid-to-late 20th century: through Dean Elder’s interviews for Clavier, later compiled into Pianists at Play. I read this collection so many times as a high-schooler that I can still recount a good portion of Ohlsson’s early story without consulting it. (The volume, autographed by Mr. Elder, is on my bookshelf here—I’ve never gone anywhere without it.) As with all the pianists’ interviews, I was transfixed by the tales of the dramatic events of his upbringing, training, and preparing for major competitions; in Ohlsson’s case fireworks exploding during the Busoni in Bolzano, the heightened atmosphere of the Montreal (both first-prize wins), and then his capstone 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition triumph. Preferring this competition’s repertoire to that of the Tchaikovsky Competition his teacher Rosina Lhevinne encouraged him to enter instead, Ohlsson learned all the required Chopin music from scratch. The rest is history—he went to Warsaw at age 21 and won first prize, the first American to do so. The victory launched him on an stellar career of several decades that takes him to Corvallis on February 18.

Growing up in Syracuse, NY, I had the benefit of a community of truly superb piano teachers producing a considerable number of conservatory-bound pianists. Both the comradery and competition inspired us to work hard and mature as musicians as expediently as possible. We all shared the good fortune of having one of the nation’s major symphony orchestras (at the time officially classified as such) right in our city. During my senior year of high school, after Syracuse Symphony music director Christopher Keene was named general director of the New York City Opera, many notable guest conductors came through to audition for the post. One of the first was Jahja Ling (who has recently retired after a long tenure as music director of the San Diego Symphony). I attended with my father, my best friend (an excellent violinist), and my piano teacher. Ling made an extremely favorable impression on us, in large part for his beautifully skilled collaboration on the Grieg Piano Concerto. This was the first time I heard this incredibly rich work performed live. The piano soloist? Garrick Ohlsson, performing as magisterially as advertised. How exciting this all was! The combination of soloist, concerto, guest conductor on point, and great company made for an evening I have never forgotten.

As a new board member of Corvallis-OSU Piano International, I find one of the many wonderful things about COPI is the organization’s ongoing commitment that students always attend the Steinway Series concerts for free. While I was sharing this information with the Lincoln County OMTA group, I suddenly recalled being taken to hear Van Cliburn give a solo recital in Syracuse when I was in elementary school. This concert made a huge impression on me because I had just started piano lessons and recently seen Cliburn perform as a guest on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, playing the piano upside-down! (Lady Elaine Fairchild had cast a spell on him.) As I told the OMTA group, even back in 1975, I didn’t get into that concert for free!

In the time since I saw Ohlsson perform in Syracuse, he has forged a huge career, becoming one of the titanic pianists of his generation. I have heard him four more times in live performance, one of them an all-Chopin recital in Seattle in 2010 for the composer’s bicentennial. I was sitting with Robin McCabe, and afterward, we agreed that Ohlsson exhibited a miraculous ability to play each and every note with 100 percent intention.

Music teachers, please take your students to hear this major pianist (and all Steinway Series performers)! You never know what inner fire this may kindle. Students, impress your friends by inviting them to a free, inspiring study break or Sunday tea date. Parents, share these concerts with your families. In this go-go-go day and age, with everyone spending so much time parked in front of various electronic screens, I cannot imagine a soul who wouldn’t benefit from hearing such an accomplished and inspiring pianist share a life’s experience in music with us for an afternoon on the beautiful piano of the LaSells Stewart Center.

~ Matt Goodrich


Garrick Ohlsson Concert
Sunday, February 18, 2018
4:00 PM
The LaSells Stewart Center, OSU

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Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini

Of all the brilliant pianists COPI has had the honor to present, Natasha Paremski is the first to program Brahms’s fearsome Variations on a Theme of Paganini for us. These variations are undoubtedly one of the most difficult of all Romantic solo piano works. They comprise two books of 28 variations based on the popular Caprice No. 24 in A minor of Paganini for solo violin.

The original is itself a theme and variations, and prior to Brahms’s set, Schumann and Liszt composed their own variations on Paganini’s theme. As Brahms would have known these works and the musical ideas they mined, he purposefully intended his own as knuckle-crunching etude-variations.

Because he was such a superb composer, however, the technical challenges gild compelling musical expression, and they are thrilling to hear in live performance—on the rare occasion one gets to hear them! Not even Clara Schumann could play Brahms’s Paganini Variations (she referred to them as “Witch Variations”). They are indeed laden with fearsome technical challenges: double thirds and sixths, octaves, rapid hand-crossing, skips, trills, and cross rhythms—perilous from the first note to the last.

If you’ve seen Natasha Paremski’s performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 on the COPI web site, you know that she is more than up to this formidable task. Speaking of Rachmaninoff, he too wrote variations on this same tune: the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra—which is by far the most popular of all these sets. And this year Paremski has performed that work with symphonies in Arkansas, North Carolina, and Mexico.

~ Matt Goodrich

Natasha Paremski
Sunday, November 5, 2017
4:00 PM
The LaSells Stewart Center, OSU

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Concerts: A Two-Way Affair

It is tempting to think of concerts as a simple or one-directional interaction: the pianist performing on stage has an impact on the audience. However, it turns out there is communication in the other direction, as well; the audience makes an impact on the pianist.

I know this because pianists often comment on our audience. They describe our listeners as attentive and responsive to the music.

Joyce Yang, for example, who performed here in February made the following comment in a thank you note: Corvallis is such a special ‘Piano town’! It feels so wonderful playing for people that really care about piano music….Thank you again and I look forward to next time!

It is clear to me now that a concert is an opportunity for the pianist and the audience to engage with each other, producing music that is alive and unique in the moment.

Come and engage with Jon Kimura Parker in our final concert of the season on May 7.

~ Bonnie Esbensen

Oregon Sweeps the MTNA NW Division Piano Competition

It is with special pleasure that we saw Oregon piano students sweep the MTNA* Piano Competitions (Northwest Region) in January. Oregon students competed against top students from 5 other NW states and took first place in all 3 piano categories (Junior, Senior, and Young Artist).

The winner in the Junior category was Michael Gu, student of Dr. Rachelle McCabe. Many of you have seen Michael perform in COPI master classes and at the Steinway Day event at the Corvallis Library in 2015 when Michael was just 10 years old. Now age 12, Michael has won both the state and NW regional competitions. This qualifies him to go on to compete at the MTNA national competitions in March.

Previous winners of the MTNA national competitions include: Stephen Beus, who has performed twice on our Steinway Piano Series; Alan Chow, Frederic Chiu, and Monica Ohuchi Bunch.

Below are the names of the 3 Oregon winners. We wish them all the best at the MTNA national competitions in March.

Junior Piano Competition
Michael Gu, Corvallis

Senior Piano Competition
Nathan Kim, Portland

Young Artist Piano Competition
Ho Ni Connie Mack, Eugene

*MTNA is Music Teachers National Association of which OMTA is the Oregon affiliate.

~ Bonnie Esbensen


Joyce Yang in place of Arghamanyan

pianist Joyce YangNareh Arghamanyan was to perform here on February 12. Unfortunately, due to visa problems and border entry uncertainties, Nareh’s attorney advised her to cancel her entire tour.

In her place, we are truly fortunate to have the wonderful pianist Joyce Yang, who will perform pieces by Schumann, Grieg, and Vine on Sunday’s Steinway Piano Concert. Joyce stormed the international stage when she won the silver medal at the Van Cliburn Piano Competition when only 19 years of age.

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