Posted tagged ‘chopin’

Where Chopin Came From: Brian Ganz at the Music Center at Strathmore, February 18, 2017

February 20, 2017

There is no one I trust more to perform a program called “Chopin: A Young Genius” than Brian Ganz. His Chopin always blends the wisdom of age with the enthusiasm of youth, and he tells you from the stage what parts of the music strike sparks in him so you can appreciate them too. Thankfully, Ganz was the man performing that program at Strathmore on Saturday, in the seventh episode of his continuing mission to perform all the piano works of Chopin, under the auspices of the National Philharmonic.

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Brian Ganz, enjoying having performed. Photo by Jay Mallin.

On Saturday, Ganz played two of his “Musical Gardening” sequences, in which he plays works of the very young, slightly less young, and still young but fully mature Chopin, so you can see the seeds of Chopin’s genius taking root and then blooming. On Saturday, we got sequences of polonaises and mazurkas, each culminating in his first published essay in the genre. The early polonaise and mazurka were both charming but unmemorable; Ganz emphasized, however, that even in his early years Chopin composed music that was physically pleasurable to play, and Ganz made vivid his joy at playing it.

The second polonaise, Ganz said, packs “a hefty dose of teenage bravado—the testosterone has kicked in, and he’s talking smack. And I think that’s wonderful. He’s a normal teenage boy.” Indeed, it is almost all dazzle, as was the second mazurka Ganz played Saturday, but Ganz’s performances made both sound like the wonderful pieces he thinks they are. Meanwhile, the published polonaise and mazurka sounded a world apart in terms of their subtle treatment of the dance rhythms, their rich, variegated tone color, and their integration of ornament into the musical line—but Ganz also showed how Chopin had pushed himself to greatness, rather than springing forth a fully formed genius.

Bookending the program were two sets of pieces Chopin wrote after attaining that young genius: the three Nocturnes, Op. 9, and the 12 Études, Op. 10. Ganz’s performance of the first nocturne featured some of the best Chopin rubato I’ve ever heard, the left hand playing the rhythm steadily while the right hand dropped behind the beat, so the sighing figures that dominate the melody sounded like leaves clinging to trees before finally fluttering to earth. In the famous No. 2 in E-flat major, Ganz brought out the dance rhythm more prominently than in many performances I’ve heard, an engaging counterweight to the lambent harmonies. No. 3 was similarly distinguished.

Before performing the Op. 12 études, Ganz said that, as a child, he sent away for an LP of the études for $1.78, after which he wore out the groove on the record and dreamed of the day he could play them. His performances showed that he has been able to marry that young love for this music to a sophisticated understanding of its structure and, usefully, lots of virtuoso firepower. Ganz tried to play the études through, without stopping for applause, but his brilliance in the more note-heavy studies kept triggering spontaneous clapping, like after the eruptions of notes in No. 4. It wasn’t all display, of course; Ganz made the big operatic melody of No. 3 in E major sing winsomely, and in his remarks from the stage he called special attention to the weirdness of No. 6 in E-flat minor, an inward, morose piece that seemed to blossom under his fingertips. But the standing O after the “Revolutionary” étude that closed the set was one of the rare ovations I’ve encountered that felt like a release of tension rather than a perfunctory show of appreciation—you had to do something with all the energy and tension Ganz built up in his volcanic performance.

Ganz’s Chopin concerts have been so excellent that it’s going to be a shame when he finishes the monumental task of playing all these works. He hasn’t just been playing them; he’s been contexualizing them, appreciating them, inviting us to love them as much as he does. It’s harder for me to get out to concerts nowadays, but I never want to miss a concert experience like that. Looking forward to the 2018 edition already.

(See DMV Classical reviews of the 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 editions. I missed last year for some dumb reason.)

 

 

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Narrative through Notes: Brian Ganz at the Music Center at Strathmore, February 22, 2014

February 25, 2014

The fourth in Brian Ganz‘s series of concerts at the Music Center at Strathmore traversing the piano works of Frederic Chopin was titled “Chopin, the Storyteller,” but Ganz has always been telling stories through Chopin’s music, stories that help to animate everything from the earliest mazurka to the most celebrated ballade. The 2014 installment of the series just put it in the title.

Ganz addressing the Strathmore crowd on Saturday. Photo from his Facebook page.

Ganz addressing the Strathmore crowd on Saturday. Photo from his Facebook page.

As always, Ganz provided some remarks from the stage that were stimulating if you knew Chopin’s music well and helpful to focus your attention if you were exploring the repertoire through this concert. Ganz found evidence of Chopin’s narrative gift in his music’s immediacy (especially as Chopin worked with shorter forms), pacing, and his courage to explore the darker places. Fair assessments all!

Yet I was struck anew at this concert by the tension Chopin gets from ambiguity: the same phrase recast with a slight flicker in harmony that calls into question what’s come before, or a melody proceeding tentatively, doubling back on itself, unsure of where to take its next step. Ganz draws out these details, and it’s what makes his performances of works like the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17 no. 4, so remarkable. I’ve rarely wanted to both sit in stillness for a minute and stand up and cheer like I did after Ganz played this music on Saturday.

Ganz also keeps a sure rhythmic sense through all his careful explorations, which helped animate performances of the two Op. 65 waltzes that were somewhat slower than you often hear, and which made the Variationes brilliantes and the concert-closing Scherzo No. 4 as dazzling as the composer intended. It’s of a piece with his overall approach, which balances in-the-moment concentration and spontaneity with a keen feeling for the overall shape of the work.

The most dramatic test of Ganz’s concentration and hold over the audience came in his performance of the Ballade no. 4 in F minor. As he wound up to a grand climax of fortissimo chords, he leaned back just a little, milking a pause. During the silence, someone in the chorister seats shouted “All right!”, sounding like Otto the bus driver from “The Simpsons.” The audience tittered, and suddenly the spell cast by the performance seemed fragile. Yet Ganz trusted himself and the music, playing five soft chords slowly, with a ringing tone, to bring everything back to Chopin.

The National Philharmonic of Montgomery County, which sponsors Ganz’s series, will host Ganz on March 8 and 9 to play some more Chopin, specifically the first piano concerto. If you missed last Saturday’s concert, it’s another opportunity to hear an outstanding Chopin interpreter doing what he does best.

THE KIDS WERE KIND OF ANNOYING, THOUGH

The National Philharmonic has a commendable “All Kids Free, All the Time” policy that allows those from ages 7 to 17 to attend without paying. This has undoubtedly exposed many youths to inspiring music. On Saturday, it exposed the 7-year-old-looking boy in front of me to what seemed to be his worst nightmare, as incredibly antsy boredom in the concert’s first half yielded to desperate appeals for sleep in the second half, appeals only answered when he took it upon himself to go to sleep on the floor, to much murmuring from the adults who had dragged him to the concert. He remained asleep after the concert ended and he was picked up from the floor. The whole thing was remarkably distracting. I am not sure whether there are any larger lessons to be drawn from it, but it seemed worth mentioning.