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One of many music lovers' favorite concerts of the Eastern Music Festival series is the Steinway Piano Gala, which is given twice, once in Elon University’s McCrary Theatre and then repeated in the festival's home, Dana Auditorium, on the equally bucolic campus of Guilford College. The theme of this year's program is a tribute to Arthur Rubenstein, featuring works often associated with the great Polish pianist's recitals. Each concert also honors an important local arts promoter. The Elon performance celebrated the superb organizational skills of retiring Professor George Troxler, the campus' "Arts Czar," responsible for the growth of performing arts series. The Guilford College repeat will commemorate the late Henry Ingram who, with his wife Lucy, was so active in the Greensboro arts community.
EMF's piano gala has always featured the entire piano faculty and utilizes them in a few short solos but mostly as players in multiple configurations. Three of the performers are long-time members of the festival staff. This is the 14th EMF season for High Point NC-born James Giles, currently a member of the piano faculty of Northwestern University. Gideon Rubin, returning for his 11th season, is music director and faculty member at the Los Angeles Music and Art School. Racking up his 7th season, Yoshikazu Nagai is professor of piano at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. New to the festival this year is Peter Takács, professor of piano at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, whose complete recording of Beethoven's piano sonata cycle is scheduled to be released on the Cambria label in 2009.
The opening work featured a hoary theme much used by composers. Before he became one of the great avant-garde composers, Witold Lutoslawksi (1913-94) and Andrzej Panufnik traveled about their native Poland, hiding from the Nazis, giving "guerilla" performances as duo-pianists. Besides arrangements, Lutoslawski composed Variations of a Theme of Paganini (1941), and it has become his most popular work. In addition to creating variations upon Paganini's 24th Caprice, he treats aspects of the other famous sets by composers from Brahms through Casella. Rubin and Nagai brought out all the scintillating wit of Lutoslawski's ten-minute essay.
Giles and Takács played an unidentified and diverse selection of five of the Sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39, of Johannes Brahms (1833-97). While the lively ones were pleasant, the most striking was the last, No. 15, in A-flat, which was elegiac and haunting. This melody drove me batty last fall when I racked my wits trying to identify it. No wonder I didn't find it among Schubert's works! It was a gleaming gem in the hands of Giles and Takács.
The Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31, by Frédéric Chopin (1810-49), is theatrically effective, with many mood changes from "Byronic gloom" to stylized Gypsy dances. Peter Takács played the socks off the beloved showpiece. His solid musicianship and technical skill are welcome additions to the EMF faculty.
Nagai and Giles played a two-piano arrangement of the "Reminiscences de Don Juan (after Mozart's opera Don Giovanni)" by Franz Liszt (1811-86). The opening portion develops music from the graveyard scene, and over the course of the piece, the melodies of two arias — the tender "Là ci darem la mano (Do put your hand in my hand)" and the boisterous "Finch' han dal vin (Song, women, wine)" — are heard. The pianists brought out the full sweep of Liszt's dramatic treatment along with excellent ensemble.
One of my favorite pieces is "Trois Mouvements de Petroushka" by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). It was commissioned by Arthur Rubenstein after he had heard Stravinsky's vividly orchestrated ballet music. Takács and Nagai played two movements, "Chez Petroushka" and "Danse Russe," They brought out all the color, rapid rhythmic changes, and bright, sassy atmosphere in it.
The "Ritual Fire Dance" from the ballet El Amor Brujo (1915), by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), was one of Rubinstein's most frequently played encores. Takács and Nagai conjured up all the ritualistic flavor of the gypsy dance showpiece.
Watching all four pianists take part in the performance of the Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, Op. 35, for two pianos, by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), I was torn between the metaphor of a game of mixed doubles in tennis and some twisted game of tag! Each piano had one bench and each pianist took his turn at both benches in a sort of musical chairs game. It was an amazing thing to see and it was a wonder that no entry was ever missed.
No EMF Piano Gala would be complete without the traditional encore, a multi-player arrangement of Horowitz's treatment of "Stars and Stripes Forever." It never fails to please with its tangible sense of fun.
The EMF continues through August 1. For details, see our calendar.