Tuesday, May 10, 2016

May Masterworks: Ann Schein & the HSO Season Finale

Ann Schein
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina with guest artist, pianist Ann Schein
What: The Suite from Dmitri Kabalevsky's The Comedians; Dmitri Shostakovich's 1st Symphony; the 3rd Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
When: Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm (with a pre-concert talk by Dick Strawser an hour before each performance)
Where: The Forum in downtown Harrisburg at 5th & Walnut (behind the State Capitol)
Why: Because Ann Schein is back in town to play Rachmaninoff (if you remember her performance of the Chopin 2nd Concerto in 2014) and how many great symphonies are there in the repertoire by composers under 20? Plus, if you've heard “The Comedians' Galop,” have you ever heard the rest of the delightful music that follows it? Probably not.

May Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

You can read about Shostakovich's 1st Symphony and Kabalevsky's "Comedians" in this separate post, here.

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There are few concerts that really stick out in my memory over the years and one very close to the top of the list was the appearance of Ann Schein with the Harrisburg Symphony in March of 2014 when she played the Chopin 2nd Piano Concerto. The fact that she's back in town and playing one of the giants of the concerto repertoire – Rachmaninoff's 3rd (or Rach3 as musicians abbrv. it) – is reason enough not to miss this concert!

Peter Sirotin, the orchestra's concertmaster who attended Schein's classes when he was a student at the Peabody Conservatory, told me that several of her fans and former students will be driving as much as four or five hours not just to hear her play but especially to hear her play the Rachmaninoff.

You see, when she was 17, Ann Schein made her debut playing Rach3 in Mexico City and at 19, she recorded it in 1960. It was that recording which Artur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th Century, heard and invited her to study with him.

Here is a YouTube “video” of that legendary recording on the Kapp label with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by Sir Eugene Goosens.
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This performance of Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F minor was recorded at the Aspen Music Festival in July, 2012:
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After her performance of the Chopin concerto here, I wrote a “review” (more of a “documentary” about the experience) which you can read here, but I'll quote one thing from it just to give you an idea that shows how playing the piano is more than just playing the notes: it's about playing the particular piano, especially crucial since pianists normally do not travel with their own instruments. Imagine having to do this every time you sit down to play a different piano?

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When I heard the rehearsal the night before [the concert], the first thing that struck me was how unfortunate the piano sounded, a few notes fractionally out-of-tune (that can be fixed, hopefully) but, more problematically, poorly voiced. Her opening passage from the higher to the lower register and back again, sounded like it was played on three different pianos. How could she make bel canto out of this?

Since pianists do not carry around their own instruments, they learn to deal with what they're given at each and every performance venue. One piano can be a fine instrument and another one can be miserable (depending on its care and maintenance) – plus it also depends on the acoustical environment it fits into, a resonant hall or a dry one, for instance. And all this could be different from one pianist to another. So they learn to adjust. By giving a little more to this note or less to that one (intonation is something you can't compensate for but if it's on the high-point of a phrase, you adjust the phrasing so it doesn't sound so jarring, for example), you can make a listener believe the instrument is perfect.

By the time we had gotten into the second movement, I noticed the piano was sounding much better. And by the end, I had forgotten all about how poorly this piano sounded a half-hour earlier.

Now, after a good working session with piano technician James Hess, Ms. Schein gives him the credit for making the adjustments she wanted (these would vary from performer to performer, the bane of many a piano tuner's existence). If there were any doubts about the instrument, they were gone.

Ms. Schein said that Jorge Bolet, another great pianist of the last century who I heard play two Rachmaninoff concertos with Harrisburg back in the '80s, had a knack for memorizing how each note on a piano responded and could adjust his technique accordingly. She laughed that she didn't have the ability to memorize stuff like that, but yet she was able to achieve the same thing.
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Stuart & Ann Schein rehearsing
The other thing that's an important part of this equation is the collaboration with the conductor. Stuart Malina is himself a fine pianist who loves to play chamber music – and in a way, this hones his skills at connecting with the orchestra much like a pianist does "accompanying" a violinist or playing in a piano quintet: communicating without a baton but at the same time playing the piano, no matter how technically challenging the notes are to play. Perhaps having just played a “Stuart & Friends” concert last week was a way of warming up for this weekend's collaboration?

The orchestra's role in the Chopin concerto is almost minimal – deceptively easy-looking – but the difficulty is in accompanying the phrasing, the flexibility of the soloist's interpretation (with the nuances of the human voice in the melodic line – one of the major influences on Chopin's melodic style was Bellini's operatic bel canto style).

And this was one of the most magical things about Schein's performance two years ago, this incredible “one-ness” between her and the orchestra, thanks to Stuart's ability to follow her and the orchestra's ability to respond to them as one.

The Rachmaninoff is a different beast all together with a massive piano part (dense chords befitting a composer-pianist who had immense hands that could span an octave-and-a-fifth) and a complicated orchestra part to match.

Horowitz told the story that Rachmaninoff joked with him once how he had written it “for elephants.” And unfortunately I've often heard it performed that way – an athletic contest (certainly one of stamina, of the soloist's endurance), how it is often referred to as “a man's concerto,” where as long as the orchestra can keep up it's considered a good show.

Schein says she has played Rach3 “over a hundred times” and I remember chatting with her, Stuart and Jeff Woodruff, the orchestra's executive director, after the concert's “talk-back” session in 2014 when they were already making plans to have her come back and how she would like to play Rachmaninoff's 3rd.

When Stuart calls her “the incomparable Ann Schein, one of my most favorite guest artists that I've ever worked with,” do you need any other reason why you should be there this time?

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For those of you who prefer a modern live performance with something you can actually watch (a real “video”) – like the pianist's hands – there are many performances of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto available on YouTube, several of which I would not recommend (and who shall remain nameless), but I offer this one as a possibility, with Denis Matsuev and the Köln Philharmonic conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste, recorded in 2012:
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Rachmaninoff proofing the score, 1910
While Rachmaninoff completed the work in September of 1909, he premiered it that November in New York City at the start of his American tour – he took the tour on because, he admitted, he wanted to buy a new car – and a couple of weeks later played it again in New York City with what would become the New York Philharmonic conducted by none other than Gustav Mahler!

As the composer later recalled, Mahler
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“devoted himself to the concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to perfection, although he had already gone through another long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important – an attitude too rare amongst conductors. ...Though the rehearsal was scheduled to end at 12:30, we played and played, far beyond this hour, and when Mahler announced that the first movement would be rehearsed again, I expected some protest or scene from the musicians, but I did not notice a single sign of annoyance. The orchestra played the first movement with a keen or perhaps even closer appreciation than the previous time.”
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While no recordings of that performance exist (oh, if only...), Rachmaninoff did record it with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in late-1939 and early-1940. To many, the performance is “too fast” and yet, well... it is the composer, isn't it?
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Admittedly after its premiere, though well-received, it did not become the “popular” concerto it is today – Rachmaninoff even authorized several cuts, especially in the 2nd and 3rd movements in hopes making it shorter would help (and wrote two separate cadenzas for it) – as it was a concerto “to be feared” by most other pianists until Vladimir Horowitz began playing it regularly in the 1930s, convincing others to take on the challenge.

Including, in 1960, a young 16-year-old pianist named Ann Schein who, in 2016, is playing it for us this weekend!

- Dick Strawser

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photo credit: the photo of Stuart listening to Ann Schein before a rehearsal on the stage of the Forum in 2014 was taken by the orchestra's pianist, Terry Klinefelter

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