BRILLIANT FINALE OF PIANO FESTIVAL
FEATURES DEBUT OF NEW ORCHESTRA


By Lawrence Budmen 

Over the past seven years the Miami International Piano Festival has presented some exceptional evenings of music but none could match the 2005 Festival’s climactic event – a celebration of the music of Franz Liszt on May 22 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach. Three brilliant piano virtuosos who have been Festival stalwarts (Kemal Gekic, Ilya Itin, and Francesco Libetta) were joined by the Miami International Piano Festival Orchestra. This concert was nothing short of the debut of a new professional orchestra for Miami. (It has been two years since the demise of the Florida Philharmonic.) Former Florida Philharmonic musicians dominated the new ensemble with such prominent first chair players as violinist-concertmaster Bogdan Chruszcz, cellist Chris Glansdorp, bassist Janet Clippard, clarinetist Richard Hancock, and trumpeter Jeffrey Kaye. With conductor William Noll on the podium the orchestra’s performances were impressive and enthusiastically received by a near capacity audience. 

Noll is a seasoned conductor. A former assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Shaw, he has conducted symphonic and operatic performances throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Noll is a commanding podium presence. He drew vigorous, remarkably supple playing from his new ensemble. Rossini’s Overture to “William Tell” (which opened the evening) was played with tremendous instrumental color and vibrance. Glansdorp’s opening cello solo was ravishing in its tonal beauty and musicality. Noll made the storm music really exciting while the familiar finale was played with élan (rather than for blatant, flashy effect). A sparkling opener!

The Rossini score set up Kemal Gekic’s performance of Liszt’s solo piano transcription of the music. Gekic played this typically virtuosic arrangement with fervor and some surprisingly subtle phrasing. The pianist really came into his own with a powerhouse rendition of the List “Piano Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major.” Gekic’s lightning speed performance really crackled. Yet the romantic yearning of the Quasi Adagio was not slighted. There was real elegance beneath the pianistic thunder. The Allegretto vivace sparkled. Noll’s astute highlighting of the triangle solo and ethereal strings created a magical effect. The concluding Allegro animato was a real barn burner with Gekic playing rapid fire chords and the orchestra matching him in sheer brilliance. 

Liszt’s “Piano Concerto No.2 in A Major” is a more lyrical, introspective score. This neglected work could not have had a more persuasive interpreter than Ilya Itin. From the beautifully spun wind playing at the concerto’s outset to the triumphant finale (with its sweeping piano octaves and stirring orchestral march) this performance was a wonderfully dramatic, eloquent dialogue between piano and orchestra. (Too often this score is played in an episodic manner.) Itin and Noll captured the music’s grand, sweeping gestures. Itin’s large, commanding sonority and sheer virtuosic flair fits this score like a glove. He also brought dreamy beauty to the music’s quieter moments. With conductor and soloist on the same perfect musical wavelength, Liszt’s score soared with stirring eloquence. A stunning performance! 

In many ways the “sleeper” performance of the evening came last. Francesco Libetta has been one of the Miami International Piano Festival’s most interesting discoveries. This young Italian dynamo commands a huge pianistic range yet he holds power in reserve for the big, climactic moments. Libetta is a poet of the piano. His playing expresses the most scintillating tonal beauty. His searching, probing musical imagination results in freshly conceived versions of familiar music. In Liszt’s “Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes” Libetta conjured up such lovely tonal colors, shimmering keyboard effects, and caressing musicality that the score sounded totally different. Here was a new, original interpretation of great beauty and nobility. Libetta did not slight the fiery brilliance of the finale. He offered bravura playing of the highest order! Noll beautifully dovetailed the orchestral accompaniment to Libetta’s deeply personal phrasing. A great performance!

In an evening of pianistic brilliance, the debut of the new orchestral ensemble was nothing short of historic. With limited rehearsal time, Noll commanded musically secure, authoritative performances. There was real chemistry between conductor and orchestra. With Noll and the Festival planning future concerto evenings and orchestral events, Miami may finally have gained an excellent new symphonic organization. Greeted by repeated standing ovations, Noll graciously shared the acclaim with his players (both individually and collectively). The entire concert was a night to remember! Bravo!


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