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.