Saturday, February 6, 2010

Music review: Piano fest wraps with three names to watch

Pianist Gen Tomuro.

By Greg Stepanich

Like better-known programs of its ilk, the young International Certificate of Piano Artists program is a good way for rising stars of the classical piano to get expert advice, and for aficionados of the art to catch some rising stars.

Thursday night at the DeSantis Family Chapel on the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic University, the Palm Beach Symphony accompanied three ICPA hopefuls in canonic piano concerti by Mozart, Grieg and Liszt. The sense of competition that hung over the concert added an extra layer of excitement to the proceedings, but the playing was interesting enough by itself to make its official nature less of a focus.

All three players, young men in their early to mid-20s, know their way around a keyboard, and demonstrated impressive technique as well as interpretive breadth. These are still talents in development, and while none is yet a world-beater, each has room for growth and the makings of good careers.

First up Thursday was the youngest of the three, Gen Tomuro of Japan, who is only 20. He also had the best music of the night, Mozart's Concerto No. 9 (in E-flat, K. 271, Jenamy), an early work by this composer in which his mature greatness is clearly apparent. French pianist Philippe Entremont led a Palm Beach Symphony that sounded lovely in the DeSantis Chapel, light on its orchestral feet and supple interactors with the soloist.

Tomuro's most obvious asset as a pianist is the polished cleanliness of his technique, with not a missed note to be found in all those scales in the first movement, which was taken at a pace of considerable briskness. His Mozart had poise, too, as he gave each important theme shape and character.

A tight feeling of control was evident in the ravishing Andantino, even while Tomuro played it with beauty and sensitivity and the orchestra relished the movement's proto-Romanticism. The pianist's sparkling scale work made the finale glitter admirably as it sped along, though the slower middle section sounded a bit too disjunct from the rest of the movement.

What was missing here was not the basics or even the grand conception, but some more interpretive range. Tomuro is a fine player, but his musicianship needs more subtlety and drama, qualities that no doubt will be in greater supply as he gets older.

The second piece was the lone concerto by Edvard Grieg (in A minor, Op. 16), a work that has slipped from its status a major concerto, judging by its infrequent appearances these days on standard symphonic programs. It survives because its tunes are so distinctive and fresh, but it is otherwise redolent of a long-gone era in showy 19th-century pianism that stressed flash over fundament.

The Spaniard Antonio Galera López, born in 1984, was the soloist, with PBAU's David Jacobs at the conductor's helm in place of Entremont. López and the orchestra had several moments throughout the piece, starting with the very first A minor chord at the beginning, when soloist and ensemble were not together, and in a piece with big, obvious climaxes, that can be a hindrance.

López played the opening theme with a nice, dance-like spring, a quality of lightness that he showed in this concerto generally. His approach suited the more modest features of this piece, such as the second theme of the first movement, and his cadenza was played and paced well.

This pianist's command of delicacy was evident in the gentle way he played the falling figurations of the slow movement's solo portion, and the big recap of the main theme was strong and focused rather than epic. The finale didn't have the rough folk-dance feel those offbeat accents need, though, nor did the fast A major section toward the end have the right kind of lift and fire.

Lopez is a strong pianist with a sizable technique and good musicianship. He is not a player of the grand gesture, though, and so I would have preferred to hear him in a concerto better-matched to his abilities, something like the Beethoven Third, for example.

Shih-Wei Chen, a Taiwanese pianist born in 1985, closed the program with the Liszt First Concerto (in E-flat, S. 12), and did so in bravura style. Chen was the most complete pianist on Thursday's program, a player who is able to summon up cataracts of sound as well as streams of gossamer when needed.

In short, a good Liszt player. Chen knows how to seize the audience's attention, and that's the only way to play this shabby concerto, which like much Liszt constantly stops and restarts its forward motion. His first entrance was truly big, and he was able to roll out the passagework in the rest of the first section with breezy accuracy.

Chen had a good grasp of the night-music mood of the second section, and he played the third-section scherzo with sharply etched lightness and wit. His final section had vigor as well as swiftness, and in all, each of the sections had the requisite showmanship to make persuasive Liszt.

Again, it would have been preferable to hear Chen in a better piece of music, but he managed this concerto quite well, and like his two colleagues on Thursday's program, we can expect to hear good things from him in the future.

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