MIAMI PIANO FESTIVAL SHINES IN ITALY

By Lawrence Budmen

LECCE, ITALY - For nine days (July 11-19, 2003) Miami came to Italy. The Miami International Piano Festival presented a series of concerts, master classes, lectures, and film presentations in the charming city of Lecce. Located in the southern Italian province of Puglia, the Baroque architecture and Old World atmosphere of Lecce (population: 1000, 000) complimented superb music making by a remarkable group of artists. 

In the moonlight on the plaza of the Teatini Palace (July 16) Croatian born Kemal Gekic (an artist in residence at FIU) conjured up the great 19th century romantic tradition of pianism and proved that it is alive and well in the 21st century. "13 Etudes" by Frederic Chopin were played with rhythmic freedom, a glowing palette of tonal colors, a wide dynamic range, and reservoirs of passion and emotion. Gekic proved no less superlative in the music of Franz Liszt. The piano version of "Tasso" was filled with drama and huge dynamic contrasts. Gekic had real fun with the Czardas and Gypsy music of the "Hungarian Rhapsody No.6." - all lightness and verve. "The Reminiscences of Don Juan" was both powerful and elegant. What an inspiration it was for Gekic to play John Adams's trance like "China Gates" and Mozart's "Fantasy in C Minor," K.475 without pause! The spirituality of the Adams music enhanced the drama of the Mozart, particularly in Gekic's magnificent orchestration of the piano line. A concert to remember! 

The "sleeper" performance of the festival was a recital by the American pianist Adam Neiman (July 18) in the Baroque jewel box of the Teatro Paisiello. This intimate 18th century opera house is a gem. Neiman, winner of the 1996 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, is a pianistic powerhouse. He is also an artist of discernment and refinement. His technique is in and of itself spectacular, but every note and phrase is imbued with musical intelligence and fervor. Schumann's rarely played "Symphonic Etudes," Opus 13 was a feast of tonal coloration, intense musical utterance, and deeply felt expression. Here was great musicianship by an artist of the highest order! He also played sprightly Bach (the "English Suite No.3"), elegant Faure, and Chopin that was both aristocratic and explosive. The following evening he offered a grand, deeply probing performance of Brahms's "Piano Concerto No.1." Neiman offered the kind of wonderfully flowing, deeply musical and eloquent Brahms playing one only dreams of. The "Golden Age of Pianism" has clearly returned with artists like Neiman. 

Few pianists offer the tonal variety that Italian born Pietro De Maria unleashed at his recital (July 13). In De Maria's hands the piano becomes an orchestra. Contrasting timbres and colors come at will from this superb artist, all achieved with an economy of physical display and histrionics. Liszt's grand "Sonata in B Minor" was a torrent of explosive passion that swept all before it. De Maria blazed through this music with lyricism, power, and crystalline beauty of tone. The rich tonal hues were like a glowing musical fountain. Schumann's beautiful "Fantasia" was grandly romantic. The lyrical line seemed endless in De Maria's skilled hands. There was animation, contrast, and beauty in every note. Prokofiev's 1925 "Visiones Fugitives" were a wonderful series of vignettes, played with clarion lightness, poetry, and style by De Maria. A truly remarkable artist! At the festival's opening concert on July 11 in the ornate Teatro Politeama Greco, De Maria offered a performance of Prokofiev's "Piano Concerto No.3" that perfectly captured that score's bittersweet lyricism as well as its angular modernity. He was capably supported by the I.C.O. Orchestra under the sensitive direction of Hobart Earle, music director of Russia's Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Russian virtuoso Ilya Itin was a commanding presence at the festival. At the opening concert, he gave one of the best performances this writer has ever heard of Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." The blazing inner fire of Itin's reading was matched by a beautiful, lyrical performance of the famous 18th variation, rendered with commanding richness of tone. Here was playing in the grand tradition! Conductor Earle's strong collaboration was outstanding. Itin performed a solo recital (July 15) in the strikingly romantic setting of the Castle of Otronto. Beneath the stars, Itin offered a powerful rendering of the Busoni transcription of Bach's "Chaconne in D Minor" (from the Violin Partita No.2) that was filled with musical insight. Schubert's "Sonata in D Major" had many beautiful lyrical moments. Itin has a natural instinct for the grand gestures of Rachmaninoff, but 12 of that composer's "Etudes-Tableaux" may have been too much of a good thing. He again turned to Rachmaninoff for the "Suite No.1 for Two Pianos," Opus 5 in which he was joined by Lecce's own Francesco Libetta. The highlight of this performance in the courtyard of the Celestini Palace (July 17) was Libetta's transcription for two pianos of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sheherazade" set to an opulent spectacle by choreographer Fredy Franzutti and his Ballet del Sud. Libetta's two piano version is a work of genius. He captures much of the orchestral color and variety of Rimsky-Korsakov's original. Here is a brilliant, eloquent reinvention of a familiar score. The beauty and demonic virtuosity of Itin and Libetta's playing were memorable. 

Piotr Anderszewski, one of today's rising piano stars, appeared under the stars in the Celestini courtyard at the final concert (July 19) to play one of his specialties - Mozart's "Piano Concerto No.24 in C Minor," K.491, which he conducted from the keyboard. He offered his own bravura cadenza in the first movement. The Larghetto was marked by lovely shaping of the melodic line. In the Allegretto, Anderszewski really cut loose. He offered cascades of virtuosity and emphasized the musical relationship between the ornate musical line and ornamentation that links Mozart with Chopin - a romantic performance of a classical concerto. 

Other highlights: the promising Yugoslav born pianist Misha Dacic playing Scarlatti sonatas with a clarity, tonal purity, and classically scaled lightness of touch that recalled Vladimir Horowitz. Dacic also offered ethereal Debussy and elegant Chopin; Russia's Denis Burstein offering haunting music by Nikolay Medtner and a brilliant performance of a transcription of three movements from Stravinsky's ballet "The Firebird" by Busoni's pupil Guido Agosti - a striking revisionist take on a classic; The I.C.O. Orchestra sounding like the old Paul Whiteman band in the Gershwin "Rhapsody in Blue"; the music of Italian composer Lucio Garau - a lively combination of John Adams-Phillip Glass minimalism and the dance and folk music of Puglia; Pianist-scholar Andrea Padova in a lecture-concert of music by 20th century Italian composers. His brilliant, virtuosic performance of "Toccata" by Petrassi as well as important works by Busoni and Casella made one eager to hear more of this superb musician; a brilliant, enlightened lecture by the University of Miami's Frank Cooper on piano transcriptions featuring video of the great Jorge Bolet playing consummate Liszt; a new documentary concert film by Bruno Monsaingeon (the most brilliant music film maker today) of a dazzling performance in France by Francesco Libetta of music by Liszt, Ligeti, and Tchaikovsky - great playing and great cinema.

The Miami International Piano Festival under artistic director Giselle Brodsky has been a leader in discovering and presenting brilliantly gifted keyboard artists from around the globe. In bringing Miami to Lecce, the festival has celebrated the best of both worlds. A true musical celebration!

 


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