Interview: Shai Wosner

by Tom Manoff

Shai Wosner – One of the most talented and promising pianists of our time.

MANOFF: One of things I especially like in your playing is the sense of form. A metaphor for my response is that you are unlocking form as one would a puzzle, each of its parts — motive, harmony, section — intertwined beyond separate definition. I wonder how you come to an interpretation of form. And does your sense of form change suddenly in performance in unexpected ways ?

WOSNER:I think that harmony is generally the single most trustworthy guide for interpreting tonal music. Since the form in tonal music is inseparably tied to the harmonic structure of each piece, following the harmonic progression can really tell you a lot about ‘where the piece is going’, because that would determine other elements, such as rhythm and melody.

In other words, I personally try to look for ways to, so to speak, let the piece tell me what to do. Usually, with a great piece, the inner workings of the music are all in sync with the markings that the composer put in (such as the placement of a crescendo or a ritardando), and so, guided by the harmonic rhythm of the piece and the markings that punctuate it, you try to internalize the structure of the music and become as comfortable with it as you can.

Of course, it’s easier said than done, but it can have great rewards because the more you are comfortable with the structure of the piece, the more it ‘becomes a part of you’, the more you are free to explore various interpretative ideas. In a funny way, many times it tells you what NOT to do, that might interrupt the structural flow of the music, or highlight something that’s perhaps not as significant as something else.

The combination of harmonic events such as modulations with the markings of the composer help you to determine what’s most important in the music and what’s less important. And in great music, that applies to all levels of the piece, whether in a short phrase of a Haydn sonata, or in a large structure of a 30-minute Mahler movement.

” I often feel that what makes a lot of the great pieces really great is the sense of inevitability between one idea and the next. As if it simply had to be this way ” – Shai Wosner

In other words, it’s like a physical place that has its own fixed attributes, such as turns and slopes, and your job is to show how interesting and unique the place is. The way you experience a piece of music shouldn’t always be the same, but can change based on the nature of the instrument at hand, or the acoustics of the hall, etc. just like the way you experience a certain place can change depending on weather or mode of transportation, for example.

Ideally, you try to have a clear grasp of the form of the piece that would allow you play with it at the spur of the moment, and still keep it intelligible. I often feel that what makes a lot of the great pieces really great, is the sense of inevitability between one idea and the next. As if it simply had to be this way. In a way, you try to attain that ideal when playing them, too – to make each turn of phrase come out of the previous one in a way that would seem inevitable, as if you are composing it at that very moment.

“Wosner, the elegant Israeli pianist and Daniel Barenboim protege who first came to local attention in 1999, delivered a vivid, perceptive account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor. His clearly structured opening movement, complete with rippling passage work, mirrored the restless harmonic pull of the orchestral introduction. The Romanza’s serenity, broken by a stormy G-Minor interlude, was beautifully judged as well. Completing a winning performance, Wosner played Beethoven’s cadenza to the first movement and his own stylish cadenza to the Rondo finale.” – Chicago Tribune 

MANOFF: How does the legacy of recorded performances affect your interpretations, if at all ? 

WOSNER: I used to listen to a lot of music when I was growing up, and do less now, although not necessarily by choice. I listened to a lot of non-piano music, especially opera and symphonic repertoire. But I feel that I’ve learned a lot from recordings of great pianists.
Of course, when you listen to a recording that you love over and over again, it is likely to influence the way you would play the same piece. That’s not always a bad thing, not unlike the way painters used to copy paintings by others in order to become better at a certain theme or technique.

I think that if your reasons to play a certain piece in a certain way come from the score and not just the record, as long as the performance is convincing and inspired, it shouldn’t matter so much if it resembles certain aspects of another performance.

MANOFF: You have a very refined and sturdy sense of counterpoint within harmonic structure. While I assume a good deal of that is part of your talent, I wonder how much you studied counterpoint or possible figured bass and fugue as a student. And what can you recommend to aspiring artists along these matters ? 

WOSNER: Thanks for the compliment! I think I have a very long way to go in the study of counterpoint and fugues in particular, but I am grateful for having studied composition when I was growing up. It was an opportunity to look at things from the composer’s point of view, a chance to feel how different musical elements ‘behave’. Perhaps having to face an empty page helps you appreciate ever more the greatness of a Mozart concerto.

But I do believe that music theory is really not theoretical at all. Harmony and counterpoint play vital roles in what excites us about music and they shouldn’t be regarded as dry sets of rules. For example, Brahms’ music can sometimes exhibit this incredible power (take the beginning of his D Minor Piano Concerto, for example) because Brahms was a such master in building up the greatest tension while delaying harmonic resolution. So studying the way he works doesn’t take from the experience, it makes you admire it even more.

MANOFF: Considering the relationship between technically difficult music and interpretation: Should one have a musical interpretation before allowing the hands to “learn” notes ? 

WOSNER:I generally tend to think that in great pieces, particularly by composers who were also pianists, what we call ‘technical’ and ‘musical’ is really part of the same expressive content and the music. In other words, when a passage is awkward, it’s usually meant to convey a certain kind of tension in the music. Perhaps the best example for that is in Brahms, with the famous octave trills in the D Minor Concerto that are notoriously awkward. Brahms himself talks about “the particular appeal that is always connected with difficulty”, referring in a letter to Clara Schumann to Op. 116 No. 5, where is deliberately distributes the chords in a manner that forces to stretch your hands.

But there are certainly examples to the contrary and Schubert first comes to mind. In many of his piano works, even (in fact, especially!) in passages that sound simple the writing is often extremely awkward, especially with regards to the voicing of chords in chordal passages. It can be very hard to control the balance of each chord in a way that would create the effect of an ensemble of voices with a very smooth legato. Passages like these (like the beginning of the B-flat Sonata D. 960) shouldn’t sound difficult but they are.

So the trick is to judge when the music should sound difficult and when it shouldn’t. Perhaps the conclusion is the technical should dictate the interpretation only when it dictates the music itself.

“Ideally, you try to have a clear grasp of the form of the piece that would allow you play with it at the spur of the moment, and still keep it intelligible. I often feel that what makes a lot of the great pieces really great, is the sense of inevitability between one idea and the next.” – Shai Wosner 

MANOFF: You write on your website about returning to Mozart Operas for “musical vitamins. ” Do you listen to opera on recordings as well as play from the score ? Which other operas or opera composers offer such vitamins for your health ? 

WOSNER:I listened to quite a lot of opera when I was growing up and I wish I had more time to listen more these days. I would state the obvious by saying that there are plenty of ‘musical vitamins’ to be found in Wagner and Verdi and Strauss, etc. I think Verdi really comes close to the great Mozart operas in Otello and Falstaff, in their purity and economy of means. I know that it may sound contradictory to call an Opera like Otello economical, with its grand choral scenes, but musically speaking it really is. Verdi many times achieves maximum dramatic effect with minimum of means, like the inimitable orchestration for the Willow Song in act IV which uses very few instruments, or the austere musical material when Otello creeps in at night to kill Desdemona. Verdi develops those few barren motives into the shocking climax so organically that it’s just amazing every time.

MANOFF: I have seen and heard a number of life-changing musical events, after which my sense of music and my participation in music was changed at a deep level, often a level I can’t describe. One was Richter playing the Brahms Bb Concerto with Leinsdorf conducting the Chicago Orchestra. They recorded the performance in the next days, so the experience was and remains deepened. Have you had such experiences? If so, can you mention some of them and why they were important ? 

WOSNER:Yes. I have a very vivid memory of a Radu Lupu recital in Tel-Aviv. I think I must have been 15 or 16. I will never forget the end of the first movement of Schubert’s A Minor Sonata D. 845. It was like an earth-shattering event and I felt like I had just experienced levels in music deeper than I had ever imagined until then. It made me more aware of what playing the piano can mean.

” I guess there are two basic questions for a musician – what the music means and how to go about conveying it to others.” – Shai Wosner

MANOFF: I understand that you will performing a Tchaikovsky Concerto in the next season. Can you mention other concertos on your radar– so to speak –works which you are already considering? 

WOSNER:There are so many that I still hope to play. Brahms 2nd, for example is perhaps at the top of the list right now. Others include the Ravel Left Hand Concerto, as well as the Ligeti Concerto, a real masterpiece which I’ve played years ago but hope to go back to soon.

MANOFF: Might you discuss how you practice and how you balance immediate needs with future tasks. You are a musician with wide interests. Does that mindset ever interfere with your practice schedule ? What’s the balance ? 

WOSNER:That’s the hardest part. I guess there are two basic questions for a musician – what the music means and how to go about conveying it to others. The latter basically means finding how to practice certain things which is a lifelong process.

One of the things I try to do in order to balance between immediate needs and long term goals is make sure that I work on the pieces I can learn from the most, pieces that are substantial in a way that when I have to practice them for the near future I also gain something for the long run.

You always learn something about music and the piano when you work on a Beethoven Sonata, for example. But there is a flip side to it as well, which is knowing how not to commit to too many different things at once. In other words, it can be tempting to use different opportunities to learn more repertoire, but it is important to know how to not overextend yourself at any given moment. There’s so much good repertoire that sometimes it’s hard to say no.

MANOFF: Let me ask a crazy question. Suppose that you had to build your musical world (starting now) from music composed after 1900. What would you make that world from — as a performer and listener ? 

WOSNER:The cornerstones would be pretty obvious: Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Bartok, Janacek, Ravel, Stravinsky certain Strauss, certain Prokofiev. I feel a strong personal attachment to Mahler’s music, which I grew up listening to a lot. From Debussy’s music I think one can learn infinitely about nuances, whether it is of sound, of agogics, of the interpretation of a composer’s markings, and so on. Later on, Ligeti, as well as music by the Canadian composer Claude Vivier. Improvisation also plays a part.

I don’t mean to count my own improvisation in the august company of these composers, but simply as an component of my own musical education that I feel has been very important to me. I used to improvise very often in certain styles and in free form with my teacher Andre Hajdu when I was growing up in Israel and still love doing it.

“[Wosner] chose an ambitious and well-conceived program. The Bach was delivered crisply, and with a brisk propulsive energy. The Schoenberg also had an impressive sweep as well as a vivid vocabulary of gestures…” The New York Times 

MANOFF: I’ve heard you discuss the need for collaboration. Might you discuss future plans, pieces, yours that are in the works or in your imagination ? 

WOSNER:I always try to look for meaningful collaborations with others, simply because it’s always important for one’s artistic well-being to look for new sources of inspiration and new ideas. That is especially true when what you do usually confines you to solitary practice. Right now, my ‘dream’ project is to work with a choreographer on a joint interpretation for Schumann’s Carnaval. This piece has so many layers to it and such theatrical potential and I hope to have a chance for such a collaboration at some point in the near future.

Interview: Stephen Osborne


An Interview with Steven Osborne

by Tom Manoff

Steven Osborne on practicing, recording, and interpreting the written score and the music of Debussy, Rachmaninov, Tovey and Tippett.

MANOFF: I believe that many potential professional pianists do not succeed because of something seemingly mundane: they never learned how to practice efficiently, and, in some instances, developed practice habits that deepen problems rather than solve them. Would you describe your practice routines and philosophy?

OSBORNE: I think this is one of the most important issues an instrumentalist has to deal with. In the simplest terms, when I practise I try to keep my attention coming back to how tense or (hopefully) relaxed my body is, and what my state of mind is. The tricky thing is that these two are closely related: physical tension negatively affects one’s state of mind, and conversely when one is anxious about a forthcoming concert, or heavy workload, or indeed the argument you just had with your wife (very rare, of course!), then it automatically creates physical tension. So it’s easy to go into a downward spiral where one can become very uncomfortable and even develop pain.

I see practise at the piano as a process of removing physical and mental obstacles to allow the music to emerge as freely and naturally as possible, but the work which creates the intense sense of engagement with the music always occurs for me away from the piano, reading through the scores, singing them to myself. For some reason I always learn more about the music doing this for 30 minutes than I could working at the piano for a month.

“I see practise at the piano as a process of removing physical and mental obstacles to allow the music to emerge as freely and naturally as possible.” — Steven Osborne

The piano sound on your recordings with Hyperion is especially rich. While it starts with your actual sound, I would think that you are working with a very fine production team who capture your sound. What kind of relationship do you have with them, and, in your experience, how important is such a team –from producer to engineer ?

You’re right to think beyond what the performer is doing at the instrument. Certainly the sound engineer plays a crucial role, finding the right compromise between detail and richness which best suits the music; a significant misjudgement in this can seriously affect the impact of a record. This is a discussion which happens between the engineer, the producer, and myself at the start of a recording session, and it can certainly take an hour or more of recording and adjusting microphones to find just the right sound.

In the experience of making a record, though, my interaction is much more with the producer, and I’ve been lucky enough to have made all my records with a great friend, Andrew Keener. I can’t overstate how much he brings to our records: he has fabulous ears and I trust him to hear both problems of detail and also larger structural issues; he is very savvy at getting the best out of performers in simple ways like knowing when it’s time to have a break, or when it might be worth going back to that one bit that you never got quite right; above all, though, the comfort I feel around him is enormously helpful because making a record is a very exhausting process which can make one elated, frustrated, sore, self-doubting, despairing, elated again, and so on for three days solid. To have someone you can trust with all of that excess emotion is worth its weight in gold.

I was surprised by some of the lovely music in the Tovey Concerto, and embarrassed that I really knew nothing about his music. Perhaps were I English that wouldn’t be the case. You’ve recorded quite a few composers whose music isn’t especially well-known. Which composers (not just those you’ve recorded) deserve more audience attention? Do you have any such projects coming up?

Honestly, if you were English, I think you still wouldn’t have known any of Tovey’s music! It’s strange the way fashions in music go. His crime was probably being too successful a musicologist, and his music is basically never played in the UK even though it has very fine qualities. Although I’ve made some records of little know works I don’t actively go out looking for them. Kapustin’s jazz-inspired music I first heard in the background a friend’s house while playing snooker, and most of the other unusual stuff I’ve done has been suggested by Mike Spring at Hyperion, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the piano repertoire. The one composer I passionately feel has never quite been given his due is Michael Tippett whose music, though idiosyncratic, encompasses more depth and variety of human feeling than all but the greatest of 20th century composers..

You have also recorded a CD of Debussy’s Préludes. These have somewhat different harmonic designs than Rachmaninov’s (at least for me) — especially in the manner the harmonic plans help animate the form. Were there differences in your musical approach to these different sets of Préludes? 

To describe that is difficult, like trying to explain the intimate aspects of a friendship. Laying aside the obvious stylistic differences, I think for me the most significant difference is that I feel Rachmaninov’s music is essentially about himself and particularly his terrible sadness in life, whereas with Debussy the emotion is often more at a distance, and the pieces can be as much representative (of a picture or story) as they are expressive.
That’s not to say the music isn’t moving, but that it’s not so clear that Debussy is putting down on paper the emotions he was feeling at the time. With Rachmaninov, it feels to me that he couldn’t help but be confessional. So naturally, these instincts put me in very different frames of mind when playing the two composers. I feel an element of detachment (but not coldness) is often necessary in Debussy whereas Rachmaninov forces me to play with the greatest emotional force I can muster.

“I feel Rachmaninov’s music is essentially about himself and particularly his terrible sadness in life, whereas with Debussy the emotion is often more at a distance, and the pieces can be as much representative (of a picture or story) as they are expressive.” — Steven Osborne 


Considering your interest in jazz, I’m interested in some of the jazz players to whom you listen, and any who influenced you as an artist.

I listened a lot to Miles Davis and Bill Evans in my 20s, and more recently Kenny Wheeler, Oscar Peterson, Bobo Stenson, Brad Mehldau, Chick Lyall, Brian Kellock, Keith Tippett and others, but the biggest influence was certainly Keith Jarrett, to whom I listened obsessively all through my college years. Because of his playing I started experimenting with free improvisation, and that exploration taught me things about sound and structure that have been enormously helpful to my classical playing. Free improvising forces you to take complete responsibility for the music, whereas in classical music it can be tempting to hide behind the written score: “The composer wrote staccato here, I’ll play staccato even though I feel it sounds better legato”.

I think a classical performer needs to have the courage to disagree with the composer if his insticts lead him strongly in another direction; for me, excessive respect for the written score is as bad a fault as a lack of interest in the composer’s markings. But I know colleagues who profoundly disagree with me on this! I think the crucial question for a performer is, “How can you reveal the music as vividly as possible?” I believe to do that you need a balance between an intensive study of the musical score and a profound examination of your own feelings about the music; grappling with the differences between your instincts and what is on the page is one of the most stimulating parts of getting to know the music.

“….excessive respect for the written score is as bad a fault as a lack of interest in the composer’s markings..” — Steven Osborne 

The only works of Tippett’s that I have known are A Child of Our Time and The Midsummer Marriage. The oratorio seems a difficult piece stylistically for singers, and, in my opinion, there isn’t a convincing performance on CD. The Midsummer Marriage I know from a fine BBC production in the 80’s. But your Tippett release has been quite a revelation, easily the finest single recording of his works I have heard thus far. You are especially able to reveal the composer’s lyricism within sometimes dense structures.

Tippett’s instrumental works strike me as more comfortable stylistically than his vocal music. Tippett seems especially “pure” as a composer in instrumental works, even as he moves through various “outer” styles to support a very refined and focused artistic vision. Nothing pretentious despite the complexity at times —especially the counterpoint — and nothing fussy. I’m not sure how many high-caliber recordings of his works exist. Perhaps this contributes to the neglect of his work. Can you suggest some other Tippett recordings?
I think you’ve hit more than one nail on the head. I find all the operas problematic except for King Priam, which is wonderfully pure and bracing. There is some marvellous music in the others, particularly The Midsummer Marriage , but Tippett all too often got bogged down in what he wanted to say to us (and being the humanitarian he was, he always had a lot to say). Ironically, I think that the lack of political or psychological messages in his instrumental works led to stronger music which communicates more potently. Having said that, it’s very difficult music for the performer to get to grips with both technically and conceptually – it’s unfailingly awkward to play and Tippett’s musical intention is sometimes very obscure. So probably one reason there aren’t that many good recordings of his music is that not many people want to invest the enormous energy needed to learn his music. I had to do it though; I was obsessed (and still am) with his musical world.

Recordings I particularly admire:

Pretty much anything with Sir Colin Davis; particularly The Midsummer Marriage and the Piano Concerto with John Ogden (Ogden’s 2nd piano sonata is amazing too).

The Lindsay Quartet doing the 5th quartet, one of Tippett’s greatest works I think and sublimely played.

David Atherton and the London Sinfonietta in King Priam.

Solti and the Chicago Symphony in the 4th Symphony; an enormously rich, if sometimes puzzling, work.

Sir Andrew David and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in The Mask of Time. In some ways this a preposterously ambitious work which can’t sustain the weight of its aims: what other composer would dare to critique the entire history of human civilisation in a single work? It’s uneven, but it contains some truly great music.

St.Martin-in-the-Fields doing the Concerto for Double String Orchestra – a childhood pleasure! I’m not sure if the recording I knew is still available – I thought it was directed by Iona Brown but I can only find it with Marriner conducting the orchestra; this version is good but the recorded sound is too resonant.

I found Tippett’s life fascinating and relevant —especially his politics. Clearly, his beliefs and the events of his time influenced his music. How has Tippett’s life affected your sense of the music, and —more broadly— to what extent does knowledge of a any composer’s life (if we know of it) affect your interpretations?

Instinctively I’m not very interested in the lives of most of the composers I play: I’m drawn to music that grips me and putting across that inner conviction is my main goal as a musician. If I’m honest, I’m slightly sad about this lack of curiosity – one’s perspective on music can only be deepened by knowing about a composer’s life; but then there are only so many hours in the day and generally I’d rather be practising or thinking about music than reading about it.

“Instinctively I’m not very interested in the lives of most of the composers I play: I’m drawn to music that grips me and putting across that inner conviction is my main goal as a musician.” — Steven Osborne 


As if happens, with Tippett I actually read most of his writings before doing the recording. They are a fascinating mirror of his music – idiosyncratic, eclectic, yet full of feeling and conviction. Whether that knowledge affected how I played the music is doubtful; however it certainly increased my affection for the man.

There are other cases where I’d say biographical knowledge of a composer is very helpful, for example Schubert’s obsession with Beethoven and the reaction in his music to Beethoven’s death, especially in the C minor sonata. But even here, I’m not sure that knowledge significantly changes my interpretative instincts.

Lastly, can you mention some of the music we might hear from you in the next few years?

In terms of CDs, I’ve got some Beethoven sonatas coming out in the spring, Schubert duets with Paul Lewis at the end of the year, and the complete solo piano music of Ravel in 2011. Longer term, the main big project is performances of the complete Schubert piano sonatas, but that won’t be for 3 years or so.

Steven Osborne’s extensive website includes all his CDs and tour dates. It also plays excerpts from his recordings.


Messiah Gone Awry

by Tom Manoff

Oregon Bach Festival Misses with Sven-David Sandström’s rewrite of the original text from Handel’s Messiah 

EUGENE, July 2009

The promo from the Oregon Bach Festival hit YouTube like a quip from the Jon Stewart Show.

“We asked composer Sven-David Sandström to rewrite the most famous choral piece of all time. And he said, JA !

And I thought, WHY ?

Reset Handel’s Messiah to honor the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death?  You can not be serious, as the the saying goes. But seriousness – or the lack of it– was what the Messiah Gone Awry Affair was all about.

I’ve never been a stuffed shirt about classical music tradition. If anything, I’m known as too much the populist. But with classical music on the skids these days, I want programmers to take chances. And I’m open to new music that can be promoted in any way that might entice an audience.

But there’s hype and then there’s hype. Resetting Handel’s Messiah had shock value. It got your attention. But this seemed hype bordering on arrogance. One had to hope that, beyond novelty, a “respectable” work would emerge– a “serious” work, if you will. After all, conductor Helmuth Rilling, longtime artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival, has a fine reputation for commissioning new and attractive music.

Rilling doesn’t commission just anything. He’s sought new music that would extend the Bach tradition in a contemporary manner. Perhaps the most successful embodiment of Rilling’s vision was a four-way commission of culturally varied settings of the Christian passion text: Wolfgang Rihm’s Lukas Passion; Sofia Gubaidulina’s St. John Passion; Tan Dun’s Water Passion; and, most famously, Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión Según San Marcos.

I took the Sandström Messiah seriously. I had both vocal and orchestra scores for a month before the premiere. No way I’d make a judgment about this work based on a single hearing.

I’m guessing that the first you want to know is how Sandstrom set the famous Halelujah Chorus, right? So did I. Immediately I scanned the score looking for those historic syllables. One could argue that this wasn’t a serious way to approach the piece. I should have started at the beginning and followed the composer’s flow. But the urge to deconstruct the work speaks to the unavoidable novelty of the undertaking. It was as if a painter announced a new version of the Mona Lisa. One first would check out the smile.

Sandström got the Hallelujah issue out of the way early. Tricky off-kilter rhythms. No real melody. More rumbling than singing. Staggered accents on the famous syllables made clear that anyone expecting something similar to Handel’s sturdy rhythmic utterance weren’t going to hear it. A good choice by the composer I thought. Get expectations about the Hallelujah Chorus out of the way. Proclaim no allegiance to Handel’s music and move on.

Sandstrom employed a variety of harmonic styles. There seemed to be four.

First, there were unadorned, uninspired and ridiculously old- fashioned progressions. Repeated I and V7 chords scoured away any hint of modernity. Contemporary composers can use harmonies from the past successfully, but most often with some special “take,” some attractive twist in harmonic craft.

A second type were so-called “Jesus Chords” – harmonic progressions in movie music that seem to “open the clouds” during miraculous moments.

Helmuth Rilling Conducting Sven-David Sandsrom's <em>Messiah</em>

A third type consisted of disjointed modernisms- a cluster here, a dissonant chord there. But for my ears, these were used in isolation with no long range design. The combination of these random acts of dissonance with the overly- sweet consonant sections had an uneasy effect .

A fourth kind of harmony was heard in some choral sections. Here Sandström used voices in imitation but on a static chord. Perhaps it was an attempt to evoke Handelian counterpoint. But real counterpoint rests within harmonic progressions. That is counterpoint’s magic, and for the composer, counterpoint’s craft. Heard in this simplest of harmonic settings, these voices were merely adornment. Busy, yes. Counterpoint, no.

On the melodic front, none of Sandström’s setting was memorable. No ravishing vocal line soared above the movie-like harmonies. Nothing catchy charmed the ear. One remembers here that Handel was an extraordinary genius with melody. If one looked to a primary compositional skill for this project it would be writing memorable melodies.

On rare occasion there was attractive music from the chorus. But the vocal writing was often so high that singing became technically strained. Sopranos and tenors sat on A’s and even Bb’s for extended passages. The result was most unpleasant.

Finally, the word rhythms were clumsy. Sandstrom demonstrated no ability at setting English in its natural rhythms. This seemed the worst artistic miscalculation of all.

I wish I had something positive to say about the work. But I don’t. Even pastiche fails as description. Successful pastiche has an aesthetic viewpoint that makes its various styles work. Golijov’s Passion, one of Rilling’s most inspired commissions, is an instructive example.

True, the audience was on its feet at the end. That’s positive, right? And Sandström is a really nice fellow. His enthusiasm at hearing his work for the first time was heartfelt and appreciated.

John Evans

An odd sidebar to this Messiah was that it happened under the new regime of John Evans- the recently appointed executive director of the festival. Coming to the Oregon Bach Festival from the BBC, Evans is also a Benjamin Britten scholar. Britten was one the greatest 20th- century composers at setting the English to music. Evans is a skilled programmer. He’s quickly extended the festival’s scope and audience with some important moves. Most notably, he’s brought Monica Huggett and her Portland Baroque Orchestra to fill the much- needed gap at this Bach event: historically informed performance. Evans has also programmed crossover artists to build audiences and loosen up a bit the serious image of the festival. He’s right on target to make a festival not only “important,” “meaningful” and “serious,” but also fun. But rewriting the Messiah took on seriousness with silliness.

Surely it was a Rilling miss. And certainly, with his many successes at commissioning works, Rilling will miss now and then. But Evans must have crossed his fingers just a bit as he touted the Sandström commission publicly. Rilling is still the official artistic director until he retires. But the festival, in essence, has two artistic directors. When Rilling does retire, Evans, it seems, will take the helm in all matters.

That said, one hopes that Evans’ bag of tricks –and to keep a classical festival going these days, one needs a bag of “this and that” – will include commissions of important and serious new music for our time. More than hype. And that will be where Evan’s ultimate reputation will lie.

Classical music is on hard times. It’s important that we put our efforts behind adventurous programming and new music from living composers. But that commitment calls for honesty from music critics. No point in blindly supporting anything new simply because it’s contemporary music. Contemporary music cannot succeed without serious criticism. Responses will differ, but without critical, thoughtful evaluation, we’re going to hear more hyped and silly stuff. With fewer resources in the classical music culture, it’s imperative that organizations with funds and forces like the Oregon Bach Festival mount new works of substance. Hyping too easily fools us into mediocrity.

Sorry I can’t muster up a Hallelujah. Hopefully next time.

Oregon Bach Festival 2011

by Tom Manoff

Shai Wosner and Matthew Halls at the Oregon Bach Festival 2011.

EUGENE OREGON June 23 – July 10, 2011.

PIANIST SHAI WOSNER has received raves in the musical world for more than 10 years. He may not be a household name yet, but he’s on course – especially if audiences distinguish between greatness and hype. Some miss his charismatic playing because of his onstage personality. Wosner hasn’t a hint of self-aggrandizement: No swooning, no hamming it up, and no false theatrics. The drama is completely in the music.

What a fine drama it was on July 10th at the Oregon Bach Festival. Deftly planned, the program explored variation form, each work either an official set of variations or involving its procedures: Handel – Suite in B-flat Major ; Oliver Knussen – Variations Op. 24; Johannes Brahms – Variations and Fugue on a Theme By G.F. Handel Op. 24 ; Beethoven –Variations on an Original Theme Op. 34; – Beethoven Piano Sonata in F Minor – Appassionata Op. 57.

Brilliantly executed, the recital showed the qualities that make Wosner’s artistry so extraordinary. All the pieces were played with the same intensity of attention. The recital had no stand out. Each work was part of the recital’s form, if one can say a recital has a form. There was a fluid excitement in every note, every phrase and every silence.

Wosner’s technique is pristine. He’s quite capable of splashing notes into a hall to titillate audiences with some “favorite -fast-fingers” show. He didn’t and doesn’t. But there were plenty of technical challenges on this program, some unnoticed by non-musicians I suspect. Wosner moves through difficult passages with ease, in musical context and without calling attention to the moment. His gaze into the music structure and “meaning” is all-inclusive.

Wosner’s artistry is based, not on showmanship or audience approval, but in a profound journey through music’s inner life.  Form is a rather big concept to use here, but it’s one of the terms, when used in its fullest meaning, that captures this “inner life” of a work. Form is no mere set of boxes into which sections of music fall. Form includes phrasing, melodic and harmonic structure, musical development, relationships between key centers, repetition and variation (to name a few) – all unified as one experience.

Listening to Wosner, I hear musical forms coming alive and revealing themselves anew. The pianist, himself, slips beyond my awareness as the composer’s music emerges as pure creative energy. I can’t ask more from any performer.

Wosner is also an adventurous fellow when imagining new directions for chamber music. His “dream project” (as described to me in an interview) is a collaboration with a dancer to explore the dramatic elements in Schumann’s Carnival.

Wosner’s piano/dance program would certainly find a place in a festival that already presents music with staging, if not always successfully. The “Brahms Soiree” on July 6, an awkward attempt to recreate a Viennese gathering of musicians, needed a lot more schnapps to digest its schnitzel. Wosner was the mainliner, and played intermittently, but the overall program suffered from the uneven level of the artists. It’s no soiree to hear chamber music from players so wildly mismatched in abilities.

There should be simple test for any OBF event. Would it be presented elsewhere – in Portland or L.A. or New York for example ? If not, it shouldn’t appear in Eugene. OBF shouldn’t treat Eugene as the “anything goes” town for the locals.

Wosner’s OBF stop was brief in his full summer schedule. Following OBF, he played chamber music at Chamber Music Northwest, a recital at Oxford Philomusica, chamber music at Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival (with David Shifrin, among others) and New York’s prestigious Mostly Mozart Festival at the end of August, that appearance with one of his regular collaborators, the wonderful violinist, Jennifer Koh. OBF should have him longer. More than that, he is the perfect musician with whom to anchor a first- rate chamber music tradition, something OBF has never had.

Wosner as a concerto soloist would be a fine event for this festival, also, either with a conductor or the pianist leading the OBF orchestra himself from the keyboard – something Wosner does at other venues. He’s a splendid Brahms interpreter. The Brahms Bb flat Concerto at OBF would be a spectacular draw for audiences, and healthy commitment to the next generation of important artists.

CELLIST ALBAN GERHARDT’S artistry was known to me through his recordings with pianist Stephen Osborne of the Shostakovich and Schnittke Cello Sonatas on the English Hyperion label.

Gerhardt played three concerts at OBF, each presenting two Bach Cello Suites with one by Benjamin Britten. I heard the last of the concerts.

I’m not a stickler for “correct” performance of Bach. The heavens are in the music’s stars not seen or heard through mortal gauze. I liked the Swingle Swingers in the 60’s and Wendy Carlos’s Switched on Bach too. I once did a summer review of Bach on the accordion, which had a sort of “Bach-at-a- barbecue” sensibility. Cheerful stuff.

Having established myself as a barbarian (who isn’t at a barbecue?), I still find some Bach interpretations distasteful – Gerhardt’s most certainly. To be fair, I only saw the last of three concerts, a program that had Bach’s Suites in C Major, No. 3 BWV 1009 and No. 5 in C Minor, No. 5 BWV 1011. I found Gerhardt’s playing in both Bach suites indulgent and even incomprehensible .

Apparently Gerhardt is experimenting with a highly personalized new “take” on Bach – more dreamlike than thought through. Dreaming is good but Bach needs much more. With neither clear motivic sculpting or rhythmic underpinning for the dance forms, the musical foundation was shaky, if it was there at all. The suites were also technically insecure, unless all those missed notes and high squeaks were part of some purposeful noise collage. Too much of Jung’s shadow and too little of Leibniz’s world order. Some claim that Baroque performance practice takes the theoretical Doctrine of Affections too far. But a doctrine of defection goes awry in another direction.

However, Gerhardt ended that program with a stunning performance of Benjamin Britten’s Suite No.1 for Solo Cello Op. 72. Impressive at every level, in Britten I heard the wonderful playing from Gerhardt that I knew from his recordings.

Gerhardt’s recital had me wondering again about the future of chamber music at OBF. The festival hasn’t offered a strong profile yet for the future of its chamber music. A joint recital from Wosner and Gerhardt would have been intriguing. (I couldn’t shake the imaginary sound from the phantom duo in the week after the festival). Artistic intermingling of first-rank musicians is the mark of all high- level chamber music programming.

IF GERHARDT’S BACH banished Jung from my library (he’d been a discarded footnote to Claude Levi-Strauss for 30 years anyway – Levi-Strauss’s structuralism brings all kinds of enlightenment to music,) conductor Matthew Halls’ appearance had me digging around my library for John Hollander’s, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500-1700 . Hollander’s masterpiece is among the greatest books ever written about music. It chronicles through poetry the passing of the ancient myth of the Harmony of the Spheres to a more modern, demythologized sensibility about music. The gradual transition occurred by the early Baroque period, though some of its deepest ideas remained, redefined as wistful aesthetics, not absolute truth to the emerging scientific age. Bach surely is the musical peak of that cosmological energy. Counting millennia one can look quite far back, beyond Europe into the myth’s vast world history. Count notes, count stars, count the Trinity, count gods and goddesses alike, and you’re counting the musical structure of the universe, according to the ancients.

To understand Hollander you must read and understand poetry. I’m going to guess that this applies in some way to Matthew Halls too. Poetry (or text, if you must) is no small issue for this conductor. His performance of Henry Purcell’s  Welcome to all the pleasures, showed immediately that he treats text and music as a complete unity. The rhythms, phrasings, motivic structure – the total substance in the music – can only be understood and made into sound through a complete and utter unity with the poetry. Performances of Purcell – and many other composers – suffer interpretations in which music and text seem disembodied. Modern audiences may read a text for meaning but have little experience listening to words and music as inseparable – except, notably, in popular music. One wishes they could listen to Purcell in some shady grove with some wine and a few dancing nymphs – and “get down” with the lyrics a bit.

Hall’s Purcell showed that the conductor is an exceptional interpreter of the composer’s music. I find very few recordings of Purcell untouched by a certain stuffiness. Halls found the wispy but earthy magic in the music: Lightness was matched with solid structure, poetry with the sound from instruments and voices alike. Halls’ tasty recording of Purcell’s Ten Sonatas in Four Parts on Linn Records, is required listening when considering the conductor’s OBF future.

Rarely has Baroque music other than Bach and Handel been heard at this festival. Rilling once offered some Monteverdi and Schütz. Perhaps there was more but not much. Indeed the festival has mostly treated Bach as a beginning for musical traditions, leading ahead in time to other composers. Halls’ Purcell pointed to possible OBF programming of a much wider gaze into all the Baroque, not only presented, but performed with expertise.

Because Halls had been heralded as an early music specialist, I was unprepared, as were others, for the richly textured vocal sound from the OBF chorus in Britten’s  a cappella setting of a W. H. Auden poem, Hymn to St. Cecilia.

With this performance, Halls showed himself in Paul Hillier territory. OBF has long lacked a choral conductor at this level, a conductor with a masterful choral technique and profound understanding of a cappella vocal sound. Halls conducting technique stems from choral performance. It would be interesting to see that technique with a full orchestra in music from the core classical 19th century tradition.

The evening closed with a big-time performance of Handel’s Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day HWV 76.

A question for anyone following Rilling is can he or she make a big Baroque splash in the Hult Center’s cavernous Silva Hall. Halls can. Although it was an “early-music-meets- mostly- modern- instruments – in- a -way- too-big-space” sort of thing, it was perfect for this hall and this festival. The players followed various aspects of Baroque practice: No vibrato from the strings (well, mostly) and lively Baroque phrasing which was dramatic and fetching. Perhaps most important, all the performers were joyfully connected with the conductor. Keen, energized music-making all around.

The critical pencils were out for Halls’ stint as lecturer on Bach in the festival’s Discovery Series on July 5th. Rilling’s role as the fatherly Bach specialist, presiding over the composer’s legacy with a firm, warm and sometimes wry spirit, has been central to the festival’s soul.

During this festival I saw Jeffrey Kahane, Helmuth Rilling and Matthew Halls lead Discovery concerts. I found Halls quite brilliant, a worthy bearer of Rilling’s legacy, but even more important, a reliable and steady beacon for Bach’s music.

Halls may strike some Eugeneans as a rather lofty fellow with an English accent, but, if so, they’re missing his essential qualities. Not only does he understand Bach, he doesn’t hide his true humbleness before Bach’s incomprehensible genius. He said so at the lecture with heart on sleeve. I believed him.

Rilling can serve up Bach with elegance and meat and potatoes. It is perhaps this wonderful combination of high mindedness and earthiness that makes him such a powerful and lovable figure in Eugene. Halls’ personality isn’t exactly earthy, though he finds all kinds of deep soil in music. He’s elegant, certainly, but also deeply lyrical and poetic, important qualities for performing the most earthy of music.

Halls has two fine recordings of Bach on Linn Records: The Goldberg Variations and the Easter and Ascension Oratorios. More required listening.

I have written before that a failure of this festival has been the absence of music from the epoch before Bach. Where are Pérotin, Dunstable and Josquin ? Where are Machaut and Tallis ? Where is the great musical arc that led to Bach, he the mightiest of all figures in Western Music’s thousand- year run, positioned at the midpoint and even outside history, striding past and present ? And where is the rich cultural/historical lineage that included the Harmony of the Spheres, the sacred counting of the cosmos in which the heavens were a model polyphony, harmony and counterpoint, the essential became the spectacular tools for the West’s music, sacred and profane ?

I suspect that Matthew Halls might bring more of that history to the Oregon Bach Festival, finally connecting Bach to the full mainstream of time.

UPDATE: August 24, 2011. Matthew Halls has been selected to succeed Helmuth Rilling as artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival.

Dudamel in Los Angeles


by Tom Manoff

Gustavo Dudamel in L.A : Charismatic, yes. Arrogant, no.

CLASSICAL MUSIC needed an injection of energy. Enter Gustavo Dudamel. Some critics see the Venezuelan Wunderkind as merely an over-hyped rookie. I see him as a ready-to-go, extraordinary talent. And a game-changer.

In April 2010, I saw the 29-year-old conductor lead a concert called Dudamel Conducts Bernstein and Lieberson, part of his America and Americans series.

Even before the sold -out concert, Disney Hall was whirring. Half the audience ranged from children to 40-somethings. Many spoke Spanish. As they gathered inside, people met for drinks or coffee, wandering the levels of the hall looking down at moving bodies, faces and outfits. And the mode of dress wasn’t Oscar Carpet—more edgy and artsy meets “I’m-a-musician -so- my -pants- aren’t -pressed. ” It was more like a theater audience than classical. Dudamel’s reputation as an audience- magnet is true. Listen up, folks. There were young people in the seats. They were cheering.

Mexican composer Carlos Chávez’s Toccatas for Percussion opened. Sometimes percussion pieces fail through lack of interesting interpretation beyond the score. But Dudamel brought this piece alive with something more than precision. Rhythmic gestures were imbued with character. The conductor and the players had a clear intent with each motive, pattern and timbre. Dudamel’s stick technique was precise. The rapport with his players was obvious. At the bows, I got my first taste of Dudamel’s onstage demeanor. Exciting, yes. Arrogant, no. He points to his players with genuine admiration and respect. He’s no phony, folks.

Peter Lieberson’s well-crafted and lovely Neruda Songs was well played if not well sung. While it’s unfair to expect a singer to match the original ( the work was dedicated to and sung by Lieberson’s wife, Lorrane Hunt Lieberson, who died a few years back), mezzo -soprano Kelley O-Connor’s interpretation was somewhat forced, an effort at lyricism rather than a genuine uprising from the soul.

The emerging message at this concert: Not only can Dudamel conduct contemporary music, its language and significance is a vital part of his musical life.

Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No.2, The Age of Anxiety was the second half. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet played the part Bernstein wrote for himself. Like many of Lennie’s compositions, the vision isn’t completely matched by the result, especially the form. Even so, the music was ravishing and fresh-sounding. Thibaudet seemed outside his stylistic range. The sparsely voiced sections seemed plunky, the jazzy rhythms didn’t swing. At some points he was out-of-sync with the orchestra. No disaster. Dudamel and his players covered it and kept going. This orchestra has the Bernstein soul and sound. Even with problems from the soloist, the work was powerfully imagined and delivered. It was Lennie in all his magic and issues. It was American Music.

Two nights later Dudamel repeated his inaugural concert from October 2009: John Adams’ City Noir and Mahler’s Symphony No.1, the Titan.

When I see long program notes from a composer, I don’t read them. I want to hear the music first, then the explanation. The title City Noirspoke plenty to me, hinting at film. The well- crafted work was raw and sweet, jazzy, energetic and wonderfully American. Obvious references to film music often hit my “cliche” button. But was that his intent ?

The orchestra writing is virtuosic. The L.A. players brought it off, working hard, but never out of breath. And Dudamel had it in his head, hands and soul. Audience response was wild, but not some pro forma ritual for a new work. The connection to the music was genuine. Adams is both complex and populist, which speaks to his talent and success.

The concerts offered something about composing these days. The Adams seemed substantial and powerful, the Lieberson well-crafted and emotionally nuanced, but it was the Bernstein that pierced through the historical crust and contemporary efforts that still vie for legitimacy in the steady shadows. Even a living genius is hard put to find pure light.

I’ve heard the Mahler too many times these past years. I may be in the minority, but I don’t think it’s the composer’s finest symphony. Hearing it countless times isn’t changing my mind.

Also on the Americas series that weekend was Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos, conducted by Maria Guinand.

Three days of concerts with only one work composed before 1900! And audience response throughout was thunderous delight. Demographics: Half at each concert ranged from children to 50-somethings. Any talk about contemporary music keeping audiences away is out the window. Gustavo Dudamel is showing what classical music must bring to the 21st century. Orchestras throughout the world are taking notice.

Critics everywhere are taking on Dudamel and L.A. with knives out. They’ve got their traditional ears looking for any kind of misstep. Fine. But there’s jealousy and resentment about this kid, especially in towns other than L.A..

Dudamel brings a new kind of conductor’s soul to the century. His natural affinity for contemporary music and much-needed cultural understanding of all the Americas will open and excite audiences. It’s no mistake that he conducts Bernstein and Adams so well.

He can be flashy. So what? Dudamel’s appeal is not just charisma; it’s that he’s not arrogant in it. He’s not some Messiah come to save classical music, but a game-changer and a populist who can stroll through classical music’s shrines with skill, affection and new energies. The diversity and youth of his audience, alone, has revved up my soul. Let’s go.

Guitarist Christina Sandensen

Shades and Contrasts – Christina Sandensen, guitar
Oradek Records  B00MQDAPW2


If you think of classical guitar only as the subdued  cousin of wild flamenco strumming, you’ll be  surprised by this debut release from Christina Sandsengen. The young guitarist is from Norway, and there’s a hint in her playing of what one might imagine as “Scandinavian.” (I’ve never been to Scandinavia, so I’m going on my own uniformed imagination).

Sandensen’s sound very precise. Every note is not only clearly articulated, each has emotional warmth and emotion. Sanderstrom’s sound is not the unleashed passion   of  a Spanish nightclub, but the sound of wind in a Norwegian forest.

This is not to say that Sandenen isn’t convincing in the traditional guitar repertoire. Indeed, most of the pieces on this successful album are traditional Spanish fare: Composers for guitar – Aguado, Albéniz, Aguado and Agustin Barrios Mangoré.

The album also includes a few contemporary works from Domeniconi and Egberto Gismonti, each played with the sureness of the guitarist’s interpretive powers.

One issue for me. Although the recorded sound is especially clear, and shows off handsomely Sanderens technique, it lacks the “space” and “depth” of a room or hall. I wonder if the guitar was “close mic’d” in a studio –  a mic placement used in pop recordings. I think that a more spacious sound in a room or hall would deepen the effect of such fine playing.

Christina Sandensen Website