Young Artists: The Thrill of Discovery

By Harris Goldsmith

Many are called, and few are chosen,” the old saying goes.

When I began writing music criticism, first as a record reviewer for High Fidelity in 1960 and later hearing live concerts for Musical America, I had the honor to cover the debuts of Martha Argerich, Itzhak Perlman, Tamás Vásáry, Ivan Moravec, Peter Serkin, Murray Perahia, Pinchas Zukerman, András Schiff, and Yo-Yo Ma, among many others. In selecting the young artists for this article, it was sobering to realize that former wunderkind Evgeny Kissin, whose most recent recording is an exhilarating Brahms recital for RCA, is now an “old master” of 31. Violinists Sarah Chang and Hilary Hahn are well within the “under 30” category, but both, though still developing, are “overqualified” for our purposes. (Chang has just come forth with a superb Dvovrák Violin Concerto and Piano Quintet for EMI; Hahn’s first recording for Deutsche Grammophon is a vibrant new Bach Concerto CD.)

Competition is fierce, but there is always an honored place for burgeoning potential superstars if they have the dedication and self-criticism to develop their considerable gifts. The young Chinese pianist Lang Lang has been wowing audiences around the world lately and at his tender age may be forgiven for displaying callowness along with virtuosity. Suddenly, however, a fellow countryman, Yundi Li, also 22, has debuted with recitals of works by Chopin and Liszt for Deutsche Grammophon that are infinitely more subtle. Recalling great artists who cruelly were taken from us prematurely—Dinu Lipatti, William Kapell, Ginette Neveu, and Guido Cantelli, to name a few—it is comforting to make the acquaintance of a new generation’s “horn of plenty.”

Rachel Barton, violin
A native of Chicago, Rachel Barton, whose principal teachers were Roland and Almita Vamos, has blossomed into an impressive lyric virtuoso. She has made several CDs of scary virtuoso repertoire (e.g., Bazzini’s Ronde des lutins for Cedille and live broadcasts of the complete Pag-anini Caprices and Bach Sonatas and Partitas over WFMT Radio). Her most recent recording on Cedille couples her suave, rich-toned, technically adroit, and invitingly nuanced versions of the notoriously difficult Hungarian Concerto by Joachim and the even more substantial (and hardly less challenging) Brahms Concerto.

Cathy Basrak, viola
Also  from the Chicago area, Cathy Basrak studied with a number of fine violists: Joseph de Pasquale, Richard Young, and Michael Tree. When I first heard her, she was a standout (in the best way) in a string quartet. Still in her early twenties, Basrak is currently assistant principal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and principal viola in the Boston Pops. Moreover, she made a brilliantly played CD of American Viola Music for Cedille. I daresay we will hear a great deal more from this vibrant young virtuoso.

Lisa Batiashvili, violin
Word of Georgia-born Russian violinist Lisa (formerly Elisabeth) Batiash-vili, who is still in her early twenties, first came to these shores from British music magazines. Several BBC-sponsored CDs (one with a superb account of Bach’s B-minor Partita) were impressive, but I fell completely under her spell after first-hand experience of a masterful Prokofiev First Violin Con- certo with the Baltimore Symphony under Yuri Temirkanov at Carnegie Hall. Her dark, sultry sound and imperious intensity remind me of Neveu, Szigeti, and—perhaps above all—David Oistrakh at his vintage best.

Michal Beit-Halachmi, clarinet
Israeli clarinetist Michal Beit-Halachmi received her obviously first-rate musical training in Israel and America (her mentors include Eva Waserman-Margolis, Howard Klug, Mark Nuccio, and Charles Neidich). Her March 2003 debut in an unusually long concert at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall was a thrilling experience. Beit-Halachmi is one of those live-wire musicians who not only plays with pristine and exciting exactitude, but also has the knack and foresight to surround herself with equally distinctive colleagues. Her superb concert held my attention from start to finish.

Jonathan Biss, piano
The son of violinists Paul Biss and Miriam Fried, 22-year-old Jonathan Biss, a product of Indiana University and Curtis Institute (with Leon Fleisher) is a devoted chamber music player at Marlboro and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s “farm club,” CMSTwo. His debut solo recording, scheduled for release on EMI in April 2004, features works he has performed live in New York: Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, Op. 57, and Fantasy, Op. 77, along with Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. The young man’s interpretive in-tegrity and physical approach to his instrument—not to mention his chosen repertoire—strikingly puts me in mind of the young Rudolf Serkin. High praise indeed.

Han-Na Chang, cello
The music world was amazed in October 1994 when 11-year-old Han-Na Chang, a pupil of Aldo Parisot in the Juilliard Pre-College Division, unexpectedly took First Prize at the Fifth Rostropovich Cello Competi- tion in Paris. She is now enrolled at Harvard Univer- sity and taking private lessons from Rostropovich and Mischa Maisky. Her most recent performances—a CD coupling Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata and Sinfonia Concertante on EMI and, less persuasively, her part in Brahms’s Double Concerto under Lorin Maazel at Carnegie last season—suggest that this gifted cellist has been won over to the bear-hugging Slavonic “tradition.”

The Claremont Trio, piano trio
Twin sisters Emily and Julia Bruskin (from the Boston area) and pianist Donna Kwong (from Vancouver) began playing together at the 1999 Taos (N.M.) Festival. When I first heard them (well before they won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in 2001), they were already devouring a large repertoire with almost frightening voraciousness and motivation. Three years on, and after many important concerts spread over the globe, the Trio—expert to begin with—continues to grow, stylistically and technically. I especially loved their potent concert performances of Beethoven’s Op. 70, No. 2, Dvovrák’s F minor, Op. 65, and Schumann’s F major, Op. 80. A heartwarming triumverate!

Julia Fischer, violin
Julia Fischer’s contribution to the Brahms Double with Han-Na Chang under Maazel provided an intriguing study in contrasts: The 20-year-old German violinist made her mark as a patrician and classicist, playing with touching austerity and a wonderfully pure tone. Fischer has been extravagantly praised for her earlier performances of the Dvovrák and Sibelius concertos, which I didn’t hear. Interestingly, when Fischer and Chang joined forces for an encore (the Handel/Halvorsen Passacaglia), the violinist gave evidence of real temperamental excitement, and the cellist’s more focused manner met her new partner more than halfway.

Alexander Fiterstein, clarinet
Clarinetist Alexander Fiter- stein won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in 2001, the same bumper season in which the Claremont Trio also triumphed. Fiter-stein, born in Minsk, emigrated with his family to Israel when he was two years old and received his training in Israel and America. Like his colleague Beit-Halachmi, he too worked with Charles Neidich. He is also a complete virtuoso, and likewise wears many stylistic hats, excelling in Schubert’s Shep-
herd on the Rock
, Bartók’s Contrasts, and (with the Claremont Trio) Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

Karen Gomyo, violin
Karen Gomyo won the 1997 Young Concert Artists International Auditions just one week after her fifteenth birthday. When I heard her debut, she was an archetypal Juilliard oxymoron—“the Delay’d Prodigy,” very unformed and under her renowned teacher’s influence. Mozart, Janávcek, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky all had a certain unstylish, anonymous sameness. But how this gifted young musician has matured! Three years later she had the full measure of Barber’s neo-Romantic Violin Concerto, and reports of a luminous, temperamentally assured performance of the Debussy Sonata emanated from the Bard Music Festival the following year. I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing more from this now 21-year-old virtuoso.

Jennifer Koh, violin
“A fiddler with a future!” was the way I described Jennifer Koh’s Weill Hall debut at age 18 in The Strad. And that same magazine called this 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition winner “a risk-taking, high-octane player who grabs the listener by the ears and refuses to let go.” Koh, from Chicago, then attended Oberlin and Curtis to work with a collection of distinguished teachers (Ro-land and Almita Vamos, Felix Galimir, and Jaime Laredo). With fierce intensity and audacious intellectual curiosity, she adventurously throws herself into a huge, wide-spanning repertoire, e.g., Bach, Menotti, Nielsen, Klami, Ysäye, Schubert, Harrison, Schoenberg, and (to roil my musical sensibilities) Steve Reich’s 1967 Violin Phase.

Yundi Li, piano
Yundi Li, born in 1982 in Chongging, People’s Republic of China, studied with Dan Yhao Yi, one of China’s most renowned piano teachers. In October 2000, at age 19, he won First Prize (the first time in 15 years that the top prize was awarded) at the International Chopin Competition in War-saw. Li’s debut CD of works by Chopin, recorded by Deutsche Grammophon immediately after his triumph, is imperiously rhetorical, bringing out important bass lines resoundingly. But his second recording for DG—a Liszt recital that includes perhaps the finest account of the B-minor Sonata I have ever heard—is, if anything, light years ahead in patrician elegance: exquisite artistry from one of the greatest talents to surface in years—nay, decades. Yundi Li will be performing several U.S. recitals in spring 2004, including his New York recital debut at the Metropolitan Museum on April 24.

Quynh Nguyen, piano
Quynh Nguyen has had a cosmopolitan musical background. She studied at the Hanoi Conservatory, Mos- cow’s Gnessin Institute, and later at the Juilliard School and Mannes College of Music. Her delightful Weill Hall recital in March 2001 offered renditions of Bach’s G-minor English Suite (with a witty suggestion of a tambourine in the Gavotte), Schubert’s D-major Sonata, D. 850, and vernal, lyrical accounts of Chopin’s E-major Scherzo and late E-flat Nocturne (Op. 55, No. 2). Likewise memorable was her fleet, crystalline Ravel Tombeau de Couperin at a later Merkin Hall concert.

Hiroko Sasaki, piano
Japanese-born Hiroko Sasaki left her native country at 13 to study at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England. She made her mark concertizing in Europe and then completed her musical education at Curtis Institute, Peabody Conservatory, and the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, where she earned an Artists Diploma. Her 2003 New York debut at Weill Recital Hall, comprising Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata and Book I of the Debussy Préludes, showed exquisite proportion, rare poetic understatement, and a connoisseur’s in-depth grasp of many unusual textual options.

Lara St. John, violin
Canadian-born violinist Lara St. John began playing the violin at age 2, gave her first solo performance with orchestra at age 5, and is an alumna of Curtis and Marlboro. Her career is now in full tilt, with her first CD in an exclusive Sony Classical contract to be released in America in early 2004. Her earlier recorded traversals of Unaccompanied Bach, full of passion but a little wild, made a vivid impact. St. John was about to record her second CD, Gypsy, when I heard her play that fire-eating fare live. A standout in this amazing recital was an eye-popping traversal of Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy, more difficult than even the “easy” Sarasate.

Pei-Yao Wang, piano
Pei-Yao Wang, born in Taiwan, began taking piano lessons at age 5 and then went on to Curtis Institute (as its youngest student), Yale University (with majors in music and architecture), and Mannes College. Her teachers include Seymour Lipkin, Claude Frank, and Richard Goode. Wang’s most frequent concerts have been as a superb collaborative artist: She is currently a member of the CMSTwo program, and I have heard her participate in excellent performances of Brahms’s Piano Quintet and G-minor Piano Quartet. Her playing has intuitive proportion, color, and finesse. As a soloist, her elegant and supple Chopin Op. 59 Mazurkas at a Weill Hall concert remain fondly in my memory, along with perceptive accounts in other concerts of works by Janávcek, Shostakovich, and Beethoven.

Orion Weiss, piano
Twenty-one-year old Orion Weiss, a native of Lyndhurst, Ohio, attended Cleveland Institute of Music (his principal teacher there was Paul Schenly), and currently studies with Emanuel Ax at the Juilliard School. Recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant (2002) and, from Juilliard, a Gina Bachauer Scholarship (2002 and 2003) and Mieczylaw Munz Scholarship (2003), he was also honored by the Irving S. Gilmore Keyboard Festival as a promising young American pianist. Last May I heard Weiss display remarkable fluency and elegance in Beethoven’s Piano and Violin Sonata, Op. 30, No. 3, Bartók’s Contrasts, and a sizzling rendering of Stravinsky’s trio arrangement of L’Histoire du soldat. He is also a member of CMSTwo.

Albert Wong, piano
Albert Wong, born on January 1, 1990, was the first baby boy born in Boston in 1990. He must be the first boy (or girl) to have recorded Book II of Bach’s W.T.C. at age 10—although another one-time prodigy, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, is said to have played all the Bach Inventions at 5. Particularly endearing, Wong’s precocity goes hand in hand with directness and lack of “sophistication.” His music-making (on Ivory Classics CDs) has been beautifully guided by his teachers (Earl Wild is his mentor), but mercifully not “programmed.” His rhythm is faultless—no rushing, rubatos, or languishing nuances—and his pedaling is minimal. This wise and worldly pre-teenager speaks honestly for himself.

Shai Wosner, piano
Israeli pianist Shai Wosner, a prize-winner at the 1999 Queen Elisabeth Competition, has garnered other awards in Palm Beach, Senigallia, Italy, and the Arthur Rubinstein in Tel Aviv (1995). As a devoted admirer of contemporary music, he was invited to participate in Pierre Boulez’s Carnegie Hall Workshop in 2001. He has performed the Ligeti Piano Concerto and Bright Sheng’s Red Silk Dance, but he also won laurels for his interpretation of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata. Wosner is to become a member of CMSTwo in 2004. I greatly admire this versatile young virtuoso.

Pianist Harris Goldsmith, one of America’s most distinguished music critics for over four decades, currently teaches at the Mannes College of Music in New York City.




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