Thursday, December 19, 2013

After a hiatus

One of the nice things about writing on an almost totally unknown and unread blog is that no one cares if I take an unusually long hiatus.

My last blog sat for a year, unattended, before I finally put it out of its misery and took it down.

The hiatus was caused by... well, I have no end of excuses. But there were a few good reasons. I redesigned my website, something long overdue and that took me down lots of dead ends. I wasted more time than was good for me trying to come to terms with Javascript and jQuery, before deciding to leave that to smarter folks who expect more from their browser experience.  Next step: Try to fix the margins so that it looks good on a tablet as well...

Another major cause was the looming deadline to submit my dissertation to the Juilliard Doctoral Committee. I got it in with 30 minutes to spare, on December 2. Much of the last few months of editing involved getting things to “flow”, as my advisor would put it. The language had to be fixed and compacted. Reading it now, it feels almost too compact, as if every sentence was trying to compress an entire chapter of my research into improvisation. My ideal would be a kind of do-it-yourself guide to free improvisation, touting the benefits (musical, creative, spiritual, health, whatever) of group improvisation for classical musicians.

I don't like brevity for its own sake. I bristled a little when I had to rewrite my sentences to make them a few words shorter, or I had to use circumlocutions to avoid repeating a single word too many times. It definitely made things more... efficient. But is efficiency really the end-all of writing? Writers like Malcolm Gladwell, or Steven D. Levitt of Freakonomics, manage to make their arguments simple and cogent, but they don't spare words. Instead they find a lot of different ways to get to the same point, emphasizing it through varied repetition. That's what I'd like to be able to do. Unfortunately, my repetitions, read back with the benefit of a few months' hindsight, merely sound repetitive. So they had to go.

I'll try to keep a reasonable schedule of updates here in the future. After all, I do enjoy blogging, even if it is mostly for my own edification.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Slam Denk

I'm trying to think who I've heard play Mozart piano concerti recently. There was Inon Barnatan last winter playing the D minor concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony. And my friend Mikael Darmanie playing the G major concerto at CCM. And for some reason a performance of the F major concerto in New York with Mitsuko Uchida sticks in my brain, not because I particularly liked it—Uchida is one of my favorites but I'll stick with her Schoenberg any day—but because of the way she crouched in the audience during the dress rehearsal to listen to the opening tutti, leaping on stage before her entrance. Finger fanatics, all of them. Every note like a pearl, elegant phrasing, runs and lines clear as a bell. I would have thought it takes a certain type of pianist to really shine in a Mozart concerto, especially in a live performance.

Which is why I was taken aback by Jeremy Denk's performance of the Concerto No. 25 in C major with the Cincinnati Symphony tonight. By any measure it was a great performance, really engaging and imaginative. But his fingers were a bit... mushy?

Not bad mushy, I would hasten to add. More a kind of endearing mushy, like a cuddly teddy bear or a melting ice cream scoop on a hot pie. There were a few missing teeth in the first movement runs, but Denk rounded them off so endearingly that it was like a six-year-old's impish smile. He had a strange habit of rushing phrase endings instead of tapering them elegantly as we've come to expect in Mozart. And the loopy rubato he used in some of his solos was on the point of caricature. But in the end it was all so cheeky and lovable that it was impossible not to be completely swept up by his performance, quirky body movements and all. I'm a big fan of his ornamentation, which is almost laugh-at-loud funny at times. I got so used to all his added embellishments in the first two movements that I lost track of which runs were Mozart's and which runs were Denk's in the final rondo. I had to check the score when I got home. His cadenza was as cheeky as the rest of his interpretation, with all kinds of crazy modulations. Personally, I might have preferred a more substantial one.

In fairness, the third movement runs were much less mushy. And I don't think anyone has ever done the piano entry in the first movement better.

The concerto was stuck between two works by Ralph Vaughan Williams: the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and the London Symphony. Both were powerfully conducted by Robert Spano, who was meticulously attentive to Vaughan Williams' orchestral coloring. I had a more positive impression of the Fantasia, a brooding and beautifully textured work. The London Symphony had too much symphonic padding—meandering sequences and unnecessary repetition—for my taste, but that's an opinion I'll probably have to revise when I know the work better.

I took advantage of the intermission to scoot from my usual place in the orchestra to the nosebleed gallery seats in Music Hall. That was my first time up there, and the acoustic was noticeably better. As I had been told by those who know. The brass section in particular was much clearer and brighter, and the woodwind sound also gained in richness and warmth. The string section sounded kind of lifeless, however. Their smooth, lithe tone as heard from the orchestra section sounded thin and under-balanced up top.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

CD of the Month

Garrick Ohlsson plays Gershwin. I caught the tail end of the Concerto in F on the radio last week in the car, and sat in the carpark until it finished. I played the Concerto six years ago, but I've never had an urge to revisit the piece until after hearing this. It's a piece that has some memorable tunes and great moments, but it can feel overblown. If it's in the wrong hands, that is. Ohlsson does it with sneaky humor and refuses to let it get bogged down in the big orchestral climaxes. Before they announced his name on the radio, I was guessing it would be a jazz pianist crossover recording. Truly amazing stuff.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The World Piano Competition: A Renewal

At the end of the finals of this year's World Piano Competition, based in Cincinnati, director Mark Ernster remarked that while the competition is currently in its fifty-seventh year, it's as if it had been born anew, thanks to its recent partnership with CCM and the Cincinnati Symphony. As a competitor, third prize winner and sufferer in last year's competition, I couldn't agree more. Unlike last year, the competitors were treated to a smoothly organized experience with great pianos, great audiences and a highly accomplished jury. I couldn't get to the first two rounds, but I listened to the live stream of the finals just down the hall from the actual competition in a vacant classroom (since the whole family came along, we needed a “baby-proof” setting).

The final round of any competition is always a strange thing. It's the most exciting, it draws the biggest audiences and the most speculation. But the finalists, exhausted from a week of non-stop adrenaline and working on a tight rehearsal schedule with the orchestra, rarely are in top form. It can be an exercise in stamina more than actual musicianship. While I can't confirm it firsthand, I did hear from a few others that this year's competition conformed to the rule. Still, the three finalists were all exceptional pianists who gave it their all.

Misha Namirovsky started the evening with a thoughtful and expressive Brahms D minor concerto. I was particularly captivated by a lush and serious slow movement that maintained an undercurrent of tension despite a tempo that was a little slower than normal. Unfortunately, the octave passages in the first movement were probably not as clean as he would have liked, and a number of little inaccuracies crept into the last movement as well. The real disappointment was a embarrassingly slipshod job by the Cincinnati Symphony under the baton of associate conductor Robert Treviño. They sabotaged the performance with a sluggish response to the soloist, incorrect tempi, and flat, lifeless lines. This concerto has too many extended orchestral interludes for the pianist to be able to hold the piece together on his own, so inevitably it came across as dull and long-winded. Namirovsky was awarded the bronze medal, quite fairly I think, although it's easy to imagine that the result could have been very different with slightly different circumstances.

Jin Uk Kim dazzled with a hair-raisingly accurate and polished account of Beethoven's fourth concerto in G major. He was the audience prize winner and the favorite of many of my friends. I thought he gave a powerfully structured interpretation of the first movement that climaxed in a brilliant cadenza. Ultimately, he was let down by his choice of repertoire; the finesse and lithe character were missing in a piece that is all about a quicksilver attention to gesture and shape. His style would have made for an unbeatable Prokofiev 3, or even Beethoven's Emperor concerto. He came away with second prize, although probably it was a very close call.

Marianna Prjevalskaya concluded the evening with a highly individual take on the Brahms D minor. Her presence on stage was electrifying, and she demonstrated true artistry in a compelling and tumultuous performance. I can't say I agreed with every interpretative choice she made—the second movement was stagnant at times and the slower sections in the third movement were a little mawkish for my taste. She was daring, she was challenging, she was maybe controversial, but her musical authority put her ahead of the pack and she emerged victorious as the gold medallist. The orchestra rallied behind her wonderfully, sounding like a completely different ensemble than only a couple hours before.

The level of artistry was inspiring at the World Piano Competition this year, and it looks to have turned over to a new leaf. It's an exciting time for piano and pianists in Cincinnati!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Mendelssohn and sempre pedale

Mendelssohn’s Fantasie, Op. 28 stands out among his wide-ranging output for piano. I think it's certainly one of his more challenging works, especially the final Presto. That’s probably why it’s one of the few Mendelssohn piano pieces on the circulating repertoire of our super-virtuosi, along with the G minor concerto. But the first two movements are so quirky—if I didn’t know the music, I doubt I would guess Mendelssohn as the composer. I'd go for Schumann, probably, especially with the bizarre asymmetrical phrasing in the second movement.

I’m currently working the piece up for the Art of Piano festival at CCM next week, and I played it through for James Tocco a few days ago. I don't think I've ever had a teacher who was more concerned about detail—Tocco has a musicologist’s mind for tiny things in the music that too many of us wouldn't give a second thought. But he manages to draw out so much meaning from these breadcrumbs off the composer’s table that he completely transforms my understanding of the music.

What would you make of this sempre pedale marking?
I probably thought what 90 percent of pianist would think: Mendelssohn is asking me to change the pedal here and hold it for the next five measures. There a similar passage in Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata, where the pedal blurs a single-line melody:

Mendelssohn was, of course, very much into Beethoven, and was one of the first pianists to tackle his monumental “Hammerklavier” sonata. He was surely familiar with this passage and might have been paying homage.

But Tocco suggested a more radical interpretation: The sempre pedale could indicate that the pedal remains sustained, not a change of pedal. Then there would a single pedal starting nine measures earlier, lasting for a total of fourteen measures! This pedal would blur through the B minor-F sharp major chord changes on the second line of the example. More strikingly, F sharp major would blur with F sharp minor as Mendelssohn suddenly reverts to the opening tonality six measures before the end.

It might seem out of character for Mendelssohn. The image of Beethoven as a raving genius who thrust the Classical world kicking and screaming into the Romantic era matches perfectly with uncomfortably messy pedaling. But Mendelssohn? From a respectable upper middle class family, stylistically conservative, who according to Taruskin, never outgrew his precocious early style? On the other hand, Mendelssohn was very clear with his markings and didn’t normally leave pedal markings hanging unended. Surely if he wanted a pedal change, he would have written it.

That evening around midnight, I received an email from Tocco. His meticulous attention to detail hadn’t allowed him to sleep, and he gave me a near-exhaustive list of sempre pedale examples from Beethoven and Mendelssohn. The more you look, the less clear it gets, but he thought—and I agree—that there’s a strong case to be made for a single, fourteen-measure pedal. Beethoven often used sempre pedale to indicate a sustained pedal (no change), for example near the end of the first movement of the “Appassionata”:

Mendelssohn used the term even more frequently than Beethoven. Sometimes it seems to indicate a change of pedal, but more often than not it means to sustain it. One of my favorite examples is in his first sonata, Op. 6, where he writes sempre Pedale after a long cadenza-like movement that leads into a powerful finale:
Tocco classified this one as probably indicating a pedal change. But wouldn’t it be cool if it were sustaining? The sonority that would build up over the course of these seven measures would be pure cacophony on a modern instrument! Unlike in the Fantasie, there is really only one harmony here—a long dominant pedal—even through there are plenty of passing tones.

It’s long been accepted that the differences between Beethoven’s pianos and ours mean that we don’t really need to observe his more eccentric pedalings exactly. For every pianist who plays the “Tempest” passage above with one long full pedal, there are probably three who use shades of half pedal and half changes to keep things under control. I think the same could be said for Mendelssohn.

One more caveat: Sempre is a tricky term. I bet if Beethoven were alive today, he wouldn't use a crazy term like sempre fortissimo quite so easily. Like here:

He writes that at the climax of the first movement of the “Appassionata.” Counting the two measures of fortissimo before, there are seventeen(!) full measures of fortissimo before the next written dynamic, piano. I think everyone understands that the excitement has to wind down somewhere, without a sudden drop of dynamic right at the end of this passage. I think there would also be general agreement about what Beethoven means: this is a powerful, sustained climax. But in the best performances I’ve heard, this passage isn’t necessarily all loud loud loud. Instead it’s volatile, like a pot boiling over on full flame. It’s not surprising that a more considered approach is more exciting and effective than seventeen measures of jackhammer, but thanks to that sempre too many pianists fall into that trap.

Still, sempre fortissimo and sempre pedale are worlds apart. I have a clear preference for pianists who play with too much pedal over those who play too loudly. Too loud is just unmusical, but a good musician who takes chances with the pedal has balls. Or powerful ovaries.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Life, and art

The past month or so has passed so quickly! I gave a lecture-recital on improvisation in graphic scores back at the end of May. The recital was a requirement for my degree at Juilliard, but I talked them in to letting me do it in Cincinnati and save the cost of a plane ticket. I talked mostly about improvisation and played two graphic scores by Roman Haubenstock-Ramati. In the Q&A afterward people were more curious about the scores. Following a graphic score, even if you know the exact path and method of interpretation used, is inevitably an exercise in frustration for a classical music listener who's used to having everything clearly laid out. So when I made a DVD of the performance to send to Juilliard, I analyzed my performance of the solo version of Catch 2. It was pretty fun to listen back, really a discovery since I had surprisingly little idea of what to expect. As it turns out I managed to skip a whole line of the score—a whole repetition to be exact! I posted the video on YouTube here.

The birth of our son James Jerome on June 11 has made the past few weeks both terrifically exciting and frustrating, since looking after a newborn is a delightful chore that leaves little time for anything else. I'm still scrambling to finish revising my dissertation (on improvisation) since I'm told it will soon get worse. I have the Art of the Piano festival to look forward to here in Cincinnati in a few weeks; we're expecting some terrific teachers and pianists to come through. More on that soon.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Hands Off My Music!

My teacher at CCM, James Tocco told me that when he played Aaron Copland’s Piano Fantasy for the composer, he was pleased but offered no real suggestions. He was just happy to have great musicians play his music.

Several composers I've worked with have told me that performances change how they perceive their own piece, and for that reason they like to let performers get on with it without too much interference.

I'm preparing a program of graphic scores by the Polish-Austrian composer Roman Haubenstock-Ramati. I wrote to Carol Morgan, who worked with him and recorded a number of his works, and she sent me back this story:
When I first came to Vienna I was asked to play his early Klavierstücke I. I thought I ought to play them to him before the concert to see if he thought it OK, so we arranged a time to meet, and all he said was he didn't want to hear them, he was sure it would be fine, he would hear them at the concert.
That’s a new level of composerly laissez-faire—how could the composer not even want to hear the piece before it is performed?

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Hearty American Feast

The last Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concert for the season finished with a bang. Copland's Third Symphony is not my favorite Copland piece, but Robert Spano and the symphony made a powerful case for this quintessentially American classic.

I was less impressed with All Things Majestic, a four-movement symphonic work by Jennifer Higdon that concludes her residency with the symphony this year. In general, I'm a big fan of her music. She has an uncanny way of finding the perfect orchestral color for every moment, and her music is as outgoing and friendly as she is. I imagine instead of her writing her musical strokes on the page, that it's a big, friendly dog licking colors onto a smooth musical canvas.

This piece didn't really speak to me, however. I think one of the best things about Higdon's writing is that it's accessible to the players as well as the audience—she keeps things simple on the page, without unnecessary technical complications. This piece seemed almost too simple though, as if it was written for a talented high school orchestra instead of a top professional group, and the players seemed unsure of what to do with the music. They weren't helped by Spano, who offered little musical assistance. The principal cellist, Ilya Finkelshteyn, made a valiant effort to grind some expressive nous out of his solos, but the other leading strings seemed uninspired by solos which never turned out to be soloistic. There were also moving images in the background, courtesy of the local PBS station CNET. It's very hard to make visual elements work with orchestras, and every time I've experienced the combination I've wished they hadn't taken the trouble. But I hope to be convinced otherwise someday.

I hadn't seen Spano conduct before. His loose black shirt and thick glasses gives him the appearance of not caring too much about appearance, as a kind of dismissal of the showmanship that dominates the show biz of Classical music. His conducting was equally undemonstrative, with few expressive hints visible from the audience, let alone the histrionics of the podium actors. He often reverts to symmetrical conducting, his left hand mirroring his right. There must be a powerful intellect behind his conducting, however, which came to the fore most notably in the Copland. He built the work intensely and purposefully, in granite blocks, without unnecessary prettiness.

The highlight of the evening for me was undoubtedly the Barber Piano Concerto, performed by Garrick Ohlsson. Garrick Ohlsson is a giant bear of a man and the piano looks like a toy instrument next to him. He projects his sound so easily over the orchestra, even in Music Hall which I've found to be unhelpful to more restrained soloists. Like Spano, Ohlsson lays out the music simply, smoothing out the expressive bumps in favor of a expansive structure. I always found it interesting that Ohlsson, a pianist who does everything so well, should have won the Chopin Competition of all competitions and built his career on Chopin. I like his Chopin playing, but if I had to choose I'd like it little less facile at times. The Barber Concerto suits him perfectly, and his performance was utterly magnificent, I think the best piano performance I've heard at the CSO this year.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Perfectly Cromulent

I'm a vegetarian and a food fanatic, and I plan my concerts like I plan my meals. I like to keep the palate unencumbered with an overdose of sauce and murky textures, preferring simple ingredients that complement each other's flavors and allow the discerning gourmand to appreciate the subtleties of each. I confess I have a sweet tooth, but even the puff pastry at the end of the program needs a twist of lemon or an accompanying rooibos tea to put the sweet and the light in context. My favorite part of every cooking show is when the chef enlightens the tasters to the raison d'être of his plat du jour. Both cooking and music need no explanation, but sometimes the right words can be the key that lets the consumer see through the eyes of the creator.

I like my ingredients locally sourced, and I work with area producers to ensure the finest quality and to prepare their food in a way that is satisfying for them. Recently I've been working with the Latin-flavored hors-d'oeuvres of Reinaldo Moya and the carefully-seasoned wild greens of Lindsey Jacob, with an added improvisatory touch for some extra spice. I am a fan of the staple grains from the American plains. I program the Piano Sonatas of Elliott Carter and Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland's Piano Fantasy as often as I can. I spent seven years in Australia refining my palate and I've imported some unusual finds that are hard to find on these shores by Roy Agnew, Richard Meale, Larry Sitsky, and others. My wife is an accomplished pianist (currently on sabbatical preparing for our soon-to-be born son), and I have concocted a few postprandial nibbles which we present as a duet team. Our most popular is "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific, although I have a few good ones from other musicals—Fiddler on the Roof and My Fair Lady—as well as a fandango, Niña del Fuego.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Inon Barnatan at CSO

I met the Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan at the Tel-Hai Piano Masterclasses in 2001. That was twelve years ago and he was still in his early twenties, but he was already a fully mature musician. I still remember his blistering performance of Ravel's "Scarbo" in the opening concert—I don't believe I've heard a more breathtaking interpretation since.

I bought tickets to hear Lars Vogt—a pianist I haven't heard—play the C minor Mozart Concerto with the Symphony last Saturday, and when Vogt had to cancel at the last minute, Barnatan stepped in, playing the same concerto. His performance was simply amazing, and revealed a stronger and more nuanced musical mind. The C minor concerto is one of Mozart's thorniest, with a dark undercurrent but in a setting that often feels awkward. It doesn't have the natural operatic flow of the D minor Concerto, Mozart's only other piano concerto in a minor key. I like my Mozart fully dramatic, and I don't worry about the "stylistic requirements" that I've felt has lead too many musicians to treat his music with kid gloves. Barnatan managed to combine his fluid tone with just the right amount of excitement at the right moments. The orchestra was an exemplary accompanist, although the conductor Roberto Abbado seemed to struggle to set the tempos at the beginning of each movement, which tended to be slightly on the slow side. I have noticed that a number of big name soloists treat Cincinnati as a kind of backwater and don't give their performances here, but Barnatan was fully engaged and gave it his all.

The second half of the concert was Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony. It's a reminder how indebted our movie soundtracks are to a soundworld created in Austria a century ago. Abbado really made his presence felt on the podium and moulded the sprawling 50-minute work so that every moment was taut with interest and the character of each section was clearly etched. The highlight for me, however, was the remarkable playing of the individual solo instruments, particularly in the wind section.

As a side note, this tone poem has an important history with the Cincinnati Symphony. According to Wikipedia, In 1916, the conductor Ernst Kunwald and "influential Cincinnatians" managed to acquire the music for this piece, premiered the previous year in wartorn Germany and were planning the American premiere when Leopold Stokowski, Kunwald's predecessor at the CSO, suddenly announced that he would perform it with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra on April 28, six days before the scheduled CSO performance. Rehearsals were hastily scheduled and the Cincinnati Symphony eked out a performance just in time to beat the Philadelphia "American premiere" by just over 24 hours.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Lull in Menlo

My wife and I are on spring break this week, enjoying the hospitality of my aunt Miriam in Menlo Park. Appropriately, I spent the plane trip reading Joel Sachs' excellent biography of Henry Cowell, A Man Made of Music. Much of Cowell's childhood was spent in Menlo Park not far from here. Yesterday was a hiking day covering Angel Island and John Muir Woods, and on the drive we passed the San Quentin State Prison where Cowell was imprisoned for four years on a morals charge.

I've been catching up on much-needed practice for my recital at CCM in three weeks, playing on Miriam's 100 year old Henry F Miller piano. It's a real workhorse—heavy action, and a boomy sound that the aging dampers struggle to contain that leaks out and fills her living room with glorious resonance. We've been to a couple musical events—last Sunday we were at George Lopez's recital at CNMAT. He played four piano pieces written in the last ten years, including powerful performances of Sylvan Pieces by Cindy Cox and "at the cusp of dawn, a breath" by Vineet Shende. Sylvan Pieces were inspired walking through the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Each of the five pieces begins simply, in the middle of the piano, before rapidly spiraling outward. My wife called it "inspired minimalism" because of how clear the development process seems to the listener. Lopez was at his best in Shende's piece, with exotic Indian-inspired sounds that produced hypnotic sound world on the piano. Unfortunately the Young Chang piano and the acoustics in the small hall made an uncomfortable fit for this piece.

My brother plays violin in the orchestra at UC Berkeley where he's a PhD student in statistics, and we headed over to the orchestra lunchtime concert on Wednesday. I've found that university orchestras are particularly responsive to a good conductor. David Milnes is not a demonstrative conductor on stage, but he gets a great result from the orchestra. They began with a relatively new work, Wide sea, changeful heaven by Reynold Tharp, with thick orchestra textures and scalar melodies that explored the outer registers. It reminded me of Ligeti, although Tharp's voice is indisputably original. The bulk of the program was the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, which was despatched with flair and not a little dollop of humor.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Szymanowski's Bolero

I think of Szymanowski as a "neglected" composer. Probably there are too many recordings and performances nowadays for that label to really be valid, and I'm not sure that they really need more exposure. His music is probably best in the penumbra of not-quite-so-well known.

I first discovered the Mythes for violin and piano about 12 years ago in the unmatchable recording on Deutsche Grammophon by Krystian Zimerman and Kaja Danczowska. The textures in that piece, the sensuality, the achingly languid melodies, show straight away what a genius the composer was. What a masterwork! I performed it with a violinist only once, and despite our preparation the concert was curiously unsatisfying, not helped by a unsympathetic piano. While I'd love to do it again, the sensation of reaching for the unattainable performance without quite making it seems in keeping with the wistful of Szymanowski.

I'm playing another violin and piano piece, the Nocturne and Tarantella, next week. While the Nocturne is truly beautiful, I didn't appreciate the Tarantella at first. It's grown on me. While it shows an early Szymanowski still finding his voice, I like to compare it with a late work by Ravel, the Bolero. Both works are by the greatest orchestrators and musical sensualists of all time, and are rhythmic and repetitive to an uncharacteristic degree. If anyone else had written these pieces, no one would be playing them. But the subtle shifts in color and dynamic in the Tarantella, if done right, change the piece from a bland virtuosic romp into something with a quiet internal glow despite all the outward ruckus.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Half a Stravinsky

My first experience with Stravinsky's Violin Concerto of 1931 was at Juilliard a few years ago, when I was enlisted by Francesca Anderegg to accompany her on a few days' notice. Stravinsky's twisted harmonies and his middle-period polyphony was causing me enough grief at the time that I don't think I appreciated the music fully. It's almost a Bach concerto, deconstructed and rebuilt in a cubist form. Listening to Fran playing the piece again last weekend with the St. Olaf College orchestra (the live recording is archived here), I almost didn't recognize parts of the piece because the solo part was so heavily boosted in the audio mix! Fran has a beautiful, rich tone on her instrument and a steely intellect that brought real clarity and direction to the solo part. With scarcely any backing from the orchestra, it sounded almost like a Romantic aria. It was a wonderful new perspective on the piece for me, and Fran's playing was so engaging I didn't really miss the orchestra that much. Interestingly, the live acoustics in the hall apparently made it hard to hear her, so I might have had the better deal through internet streaming.