Pianist Alexander Kobrin owes his fast-rising career to piano competitions, and yet he’s no fan of these highbrow sporting events.
“I absolutely hate piano competitions,” says Kobrin, who performs this weekend with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. “Not only do they create a huge stress for pianists, but they are totally subjective, because what it takes to win is completely up to the whim of the judges. But competitions are a necessary evil, since without them pianists would never get careers. Of course, once you win, the real challenge is to prove your victory wasn’t a fluke.”
When it comes to piano competitions, Kobrin knows whereof he speaks. Over the years, the 27-year-old Russian virtuoso has won prizes in a slew of contests—first prize in Italy’s 1999 Busoni Competition, third place in Poland’s 2000 Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition and second place in Japan’s 2003 Hamamatsu International Piano Competition (a year in which the jury awarded no gold medal).
Then, in 2005, he won the granddaddy of all keyboard events, a gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. But has it changed his life? “You bet, since I now spend most of my time living in hotel rooms and airports,” jokes Kobrin.
Interestingly, Kobrin was something of a dark-horse contestant during the Cliburn competition. Cheeky, spectacled and hopelessly boyish, the pianist seemed more like a high school chess-club president than a music idol. No doubt that explains why the news media spent their time snapping pictures of all the suave Italian men and glamorous Asian women in the competition, and why the serious Kobrin was saddled with the unfortunate moniker “The Undertaker.”
Yet on stage, where it mattered most, Kobrin proved to be a veritable tornado from the Steppes, a daredevil virtuoso in the best tradition of such Russian pianists as Vladimir Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter. Like those legends, Kobrin is endowed with a golden tone and a technique that knows no difficulty. He put those talents to good use during the Cliburn competition, playing some of the most precipitously difficult piano music in the repertory—Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, to name just a few. In fact, he arrived at the competition with four complete recital programs (an incredible five hours of memorized music), plus concertos and chamber music. He’s spent his time since performing it all to great acclaim, proving his win was no fluke.
For his Nashville appearance, Kobrin will perform the undisputed heavyweight champion of concertos, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. This remarkable piece opens with one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous melodies, a grand prologue for violins, cellos and piano in majestic D-flat major. The composer sprinkled the rest of the concerto with equally gorgeous tunes, and for good measure threw in perhaps the most heated orgy of octaves in all of classical music.
Since its first performance in 1875—in Boston, Mass., of all places—this thoroughly Russian concerto has become the standard by which all concert pianists are measured. In fact, Cliburn himself played it in 1958 to win the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow, a victory that led to him being the first (and only) classical musician in history to receive a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
Cliburn played the Tchaikovsky concerto with effortless virtuosity and sparkle, an approach that’s very different from Kobrin’s. “I play down the virtuosic nature of the piece,” he says. “My goal is to emphasize the concerto’s melodic beauty.”
Brave new music
What’s the main ingredient of great Jewish music? “It’s melody,” says Michael Rose, a longtime composition professor at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. “And I’m a slut for melody.”
Rose’s most recent flirtation with melody is his concerto Arguing with God, which received its world premiere performance Saturday at the Schermerhorn courtesy of Paul Gambill and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Arranged for traditional klezmer quartet and classical chamber group, the piece proved to be a fascinating and largely successful experiment in crossover music.
The argument, of course, was more stylistic than existential. Klezmer bands, like jazz and bluegrass groups, tend to improvise, while classical orchestras almost always play from the notes. So Rose had to work like a big-band arranger, creating a flexible score that left plenty of room for klezmer vamping.
Without question, the most impressive thing about the concerto was the way Rose worked the klezmer instruments—fiddle, klezmer clarinet, piano, accordion, melodica—into the fabric of the classical orchestra, making them seem perfectly at home. The result was a piece that sounded like a deeply moving concerto for klezmer clarinet and orchestra at one moment, and like some long-lost Bartók piano concerto the next. At no point did it sound like a klezmer band playing with sappy strings—in other words, it didn’t sound like your typical crossover piece.
Certainly, we couldn’t have hoped for a better performance than the one delivered by Brave Old World, the klezmer soloists for the evening. The members of this quartet—pianist and accordionist Alan Bern, fiddle player and vocalist Michael Alpert, clarinetist Kurt Bjorling and bassist Stuart Brotman—easily held their own, both collectively and individually, with the forces of a full orchestra. Bjorling’s deeply felt and mournful clarinet playing was especially memorable. The chamber orchestra, under Gambill, provided sensitive accompaniment.
Saturday’s concert included history’s first—and arguably greatest—piece of crossover music, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This piece is almost always heard in the composer’s later arrangement for piano and large classical orchestra, but the NCO, which likes to do things differently, instead played the original 1924 arrangement for piano and jazz orchestra. What’s the difference? In the version with classical orchestra, it’s the piano—with its blues chords and syncopated rhythms—that sounds jazzy. But in the original arrangement, the piano sounds more classical, even Lisztian, at least when compared with a jazz orchestra. Pianist Amy Dorfman gave the piece its due, playing with the sparkle of a classical virtuoso and the rhythmic freedom of a jazz pianist.
It’s perhaps worth noting that the most amazing thing about Saturday’s concert wasn’t the playing, but rather this statistic: Arguing with God was the NCO’s 30th world premiere performance, and six additional commissions are now in the works. In an age of ossified classical programming, the NCO’s commitment to new music is as welcome as it is astonishing.
The gripe you always hear about Wynton Marsalis is that he’s a jazz reactionary, an artist so focused on the genre’s past that he’s incapable of moving it forward. The trumpeter, who was at the Schermerhorn last Wednesday with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, put a different spin on it. “We don’t discriminate against eras,” Marsalis told the crowd. “If a piece of music was great in 1925, it’s still great.”Not surprisingly, Marsalis’ program was made up entirely of golden oldies, and seldom have these works sounded so good. “April in Paris” was full of liquid legatos and expertly terraced dynamics, while “Blue Skies” was performed with so much swing that you almost believed Louis Armstrong himself was on stage. It was an impressive feat. Still, Marsalis might want to confer with his classical counterparts about the perils of living in the past.
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