Music Review: Pianofest @ Music Academy

We open with black, all the lights in Abravanel Hall extinguished.
We can hear shuffling on stage, and then some odd notes rise out of the darkness.
Then the see-sawing, off-key intro to Saint-Saëns “Danse Macabre” begins and with a sudden burst of light, the stage is revealed: four men, two pianos, a flurry of hands. This is Pianofest, Saturday night’s opening to Music Academy of the West’s Summer Festival.

The four-man concert was in honor of Jerome Lowenthal, master pianist, instructor and to many a great influence on their careers. Returning to play alongside their teacher were three of his recently successful students, now playing and recording with orchestras nationwide: Orion Weiss, Konstantin Soukhovetski and Alpin Hong.
The evening left no doubt as to the reasons behind the success of these men.
The Saint-Saëns offered a taste of the treats to come. Mr. Soukhovetski and Mr. Weiss managed the lower and higher keys respectively of one piano, and Mr. Lowenthal and Mr. Hong the other. In an arrangement for eight hands by Ernest Guiraud, the work leaves behind the dancing bones of the xylophone and the midnight fires of the violin and conjures up its own devilish mayhem with menacing bass rumblings and sparkling high trills.
Orion Weiss, a recent graduate of Julliard and currently playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, sports a mass of curly hair and a dapper white suit. His two solo pieces showed his technical prowess.
For Mozart’s “Variations on ŒSalve tu, Domine’ from Paisiello’s I filosofi immaginarii, K.416e,” variation is the key word, with the theme appearing only once. Mozart later rethought the simple melody from every angle, finding the beauty locked within by exploding the original. Mr. Weiss played not just with elegance, but with an understanding of Mozart’s character.
Moszkowski’s “Etincelles, op. 36, no. 6” is a similar exploration of a tiny cluster of melody, and, like the sparks of the title, the notes jumped off Mr. Weiss’ keyboard.
Konstantin Soukhovetski took the stage next, wearing a very light lime green suit, large plastic-rimmed glasses and long straight hair befitting a man about to undertake Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s “Liebestod.” If the Mozart piece was all about seduction, the Wagner/Liszt is all about loud lovemaking, probably with somebody emotionally unstable. But where would the Romantics be without a little instability?
Mr. Soukhovetski then added the “Toccata-Rag from Carnival Music” by George Rochberg, which mashes together ragtime and more “high-brow” concerns. The piece is bi-polar, like a man setting out to destroy what he secretly likes.
For a true fight, the first half closed with Mr. Hong and Mr. Weiss tackling Lutoslawski’s “Variation on a Theme by Paganini for Two Pianos.” Both men fired shots at each other from the keyboard, faster, louder, more daring than the last, Mr. Hong bringing up a chugging bass line like a train gone out of control.
The second half of the program brought some calm to the proceedings with Mr. Soukhovetski teaming up with his mentor for Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” This version for two pianos broadens an already spacious work, full of the composer’s dappled light and shimmering pools of sound.
Mr. Hong then went on to present Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song,” a favorite of Mr. Lowenthal’s, the poppiest melody of the night. Yet, Mr. Hong was saving the fireworks from Ginastera’s Danzas Argentinas, op. 2.” This young, tall pianist fascinates as he goes from hunched and inquisitive over the keyboard to bolt upright and regal.
Finally, Jerome Lowenthal spoke, offering thanks to all throughout the years, and offering an anecdote about meeting a 70-year-old Indian Buddhist in Iceland. She encouraged him to disassociate himself with the past and past emotion, but Mr. Lowenthal made the convincing case for thinking otherwise.
His “Prelude to Third Act of Lohengrin,” including the Wedding March, was the second Wagner/Liszt work of the night and would have been nothing if not for the past emotion of other summers, other students and other loves the pianist brought to it.
The program ended with (former honorary director of the Academy) Darius Milhaud’s “Paris Suite,” which brought all four pianists and four pianos back on stage. These six short impressionist portraits are long on interplay but a little short on melodic invention save for the “Montparnasse” section.
Fortunately, the four returned for an encore of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” which capped off the evening with its effortless beauty, spread across several generations, from teacher to student.

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