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The University of North Carolina School of the Arts concluded their annual Piano Weekend with a diverse program featuring Piano Weekend prizewinners from around the state, UNCSA students and faculty, and guest artist Yakov Kasman. The recital, held in Watson Hall, was comprised of pieces spanning three centuries, and the age range of the performers was just as wide.
Finding a performance that starts with elementary and middle-school performers and ends with college professors is not easy, but that is exactly the kind of unique opportunity that UNCSA's Piano Weekend provides. Middle school students Peyton Yang and Jason Sliwowski, along with elementary school student Zijie Song, kicked off the recital with works by Scarlatti, Haydn, and Bach respectively. I was most impressed by the sound production of these three, using their slight frames to pull more sound out of the piano than some adults are able to at times. Yang and Sliwowski showcased their ability to project the melody and convincingly portray color changes, and Song brought out the inner voices of Bach in an interpretation that clearly had a lot of love behind it, tackling some of the biggest challenges presented by Bach with ease.
Following the three youngest performers were high school students Jenny Fan, Lindsay Byrd, and Andrea Yun who brought us into the age of Beethoven and Chopin. While listening to Fan's performance of Chopin's Nocturne in B-flat minor, the first word that came to mind was "ethereal." Fan was able to play with an unmatched lightness, while never letting a note get swallowed up. Byrd followed with more Chopin, this time the Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 50 No. 3. Although the Mazurkas are technically dances, not all of them are exactly danceable, but this one fits the bill. Byrd's execution of the Polish dotted rhythms was extremely effective, giving the piece the dancing character it deserves. Concluding the prizewinner portion of the program was Yun with the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata in G, Op. 14 No. 2. This movement has always been humorous to me because it feels like Beethoven is constantly trying to fool my ears. Yun brought the notes on the paper to life, wonderfully executing the syncopations and musical non sequiturs that I have always found so charming about this piece.
UNCSA student Aiden Quintana began the next portion of the program with Beethoven's "Waldstein" sonata, vastly different than the sonata that directly preceded it in the recital. "Waldstein" is my favorite of the Beethoven sonatas because it has a rock-and-roll character that is rare in Classical music, but also because of the challenges it presents to the performer. The performer's preparedness – or lack thereof – is immediately put on display from the beginning. They are forced to play lightly, but with excitement, in the heaviest register of the piano. Quintana clearly prepared and brought out everything great about the piece, from the long sections in the lower register, to the color changes, to the hymn-like sections where Beethoven allows the listener to take a breath for once. Following Quintana was UNCSA student Eric Hoang with more Chopin, this time his Ballade No. 4 in F minor. The beginning of each of Chopin's ballades is crucial to setting up the rest of the piece, especially so in this one. Hoang created the stark contrast necessary to make this piece work, making the introduction of the piece so sweet it almost hurts and then going straight into the ever-thickening stormy sections where there is little room for anything as saccharine as the beginning.
UNCSA piano professors Dmitri Shteinberg and Dmitri Vorobiev brought us back to the innocence and grace of the Classical and Baroque, first with Shteinberg's performance of the first movement of Mozart's Sonata KV 570 in B-flat. Throughout this piece, I could not help but think of a water strider making its way across the water, barely skimming the surface. The delicacy of Shteinberg's performance paired perfectly with Vorobiev's performance of the Prelude, Allemande, and Courante from Bach's Partita No. 1 in B-flat. Like the mazurka earlier, these pieces are also dances and should be played as such, and Vorobiev clearly put forth the effort to bring out that springiness in his playing. Yakov Kasman closed the concert with Rachmaninoff's "Daisies," Op. 38 No. 3 and "Montecchi e Capuleti" from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Suite, Op. 75. Kasman's playing was truly magical in the Rachmaninoff, evoking images of the last days of summer, and the peace and nostalgia that comes with it. The Prokofiev could not have been more different in tone, however, as Kasman created a terrific, tempestuous bass with his left hand and convincingly contrasted it with the melancholy middle section before returning to the drama of the beginning.
It is always a privilege to see masters of the craft like Kasman, Shteinberg, and Vorobiev perform, but it is equally as inspiring to see them sharing the stage with young musicians from elementary school to college students. Each year, the UNCSA Piano Weekend proves that there is a wealth of young musical talent out there, even in our own backyard. These students are being brought up to be more versatile than ever, and it shows. After a program like this, there is no doubt that classical music will be in good hands for a while.