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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Creating a culture of piano

In order to create a culture of piano in our community, we strive to program events for all ages from preschoolers to adults and all levels of musicianship from appreciative listener to professional musician.teaching

Toward that end, we opened our 2016-17 season with a workshop for a lesser-served group: the adult piano enthusiast. In October, pianist Paul Roberts from England spent 3 days giving lessons, master classes, and a concert to a mixed group of participants and observers, including computer programmers, a real estate broker, retired professors, a researcher, musicians and music teachers. It was a joyful, learning-intensive weekend.participants

Reminder:  Returning by popular demand is pianist, Inon Barnatan, whose sensitive, poetic playing and technical fireworks thrilled us last time.

~ Bonnie Esbensen


Steinway Piano Series Concert

Inon Barnatan
Sunday November 13
4:00 PM
The LaSells Stewart Center

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Program Notes

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Kholodenko’s Concert

Reflections on the May 1, 2016 Concert
By Michael Coolen

Vadym Kholodenko in Cliburn finalThe Russian words krika tishina translate, more or less, into “a screaming silence.” I thought of them while waiting for Vadym at the Eugene airport. His desire to address his recent tragedy through his music is a wonderful medicine for him and a gift to his audience members. His playing reflected not only his mastery of the piano, but it gave a clear example of who Vadym Kholodenko is as an artist. His relationship with the Steinway piano in LaSells auditorium began immediately when he sat down to practice. He smiled.

His performances of the Liszt were a revelation to me, since I have long found Liszt difficult to understand. It was a gift I was not expecting. At the first intermission I asked him if the piano was satisfactory, and he responded “a good piano.” The Scriabin Preludes during the second half were beautifully played, often revealing new insights into them. When he finished playing the Scriabin Fantasie at the conclusion of his recital, I almost expected him to stand up and kiss the piano because the two had created such sacred and profound music together.

The encore of the Rachmaninoff arrangement of a Tchaikovsky lullaby left several members in the audience shattered. It was perhaps the most deeply moving COPI concert I have attended. Bravo to Vadym and to COPI. And Bravo to the Corvallis audience who once again elicited this response from Vadym. “It was a good audience,” he said. “They were quiet, respectful and attentive, and I really liked them.”

 

Two Pianos, Two Pianists

Instead of one concert grand piano on stage, there will be two pianos at the next Steinway Piano Series concert on February 21, 2016. Our beautiful, full-throated 9 foot Steinway Model D will be on your left and a 9 foot Yamaha CFX will be on your right.

The Steinway was purchased following a hugely successful community fundraising campaign, making it truly the People’s Piano. It lives in its own secure, humidity- and temperature-controlled room backstage. The Yamaha is being loaned to us by the generous folks at Classic Pianos in Portland, A&RforblogOregon. Piano movers will have to make two round trips from Portland to Corvallis, first to bring us the piano in time for rehearsals and tuning, and after the concert to take it back to Portland. It’s amazing to watch the ease with which skilled piano movers handle these large instruments.

The two pianos will come to life when Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Roe take the stage to deliver another of their electrifying performances. While you’re enjoying the concert, note if there is any difference in the voices of the two pianos.

More information about Anderson & Roe
More information about the program they will be playing

~ Bonnie Esbensen

Steinway Piano Series
Anderson & Roe 
Sunday February 21, 2016
4:00 PM
LaSells Stewart Center

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Beethoven’s Pianos

Here at COPI, we are particularly interested in the fortepiano, because the modern piano is considered to be the direct descendent of the fortepiano.

In its day, the fortepiano distinguished itself from the harpsichord and the clavichord by its ability to produce a range of dynamics from loud to soft – an innovation made possible by having hammers strike the strings to produce a tone (as on modern pianos) rather than having quills pluck the strings (as on harpsichords).

YouTube / BBC Radio 3 – via Iframely

The development of the fortepiano is closely tied to Beethoven and his music. As keyboards changed and developed, Beethoven composed pieces that utilized the characteristics of the new instruments. However, Beethoven was generally unhappy with the instruments of his day and constantly demanded that pianos be built that would be adequate for his playing style and for the pieces he envisioned writing. According to historian Jeffrey Dane, Beethoven’s “conceptions and his music demanded a new nobility and breadth of utterance, for which he called into existence new elements of vitality and dramatic emphasis…”

Toward the end of his life, Beethoven acquired two pianos which came closer to meeting his needs; one was made by Broadwood and the other by Graf. These instruments had marvelous qualities; they were responsive, resonant, and clear.

Come by the Corvallis Public Library at 1PM on February 6 and hear a Graf fortepiano for yourself. Pianist David Kim will be giving a free lecture/demonstration. (See details below.) According to Artistic Director Dr. Rachelle McCabe, this is a special opportunity: “The Graf is so rarely heard and it’s a revelation when we hear the music of Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann played on a Graf.”

Mr. Kim will be playing a 6-1/2 foot Graf/Boesendorfer copy by Rod Regier.

Read more about Beethoven and his pianos:

Jeffrey Dane, Background of the Piano, 2001
Tom Schnabel, Beethoven’s Pianos2015

~ Bonnie Esbensen

David Kim, fortepiano
An Ahistorical Performance: Old Pianos and New Musicianship

Saturday, February 6, 2016
1:00 PM
Meeting Room
Corvallis Public Library
Free admission

Don’t miss David Kim and his fortepiano the night before at the Chamber Music Corvallis concert.

David Kim, fortepiano and Lauren Basney, violin
Friday, February 5, 2016
7:30 PM
First United Methodist Church
Corvallis, Oregon