By Lawrence Budmen

Few composers changed music history as decisively as Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). Although he wrote scores for cello, voice, and orchestra, Chopin regarded the keyboard as supreme. George Sand noted that "Chopin created a revolution in the language of music but with only one instrument." Beneath the delicacy of his melodic writing - pianistic bel canto - Chopin was a bold innovator. His explorations of harmonic chromaticism and expressive inner voices reinvented keyboard music. The feverish Romanticism and daunting technical challenges of Chopin's music pose a formidable challenge to the performing artist. The amazing Italian pianist Pietro De Maria held a large audience spellbound by his inspired Chopin interpretations on May 15, 2004 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach - the high point of the 7th Miami International Piano Festival Discovery Series. 

De Maria, a student of the great pianist Maria Tipo, is a dazzling virtuoso with the soul of a poet. His sense of rhythmic freedom, elasticity of phrasing, romantic ardor, and caressing tonal hues set a new standard for the 4 Chopin "Ballades." The fury and tortuous passions of the famous "Ballade No.4 in F Minor," Opus 52 were given commanding musical shape and singing cantabile line in De Maria's stellar performance. Chopin's two sets of Etudes, Opus 10 (1829-32) and Opus 25 (1834-36) broke new pianistic ground - combining technical invention with surging lyricism and fiery bravura. De Maria's stunning technique easily encompassed the music's virtuoso demands. He played with such freedom that it seemed he was creating the music as he performed. (De Maria's musical approach is closer to the generation of pianists that had direct contact with the 19th century Romantic tradition - artists such as Ignaz Friedman and Moritz Rosenthal). The beautiful lyrical line (bel canto indeed), sensitivity, and poignant emotion that De Maria brought to the 3rd Etude of Opus 10 made the piece all the more nostalgic in its Polish nationalism. For once the "Revolutionary Etude" was not an overt display piece but the summation of a deeply emotional, passionate musical utterance. De Maria's lithe, golden sound, creative imagination, singing tone, and wonderful sense of the music's light and shade produced a Chopin performance to remember! Following in the grand tradition of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Mauricio Pollini, Pietro De Maria is the new Italian Prince of the Piano! 

Chopin of a more classically proportioned variety was on display the preceding evening (May 14) when the Argentinean pianist Nelson Goerner made his South Florida debut playing the 24 Preludes, Opus 28. Inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach's "The Well Tempered Clavier," Chopin created a set of preludes in all 24 keys - major and minor. Chopin's unique sense of color and harmony abounds in these poetic evocations. Goerner revealed a rock solid keyboard technique, a sense of subtle restraint, and great musicality in these shining miniatures. The "Raindrop" Prelude had the requisite lightness of touch. Always Goerner was seeking a greater musical statement - a broad, cascading line flowed throughout the set. That Goerner can set the piano ablaze in fireworks was confirmed by his brilliant realization of one of the "Paganini Etudes" by Franz Liszt as a post Chopin encore. Goerner's finest music making came in Franz Schubert's autumnal "Sonata in D Major," D.850. Here was patrician Schubert playing that had a soaring lyrical line and spacious nobility. The melting lyricism of the second movement, robust vigor of the Scherzo, and lilting, felicitous charm of the Rondo finale capped a beautifully proportioned, warmly idiomatic performance. A fascinating musician! 

The festival's opening concert (May 12) presented a feast of great chamber music. From the first bars of Johannes Brahms's "Piano Trio in B Major"(in the composer's 1890 revision) the crystalline, pearly toned lightness of pianist Ilya Itin's playing produced the most exquisite Romantic aura - the rich, deeply resonant sound that is the essence of Brahms's music. The splendidly sonorous string playing of violinist Vesna Gruppman and cellist Mark Kosower made the deeply lyrical Adagio an almost reverential experience. Gruppman's bracing attack and Kosower's warmly resonant tone enlivened the Allegro finale. A wonderful interplay between the piano and string instruments made the performance of Franz Schubert's "Piano Trio in B-flat Major," D.898 (dating from 1820 - the final year of the composer's life) a total delight. With Itin's light touch the third movement Allegro dance seemed to dance off the keyboard. The noble lyricism of the Andante un poco mosso and the Viennese charm of the finale were given incisive voice by violinist Ariana Kim (currently a pupil of Robert Mann at New York's Julliard School and concertmaster of the Julliard Symphony) and Kosower. Kim's soaring tone and passionately felt music making brought a true Romantic glow to the "Piano Trio in G Minor," Opus 3 by Ernest Chausson. This French composer's chamber works are his greatest creations and deserve a major revival. The melodic inspiration in this score is worthy of Tchaikovsky! The beautiful Assez lent movement recalls Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" in its heated, passionate beauty. The score's piano writing is almost orchestral in scope. The dynamic Yugoslavian virtuoso Misha Dacic played with glistening tone and exhilarating brilliance and virtuosity. A wonderful rarity in a magnificent performance! 

The festival's concluding program (May 16) brought the American debut of the Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg, winner of the 2002 Santander (Spain) International Piano Competition. Giltburg possesses a terrific bravura technique. In the Busoni transcription of J.S. Bach's "Chaconne in D Minor" he projected the dense contrapuntal lines with absolute clarity. Giltburg brought invigorating joy and bracing power to this masterful transcription. His version of Beethoven's famous "Sonata in C Major," Opus 53 ("Waldstein") was young man's Beethoven. He played the opening Allegro con brio at a rapid clip, infusing it with edgy brilliance. There was wonderful lyricism, rhythmic pulse, and textual accuracy in his joyous performance of the concluding Rondo. The sheer voluminous sonority of Giltburg's playing was thrilling! His imaginative, high voltage renditions of 3 of Rachmaninov's "Etudes-Tableaux," Opus 39 were deeply satisfying. In Mussorgsky's ultimate piano showpiece "Pictures At An Exhibition," Giltburg unleashed a plethora of tonal colors. He also brought admirable restraint to the concluding "Great Gate At Kiev" - avoiding the temptation to play with over the top abandon. The sheer beauty of his pianissimos made the haunting Con mortuis in lingua mortua a mesmerizing experience! Always Giltburg brought a grand musical line to the score. Musical depth, rather than superficial effects, seemed to embody this gifted young artist's approach to every score he played. His elegant rendition of Rachmaninov's version of Fritz Kreisler's "Liebesfreud" was a charming encore. 

Due to the illness of the British pianist Paul Lewis, Mihaela Ursuleasa, a Romanian dynamo, presented a recital on May 13 in tribute to the memory of veteran Miami Herald music critic James Roos (who had passed away earlier that day). Ursuleasa's liquid tone and sensitive phrasing made Robert Schumann's "Davidsbundlertanze," Opus 6 a loving, heartfelt tribute to 19th century Romanticism. Ursuleasa reminded the listener that these were dances - vigorous, sentimental, and robust. The delicacy of her playing and her insightful interpretive mastery brought new life to this familiar score. Her version of Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz No.1" may have been the fastest on record. It was also the most imaginative. Every turn of phrase was wonderfully unpredictable - devilish indeed! Her razzle dazzle take on 2 of Bartok's "Romanian Dances," a bracing performance of Beethoven's "Eroica Variations," and an intelligent rendering of Prokofieff's wartime 7th Sonata (with the most dreamy, melting Andante Caloroso imaginable) again confirmed that Ursuleasa is a formidable artist! 

The festival's "Prodigies and Masters of Tomorrow" series presented the astounding 13 year old pianist Ji-Yong in a virtuosic performance of Beethoven's "Sonata No. 17 in D Minor," Opus 31, No.2. Both the mystery and the fiery brilliance of this music found expression in this young pianist's riveting performance. That a 13 year old could play Beethoven with such accuracy and brilliance astonished the senses! He also offered lovely Chopin and a rousing display piece by England's York Bowen. Ji-Yong is an incredible talent! 14 year old violinist Eugene Ugorski (a student of Vesna Gruppman) displayed a large, rich tone and virtuoso fireworks in Paganini's "Caprice No.24" and Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy." He also was the master of the noble line in Bach's "Chaconne in D Minor." Ugorski is a new violin star in the making! 17 year old jazz pianist Eldar Djangirov displayed breezy imagination, tremendous virtuosity, and rousing improvisational fluency in classic tunes by Duke Ellington, Art Blakely, Charlie ("Bird") Parker, and Wynton Marsalis (with a tremendous rhythm section - Duffy Jackson on drums and Rick Doll on bass). Djangirov may already be a genius! 

A plethora of wonderfully talented young musicians dominated this "Discovery Series." (Goerner and Giltburg were terrific discoveries indeed!) With brilliant musicians from around the globe and gifted stars of tomorrow, the festival was a celebration of the piano and the joy of music! 

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