In the late 1980s, I expressed my intense desire to perform with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. After meeting the brilliant Beethoven specialist and performer of the 32-Sonata cycle, Anne Koscielny, when she was a juror for the William Kapell Competition which awarded me the first prize in 1985, I was invited to perform on Anne’s Hartford Piano Society series several times. There, I also met Anne’s husband, the amazing pianist and teacher, Raymond Hanson–a pupil of Harold Bauer himself! Ray gave me one incredible lesson on Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ and Balakirev’s ‘Islamey’ during a visit to their peaceful farm in Western Massachusetts. Such vivid memories!

Anne promised she would speak in my behalf with Michael Lankester, then music director for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. I finally had the opportunity and great pleasure to perform with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. It was my first performance of the Rachmaninoff ‘Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini’. Then Artistic Administrator, Toby Tolokan, drove me back to my hotel and was as cordial as ever. (He is now in Indianapolis). He was responsible for my re-engagement the following season with Gottschalk’s “L’Union” with ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. Donald Pippin, the great Broadway conductor and then Music Director of Radio City Music Hall conducted. (I met Don through his first teacher, Evelyn Miller in Knoxville–that’s another story for another time–dear Evelyn, also a friendship from the Kapell competition, passed recently. I had a memorable lunch visit in Knoxville’s ‘Regas’ restaurant to remember my first visit to Knoxville when Evelyn first took me there. If you go, Regas has the definitive Red Velvet cake! And a fantastic orchestra too!!)

While organizing the Lowell Liebermann Third Concerto project, I contacted Edward Cumming, current music director for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. We began a cordial email friendship, which resulted in the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s participation in the project. I met Edward for the first time this past weekend, and he is indeed a warm and generous musician and neat guy. He conducted the score like a veteran–and had not heard the demo cd of the piece either! I was absolutely amazed. At this concert, who attended other than Anne Koscielny and her husband, Ray, who had turned 88 the day before. I told Ray, “You see, you lived a year for every key on the piano! But what about the Imperial Bosendorfer with the extra keys? You have a ways to go!” It was a homecoming of sorts, from over 20 years of friendship–all a result of going to a piano competition in 1985! By the way, Anne is performing the complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas in Lancaster in 2008. A must see!

I humbly include the review in the Hartford Courant and hope to see as many friends at the concerts I will be giving this season!

MUSIC REVIEW
Echoes Of Evangelical Revivals Heard At Bushnell
By JEFFREY JOHNSON SPECIAL TO THE COURANT
October 7, 2007

If it were possible to dial into hidden wavelengths in the harmony of the spheres and hear the vibrations of New England’s 19th-century evangelical revivals, it would sound like Charles Ives’ third symphony. This music opened the Hartford Symphony’s first program in the 2007-08 Masterworks Series in Mortensen Hall in the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. Ives constructed his symphony by weaving and blurring hymn tunes. They are magnified, layered, transformed. Conductor Edward Cumming shaped the extended lyrical development of the work with clearly defined motion directed toward section closings. He even chose a slower-than-usual tempo for the second movement, with less emphasis on features such as its March episode than on the continual development of melodic gestures. The final movement was balanced with care, and the complex textures created by fragmented ideas called “shadow lines” moving against the rich polyphony created an ecstatic close. Ives intended for church bells to be sounded at the closing of the work, and scored quietly played orchestral bells. His editor, the composer Henry Cowell, felt that it would be closer to his intentions to play a recording of real church bells at this point in the score. The bells we heard were disappointing. They sounded like wind chimes and were too loud to produce the required atmosphere. They could almost have been the courtesy bells that signal the end of intermission.

To close the first half of the program, Jeffrey Biegel joined the orchestra for the Lowell Liebermann Piano Concerto No. 3. Biegel is the hardest-working classical musician in show business. He has a long history of developing innovative performance venues and creative commissioning formats. This new Liebermann concerto was made possible largely through his efforts. Eighteen orchestras, including the Hartford Symphony, pooled together for the commission.

The Liebermann concerto itself is a lengthy work packed full of wonderful surprises. It has been described as “accessible.” Perhaps. But it is not simple; and a good part of the apparent accessibility comes from construction with a divine pacing. Several strongly written lyrical passages surface amid frantic passagework in the first movement. The fugue theme late in the movement is extracted from solo piano music heard earlier with figuration transformed in the strings.

The second movement is a passacaglia. Layered and widely spread pianistic textures created the challenge. Biegel played with delicacy and an ethereal flair. The second movement also has a saloon-music cadenza that anticipates a ragtime episode in the final movement. The final movement is military music gone berserk. It is hard to describe without using the “S” word (Shostakovich), but it does provide a convincing close to a substantial concerto.

This is a work with a defined musical personality and the substance to have a shot at making a regular presence in this competitive repertory. At any rate, Biegel will show pianists of the future how this work is played.

After intermission, we heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. Cumming ramped up the volume in the first movement, creating a sense of energy surplus that helped power the symphony through the relatively short inner movements and well into the finale. Cumming has an engaging sense of how to unfold musical gestures to emphasize the rhetorical sense of this repertoire. The finest moments came at the irrational interlude in the coda leading the music suddenly into F-sharp minor. From there to the end, the orchestra sounded like a carnival; just as Beethoven would have wanted.

Copyright © 2007, The Hartford Courant

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