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The 2013-14 Classical Concert Series has an enterprising program of four concerts held in the wonderfully intimate Sunrise Theater, opposite the picturesque old train station in Southern Pines. Ukrainian-born pianist Valentinia Lisitsa has been heard frequently across our state in recital and as an accompanist, including violinist Hillary Hahn's tours in 2007 and 2009. Her generous fund-raising recital for the Greensboro Symphony impressed this reviewer greatly. This Southern Pines concert was eagerly anticipated, not only in light of those experiences but also for Lisitsa's pioneering use of YouTube to kick-start a flagging career. Conservatories flood the world with well-trained musicians, all struggling to find aggressive management to get them booked for significant concerts. Lisitsa's extraordinary YouTube popularity has led to her getting major management and an exclusive Decca recording contract.
The series website, which normally lists each artist's program, had warned audiences that Lisitsa would announce and speak about the music from the stage. A recent New York Times review (October 20, 2013) mentioned the artist's aversion to program notes; we all have read more than a few dreary examples. Lisitsa spoke about wanting to shake up the "Japanese-Tea-Ceremony-like ritual" of concerts in order more fully to engage with her audiences and to reach new listeners. While much of this is to be applauded, I do have strong reservations about omitting a detailed list of works and their movements, if any, or at least a detailed verbal equivalent. I view reviews as having a long-term value, as historical records of what works were played, well beyond the fleeting use of the opinion about the pieces or performance.
Lisitsa needs to tighten up her verbal introductions. Audiences differ in how much they want to hear beyond the music – from nothing, from some stick-in-the muds, to more, from younger, less experienced, or more open listeners. Otherwise her comments were charming. She gave her home address as New Bern, NC, a flat in Paris, France, but mostly the waiting rooms of airports!
Lisitsa said she was starting this concert backwards, beginning with a typical encore piece, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, in C-sharp minor, by Franz Liszt (1811-86). She spoke about Liszt making the piano, a percussion instrument, sing, like a string instrument, among other imitative effects. This piece hinted at Lisitsa's huge dynamic range as she thundered chords or evoked the timbre of a cimbalom or the sound of tiny bells. Her palette of tonal color was astonishing throughout her recital.
Next she talked about Liszt's generosity toward other composers and his role in the revival of Schubert's music, which had been looked down upon being Biedermeier or hopelessly low brow and popular with the Middle Class. The snobbishness of current and past intellectuals toward any music that is popular as opposed to technically advanced was a leitmotif of the pianist's comments. She next announced she would play a selection of Liszt's wonderful transcriptions of Schubert's songs. I recognized the 1st and 4th as common to any Lieder recital while her 6th selection was a faultless, seamless playing of "Ave Maria" or "Ellens Gesang." Her shading of dynamics and her spinning-out of long melodic lines were delightful.
The first half of the concert ended with a brilliant performance of the Sonata in F minor, Op. 57 ("Appassionata"), by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). The seething, stormy outer movements were controlled superbly, and her articulation in the fastest passages and her instantaneous responses to sudden changes of dynamics were remarkable. The short slow middle movement was like the serene eye between the surrounding parts of hurricanes.
After intermission, Lisitsa gave a few amusing comments about the life in exile and the music of Sergei Rachmnainoff (1873-1943) before playing an unspecified five or so selections from his Preludes. What luxuriant textures she conjured!
This was followed by another unspecified selection of five Nocturnes by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849). The nighttime these painted ranged from yearning to surprisingly restless, ending with one with a haunting refrain. Lisitsa's playing was breathtaking.
The formal concert ended with an astounding and fiery performance of Totentanz (1849, rev. 1859) by Liszt. It is a paraphrase of the Medieval Gregorian plainchant melody for the dead which features canonic counterpoint in its "old" sounding passages but anticipates 20th-century modernism in its brutal, percussive scoring that would not be out of place in Bartók or Prokofiev.
Lisitsa's performance was warmly received by an enthusiastic audience, and she rewarded them with a showy piece that I suspect was by Liszt. The gorgeous-sounding piano, which seemed to have just barely withstood the pianist's thundering fffs, was a beautiful Bösendorfer provided by Ruggero Piano of Raleigh. She is an exclusive artist of that manufacturing company, based in Vienna, Austria.