Aptos Keyboard Series

By Richard LyndeAnna-Dmytrenko-937x575

ON SEPTEMBER 20 the new, much needed, Aptos Keyboard Series presented its second recital—by 22-year-old Ukraine-born pianist Anna Dmytrenko, at the large, comfortable, quiet, easily accessed Saint Andrew Presbyterian Church in Aptos. The first concert took place in May and stuffed the home of composer and series director Josef Sekon, Cabrillo College faculty member for some 25 years. Anna insisted on seeing some of Sekon’s piano music and chose to include two of his pieces on the program, along with music by J.S. Bach, Scriabin and Brahms, followed by two encores, the second one an absolute stunner that left the already enthusiastic audience in awe.

This reviewer had last been at Saint Andrew in 1999, when the restored 1904 Steinway B sounded great in the near-perfect live resonance of the church as it did so again under the very capable, mature hands of our pianist.

Anna began her studies in Ukraine at age five, moved with her family to Delaware in 2004, was admitted to the Prep Division of Juilliard, recently received her Bachelor of Piano from the Royal Academy in London and currently studies at the University of the Arts in Berlin with Pascal Devoyon. She began with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Minor from Book 1 of the Well Tempered Klavier. Immediately the sweet, resonant sounds shone forth in the prelude; the fugue was realized with a perfectly controlled intensity, amazingly profound, its volume building from pianissimo to fortissimo.

Had we not read that Scriabin’s Fantasie in B minor, Op. 28 (1900) came next, many of us would have sworn it was Rachmaninoff, quite unlike Scriabin’s earlier continuations of Chopin or his later mystic-psychedelic works. But we loved the romantic lushness, often with big sounds, but always under control, passionate and showy. The audience was ecstatic during this sonic workout that tested many limits of both piano and performer.

As at Joe and Maria Davico Sekon’s modest home where the inaugural concert in this new series had sprung forth like Bottticelli’s Venus from her seashell, we were treated again to two Sekon world premieres, quite different from each other. The first was Clepsydra from 2008, whose name in Greek means “water thief,” relative to ancient Chinese water clocks, and here to a chiaroscuro beginning with random notes, then a repeated series of notes, exquisite trilling, big chords then single water drops, all in very tricky timing and most tantalizing. More down to Earth was Sekon’s 2009 Grafite, the title like all of his with fascinating multi-meanings. This one was much more angular and solid, with an actual message, the graffiti: “HUNGER” that concludes Davico’s poem of the same title. Dmytrenko clearly understood these demanding works.

The big piece was tremendous, both in size and in performance. Brahm’s Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5 was composed when he was only 20 and it would be his last in the form. The five-movement work demanding about 40 minutes was to these ears a tour de force of all the composer’s interests and skills, almost a suite instead of a sonata. It began with a big ballad, two voices talking as in the composer’s Opus 10 take on the story of Edward. Lots of slow yearning and some arguing, typical of the young Brahms. The second movement was a soft singing line, actually set to a poem about moonlight and two hearts united. It is sad, but it leads right into a rousing waltz, like one of Brahms’ own Liebeslieder with their Gypsy elements. In the fourth movement we were back with two voices talking. The glorious final section sparkled with elements of a march, fugue fragments and a deep, strong conclusion whose difficulties were handled with ease by this fine artist.

The first encore was a mild ‘prelude’ by Abram Chasins, the 1940s director of the NYC classical station WQXR, whose airwaves recently carried the sounds of Anna Dmytrenko, who has performed not only in Carnegie Hall and around the world, but now in Aptos. Then what came last was totally and tonally unexpected: what must be the final movement of Rodion Shchedrin Piano Sonata (1962), a stunning rondo toccata, a light-hearted spoof of piano schools and styles including Prokofiev, Liszt and lots of others. This super-virtuosic display was tossed off with an absolute ease of fury.

We can hardly wait for the next in the Aptos Keyboard Series. And to Josef Sekon: keep your new works coming, we want to hear more of your evanescent and near-ineffable compositions.

Espressivo debut

By Roger Emanuelsc_susanhillyard_150525.011_33

THE INAUGURAL CONCERT of Espressivo—‘a small, intense orchestra’ as described in their publicity—was a tremendous success under conductor Michel Singher (photo by Susan Hillyard) Sunday afternoon at the new San Lorenzo Valley Performing Arts Center in Felton. Consisting of a cohesive group of 19 musicians, the orchestra presented four works requiring from nine to thirteen players each. Unlike a symphony orchestra or even a chamber orchestra where the string sections have many players on a part, this was true chamber music, with each performer on a dedicated part.

Led by violinist and concertmaster Roy Malan, the musicians are among the finest players from Santa Cruz to the San Francisco Bay Area. Conductor Singher is a Felton resident with an international career in opera and symphony and as an educator. (He is the son of the late Martial Singher, a French opera baritone who appeared often in major opera houses of the US and Europe.)

The program began with some bonbons by Mozart, Five Contradances that he composed while employed as court composer in Vienna. As a program opener it served as a sound check for the string players to test the acoustics of the theater, aided by two flutes and two horns. SLV PAC

Located at SLV High School in Felton, the San Lorenzo Valley Performing Arts Center is an intimate 213-seat theater that is the pride of the Valley, newly built and only recently inaugurated last February. It was filled to capacity. The Center can accommodate theater and musical productions even though it was not built as a concert hall. Thick floor to ceiling curtains on the stage are certain to absorb sound, and the absence of an acoustical shell can make it difficult to focus the sound. But the small space was just fine and was quite comfortable acoustically. The musicians maintained excellent balance throughout, key to a quality performance.

A capriccio in music is defined as capricious and whimsical, which describes the Capriccio of 1937 composed for ten instruments by Jacques Ibert. The opening grabs the listener with an abundance of toe tapping rhythm and virtuoso passagework, played here with assurance and clarity. The slow middle section features solos and duets in the winds that created very intimate and tender moments. Different pairings of instruments provided a wide palette of colors.

Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll is about the only small work in this composer’s output of large operas. Composed as a birthday tribute to his wife and performed for her as a surprise at home, its thirteen instruments in this case created a lovely atmosphere of sound. The strings opened and closed the piece with delicacy and a beautiful balance. Conductor Singher shaped the phrases naturally and with a minimum of movement. The work is subdued in volume, and is often played softly throughout. But this performance had a remarkable range of dynamics, without ever reaching a real forte.

Michel Singher conducts with no excessive movement, never distracting from the music. He allows the players freedom while providing a clear and steady beat. This is real chamber music, after all, and Singher’s leadership was dependable without interfering.

The final work was the seldom-played Kammermusik No. 1 for twelve players by Paul Hindemith. One of eight works composed in the 1920s, all with the title Kammermusik (chamber music), they require different instrumentation and a small number of players. Each is very demanding, both technically and rhythmically. Hindemith was a composer who had no interest in modernistic techniques that were emerging in the last century. His musical language is unique, avoiding traditional tonality but never edgy or overly dissonant. Rhythmic complexities challenge the performers who delivered this work with solid virtuoso playing. The slow movement was especially lyrical, featuring a tender and delicate trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon. The last movement is very active, with a thrilling xylophone passage. When this music is expertly played as it was on this concert, the listener can easily follow the action. Though the original score calls for harmonium, a small, portable organ, it is often replaced by accordion, as on this program. With a nod to her musical roots, the part was ably covered by Linda Burman-Hall.

The concert was produced by the San Lorenzo Valley Foundation for Education as a fundraiser for local schools. The next concerts of Espressivo will take place in Santa Cruz January 7 next year, in a reduced orchestration of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and, on April 7, in masterpieces by Schoenberg and Stravinsky.