Sunday, April 21, 2002

Xavier piano series in tune with fans

        Here are highlights of some extraordinary concerts this month:

        Silver Anniversary: There were three standing ovations at the season-ending concert of the Xavier Piano Series on April 7 — and only two of them were for the soloist, Jon Nakamatsu.

        The other was for the Rev. John Heim, who founded the piano series 25 years ago.

        The silver anniversary was marked by a gold-medal performance by Mr. Nakamatsu, winner of the Tenth Van Cliburn Piano Competition and a onetime high school German teacher.

        Mr. Nakamatsu's style is not bombastic, but one of presence, thoughtfulness and expressiveness. In the finale of the opening Sonata in C Minor by Joseph Wolfl, he summoned all the power necessary to dispatch fistfuls of difficult runs and arpeggios effortlessly.

        The program included gems by Chopin — Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat Major and a lightning-quick Scherzo No. 1. Three Rachmaninoff Preludes came off with rich sonorities and crystalline articulation. Debussy's Suite Bergamasque and Liszt's Dante Sonata were contrasts in delicacy and sweeping displays of power.

        It was the final performance in the Bethesda Foundation Auditorium (an acoustically dead place for music). Next season, Xavier Piano Series moves into the new Gallagher Center Theatre on the Xavier University campus.

        Longtime patron Ted Isaacs presented Father Heim with a plaque “to recognize 25 years of dedication, planning and management of this world-class series, a source of enduring joy to the audience and artists.”

        Said the Rev. Heim: “We'll continue next year and try it all over again.”

        East meets West: More than 450 turned out when Miami University presented the music of Chinese composer Chen Yi in Hall Auditorium last Sunday afternoon.

        Ms. Chen was in the audience to hear the world premiere of her choral work, To the New Millennium, part of Miami University's visionary project, Music at the Millennium.

        The program illuminated the depth of her talent, including, besides her choral work, a superbly crafted string quintet, a vibrant chamber piece that called for Beijing Opera gongs and a haunting piece for pipa (Chinese lute).

        To the New Millennium is a setting of three ancient Chinese poems. Ms. Chen tailored it to soprano Audrey Luna and mezzo Mari Opatz-Muni, and the result was a remarkable blend of their voices.

        The 100-voice choir (the Chamber Singers and Collegiate Chorale, led by William Bausano) was treated antiphonally.

        In “Happy Rain on a Spring Night,” voices hissed like the rhythmic start of a spring rain, forming a rich backdrop. In “Looking at the sea,” the voices tossed back and forth like rolling waves.

        Despite the challenging vocal lines — bright shouts, extreme ranges and Beijing Opera-inspired vocal styles, the soloists and choir performed brilliantly. To the New Millennium is a joyous addition to the choral literature.

        Ms. Chen paints her music in bold strokes. One of the afternoon's highlights was Qi (or Chi, which means life force), an exhilarating sound world of slithering tones on the cello (Pansy Chang), piercing piccolo and flute (Sandra Seefeld) and exotic flourishes in percussion (William Albin).

        Ethereal touches were added when Lian Tan reached inside her piano to strum the strings.

        Also on the program, pipa virtuoso Ming Ke captured the drama of The Points, which called for unusual tunings of the pipa strings. The Oxford String Quartet and Steve Ullery, bass, performed Shuo, an evocative landscape of pentatonic themes in richly developed counterpoint.

        Six American Painters: On Monday, there was another premiere at the Linton Series. John Harbison's Six American Painters was commissioned by WGUC-FM radio in honor of Ann Santen, former general manager and a staunch supporter of new music.

        Mr. Harbison, one of America's most prominent composers (his opera, The Great Gatsby, is appearing at the Metropolitan Opera this month) was on hand to hear his chamber piece performed by flutist Randolph Bowman, for whom the piece was composed, with Timothy Lees (violin), Michael Strauss (viola) and Eric Kim (cello).

        Richly communicative, it was a compelling walk through a gallery of these 19th- and 20th-century painters.

        George Caleb Bingham was lyrical and mildly dissonant, with the strings moving in tandem against a free, soaring flute solo. Thomas Eakins' “portrait” was syncopated and bright, evoking a lively outdoor scene.

        Winslow Homer's music conjured his bleak, windswept sea paintings, with flutter-tonguing in the flute, harmonics and muted glissandos. Richard Diebenkorn's music began with a singable melody that grew more abstract.

        Mr. Harbison was inspired to write music to paintings because, he said later, “I wanted to look more, because it's my most undeveloped sense. I have big literary feeling, and I'm less acutely visual.

        “I hope that people will want to look at some of the pictures of these people, and see whether that suggests anything aural. I know lots of painters who paint and sculpt to music. I'm trying to see whether it goes the other way.”

        New fund at UC: Arts patron Joan Rieveschl is establishing a new fund to present cultural events at the University of Cincinnati.

        She plans to endow the Joan Cochran Rieveschl Cultural Arts Fund with “a minimum of $1 million,” she says. Her goal is that others will be inspired to contribute to support more cultural events.

        “I want to see cultural events become more mainstream on campus,” she says. “These are funds that will be available to enrich student, faculty and staff programs. They'll be cutting edge, to bring the very best they can afford.”

        The first event — “a trial balloon” — is a concert and educational outreach program by the Chicago Symphony Singers, on Tuesday and Wednesday in Corbett Auditorium, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

        The Chicago Symphony Singers, directed by Duain Wolfe, is a new offshoot of the prestigious Chicago Symphony Chorus. The 24-voice choir will perform music by American composers, featuring musical settings of Shakespeare (7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets: $20; $16 students, 556-4183).

        Wednesday, the singers will work with more than 600 students from 15 area schools.

        Earl Rivers, CCM head of ensembles and conducting, hopes the two-day event will stimulate interest in choral music.

        “Many people have a perception that choral music is amateur,” he says. “But there is a repertoire of music sung by professionals, who bring a different style, color and expertise. I would expect to hear a degree of virtuosity that is beyond the volunteer singer.”

        Grateful for the funding, he hopes this will become an annual series.

        “I've got a whole list of choruses I'd like to invite,” he says.

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