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For many years, UNCG's "Focus on..." series of piano galas, involving lectures, seminars, masterclasses and recitals have drawn large crowds of keyboard artists, scholars and other specialists to Greensboro. For the long-running series, the thanks of all music lovers must go to John Salmon, who conceived and shepherded the (more or less) annual events through their crucial formative years. After a spectacular Beethoven festival two years ago, the brilliant fortepianist Andrew Willis took up the administrative reins, and the result, on June 3-5, was a Big Bach Bash or, more formally, a Focus on Piano Literature symposium that dealt with the music of J.S. Bach. Since he wrote a lot of music, there was plenty to choose from, even with the selections being limited to keyboard fare. For an overview of the event, see http://www.uncg.edu/iss/focusonpiano04.html; for specifics on the various scholarly presentations, classes and concerts, click here. It's been our custom to cover these events in full, but alas this year previous commitments and other circumstances limited our presence to a single recital, the headliner's concert, given on the evening of June 4 in the visually appealing and acoustically impressive Recital Hall of the UNCG School of Music.
The place was full, and the attendees were mostly piano specialists - it would have been enough to give insecure critics bad cases of the jitters. But we took comfort from the presence of at least one violist and at least one cellist - so there was hope for "minority" reps! (And speaking of that cellist - UNCG's Brooks Whitehouse - it may be worth mentioning that Focus is destined to be a biennial event, but in the "off" years - which is to say, in 2005, for openers - there will be cello festivals, and the next one, planned for March 2005, will salute Bernard Greenhouse. We'll post details in our calendar as soon as we can; if the next one is anything like the last one it - like "Focus..." - will be worth some long-range commuting.)
The Focus headliner was Sergey Schepkin, but it may be worth noting that the long weekend involved many other distinguished players including both Salmon and Willis and others from UNCG, which has one of the best piano faculties in captivity - good enough, indeed, to make the notion of bringing in guest artists almost superfluous.... That said, it was a treat to hear the much-lauded Schepkin, whose performances of Bach have led to comparisons with some of the giants of the past, starting with Edwin Fischer and including Richter. The St. Petersburgh native - now a US citizen - seems to draw raves wherever he goes, and with considerable reason. He is a rock-solid player, technically, with - as a distinguished pianist in the audience noted before the recital began -"fingers of steel." (We talked about how those steely fingers work - and decided, during the program, that they must be powered by copious quantities of somewhat low-viscosity hydraulic fluid, coursing through high-pressure hoses at astonishing speed....) There were no apparent slips or miscalculations, technically - this guy can replicate those flawless CDs we've heard about. He's also a no-nonsense player - there's none of that talk-show bravura that sickens some of us when the rich-&-famous show up for big-ticket symphony gigs.... No, Schepkin is all business, so the hands stay down in close proximity to the keys, and there's not much arm-waving. There's not even much in the way of facial expression, but here and there he will appear to sing along - silently, we are pleased to say- and at one or two points there were glimmers of smiles, as if to say, "Wow. Even I thought that was pretty special!" Indeed, much of it was.
He played two partitas and a sixth of the Well-Tempered Clavier - or, if you prefer, the last third of Book II of the WTC , and the experience was enhanced by erudite notes from the pens of Willis and Jason Gottschalk. Schepkin began with the Fifth Partita, in G, S.829, and it began with one of the fastest performances of the Præambulum I have ever heard. It was astonishing as an exercise in pianistic virtuosity - crystal clear, at lighting speed, and brilliant, thanks in part (surely) to the somewhat top-heavy Kawai that was used for the recital. The overall machine-gun-like brilliance led this listener to long from time to time for the greater warmth of many Steinways - or for the more substantial bass offered by the best contemporary Bösendorfers - or, for that matter, for the altogether more congenial and enveloping sound of some of those fortepianos that Willis & Co. often play. But enough of that. This was Big Bach, played in a packed recital hall on a Big Piano by a Big Pianist. The playing had lots of dynamic variety, so the loud parts seemed very loud - it was good that the room has wonderful acoustics, and it helped that it was full of bodies - and the soft parts seemed really soft - and the in-between parts were often richly rewarding. For some reason, the mid-range of the keyboard seemed to dominate, as heard from the back of the hall, although all the lines were clear at all times. Overall, it was impressive, and Schepkin had plenty to do and to say, in the two seven-section partitas - No. 4, in D, S.828 followed the opening piece. The slower, more reflective numbers were often ravishingly beautiful, and for this listener those were the highlights of the first half, by miles and miles. He's not an Old School artist, though - and methinks comparisons with Fischer and other artists of the past do Schepkin - and those past artists - a disservice. His has, in my view, a very modern approach to the Old Master. It works well for this artist, and it worked fairly well in Greensboro, on this occasion. Whether it would due for every day, all the time, is a matter we could discuss ad infinitum, ad nauseam. In many respects, this is a matter of taste, based on experience and the expectations driven by it. We don't long for the past, in terms of, say, Victorian-era grandiosity, as with Handel. But in retrospect, a bit more reflection and somewhat less emphasis on extreme contrasts - and speed - would have helped.
Part II brought the last eight (S.886-893) of the Mighty 48 , and the playing in this section was at once more even and more satisfying than in the two partitas. Schepkin's artistic insight seemed even greater, and of course his technique let him do whatever he pleased, so the individual numbers - each prelude, each fugue - were, as given, quite awesome, and the sum total made for a powerful and often deeply moving listening experience. It was a long and generous program that got off to a surprisingly late start, and it didn't end till 10:12 p.m., but there was such an uproar that the artist returned to give a serene send-off - the Aria from the Goldberg Variations , S.988. It was quite an evening.
And the evening was surely placed in superior context by the rest of the seminar, for those who were able to attend all the events. For the record the registered attendees, who this year numbered 281 (including student performers and their teachers), came from 27 states and from Canada and Taiwan; the June 4 audience included many NC-based artists readers of CVNC would have recognized from their performances here and our coverage thereof. "Focus..." is a very big deal, so it's not too early to mark calendars now for the next one, in June 2006, when the subject will be Russian Romantics. Stay tuned for details as Willis draws together all the diverse strands that will address that fascinating topic!