In Search of the Golden Ratio

Recent Portland classical piano performances try to strike a delicate balance

Arnaldo Cohen, Portland Piano International's artistic director, in recital at Portland's Newmark Theater. Photo by Jim Leisy.

Arnaldo Cohen, Portland Piano International’s artistic director, in recital at Portland’s Newmark Theater. Photo by Jim Leisy.


A familiar problem for any classical group or program is discovering the golden ratio of quality, venue, repertoire, and cost which produces the ultimate musical satisfaction and inspiration. The axis around which these factors revolve is the performer-audience relationship. Classical programs gain sustaining vitality when they use these factors to foster genuine interactions within their communities, but unfortunately, audiences are often targeted via their cultural-socio-economic niches.  This past May, four concerts approached the performer-audience relationship to varying degrees of success.

Arnaldo Cohen’s performance on May 5 was exactly what one would hope from the new artistic director of Portland Piano International. His musicality was both forward thinking and heartfelt, and his stage presence, while commanding, was simple and down-to-earth. In particular, his performance of Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chaconne from his Violin Partita no. 2 in d minor invited the audience to participate in a search for Personal Legend  This may sound too epic for a Sunday afternoon piano concert, but at a masterclass at Portland Piano the day before Cohen stated, “What makes this piece difficult is that you pass from one section to the other, and, like life and literature, each phrase must be the inevitable consequence of what came before.” While a simple and obvious concept, it is amazingly difficult to apply.

Pianists often introduce the Chaconne’s theme with regal aggressiveness: very firm attacks, little rubato, and militaristic articulation. Such an introduction often works out as a virtuosic throw-down, leaving the audience in awe of the performer’s certainty and skill, but without a significant change in perspective. In contrast, Cohen’s performance steered clear from predetermined recitation; Cohen listened to the room, the piano, and the mingling of harmonies to determine how he transformed the theme. The melody became a dynamic character affected by the surrounding landscape of a 20th-century score (based on an 18th-century score) within a 21st-century environment.

This performance revealed an artistic director sincere in his desire to emotionally connect with his audience. “Music is sound, and pianists must project sound to people who are listening,” he said at the masterclass. “A challenge for pianists is to sense that the sounds we are playing are enriching the listener.” There’s a lot to unpack in those statements, but most important is the idea that the pianist and listener participate together in finding substantive musical meaning. Cohen teased out the irony of the situation: “I may be expressing one thing, you may be hearing something completely different, but in the moment we are communicating perfectly.” Such a statement speaks to the elusiveness of beauty, and also to the power of music to present new solutions to familiar problems.

Along with his performance, talk and master class, Cohen also announced PPI’s upcoming season, and here again declared his sensitivity to the audience experience. In his season announcement Cohen often referred to PPI as a “musical family” of which all piano lovers will want to be a part. Cost continues to be a major drawback in experiencing the quality that PPI offers; one hopes that Cohen’s vision for future educational outreach will also include financial assistance for young music lovers who otherwise would be unable to attend.

Let’s also hope that the repertoire will explore more adventurous territory. Portland obviously appreciates high caliber performances, and after 36 years most listeners are familiar enough with the canon to desire new repertoire. This eagerness was evident in the audience’s effusive response to Marc-André Hamelin’s and Yevgeny Sudbin’s own compositions earlier in the season. This upcoming season will certainly afford adventurous listening with avant-garde piano interpreters like Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Vladimir Feltsman, and Daniil Trifonov. Cohen is hoping that the change of venue to Lincoln Hall will provide a more intimate listening experience, and his return to the two-recital-per-artist format originally instituted by his predecessor, PPI founding director Harold Gray, will afford room for a broader range of repertoire outside the traditional canon.

marjakaislaMarja Kaisla

“Music speaks directly to you because your memories, your wishes, come alive within the moment of a live performance,” Marja Kaisla said at the outset of her May 17th recital at Classic Pianos. “The performer and audience experience this at the same time, so listen very carefully.”

Her sentiment resembled Cohen’s philosophy, and at only $10 a ticket, her performance at the cozy venue had two parts of this golden ratio under control. Born in Helsinki, Kaisla has been a Philadelphia resident since 1987; she came to Portland as the Finlandia Foundation’s Performer of the Year. Her program explored Finnish composers unfamiliar to American audiences and included Levi Madetoja, Selim Palmgren, Einar Englund, and, of course, Jean Sibelius. In listening very carefully though, there was little freshness to be found in her performance. Yes, the melancholy and loneliness characteristic of Finnish composers could be heard, but Kaisla’s contrived rubato and halting phrasing made the pieces feel a bit sea-tossed.

The most intriguing piece was Englund’s “Introduction and Toccata,” which Kaisla introduced by saying, “I’m assuming this audience generally thinks ‘Oh, modern music isn’t for me,’ but this piece, written 60 years ago, is very accessible.” Englund’s compositions are certainly accessible, and more pianists should present this repertoire. Again, whether due to the carpeted stage or the gloomy weather, Kaisla’s sound didn’t quite capture the brazenness of the introduction or the insistency of the spinning toccata.

Another great choice, Sibelius’s 1889 “Andantino,” was rediscovered only recently at the Harvard University Library and given its world premier just three months ago by Folke Gräsbeck. Kaisla recounted her own efforts at acquiring permission to play the piece and noted that the Sibelius family granted permission on the condition that no one else could look at the music. With such a grand story in the background, Kaisla’s performance of this simple lullaby for a small Portland gathering was the most enjoyable moment of the evening.

Laurence Rosenthal

To look at Rosenthal’s thick hands, one would not expect him to possess great technical skill, but the pianist connects what his mind and heart hear to the physical creation of sound. Consequently, his colors go beyond the piano and one hears accordion, guitar, winds, brass, and drums. While most famous for his film scores, Rosenthal is a leading proponent of G.I. Gurdjieff’s music. A Russian spiritiual leader with no formal musical training, Gurdjieff   collaborated with his pupil Thomas de Hartmann, a 20th-century Ukrainian composer, to create a body of music that reflected his search for truth.

Like Cohen and Kaisla, pianist Rosenthal dwelt on the ability of music to express a reality beyond words and experience: “What is it about Gurdjieff’s music that makes it different? Just like all other music there is melody, harmony, rhythm, and form, and yet, this is music that speaks of other things, of life, joys, sorrows, and fears.”

Because he believes in this music, Rosenthal’s phrasing carries the listener into the land of the Kurds, Armenians, Russians, of luxurious princes and powerful horsemen, of dancing amidst suffering, of vast terrains and intimate gatherings. Again, his genuine musical interaction with the audience was not based on technical prowess; rather, because he was hearing more than just the black and white figures on the page, his technique was empowered by his imagination.

Unfortunately, the concert should have ended at intermission, or Rosenthal should have stopped reminiscing and allowed the music to speak for itself in the second half.  While the first half brought everyone into a meditative state, the second half left everyone feeling antsy and ready to leave. The golden ratio was unbalanced by too much of the same repertoire.

Elise Blatchford & Leander Star of Bird in My Horns.

Elise Blatchford & Leander Star of Bird in My Horns.

Bird in My Horns

While not solo piano performers, Bird in My Horns  so winsomely explores Portland’s musical identity that they deserve a mention in this golden ratio discussion.  Presented by Ann van Bever’s Celebration Works series at downtown Portland’s intimate First Presbyterian Church, the married couple Leander Star, French horn, and Elise Blatchford, flute, teamed with fearless pianist Maria Choban for a Sunday afternoon of programming experimentation at the reasonable price of $12.

Like Rosenthal and Kaisla, Star and Blatchford talked to the listeners about the pieces, which added to the audience-as-family environment. The unusual instrumentation of this trio means that transcriptions and arrangements (including songs from Oregon pop songwriters) abound. Hearing The Microphones’s (Phil Elverum) “Antlers” sandwiched between Joep Straesser’s “Fingerprints” for piccolo solo and alongside the third movement of Brahms’s Horn Trio, Hector Berlioz’s “The Young Breton Shepherd,” and Camille Saint-Saëns’s Romance, op. 36 made perfect musical sense because it was all performed at such a high caliber. Star’s playing possesses a malleability not commonly associated with French horn, enabling him to produce sounds both delicate and intense. Blatchford’s sensitive tone coloring made for seamless phrase passings; hearing Star and Blatchford play in unison on “Fargo” by Katy Davidson was a magical experience. Choban’s collaborative pianism knitted it all together. One wished that a more worthy instrument had been under Choban’s fingers; she worked hard to imbue the tinny-sounding instrument with richness, and successfully did so particularly in the opening chords of Katherine Hoover’s “Summertime,” but the Brahms, Berlioz and Saint-Saëns suffered. Often the piano part sounded simply too understated as Choban attempted to avoid the piano’s rattling timbres.

The weakest piece on the program was Brahms’s third movement, which presents numerous tempo and balance puzzles not confidently solved by the threesome. Star and Blatchford both sang in the pop songs by Portland’s Katy Davidson and Laura Viers. The beauty of pop lies in the capitalization of melody, which was lost by Bird in my Horns when paired with their singing. When they used their instruments to play the very same vocal lines, the meaning of the song came across much more clearly.

But these experiments made the concert all the more endearing. How else will Portland discover this golden ratio without a little exploration into musical realms unfamiliar to classical artists? It’s a shame that Portland will be losing Star and Blatchford to Memphis, Tennessee. Hear them one more time at 7 pm on June 6 at Classical Revolution Presents at the Piano Fort, 1715 SE Spokane St., Portland.

Jana Hanchett is a collaborative pianist living, writing, and playing in Portland.

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