Laurence Rosenthal

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.


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