Wednesday, May 30, 2018

American pianist Gilbert Kalish performs with students and friends at the Jerusalem Academy of Music

Gilbert Kalish: lower row, fourth from left. Photo: Lea Agmon
In May 2018, New York-born pianist Gilbert Kalish held a week of master classes in Jerusalem. Leading professor and Head of Performance Activities at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Kalish (b.1935) was a founding member of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and is known for his partnerships with other artists, in particular for his thirty-year collaboration with mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, but also with ‘cellists Timothy Eddy and Joel Krosnick and soprano Dawn Upshaw. In “Gilbert Kalish and Friends”, a concert on May 23rd in the Navon Hall of the Jerusalem Academy Conservatory, his partners in works for four hands were all ex-students of his, besides one current student. Hosted by the  Edward Aldwell Center for Piano Performance and Musicianship in Jerusalem (director: Lea Agmon), Prof. Kalish referred to performing with six of his students (as well as his granddaughter) as a “dream come true”. The concert was organized by Dr. Dror Semmel, head of the Piano Department of the Jerusalem Academy Conservatory.

The program opened with Gilbert Kalish and Dror Semmel’s playing of Franz Schubert’s Fantasie in F-minor for piano 4 hands D.940. One of the great masterpieces of ensemble piano repertoire, Schubert completed the Fantasie early in 1828, premiering it with his friend  composer Franz Lachner shortly before his death later that year.  A highly satisfying performance, Semmel and Kalish gave expression to the work’s noble inner richness, its stormy moments and its elegiac tenderness, to the characteristic Schubertian major-minor shifts, the use of ornamental trills and, of course, to the haunting, affecting melody that opens the work heard over a murmuring accompaniment, possibly even more moving when it returned after the massive climax towards the end of the work, then to be followed by its agonized, dissonant parting. And, on the subject of teacher and pupil, Schubert dedicated the work to Karoline Esterhazy (the daughter of his one time patron, the Duke of Esterhazy) with whom he had played for countless hours when he employed as her private piano teacher for some years.

A more recent student of Kalish, Guy Slapak joined his teacher to perform Igor Stravinsky’s “Five Easy Pieces” for piano four hands (1916-17). Each inspired by different cultures, Stravinsky wrote the five miniatures for his children. Despite their being considered early examples of 20th-century Gebrauchsmusik (music for use) ­ for home music-making or for pedagogical purposes (the composer even referred to them as “popcorn”), the pieces bristle with character, interest and imaginative piano textures. With Guy Slapak taking on the (highly complex) lower role - that of the teacher -  the audience enjoyed the colour, wit and occasional  boisterous energy of the vignettes that take the listener on a whirlwind trip of Europe, with No.3  “Balalaika” (the composer’s favourite) attesting to Stravinsky’s own cultural background.

Michal Tal was Gilbert’s first Israeli student some 30 years ago. Introducing their playing of Ravel’s one-piano duet version of Claude Debussy’s symphonic poem “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un Faune”, Kalish spoke of the importance of the Debussy work as a “window into the 20th century”. Ravel had limitless admiration for Debussy's famous orchestral work, going so far as to say in an interview that it was his innermost wish to die to the sounds of this “unique marvel in the whole of music”. Ravel’s arrangement, abounding with technical challenges and acrobatic hand-crossing, presented no stumbling block to the two pianists, whose flexed playing and generous use of the sustaining pedal were suggestive of the work’s exotic, lush agenda, and there was no lack of interest in their performance. For me, the piano’s timbres failed to create the poem’s dreamy, otherworldly bitter-sweet atmosphere suggestive of Mallarmé’s subtle sensuality and imagery as when played by the woodwinds and harp with idiomatic French transparency in Debussy’s orchestral setting.

Shir Semmel, a current student of Gilbert Kalish, joined her teacher in four of György Kurtág's miniatures for four hands. Kalish talked of the composer performing his own transcriptions and original piano pieces together with his wife Márta. At the Jerusalem concert, we heard three transcriptions of Bach chorale preludes. Playing the primo (upper role), Shir Semmel’s rendition was beautifully sculpted, at times majestic, at others, poignant, the arrangements of Bach’s chorale melodies all stamped with  Kurtág's own discrete ornamentation and invention, as in  “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (“God’s time is the best time”), the opening Sinfonia from  Cantata 106, “Actus Tragicus”. Dark-toned, both sparse and intense, “Hommage à Sebok”, one of Kurtág's memorial pieces, was given a sensitive and personal reading with Ms. Semmel taking time to form each small gesture. Referring to his musical credo, Kurtág wrote;  "I am always on a journey in search of brevity; I want to discover the maximum possible density of expression by means of the minimum possible sound."

Then to works for two pianos: Gilbert Kalish was joined by Tomer Lev to perform the Romanza from Rachmaninoff’s  Suite No.2 Op.17, a virtuosic work of rich and bold sonorities. With its title evocative of the movement's emotional qualities, here was a performance that was genial, rich in spontaneity, communicative and wholehearted in its presentation of sweeping lines of ravishing Romantic melodiousness. Fadi Deeb has recently returned to Israel following his studies with Kalish at Stony Brook. Deeb and his teacher performed two movements of Olivier  Messiaen’s “Visions de l’Amen”, a work for two pianos written by Messiaen in 1943, shortly after his release from a prisoner-of-war camp. Infused with the composer’s deep religious belief, it  also represents the first of his many collaborations with Ms. Loriod (his student, who was to become his second wife.) Almost inaudibly, with the “Amen of Creation” beginning with  eerie, highly-pedalled bell effects, the artists took the listener through the piece’s astounding process of clanging carillon sounds, as it spiralled into a scene of  sparkling ecstacy and awe, enlisting the pianos’ full registers, and on a grand, orchestral scale. The work’s final meditation, the “Judgement Amen”, as its title infers, emerged weighty and uncompromising, its bassy clusters and monumental explosions daunting. This is definitely music to be experienced in the concert hall. With true dedication and involvement, and not only regarding the work’s thorny technical demands, Kalish and Deeb presented the pieces’ gripping atmosphere of spiritual exaltation and transcendence.

The concert concluded with W.A.Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E flat major K.493. This time, Gilbert Kalish was joined by friends - violinist Miriam Fried, ‘cellist Hillel Zori - and his granddaughter violist Becky Kalish. In playing abounding in colour, expressiveness, joy and wit offering all artists plenty of personal say in playing that seemed to emanate effortlessly from under their fingers, many outstandingly eloquent moments were provided by Miriam Fried. Here was Mozart the humanist and the experimentalist in the hands of fine chamber music players.

Introducing- and performing in each work of the long and varied program, Prof. Kalish is indeed a teacher and artist of dedication and stamina.


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