The Jacobs School mourns the passing of alumnus Thomas Mastroianni

thomas-mastrioanni-450It is with sadness that the Jacobs School of Music shares the news of the death of pianist Thomas Mastroianni, September 19, 2014.

Thomas earned his BS and MS from Juilliard and after military service, he earned his Doctorate in Piano Performance (’70) from Indiana University where he worked with Bela Nagy and Sidney Foster.

He served as dean of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music from 1972 to 1981 and as a faculty member in Piano from 1972 and as head of Piano Studies from 1981 until his retirement in 2000. From 2000, he continued teaching piano students on a part-time basis.  Mastroianni was an internationally respected pianist, having performed extensively throughout the United States (including many performances at Carnegie Hall), Europe, Mexico, South America, and Asia.  He was an authority and champion of the music and other writings of the 19th-c. composer Franz Liszt, whose works Mastroianni performed throughout his career.  He was the longstanding president of the American Liszt Society and planned several conferences on Liszt’s music as well as being frequently invited to give lectures on Liszt in the U.S. and Europe.  He was a 1992 recipient of the Medal of The
Hungarian Liszt Society and had recently returned to Hungary with various presentations on the composer.

Jacobs alumna Jasmin Arakawa (DM ’13) tenure-track appointment at the University of South Alabama





Jasmin Arakawa (DM ’13, MM ’07) has recently been appointed Assistant Professor of Music (Piano) at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. She studied with Prof. Emile Naoumoff (piano) and Prof. Elisabeth Wright(harpsichord) at Jacobs School of Music.

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Music Review: Read Gainsford

Pianist gives full measure

By Peter Jacobi


“Too many notes.” That’s what a friend whispered to me as pianist Read Gainsford wound up his Thursday evening recital in Auer Hall with the nine Etudes-tableaux, Opus 39, of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

That surely didn’t mean there were too many notes for the remarkably deft Gainsford to handle but perhaps too many for a listener’s ears and mind to take in with comfort. One says that because the music stuns for what it technically requires but, unlike the etudes of Rachmaninoff’s predecessors, Chopin and Liszt, doesn’t seem to stick to the ribs of memory. The etudes may be likened to tonal gymnastics, amazing to hear unfold because of their level of difficulty. Gainsford proved himself without question as a major keyboard manipulator, through his feat telling the composer that he not only dared match the legendary virtuoso chord for chord and rhythmic surge for rhythmic surge but most probably managed to do so.

For the youngsters in the IU Piano Academy to hear such prodigious pianism from one of their teachers is undoubtedly a memorable experience.  Gainsford gave them an exhibition.  What’s more, prior to the etudes, he gave them, and the rest of us in the audience some delightful Haydn, the playful and also technically challenging Fantasia in C, and some profound Schubert, his final piano sonata, the B-Flat Major, D. 960, laden in the early movements with tender beauties and in the later with sparkle and joy.   To these, also, Gainsford gave full measure, easily mastering the mechanics and then generously imbuing the music with his interpretive refinements.


© Herald Times 2014

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Piano competition names two winners

The waiting room of the Jacobs School of Music’s Ford-Crawford Hall was filled with hushed tones and small clusters of young pianists being congratulated by their families.

Marc Levesque plays his piece for judges during the Jacobs School of Music Auer Summer Concerto Competition in Ford-Crawford Hall. Eleven pianists competed for a chance to play alongside the IU Student Summer Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Fagen. IU junior Xiting Yang and 16-year-old Ansen Hui both won.

Marc Levesque plays his piece for judges during the Jacobs School of Music Auer Summer Concerto Competition in Ford-Crawford Hall. Eleven pianists competed for a chance to play alongside the IU Student Summer Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Fagen. IU junior Xiting Yang and 16-year-old Ansen Hui both won.

The large room contained emerald green carpet and a tall ceiling decorated by a single crystal chandelier, but the conversation centered on a single thought — the winner of the 2014 Edward Auer Summer Concerto Competition.

Eleven pianists participated in the final round.

The first round started at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and the final round took place at 5:30 p.m.

By 7:10 p.m., the decision was made. The participants and their families re-entered Ford-Crawford Hall for the results.

“Is everybody here?” workshop and concerto competition director Edward Auer asked. “We have our winners. We don’t have first, second or third place, but instead we have two winners. They are Xiting Yang and Ansen Hui.”

The crowd broke out into applause and congratulated the competition’s winners.
Joy Xu, an assistant with the Edward Auer Summer Workshop, spoke of the diversity, experience and talent each of the performers had.

“I think it went very well,” Xu said about the final round performance. “The participants come from all over the world. Some are from Canada, Ecuador and Korea.”

The Edward Auer Summer Workshop is an annual summer program for the Jacobs School.

The competition included an audition process, in which 30 applicants sent in a 15-minute recording of any repertoire, piano workshops and a final competition.

“Our workshop started about 15 years ago, and it started as a Chopin class,” workshop coordinator Junghwa Moon Auer said.

“It started off very small. In 2007, we offered special topics — Beethoven sonatas or Chopin nocturnes. This year, our highlight is concerto competitions.”

Auer said the workshop and competition is a project dear to her heart, but it requires expenses in order to hire the student summer orchestra for the event.

“It’s worth it,” Auer said. “A lot of young pianists don’t have many chances to play with an orchestra.”

The winner will play at 8 p.m. tonight in Auer Hall with the IU Student Summer Orchestra under the direction of conductor Arthur Fagen.

However, the prize isn’t at the heart of this competition — practice and dedication is, Auer said.

“We don’t believe in competitions, but once we have a competition and a winner’s recital, the participants play better,” Auer said.

“This lets them find their best and to work their best. I want the participants to have some motivation in coming here. Instead of just coming here to mingle, I want them to have a goal.”

The participants’ talent impressed Nicholas Roth, a professor of piano at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and one of the judges of the competition, he said.
Roth was also one of Edward Auer’s previous students.

He described the performances as high level and beautifully played.

Junghwa Moon Auer said she is connected to both winners as a teacher, artist and someone who appreciates their talent.

Ansen Hui, 16, studied privately with Edward Auer for the past four years and played with the Indianapolis Symphony the previous summer.

“His music is not only beautiful, but his life story is triumphant and inspiring,” Jungwha Moon Auer said. “When we visited Ansel’s home once, Edward’s CDs were all over his practice room.

“We were, of course, very pleased, but it means that when he loves something, he loves until the end. He doesn’t love it for better usage or for him, that’s it. He just loves it. He’s got that pure passion.”

Auer said the Edward Auer Concerto Workshop and Competition aims to show the students that beauty is the most important thing.

“Our motto is all about letting students have chances,” Auer said. “We try to let them know, though we can’t always, that beauty is our goal.

“In competitions, hard work is necessary, but perfection is not our goal. When your try to make things perfect, you immediately get fearful because you don’t want to make a mistake. But you have to get past that and be free.”

Auer’s relationship with the 20-year-old IU junior Xiting Yang is one of mentorship and encouragement.

“You can’t try to make things perfect on stage. You have to be out of it,” Auer said to Yang before the night of the performance.

She drew from her husband’s advice and asked Yang to take the passion from the piece she played so the raw emotion could reach the audience.

“I told Xiting, ‘I really want you to be Mozart,’” Auer said. “‘Be there for us. It’s too late for you to be perfect. The only thing we can hear is how much you love and how much you feel.’”

Each year, new performers share their gifts of talent and artistry with Auer and her husband.

Auer gave parting advice to the applicants and encouraged those who will compete next year.

“The stage is a fearful place. Every second seems eternal,” Auer said. “All performers can do is find beauty, find what we care for in our hearts and find life there.

“It is a very awkward thing to feel in front of people, but because they practice so much, they allow themselves to become vulnerable. I think the contestants who won were very successful in that way.”


© Indiana Daily Student 2014

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LA Times Review: Menahem Pressler a wonder with the Colburn Orchestra

By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic


The Colburn Orchestra’s annual spring gala in Walt Disney Concert Hall is  typically a multi-generational affair. Sunday night, James  Conlon, 64, conducted. His soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17,  however, was yet another generation older.

Menahem Pressler was born into a world that had not yet heard Schoenberg’s  12-tone music or George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” two events that would  change classical music forever. A founder of the Beaux Arts Trio in 1955,  Pressler, who fled Nazi  Germany for Israel as a teenager, turned 90 in December.

Sunday evening he walked onstage with a lively, sure step. Clearly ready for  action, he sat with a kind of sly look on his face during the concerto’s  orchestral opening, vigorously conducted by Conlon. The soloist has a 16th note  rest before his squiggling rising first passage. Pressler cunningly anticipated  that by a nanosecond.

Menahem Pressler's Mozart is a marvel in a Colburn Orchestra concert. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / April 27, 2014)

Menahem Pressler’s Mozart is a marvel in a Colburn Orchestra concert. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / April 27, 2014)

His tone was stunning, a beauteous bell-like sound, and he knew it. If  Pressler waits on no one, he does wait on the dying resonance of the piano. He  likes to let the sound fade to near inaudibility and then pick up with the next  note to create a magical lyricism.

The slow movement was where the most wonders were, because Pressler had the  most time to reveal them. With every bar, he seemed to be saying not only “Look  what I am doing here,” but also “Look what I can do here.” At 90, a  self-centered pianist is not an annoyance but a marvel, and so was his Mozart,  laden with but not weighed down by experience.

Meanwhile the students at Colburn have their youth, their relative  inexperience and their talent. Members of the orchestra come and go, so the  ensemble doesn’t grow. But something has been happening because the orchestra,  which has been in existence for 11 years, wasn’t once as impressive as it has  become.

The big piece Sunday was Alexander Zemlinsky’s 43-minute tone poem, “Die  Seejungfrau” (The Mermaid), based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little  Mermaid” and a Conlon specialty. It was written in 1901 and not a success. You  can hear in it echoes of Richard Strauss tone poems, Mahler symphonies and  Wagner operas, as well as forecasts of Ottorino Respighi’s splashy orchestral  pieces. But what it really sounds like is early Schoenberg, Zemlinsky having  been Schoenberg’s brother-in-law and composition teacher.

Zemlinsky — who, like Pressler, fled the Nazis — immigrated to New York and  died in 1942, a neglected composer on the wrong side of history, hanging on to  an earlier century’s Romanticism. Psycho-biographers say “The Mermaid” is the  bug-eyed Zemlinsky’s response to losing the beautiful Alma Schindler to the far  more glamorous Mahler. That is one explanation for Zemlinsky’s sentimentalizing  love-lorn transcendence.

“The Mermaid” is enjoyable, though, for Zemlinsky’s spectacular orchestral  colors and ability to create tactile musical effects of the watery depths. This  is the thing for young, not-yet-cynical orchestral musicians, and Conlon  produced flamboyant swaths of instrumental effects from the Colburners while  keeping most of the pathos at bay.

The ardent theme for the Little Mermaid is the property of the solo violin,  and concertmaster Evin Blomberg played it with fine spirit. The Prince’s theme  belongs to the cello, adroitly handled by principal cellist Natalie Helm. But it  was when the big band (filled out with the occasional extra) hit the climaxes  with everything it had that “The Mermaid” sounded like the composer might have  been headed toward the 20th century after all.,0,1715503.story#ixzz30OIjYFMs

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Jeremy Denk Is to Receive the Avery Fisher Prize

String of High Notes for Pianist


BOSTON — Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are playing Scrabble in heaven. No, it is not the setup of a joke — well, not exactly. It is the first scene of the highly improbable comic opera being written by the pianist Jeremy Denk and the composer Steven Stucky, based on one of the most influential scholarly music books of recent decades: Charles Rosen’s “The Classical Style.”

“Weltanschauung! Triple word score … 183 points!” the know-it-all Beethoven sang at a recent workshop run-through here, as he played the German word for “worldview.” The opera’s Mozart — sung by a soprano, in a nod to the kind of trouser roles that the real Mozart sometimes wrote for women playing men — responded gleefully with a 28-point German word that, if translated into English, would be of the four-letter variety.

“You’re that kind of person in Scrabble,” Mr. Denk coached his Mozart during a break, “who only plays dirty words.”

Jeremy Denk is working on a comic opera, reflecting an approach to music that is thoughtful, respectful and irreverent.

Jeremy Denk is working on a comic opera, reflecting an approach to music that is thoughtful, respectful and irreverent.

The news that Mr. Denk had come up with the idea of writing a comic opera based on “The Classical Style,” a work of rigorous analysis with its own chapter on comic opera, was greeted in musical circles with amused curiosity and a little disbelief. It was as if a well-known author had decided to write a novel based on Strunk and White’s seminal writing guide, “The Elements of Style,” or an artist had decided to paint a fresco of H. W. Janson’s “History of Art.”

Mr. Denk was frank about the genesis of the idea. “I think it involved a little alcohol, originally,” he said with a laugh.

The madcap project — which Mr. Denk conceived and wrote the libretto for — is very much in keeping with the kind of unusual, deeply thought out and simultaneously respectful and irreverent approach to music that has helped make this Mr. Denk’s moment. During the past year, he has gotten a contract from Random House to expand a piece he wrote for The New Yorker into a memoir; been named a MacArthur Fellow (referred to colloquially as winning a genius award); and been designated Musical America’s “instrumentalist of the year.”

Mr. Denk will receive his next accolade on Tuesday when he is awarded the Avery Fisher Prize, a $75,000 prize established 40 years ago to recognize both musicianship and, more broadly, contributions to the musical world. (The pianist Charlie Albright, the violist Dimitri Murrath and the Calder Quartet will each get $25,000 career grants.)

“The Classical Style,” which will have its premiere this June at the Ojai Music Festival in California and will be performed at Zankel Hall in New York in December, teems with musical jokes and quotations from notable pieces. In one scene, three characters playing the building blocks of tonality — Tonic, Dominant and Subdominant — walk into a bar, only to be frightened by the Tristan Chord. In another, a symposium on sonata form is written in, well, you can guess. There are in-jokes, but listeners will not need Ph.D.s to get them all. Besides looking for laughs, Mr. Denk and Mr. Stucky said they hoped the opera would illuminate some of Mr. Rosen’s insights on classical music, and inspire people to think about its place in the modern world.


In recent years, Mr. Denk, 43, has become well known not only as a concert musician but also as a writer and explainer of classical music, from his blog, Think Denk (, to the liner notes of him speaking and playing the piano on a DVD, which was included with his recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Mr. Denk became friends with Mr. Rosen, who was himself a well-regarded pianist and a scholar, in the years before his death in 2012 at 85. He said he hoped that the opera would be seen as “deeply respectful” of Mr. Rosen.

Mr. Denk recalled feeling nervous before asking Mr. Rosen if he could turn the book into an opera.

“He laughed, and he thought it was ridiculous, but he gave his permission,” Mr. Denk recalled. “It was a big thing building up to it, because I wanted to ask him, and didn’t want him to feel that it was a jape. So I asked him over dinner. I’m sure he never really believed that it would actually come to pass.”

It came to pass largely because of Thomas W. Morris, artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival, who asked Mr. Denk in 2009 if he would take on the rotating post of music director for this spring’s festival.

“Jeremy said, ‘Well, I’ve had a very mad idea for an opera, and when I tell you what it’s on, you’ll laugh,’ ” Mr. Morris recalled. But Mr. Morris signed on, seeing it as in keeping with Ojai’s mission of letting artists take risks. “It’s not a place where you trot out your party pieces,” he said.

Mr. Morris helped line up Mr. Stucky, a composer with a background in academia who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his Second Concerto for Orchestra, which weaves allusions to past composers into a contemporary setting.

“Tom attempted a shotgun marriage,” Mr. Stucky said, recalling that he initially thought it was a brilliant but impossible idea. “But the more I talked to Jeremy, and the more samples of libretto that I saw, the more impossible it became for me to get out of it.”

Mr. Denk’s sudden burst of attention has been a big change. Now, just a few years after he was little known outside of piano circles, offers are pouring in. On Tuesday the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra will name him an artistic partner, beginning next season.

“It’s insane,” he said during an interview after a run-through of “The Classical Style” here at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where he is an artist in residence. “It’s wild, and I’m a little bit in shock, kind of. It’s a great shock.

“My dad wrote me an email after the MacArthur: ‘Keep it up!’ ” he recalled. “And I thought, ‘I can’t keep this up, this is pretty much as good as it’s going to get.’ ”

© The New York Times 2014

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REVIEW: Pianist Edmund Battersby

By Peter Jacobi


In Auer Hall on Saturday evening, Edmund Battersby was reminding another audience of his talents as he played on a new piano, a handmade Yamaha CFX Concert Grand that’s on loan to the Jacobs School for this semester.

I’m not sure about Edmund Battersby’s reaction; however, he seemed perfectly comfortable with the Yamaha, and the Yamaha should certainly have been pleased to be animated by him. What he played sounded awfully good. Of course, whenever this pianist gives a recital, what he plays and on whatever instrument he chooses always sounds good.

One heard repertoire the pianist loves and thrives on, starting with a more dramatic than usual Sonata of Haydn, the C Minor, Hob.XVI:20, at times romantic, at other times tragic or angry, the whole of it played ever so passionately.

Music of Schumann and Schubert followed; call it emotional red meat for Professor Battersby. The weather on Saturday may not as yet been springlike, but his pianism for “Waldszenen” (“Forest Scenes”) had the spring of spring. So did the Schumann Novelette in D Major, with its bravura rhythms.

From Schubert he took a pair of Klavierstucke, the sweetly charming E-Flat Minor and Major, warm-ups for the concert’s final piece, the magnificent Fantasy in C Major, usually referred to as the “Wanderer Fantasy,” during which a pianist stellar as is Battersby can give the piano the resonance almost of an orchestra. Edmund Battersby did.


© Herald Times 2014

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Michael Sikich named Gershwin Concerto Competition Winner

Gershwin Concerto Competition winner, Michael Sikich

Gershwin Concerto Competition winner, Michael Sikich

IU sophomore, Michael Sikich, was recently named winner of the Gershwin concerto competition that took place in Auer Hall on January 14, 2014. Michael is a student of Edward Auer and is pursuing a bachelor of music degree in piano performance. The runner up for the competition is Mark De Zwaan, a doctoral student of Karen Shaw.

The concerto competitions are held by the Jacobs School piano department three times per year and competitors are drawn from both undergraduate and graduate degree and diploma programs. The winners are awarded the opportunity to play with one of the IU orchestras in a concert given on the main stage at the Musical Arts Center. This year, Michael is very excited to perform Gershwin’s Concerto in F with the Concert Orchestra directed by Arthur Fagen on Wednesday, February 12, at 8 pm. Michael adds that “it is a privilege to work with Mr. Fagen. In this purely American masterpiece, the orchestra is of equal importance as the piano and the interplay between the two ranges from intimate to exhilarating.”

Michael Sikich, age 20, is a native of Santa Barbara, CA, and is currently a sophomore at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music under the instruction of Edward Auer. A recipient of the Premier Young Artist Award, he is pursuing a bachelor of music degree in

piano performance, a minor in conducting, and a certificate in arts administration. He is a member of NOTUS: IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, which will travel to New York City this spring for a performance at Carnegie Hall.

He has been the recipient of awards through the Santa Barbara Foundation, the Performing Arts Scholarship Foundation Competition, and the Santa Barbara Music Club, which presented him with the Sergej Rakhmaninov Award for Outstanding Piano Virtuosity. He was a four-time winner of the Young Soloist Showcase Competition, performing concerti of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Gershwin under Gary Sheldon (Miami City Ballet) and Avlana Eisenberg (Boston Chamber Symphony).

He studied with Lana Bodnar and was coached extensively in chamber repertoire by Nina Bodnar, former concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony under Slatkin. He attended the CCM Prague International Piano Institute and this past summer studied intensively with Peter Bithell, professor of piano at the Guildhall School of Music in London.

Venturing outside the realm of classical music, Michael was the bandleader/pianist for the jazz combo, Cut Time, which performed throughout Southern California. He studied advanced jazz theory and composition with trumpeter Dr. Chuck Wood and premiered and professionally recorded his original composition, Standing Up, for 8-piece jazz combo.

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Distinguished Professor Menahem Pressler releases CD of Jacobs Recital

pressler cdDistinguished Professor of Piano at Indiana University Menahem Pressler brings poetry and dance to us in the music of three Vienna masters.

SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata No. 18 in G Major, D. 894; MOZART: Rondo in A Minor, K. 511; BEETHOVEN: Bagatelles, Op. 126 – Menahem Pressler, p. – La Dolce Volta LDV 12, 74:56 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi](12/10/13) ****:

Menahem Pressler (b. 1923) recorded this recital at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University, 20-22 May 2013. Pressler has become, by sheer longevity and unceasing activity, among the revered icons of keyboard artistry, occupying a position exactly that of the late Mieczyslaw Horszowski (1892-1993). The major work in this program, Schubert’s 1826 G Major Sonata (“Fantasia”) provides an eminently lyrical vehicle for Pressler and his Hambourg Steinway, especially in its first movement, Molto moderato e cantabile. Expansively broad, relaxed in a spiritual serenity of its own, this music glides in 12/8 periods that often exploit degrees of subtle pianissimo. The entire contour of this movement defies “drama” in the usual sense of sonata-form, relying on dance figuration and variations on selected fragments. The modulation to G Minor promises conflict, but the temperament relaxes and resolves itself into a dew.

Pressler extends his non-bravura approach to the 3/8 Andante in D Major, shaped as a rondo that increasingly becomes ornate as it evolves. Pressler does not play down the darker moments, but they never interfere with the luminous sense of repose that dominates this score. And Pressler colors his chords most attractively, still capable of jeu perle when he wants it. The B Minor Menuetto requires some more potent staccato figures from Pressler, but the rustic aggression cedes to the molto legato Trio section in B Major. Some may find the degree of marcato and retard in the outer sections mannered, but the Trio glistens in a most jeweled music-box. Pressler retains the long finale as essentially dance music – not dramatic but soberly gay – a rondo in moderate Allegretto tempo. Schubert colors the rondo theme by assigning it to varying registers, high and bright or low and fateful. The brief sense of tragedy emerges, espessivo, in C Minor, but Schubert transforms it all too quickly into the major mode. The bouncy fragments of melody and rustic rhythms continue to wend their modest, meandering ways, leaving us with a song that the Mississippi may have sung to the perpetually young Huck Finn.

Mozart’s 1787 Rondo in A Minor, K. 511 remains one of the few solo works by the composer ever recorded by Artur Rubinstein. Perhaps Rubinstein sensed the various ways the piece anticipates aspects of Chopin, fusing introspection and sadness in a form generally associated with light and dance. Each appearance of this simple theme, with an obligatory ornament and the A in the left hand, jars us with some subtle variation, especially in a temporary move to C Major. At measure 31, Mozart invokes the spirit of J.S. Bach, exercising chromatic counterpoint. Pressler’s studied evolution of the piece emphasizes its emotional hues that draw on the temperament of D major happiness desolated by dark runs and diminished seventh chords. In its late bars, the figures might have inspired Chopin’s equally “baroque” Berceuse in D-flat. A sad elegy, this noble, elastically mournful work, rare in spirit and immensely difficult to bring off, unless one’s brow has been touched by Melpomene.

Pressler concludes with the set of six late Bagatelles, Op. 126 (1825). The lyric mode of No. 1 (Andante con moto) finds an icy foil in No. 2, set as a Bach invention with a dark bass line. Pressler’s touch has become more granite-like, shades of Sviatoslav Richter, except for the rubato. The Andante proffers a slow movement in triple time, a combination of Handelian devices and his own Hammerklavier Sonata third movement. For condensation of witty, even savage, drama, the B Minor No. 4 has few peers. The Quasi allegretto reverses the usual conceit and makes Beethoven sound like Schubert! The gentle sparkle of Pressler’s rendition rings true long after the last chord. The Presto begins with a “finale” that reverses itself and becomes a dance of noble gait. The upward scale becomes a motto over plangent bass chords that soon resound (ostinato) in a manner Liszt will find attractive. The last bars sound with authority and defiance, the lion in winter.

The entire La Dolce Volta production, by the way, means to make a CD package a luxury item.

—Gary Lemco

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REVIEW (HT): Pressler celebrates 90th birthday on stage with friends

©2004-Marco-Borgreve-2By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer | | Posted: Monday, December 16, 2013 12:00 am       

The party began with birthday wishes from President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and U.S. Rep. Todd Young, followed by bestowal of the rarely awarded University Medal, IU’s highest distinction. It ended with the unfurling of a banner stating “Happy Birthday, Mr. Pressler,” and the audience singing “Happy Birthday.”

Between start and finish in Indiana University’s Musical Arts Center on Friday evening, there was a treasure of glorious music played by the birthday celebrant himself, pianist Menahem Pressler, along with friends: his former co-member in the Beaux Arts Trio, violinist Daniel Hope; two concert colleagues, pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, a couple that serve as artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the renowned Emerson Quartet, with whom Pressler has played many a concert and also recorded.

The birthday bash came a bit early, three days to be exact. His actual date of birth came 90 years ago today, the 16th of December, the same day and month as that of a musical giant Menahem Pressler idolizes, Ludwig van Beethoven.

There was no Beethoven on the list of works for Friday’s “Menahem Pressler 90th Birthday Celebration,” but there was Schubert and there was Dvorak, two other composers he much admires and has made specialties in his repertoire.

Leave it to the indefatigable and generous Pressler to not spend his birthday concert in the audience listening to others serenade him. No, it was he who serenaded, participating in all three works on the program: Schubert’s Fantasia in F Minor for Piano Four Hands, Dvorak’s Trio in E Minor, Opus 90 (“Dumky”), and a second Dvorak composition, the Piano Quintet in A Major, Opus 81.

What to single out? Well, that’s virtually impossible, considering that all three pieces contain felicities and were played with nobility of spirit and a rare blend of abandon and utmost care, a mix only great musicians can make happen. Take the opening Schubert, the Fantasia that asks two pianists, Han and Pressler on this occasion, to sit alongside each other at a single keyboard. The piece starts with a genial and evanescent passage that Schubert repeats as the Fantasia unfolds, but each time with subtle shifts in key and character. It continues with a flurry of attractive developments. Written in the last year of Schubert’s brief life, the Fantasia contains abundant themes, from the lyrical to the somber and the turbulent, that manifest themselves in all sorts of rhythmic and harmonic patterns. Friday’s performance was stylish, high-spirited and pristine.

For Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio, a signature work for the disbanded Beaux Arts Trio, which Pressler served for its entire 53-year existence, the pianist teamed with Hope, who was the Beaux Arts’ violinist in its final years, and cellist Finckel. The three had the full measure of this hard to resist, Slavic-flavored score, the last of five trios Dvorak would write. Pressler and company seemed to cherish the opportunity to play the “Dumky,” its diverse elements: the melancholy and the joyous, the gentle folk tunes and the rambunctious dances. Like the Schubert, it received a cheers-filled standing ovation.

But, of course, the longest and loudest applause was saved for the end, after an intensely beautiful reading of the Dvorak A Major Piano Quintet. The reading itself was highly deserving, what with the quintet’s opulence of musical ideas having been treated so warmly and exuberantly by Pressler and the Emerson. But the absolute silence maintained by the audience during the performance presaged an eruption at its conclusion. Erupt the audience did, this for all the performers but mostly for the remarkable Menahem Pressler who has given so generously of himself to his students and the university for 58 years and counting.

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