IN: Reviews

PianoSummer Off and Running


The PianoSummer Institute and Festival begin at SUNY New Paltz every July with a “Faculty Gala” concert, in which the core faculty performs for the benefit of Institute students and area pianophiles. It’s an unusual event, and always a stimulating one. Their 18th season commenced Saturday night, as Vladimir Feltsman and colleagues Robert Roux, Robert Hamilton, Phillip Kawin, Paul Ostrovsky, Susan Starr, and Alexander Korsantia showed what students are aiming for, in varied repertoire from Bach to Stravinsky.     

On Saturday, July 14th, the school’s McKenna Theatre was filled for a program by seven pianists. Robert Roux played the first Prelude and Fugue from Book 2 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier with clarity and propulsion, following it with calmly lyrical playing of the first of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, op. 19, no. 1. Chopin’s Etude, op. 10, no. 4 was so fast and powerful I wondered if Roux was trying to scare the students. For the rest of us, it was great fun to hear. Robert Hamilton, who has taken on some intimidating virtuoso challenges in past programs, played Haydn’s Sonata No. 58 in C Major with lovely poise and expressiveness. Ideal Haydn playing! Phillip Kawin blurred some passages in the first two of Schumann’s “3 Phantasiestücke,” op. 111, rarely heard music from late in Schumann’s abbreviated career. But Kawin brought out the content of the music well and did the same with Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s “Liebesbotschaft.” Paul Ostrovsky seems to be something of a Beethoven specialist. His playing of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 in C minor, op. 13 (the “Pathétique”) kept up with the changing moods of the piece very well, never letting showmanship get in the way.

I’ve admired Vladimir Feltsman’s playing since I heard his American debut at Carnegie Hall in 1987. He was already a fully formed, mature artist, and his playing of Schubert, Messiaen, and Schumann was quite colorful. Hearing him over the years since then, though, it seems to me that his artistry has ripened further, especially in the range of his tonal coloration. Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is a rambling, meditative piece that goes on for about 18 minutes and can seem diffuse in a less than masterful performance. Feltsman’s playing, enlivened by his tonal variety, was compelling.

Susan Starr, winner of the silver medal in the second Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, is a formidable virtuoso. She took on Brahms’s Scherzo in E Flat minor, op. 4, which, according to Mary Fairchild’s program notes, was the earliest surviving work of Brahms and a challenging showpiece. Starr dispatched it with flair, accuracy, and a wide range of expression. At the post-concert reception she mentioned it was the first time she had played the piece in public. Alexander Korsantia, who teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music, is a major virtuoso without a major performing career. His two-disc set of live performances on the Bel Air label demonstrates the wide-ranging nature of his sympathies and his amazing technique. To close the Gala, Korsantia played two uncommon miniatures by Stravinsky, Tango and Circus Polka, the latter better known in its orchestral version. Both pieces are difficult, but Korsantia ate them up, handling the technical demands as if they were caviar and making the tricky rhythms seem almost danceable. I left the hall attempting — with little success — to whistle the polka.

This concert was the opening of nearly four weeks of events. The heart of PianoSummer is the opportunity for all of the students, 43 this year, to play for each of the teachers and receive their coaching. That’s 301 lessons. They’re private, but all other events are open to the public. Then there are guest instructors who come to give master classes and to perform. This year, Alexander Melnikov gives a master class on July 19th and a recital on the 21st. Jeremy Denk performs on the 28th. Feltsman and Haisun Paik give master classes on July 27th and 31st, respectively.

Baron Fenwick, winner of the 2011 Jacob Flier Competition, gives a recital of works by Brahms, Beethoven, and Rachmaninov on July 18th. This year’s Flier Competition — in which I am a judge — occurs on the afternoons of July 23rd and 25th. The first-prize winner plays a concerto on August 3rd with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic conducted by Feltsman; that program also includes works of Beethoven, Ives, and Schubert. Second- and third-prize winners play solo works on July 30th. All of these events take place at SUNY New Paltz in Shepard Recital Hall and McKenna Theatre.

More detailed listings of PianoSummer’s events can be found here.

Leslie Gerber lives in Woodstock, New York. He has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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