At the Morgan Library in New York, Maxim Lando played a recital, under the auspices of Young Concert Artists. “Maxim Lando”? The name rang a bell. And a distinctive name it is, too. Some Googling reminded me that young Mr. Lando participated in one of the strangest performances I have ever heard or witnessed. In Carnegie Hall, he was one of the three pianists in an arrangement for two pianos and orchestra of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. On one piano were Lang Lang and Maxim (then fourteen); on the other was Chick Corea. “The less said about this performance, the better,” I wrote. “It was appalling—absolutely appalling.” But that was not the fault of Maxim Lando. And it was a night to tell his grandchildren about. He’ll have many. (Many such nights, I mean—although I wish him plenty of grandchildren, too.)
“My parents run a music conservatory, and I was practically born there,” he once said in an interview. “My mom is a pianist and my dad is a clarinetist. When I was a baby, I spent hours a day listening to my mom teach her students.” Maxim Lando was born in 2002. His parents are Pippa Borisy and Vadim Lando, who are the co-directors of the Great Neck Music Conservatory on Long Island. At some point, Maxim was taken under the wing of Lang Lang (a lavishly gifted artist, despite his bizarre nights). Maxim Lando has won a passel of awards, and he has played all over, though he is still in his teens. In 2017, when he was fourteen—the same year as his Rhapsody experience—he played the Rachmaninoff D-minor concerto—“Rach Three”—with the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra in Saint Petersburg.
Introducing his recent recital, he said, “Hey, everyone, this is Maxim. I’m thrilled to be here at the Morgan. I’m gonna be playing two pieces that are criminally underplayed.” His teenage enthusiasm and naturalness were endearing. The two pieces were the piano sonatas—the sole piano sonatas—of Sibelius and Khachaturian. Sibelius’s is in F major, written in 1893; Khachaturian’s is in E flat, written in 1961. “You can really hear the folk influences that Sibelius puts in,” said Maxim. As for the other sonata, “this is just a bundle of energy. You can really hear Khachaturian’s playfulness with the rhythm, and the second movement almost transports you.” I loved that word “almost.” “So I hope you enjoy,” he concluded, “and I’m so happy to be here.”
Maxim Lando is a bundle of energy himself. He tends to lean way over the keyboard, Gould-style. He has big, wild, pianist’s hair. I think of a line from Irving Berlin’s song “I Love a Piano”: “And with the pedal I love to meddle/ When Paderewski comes this way./ I’m so delighted if I’m invited/ To hear that long-haired genius play.”
Speaking of geniuses, Sibelius wrote a fair amount of piano music, although virtually none of it is played. The only piece that gets around, really, is an étude in A minor, Op. 76, No. 2, which Leif Ove Andsnes often uses as an encore. Denis Matsuev does the same. And I agree with Maxim: the sonata is criminally underplayed.
He played it very well—with the fluidity that the music demands. He was also crisp, where necessary. The sonata has some playfulness, which Lando had no trouble bringing out. And by mistakes—slipped notes—he was unfazed. Unrattled. He just played on (and the slips were very, very few).
The Khachaturian Piano Concerto, written in 1936, once enjoyed a vogue, or at least a degree of popularity. William Kapell made a famous recording of it. Later, it was recorded by Alicia de Larrocha, among others. But it is seldom heard today. And the sonata, which Maxim played? Not ever. In my judgment, it is not the “find” the Sibelius sonata is—I think the Khachaturian suffers from a little monotony—but it deserves resurrection.
Maxim Lando attacked the sonata with all the virtuosity and gusto it requires. As Khachaturian plays with rhythm, so did Maxim. When the composer asks the pianist to pulverize the keyboard, Maxim pulverized it—musically. Always, Maxim Lando was in command.
For an encore, he played an arrangement—his own—of “Stairway to Heaven,” the Led Zeppelin song of 1971. To speak personally—maybe too personally—I have always detested this song. It was a pleasure to hear Lando’s arrangement. For a stretch, he jazzes up the song, as Fazil Say does Mozart’s Rondo alla turca. Most gratifyingly, he is continuing a grand tradition, Lando is. Liszt arranged any number of songs, and other pieces. In our own day, so do Fazil Say, Arcadi Volodos, Stephen Hough, and Marc-André Hamelin, just to name a few. I dare say, Earl Wild would love Maxim Lando’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
In my chronicle two months ago, I said, “They keep coming.” I was referring to Russian piano virtuosos, writing specifically about Alexander Malofeev, another teenager. Well, they keep coming from other countries as well. Maxim Lando strikes me as a total musical being: a kid besotted by music. Not just by a career, with its glamour, but by music itself. I can imagine him playing for hours and hours, alone in a room, with no one else listening, just for his own pleasure. And with his infectious enthusiasm and musical confidence—a justified confidence—I bet he will make a conductor one day.
A concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra began with a piece for solo piccolo. Has the mighty cso been reduced to that? A piece for solo piccolo? Well, there is a pandemic on. The piece is a new piece, and it is, in fact, a pandemic piece—a piece about, or “in response to,” the pandemic. I have reviewed a few pandemic pieces in the past year. In 2002 and 2003, I reviewed a lot of pieces “about” 9/11. There was a time, too, when there were a lot of pieces “about” the environment—global warming and so forth. (I call them “greenpieces.”)
The new piccolo piece is called Hall of Ghosts. It has to do with the emptiness of concert halls, and the hope, I think, of filling them again. The composer is Amanda Harberg, who is known for her music for flute (and, by extension—or contraction?—the piccolo). She teaches at Rutgers, and also at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. Playing Hall of Ghosts was Jennifer Gunn. There was another performer too. For a solo piccolo piece? Yes, there was a dancer, who danced along with the music. She was Alyssa Allen, of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
People are doing solo dancing during the pandemic. In my chronicle last September, I reviewed a video in which a man danced around a house while a violist played a movement from a Bach cello suite (transcribed, needless to say).
As Hall of Ghosts began, Alyssa Allen moved through the empty rows of Orchestra Hall (I believe). Jennifer Gunn stood on the stage, piping and singing beautifully. What a clear, strong sound—the piccolo need not be a wimpy or pipsqueak instrument. Soon, the dancer was on the stage, too. She was draped in a “Grecian” outfit. You could also call it “druid-y,” to use technical language. She performed splendidly.
Hall of Ghosts works with dancing. It would work without, too. You can do a lot with a piccolo—just one of them, unaccompanied. Harberg’s piece is just varied enough—slow, fast, etc.—to sustain interest. When it comes to a new piece, or even an old one, that is my new criterion (to borrow a phrase). Does the piece sustain interest? Though this may seem a low bar, I find it rather high.
Also on the cso program were five pieces by Gabrieli—and that meant brass. Giovanni Gabrieli was a bridge between the Renaissance and the Baroque. He was born in the 1550s and died in 1612. A Venetian, he worked at St. Mark’s. He wrote much “antiphonal” music—music for two separate groups—which was what we heard from the Chicago players. It struck me that antiphonal music is pretty good for social distancing. (Bear in mind that wind players, unlike strings and others, can’t wear masks.)
The Gabrieli part of the concert was introduced by Charles Vernon, a veteran bass trombonist. He began his orchestra career exactly fifty years ago. His speech still reflects his native North Carolina. “This is the Chicago Symphony brass section,” he said, “and we have a tradition to uphold, and Gabrieli is the perfect music for you to hear and for us to play.” Tradition to uphold? Yes, “Chicago brass” is a byword in music, like “Philadelphia Sound.” Is the Chicago brass section better than other top orchestras’ brass sections? Probably not, but reputations linger. Lincoln liked to quote an English proverb: “Once a man gains a reputation as an early riser, he can sleep till noon.” Yet the Chicago brass players do not sleep in. They indeed have a reputation to uphold, and they played their Gabrieli skillfully and admirably.
Moreover, it was good to hear brass music. The occasions are so infrequent. I wondered whether the Canadian Brass were still going. (This group was founded in 1970.) Google said yes. One article said that the group is “widely acclaimed as one of the most popular brass ensembles in the world.” Yes, but, as William F. Buckley Jr. once said in a different context, isn’t that on the order of celebrating the tallest building in Wichita, Kansas?
For many years, I have known Kathryn Stott mainly as a collaborative pianist, or as a chamber musician, if you like. For example, she has had a long partnership with Yo-Yo Ma. They met in 1978, on this wise:
After returning to my shared London flat from a summer holiday, I discovered a Chinese man in his underpants playing the cello and his wife walking around in my dressing gown. They had rented the flat via his agent for six weeks, not knowing anyone else would be living there. Luckily we got along.
I was very interested to hear that Ms. Stott, an Englishwoman, would be giving a solo recital in Wigmore Hall (London). I was also interested in her program. For one thing, it was a series of short pieces. When it comes to programs, long pieces are the rule. I suppose that such programs are regarded as more serious. Pianists like to play a piece or two on the first half, and a big Schubert sonata, let’s say, on the second half. Many shorter pieces get short shrift. Also, Ms. Stott’s pieces were “old-fashioned”—they included several arrangements and transcriptions, for heaven’s sake! I know critics who would skewer her for that. I am a counter-skewerer. Kathryn Stott obviously feels connected to a long line of pianists who came before her.
She opened with Wilhelm Kempff’s transcription of the Siciliano from Bach’s Flute Sonata in E flat, bwv 1031. She continued with Grieg’s Holberg Suite—which the composer originally wrote for piano, though we know it better in its orchestral form. Maria Grinberg, the great Russian pianist, made a great recording of the original. Then Stott played two French pieces: Fauré’s Nocturne No. 4 in E flat, Op. 36, and Poulenc’s Mélancolie. To conclude, there were four straight arrangements or transcriptions.
Stott played Alexander Siloti’s famous arrangement of Bach’s Prelude in E minor, from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier. (Ingeniously, Siloti switched the piece to B minor.) Emil Gilels played this, all career long. Stott then played Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Liebestod; Stephen Hough’s transcription of Londonderry Air; and Earl Wild’s transcription of “Embraceable You,” the Gershwin song. (Weren’t we just talking about these people?)
Ms. Stott has all the tools of a pianist. These include a sense of line, a sense of phrasing, and a sense of rhythm. She is a tasteful musician, like many a Brit before her. It’s hard to imagine her committing anything vulgar. The way she teased out the melody in Grieg’s Air was astonishing. At first, this movement of the Holberg was engaging; ultimately, it was gripping. Stott played Fauré’s Nocturne with great tenderness and dignity. “She gets it,” I thought. “She is under the skin of this music.” So much for the eternal enmity between the British and the French. As she played Poulenc’s Mélancolie, I had a funny thought: title aside, her reading of the piece made me rather happy.
Did I disagree with her on anything? Well, of course, everyone is different. For me, the Bach-Siloti could have used a much stricter pulse. And the Liebestod could have used more churning, more passion (before the peace of the leave-taking).
I might note that Stott used music—sheet music—all through. So did a great Englishwoman who came before her, Myra Hess. Stott really looked at it, too—the music was not there merely for comfort. This reliance did not seem to inhibit her, musically, in any way. Also, she did without a page-turner, which was impressive in its own right.
Earl Wild’s “Embraceable You” is full of glorious rippling. This was nothing for him to play, with his big ol’ hands. Ms. Stott does not have Wild-sized hands (few do)—but she handled the rippling well too. She pedaled the piece intelligently. And she managed to bring out the melody amid the forest, or ocean, of arpeggios. I thought of my friend Stuart Isacoff, the writer and pianist. He once said to Wild, “I’m learning your ‘Liza’ ” (another Gershwin song). “ ‘Liza’ ’s hard,” said Wild. “I know,” said Stuart.
Seattle Opera has produced a film, set in the city’s Museum of Flight and sponsored by Boeing. What gives? The film is of the opera Flight, composed by Jonathan Dove, the British composer born in 1959. A few chronicles ago, I wrote of a song-cycle of his: Under Alter’d Skies, setting portions of In Memoriam A.H.H., the Tennyson poem. With the librettist April De Angelis, Dove wrote Flight in 1998 for the Glyndebourne Festival.
The story of the opera was inspired by the Iranian refugee who lived in Charles de Gaulle Airport all those years—1988 to 2006. That story was also the inspiration of a Steven Spielberg movie, The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks.
Seattle Opera’s film is directed by Brian Staufenbiel, who in a program note says, “Today we’re seeing more and more new operatic stories that are relevant, inclusive, and speak to our modern world.” This is nonsense, of course—and nonsense, appropriately, containing two of the great nonsense words of our time: “relevant” and “inclusive.” Operas from Monteverdi on—through Mozart, Verdi, and all of them—speak to every thinking and feeling person. I feel free to blast Staufenbiel for his program note because his direction of Flight is—brilliant.
The opera is conducted, ably, by Viswa Subbaraman, a Texan. He has a cast of very good singers, and very good actors, for that matter. They seem real actors, rather than opera singers who of necessity “act.” The Refugee is portrayed by Randall Scotting, a countertenor from Colorado. There is not a weak link in this cast of ten.
Flight’s story begins somewhat normal, you might say—and becomes surreal, phantasmagorical. It would not be everyone’s cup of tea. But the libretto of April De Angelis is smart and clever, with rhymes and near-rhymes.
Dove’s score is listenable—a word that would probably make most composers homicidal. But there is nothing wrong with listenability. Like other recent scores, Dove’s is a little minimalistic, a little New Agey. There is lots of “soft percussion,” including chimey things. Most important, Dove has an operatic spirit. He enjoys playing with words, and scenes, and emotions. Also, he composes like someone who loves music. Don’t they all? Don’t all composers? Not so as you could tell.
In Flight, Dove has composed a real ensemble piece. The singers sing alone, in pairs, and all together. Almost all of the ten have a lot to do. Toward the end of Act I, there is a scherzo-like section, involving almost everyone. The director has them “rock out,” dancing. Reader, I listened to this, and watched it, three times.
Jonathan Dove is a serious talent, and the Seattle company has made an opera film that should endure in the catalogue of such films.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 9, on page 50
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