Christina Ortiz at Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2013-11-27

5 Jan

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Christina Ortiz at QEH 2013-11-27

5 Jan

Chopin himself did not regard the large concert hall as the proper environment for the performance of his music. How can the pianist deliver effectively the dynamic contrasts required to portray fully the emotional and spiritual content of these wondrous compositions, when surrounded by such a large volume of space to fill with sound from a single instrument, however powerful? This was the task Christina Ortiz set herself in presenting all four Ballades and Scherzos of the Polish master in one programme.

The sheer artistic, emotional and physical feat of performing these monumental works together is impressive and requires great stamina and focus, qualities Ms Ortiz definitely possesses. She is also indisputably a master pianist of impeccable skill. Her fingers flew felicitously over the keyboard, rendering every motif and phrase to perfection. And yet something was not right. Too often I felt that the experience was akin to watching a pizza chef twirling and throwing the pastry aloft; or a cocktail barman gymnastically shaking and mixing drinks. Mesmerising, but does all that make the pizza tastier, the cocktail more potent?

It has been said and I agree, that a good part of the musical virtue of Chopin is expressed not in his melodies, though these are often gorgeous enough, but rather in the revolutionary use of harmony and counterpoint; the innovative development of musical forms; the exploitation of the piano’s dynamic range and expressive capabilities. I felt our performer, perhaps necessarily for the reasons outlined above, lost some of these virtues in her quest to conquer the pianistic challenge and to meet the expectations of the ticket-buying audience.

The melodies were woven beautifully and with very effective rubato over a confident accompaniment but some of the finer harmonic effects were missing, occasionally through excessive playing speed.

In all, somewhat disappointing, perhaps inevitably.

Valentina Seferinova at the Rotunda, Portsmouth Grammar School 2013-11-23

25 Nov

Valentina Seferinova at the Rotunda, Portsmouth Grammar School 2013-11-23.

Valentina Seferinova at the Rotunda, Portsmouth Grammar School 2013-11-23

24 Nov

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This concert review begins on a non-musical note, for which please bear with me. It seemed a good way to start and a relevant point to make on a matter of current concern.

A national panic fills the pages of our newspapers at present about immigration to the UK from the newest members of the EU. Drowning out the voices of a justified and sober concern, lurid and irresponsible media stories are offered up for our consumption; politicians of the ill-tempered variety pop up on the news and rant; more responsible (but equally ambitious) politicians find themselves drawn in. With all the anxiety, justified or not, negative and uncomfortable fears obscure an under-reported positive outcome that we may equally expect from the closer relationship of our peoples, namely the priceless influx of superbly trained and highly accomplished classical musicians from Eastern Europe and the corpus of under-performed music to which we have been exposed by them. No-one who has experienced the standard of Eastern European musicianship, music education and performance skill that has graced UK and other Western local concert platforms in recent years can be in any doubt that as to the tremendous cultural benefit derived from East-West migration.

Already, the entrepreneurial spirit of the first waves of these artists has penetrated deeply into regional life here in the UK and this is well exemplified by Valentina Seferinova, the Portsmouth-based music lecturer, concert pianist and piano teacher. Music-lovers there and further afield already recognise her as something of a local treasure. Seferinova is seemingly on a mission to bring the music of her native Bulgarian and other Eastern European  composers to the attention and appreciation of local audiences. On the evidence of last night’s concert at the Rotunda, she is succeeding.

The Rotunda audience also demonstrated Seferinova’s appeal across age-groups. Glancing around the room during the performance I saw rapt attention and genuine emotional involvement writ upon the faces of both young and old listeners. A scholar as well as performer, her chosen pieces are always illuminated with helpful introductory background. As to her performance art, it combines the ability to impress across the full dynamic range, with a mature skill in communicating with an audience and creating atmosphere; an ethereal delicacy of touch employed to great effect in refining and enhancing the emotional impact of a piece; near-flawless technical skill and fearlessness in tackling and communicating the often wild, complex and sometimes dissonant passions of the composers she champions. It takes courage to sell difficult and unfamiliar music to casual audiences and that is a particular virtue she seems to possess.

Ms Seferinova strode to the Steinway in a brilliant, sequinned outfit befitting for the performance dazzle to come. Last night’s selection followed to some extent a seasonal autumnal theme and opened with a trio of short pieces, Trois Morceaux, Op. 2 by the underrated Joachim Raff, whose music possesses a marked power to engage and move the listener emotionally with its strong, lyrical melodies.

Second on the agenda was my highlight of the evening, Józef Wieniawski’s Fantaisie et Fugue, Op. 25. The fugue has a real driving force, brought out powerfully by our pianist. It possesses the integrity and fullness of a Bach fugue and was a real delight to hear as its complex patterns were woven so convincingly, an act hard to pull off with any fugue.

The wild and sometimes angry passions of Pancho Vladigerov, arguably the foremost ever Bulgarian composer, captivated us going into the interval. Vladigerov’s music is also greatly under-rated and under-performed; Seferinova awoke within our spirits something of its visceral nature. The piece performed was Elégie d’automne, op. 15

Following the interval, now resplendent in flowing green, Ms Seferinova offered Zygmund Noskowski’s very attractive En Automne, Op 29 No.1 and Valse Dolente, Op. 35, No. 3. She has recorded Noskowski recently in Poland: CDs are available here: http://www.amazon.com/Zygmunt-Noskowski-Piano-Works-1/dp/B001V88CO G.

The evening concluded with Sergei Rachmaninov’s 5-part Morceaux de Fantasie op. 3. Almost everyone will know something of the second of these Morceaux, the Prelude in C sharp minor, with its crashing chords, turbulent emotional power and tenderness. Seferinova easily traversed the iconic opening from fortissimo low C to the three pianissimo  chords ending on D that seem to say and ask so much. Now in love with the Russian master, we were taken by the performer through beautiful avenues of musical exploration, one of the loveliest being the Polichinelle, its capricious passages punctuated by an exquisite, wave-like melody of rarest aesthetic and emotional depth. Seferinova is meticulous in her faithfulness to the scores she presents, allowing the listener to move close to the composer’s intention.

Sustained, enthusiastic applause and an encore later, we walked to the Isle of Wight ferry fortified against the cold weather and late-night revellers; our musical high more than a match for their alcohol-induced version.

Sophie Yates at Wolverton Manor

26 Oct

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Hidden near Shorwell on the Isle of Wight, not far from its southern coastline, nestles the beautiful 17th century Wolverton Manor. Now a popular arts venue, it provided the perfect surroundings for tonight’s recital of harpsichord music by the internationally renowned Sophie Yates. The recital was part of a weekend of masterclasses and other things harpsichordial. I heard about it from one of the students: harpsichordist and doyen of the London amateur piano scene, Lorraine Liyanage.

And so, while most folk were tucked up in their living rooms being entertained by Strictly’s Dave Arch and his wonderful, wonderful orchestra playing waltz, quickstep, jive and samba, a party of some 60 Wight music lovers decamped to a drawing room at Wolverton for the enchanting experience of hearing Sophie Yates re-create the exotic and refined sarabande, courant, galliard and gigue on an exquisite reproduction virginal and a gorgeously painted and immaculately crafted harpsichord.

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We began with three pieces by William Byrd, and at once the delicate plucking softly filled the air with a heavenly sound reminiscent of harp, zither or Persian santour. I was struck by the sophistication of the rhythms, the variety and ornamentation of the 400 year old music. “The Carman’s Whistle” was great fun and really rather funky.

Next up was a more reflective suite by French composer Jean-Henri d’Anglebert (1629-1691). The great deal of ornamentation in harpsichord playing for me made the rhythms at times hard to follow, until I learned to appreciate the expressive nature of Sophie’s playing.

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The Suite in G minor by Matthew Locke (1621-1677) took us elegantly into the interval when a foray into the mêlée for wine and cheese was followed by a chance to hear and chat with instrument maker Andrew Garlick, creator of the extraordinary instruments Sophie was playing. Andrew assented to my request for a quick go on the harpsichord. The keys are so small! But a most delightful experience that I’ve wanted to have for a long time.

On to part two, with more exotic dances from Purcell, John Blow and Coupertin. Due to tiredness I could not concentrate on all the pieces but at the end knew we had heard something exceptional.

On the way home thoughts turned again to Strictly and how much fun it would be to learn the 17th century dances, perhaps at an extended course that included making the appropriate costumes. I’d sign up!

GéNIA at Schott Music in London

5 Oct

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Another successful and well-attended session of the London Amateur Piano Group was held today, Saturday 5th October at Schott Music, just off Oxford Street. The group is the brainchild of, and hosted by, the affable, good-humoured and selfless duo of London piano teachers Fran Wilson and Lorraine Liyanage who both lit up the venue with their presence today.

Lights musical and spiritual also emanated from our guest GéNIA, the Russian-born pianist and inventor of Piano-Yoga. I arrived a bit late courtesy of National Express but downstairs in Schotts was another, more peaceful and purposeful world, a refuge from the sclerotic flow of humanity so many of whom death had undone (TS Eliot). Some 15 souls there gathered to pay homage to amateur piano music and to our distinguished guest. The first thing Génia said that truly caught my attention was how we need to ‘purify’ ourselves in order to play well. I love this idea, because it is exactly that miasma of unwanted, jumbled thoughts and distractions that I want so much to banish when I play. She has studied in depth the relationship between the physical and artistic acts of performance, drawing on the ancient Hindu wisdom of Yoga, to produce a most fascinating and efficacious set of principles and practices that we can all use to improve our levels of achievement. Posture, bodily awareness and ‘grounding’ feature in this approach; I found it persuasive.

Our first performer treated us to a delightful and impressive rendering of…something…. Génia confidently diagnosed some physical shortcomings that she gently conveyed and which our artiste graciously and gratefully took on board. One thing about Génia is that she is very articulate, tactful and persuasive, the marks of a good teacher, having us all willingly affirming on the spot the validity of her suggestions. I shall try out her methods at home before judging but fully expect to vindicate her.

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Next up was Bruce with a polished and thoughtful rendering of that most beautiful of Chopin’s melodies, the Étude Op. 10 no. 3. Genia saw a posture issue here and before long we were all trussed like amateur parachutists in ‘Yoga belts’, designed to pull the shoulders back and thus psycho-physically dissipate tension in hunched shoulders. There is a lot of logic in this, certainly more than in my return bus heading, as it is now, along the M4 in an unlikely attempt to reach Portsmouth (!?)

Last up myself, delivering an embarrasingly small snippet of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 62/2, but as it happened the brevity was timely, the end of our session looming. Génia gave me some really helpful feedback in terms of the contrasting roles of right and left hand in this exquisite piece, recommending an action from the finger joints in the flowing left and a more marked articulation in the right with flatter fingers, to deliver a strong melodic line.

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A brief but pleasant chat with Fran about ‘monkey thoughts’ and with Lorraine about her impending visit to my home Isle of Wight to attend a harpsichord event at Wolverton Manor sent me skipping back to Victoria on a high.

The bus did get to Portsmouth at 8:45, just in time for the last hover.
Pictures courtesy of Lorraine Liyanage.

Havant Symphony Orchestra and Valentina Seferinova at Hayling Island Community Centre, 21 Sep 2013

23 Sep

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Hayling Island is, one might say, the poor cousin of Portsea Island, the latter being home to the major city of Portsmouth and its seaside sister Southsea. Hayling by comparison has a tiny population though it is just as large geographically and boasts, in Langston harbour, an equally impressive haven from the Solent.

The love of good music is, by last Saturday night’s evidence, also just as great in Hayling. The unassuming, indeed drab and uninspiring shell of the Hayling Community Centre belied the fine musical experience going on inside as the Havant Symphony Orchestra, under the assured conducting of Colin Jagger and accompanied by internationally acclaimed pianist Valentina Seferinova, delivered a stirring and highly accomplished evening of popular classics.

There is very little tiering of seats at the Centre, so if like my wife and I, you don’t arrive early, your view of the stage area  may be very limited especially when the hall is packed to the gunwhales as on this occasion.

We settled in for the first offering, Offenbach’s Orpheus In The Underworld overture. It was clear early on that this is a quality orchestra with high standards. Colin Jagger has studied conducting at an advanced level here and in the USA and his skill was evident. Paradoxically, it can be noticeable sometimes in a professional orchestra that some players are jaded or uninspired, whereas amateurs tend to be driven by sheer love and enthusiasm and in the right hands can produce a better result. I couldn’t resist foot-tapping to the can-can finale and was further entertained by observing the faces of my companion audience members as they struggled with the urge to loosen up.

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And so to the main event as far as I was concerned: Grieg’s Piano Concerto with soloist Valentina Seferinova. Valentina is my piano teacher, I am proud to confess, so it’s hard to review her performance in an unbiased way. But I am sure the majority of the audience would agree that her delivery of this beloved work lived up to the drama and beauty that Grieg’s masterpiece is so well known for. Outstanding in his ability to evoke both the powerful and the delicate susceptibilities of the human spirit, Grieg created one of the most loved works of its kind. During the virtuoso solo passages Ms Seferinova, devoted entirely to her task, enraptured the audience. As I looked around, everywhere that wonderful power of music to subdue the animal instincts and stir the spiritual was in evidence. The piano itself, a not-so-huge grand, was not quite capable in the hall of fully conveying Ms Seferinova’s passion and seasoned virtuosity but both came across in plenty. I was disappointed at first not to get a better view of the pianist but was treated to a good view of her hands reflected in the glossy varnish of the piano lid.

Colin Jagger expertly wove the orchestra and piano parts together, each enhancing, as they should, the drama of the other. The genuine spontaneity and enthusiasm of the closing applause testified to the excellence of the performance.

Sadly, due to the exigencies of ferry travel late in the evening my wife and I had to leave before the performance of Beethoven’s 5th that completed the programme.

Great music is alive and well on the South Coast.