by Marvin J. Ward, John W. Lambert & Jeff Rossman

The Steinway & Sons’ Legendary Pianos Tour, featuring four noteworthy instruments: Vladimir Horowitz’s concert grand, one of Van Cliburn’s concert grands, the 7-foot brilliant blue art-deco style “Rhapsody” built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of George Gershwin’s birth, and the 500,000th piano built in 1988, the firm’s 135th year, and featuring the gold engraved signatures of 800 Steinway artists, began a year ago in, November 2001. The Hopper Piano Company arranged for its final stop in North Carolina before it returns to New York, and placed them on the stage of Carswell Hall for five days of special performances by Meredith faculty and students (although the Horowitz and the “Rhapsody” pianos stayed for only three days). A single booklet gave the programs for all of the events in the series and bios of the soloist personnel but no notes. It would have benefited from a good proofreading, however: the addition of an ‘e’ to François changed Dubois’ gender, the time of the Sunday performance was wrong, and life dates appeared twice in the same line for one composer but were missing for another, to cite a few examples. The faculty is, alas, always pressed for time and overbooked.

The opening recital on November 6 was given by Karen Allred Mitchell playing from memory on the Horowitz piano to a nearly full house. She opened with a sparkling rendition of Images, Book II , by Claude Debussy. While she might have allowed the moon to set a bit more slowly on the temple ruins in the central movement, the bells through the leaves seemed an especially appropriate opener on this autumn evening, and the goldfish flitted about attractively in its bowl. It was a lovely performance of one of this reviewer’s avowed all-time favorite works (along with the Book I and the same composer’s Estampes ) in the piano literature. Next came Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15 in D, Op. 28 (“Pastorale”), reputedly one of his favorites, which was likewise given a fine interpretation. Four works in F Major by Frédéric Chopin brought the evening to a close: the Nocturne, Op. 15/1, the Ballade, Op. 28, and the Études Op. 25/3 and Op. 10/8. This was a finely crafted program with the works selected interrelating well to each other. It was an evening largely of quiet beauty, much of it evoking nature and landscapes for the mind’s eye with lovingly produced sound that circled and enveloped the listeners. It was technically difficult but was played with confident mastery and without any unnecessary and unwelcome distracting flamboyant display. Mitchell provided an insert sheet of notes about the genesis, form, and content of the pieces that were both informative and enjoyable to read. – Marvin J. Ward

The second program, heard November 7, was a farrago of sorts that involved faculty artists and some advanced students in a wildly mixed program that ultimately featured all four instruments. It began with an arrangement of an organ toccata by Dubois, played by Mary Ann Heym. Aside from the finale, it sounded a bit like warmed-over Scarlatti, but the performance sparkled. Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals (in its two-piano version, supplemented by Peter Schickele’s verses) and Smetana’s Rondo in C (one of the few works in the more-or-less standard repertoire written for two pianos, eight hands), were encored from a program given during last summer’s Piano Pedagogy Workshop. Some different artists were involved this time; in the Saint-Saëns, Frank Pittman (who had played the opposite part the night before in Greensboro, he told us) and Kent Lyman did the honors (with Lyman doing also the recitations), and in the Smetana, Margaret Evans, Lyman, Angela Stephenson, and Tom Lohr were heard. Lohr then performed an original composition entitled “Improvisation”; he explained on November 10 that, like many works of the past, it began as an improvisation, literally, and was then set to paper. James Fogle and James Clyburn (who continues to teach at Meredith and has thus clearly “failed” retirement!) played the Andante movement of Brahms’ Sonata in F Minor, for two pianos, much better known in its final incarnation as the Piano Quintet. The grand finale, which at last involved all four instruments, was a “monster” performance of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” that put a musical spin of sorts on the election two days earlier and served as a warm-up for Veterans Day. This was played by Janet Cherry, Clyburn, Fogle, Dee Jones, Pin Pin Jong, Lohr, Nancy Riva-Palacio, and Pittman (listed here alphabetically); more than anything, it reminded several attendees of piano ensemble classes of yore, which weren’t generally “public” events! – John W. Lambert

Meredith College and the Hopper Piano Company gave the public a rare opportunity to hear and see four historic Steinway pianos during a series of five recitals in Carswell Recital Hall. Even more unusual was the chance to view up close and play these instruments after the concerts – without anyone standing over you telling you to keep your distance. Not being a pianist, my main reason for being there on November 8 was to hear cellist Virginia Hudson, Meredith faculty member and Principal Cellist of the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle.

This was my first opportunity to hear Hudson in a non-orchestral, solo setting, and it was quite a revelation. She played two major works without intermission, accompanied on Vladimir Horowitz’s concert grand Steinway by her colleague Kent Lyman. But first she began with the hauntingly beautiful “Vocalise” by Rachmaninoff. Her full, rich tone and elegant phrasing was just an indicator of more to come.

The Cello Concerto, Op. 85, by Edward Elgar is one of only a handful of works the composer is still remembered for, and this performance used an orchestra-to-piano arrangement made by the composer himself. For years, this work was said to have been “owned” by the late Jacqueline du Pré, and while that certainly is not or maybe never was the case, she surely propelled it into the forefront of the cello concerto repertoire.

The work begins similarly to Dvorák’s great concerto, with powerful chordal flourishes from the soloist, and it ends in the same manner, the flourishes acting as bookends. The piano-as-orchestra did take some getting used to, but Lyman provided a sensitive and unobtrusive accompaniment. Hudson plays in a no-nonsense style with very few outward mannerisms or physical or emotional outbursts. However, her playing is filled with great passion and a wonderful sense of shape and phrasing and she demonstrated a confident ease of technique. This is a work that requires a great variety of mood and expression and the filled-to-capacity audience felt her message.

Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19, was written around the same time as his hugely popular Piano Concerto No. 2. The Sonata is unmistakably Rachmaninoff; it has lush romantic themes, dream-like sections and a virtuosic piano part. It is a large, expansive work that, like the Elgar, requires great interpretive skills to keep it interesting to the audience. Hudson displayed outstanding bow control, especially in the second (Allegro scherzando) movement. She held the audience’s rapt attention with a work that has the potential to bog down and/or swallow up a lesser performer with the technical difficulties alone.

Although Carswell is a small recital hall, it was still great to see a full house – some folding chairs were even set up! Better yet was my own personal “discovery” of another superb cellist in our community. – Jeff Rossman

The fourth public concert, heard November 9, was an all-student hodge-podge of music from the Romantic and modern periods. It began and ended with Chopin, and the focal point was Cliburn’s piano, although the 500,000th Steinway figured in one work, played by Meredith alumna Angela Lowry. The participants ranged from a freshman to advanced graduate students, and the results were, perhaps predictably, mixed, although the youngest and the oldest participants were neither the weakest nor the strongest players. The artists were Chrissy Cain, Alys Hansley, Gretchen Hoag, Judy Ko, Lowry, Timothy Owens, Shelley Roth, Rebekah Taylor, and Bethany Zurbrigg. The performances that stood out were Cain’s reading of Brahms’ B Major Ballade, Owens’, of Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’océan,” Ko’s, of two Argentinean dances by Ginastera, and Roth’s, of part of Norman Dello Joio’s Third Sonata (which, aside from Lohr’s “Improvisation,” was the Festival’s only piano work by a living composer).

More than anything, this recital demonstrated in several (but not all) respects the diversity of Meredith’s piano students and its faculty. There’s a lot going on at the West Raleigh campus, and it is noteworthy that so many of its current students (and a former one, too) were involved on this occasion. – Lambert

The closing concert, given on November 10 before a full house with chairs added in the aisles, featured the recently-formed 15-member Meredith String Orchestra, with guest double bassist Erik Dyke, under the baton of Jack Roller, and pianist Margaret Evans. The short opening numbers were both arrangements for string orchestra of works written for other forces or instruments. The Meyer arrangement of the Pie Jesu from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem was a daring and dangerous choice because it is unforgiving, allowing the slightest error in intonation to stand out nakedly exposed since it is played nearly entirely pianissimo. The group managed it admirably. The Philippe arrangement of the Scott Joplin rag Solace (A Mexican Serenade) also worked well. Too bad, however, that no one played the original piano version for comparison purposes, even though the “Rhapsody” piano on which it would have been the most fun to hear was gone. Roller gave some oral comments about this work and the closing one.

Next, Evans, joined the strings for a brilliant rendition, performed from memory on the Van Cliburn piano, of Mozart’s Concerto No. 12 in A, K. 414, reputedly one of its creator’s favorites and composed with a built in flexibility for the accompaniment, ranging from string quartet to full orchestra, depending on the forces available. An insert sheet with detailed informative notes by Evans was as masterfully prepared as was her playing. There were excellent coordination and balance between the soloist and the orchestra, which, alas, was at the afternoon’s weakest in this work. Evans’ touch was light and precise, just right for the music even though the instrument is a far cry from the one it was written for and originally played on. An acquaintance quipped to me in the lobby afterwards that if Mozart were always played like that he could learn to like him.

The whole-tone Serenade for Strings by Robert Washburn brought the concert to a close. This is a fairly short, lovely, melodic piece in four movements, and the orchestra put forth some of its best playing here. Even though there is still room for much growth, both in numbers – a couple more viola players and another cellist would help a lot – and in performance quality, Roller has brought this ensemble (none of whose members are music majors, I was told) a long way in just over two years. It is a viable and welcome addition to Meredith’s fine performing groups.

There are a lot of truly fine musicians and devoted pedagogues on the faculty of Meredith. Their students adore them, and rightfully so; it would, however, be nice if the latter turned out in greater numbers more regularly for their mentors’ recitals. The musicians deserve greater support than they appear to have from the administration, too, so that they would not be so harried that they cannot always prepare good printed programs and notes, for example. Steinways on the stage and in the studios would be welcome replacements of the current Yamahas, too. The musicians also deserve support from the community to have the kind of full houses that turned out for most of the programs on this series in which they all really shone brightly, but that all too often they do not get. Meredith’s music program is on the verge of blossoming into full flower. Let’s all do our part to give it the nourishment it needs in order to bloom. – Ward

This was said to be the last stop on Steinway’s big tour of “Legendary Pianos,” so it was somewhat surprising to learn that the Horowitz and Gershwin instruments, missing in action on November 9 and 10, had been removed to Wilmington….

There were five public programs during this Steinway Festival; a sixth event, presented on the afternoon of November 9, involved Meredith students but was not advertised.

Although some events lasted well over an hour, all were intermission-less. In the programs that involved more than one artist, this was probably fine for the participants, but it proved less than enchanting for some attendees.

A CD of excerpts from the Meredith performances will be available for purchase in the near future. For more information, see the College’s website [inactive 9/05].

Finally, Horowitz’s piano will be on display at Hopper’s Raleigh shop November 14-16. – Lambert