Goldstein delivers pure pleasures at International Keyboard Festival

Thu Jul 11, 2024 at 1:04 pm
Alon Goldstein performed at the International Keyboard Festival Wednesday night at Merkin Hall.

Music as a whole is commonly referred to as an industry because recordings are manufactured. And that business side, is not just about making money, but all the non-musical elements that go into presenting the experience of music. When all those are shorn away, all that’s left is playing and listening, the alpha and omega of it all.

In person, that looks like the annual International Keyboard Institute & Festival, which is happening this week at Merkin Hall. The festival is a series of solo piano recitals from musicians who may not have big names but have enormous chops, musicality, wisdom, and taste. The concerts are for the connoisseur—listeners who relish hearing great artists play great music, without the distancing distractions of fame or ritual. 

Alon Goldstein’s performance on Wednesday night was exemplary of this. A former student of and assistant to Leon Fleisher, Goldstein performs around the world and also teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory. 

As Goldstein showed, his playing and ideas about music need no apologies, and one hopes they endure through his students. This was an exceptional concert, not only the pianism but the program. And not just the individual works from Bach, the Mendelssohns, Schubert, Glass, Chopin, and others, but the way Goldstein used the contents to create a form, and how he presented everything.

Starting from the last: Goldstein strode onstage, smiled and took a quick bow, and then started playing. As obvious as that is, it is worth pointing out that his presence had very little to do with the concert hall, it was like seeing a solo pianist play at a club like the Village Vanguard; friendly, unfussy, not with an attitude of exalting the canon of classical music, but playing—and listening—out of a sense of personal pleasure.

He began with an ingenious sequence of four short pieces, played as a medley: Bach’s Prelude in B minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (arranged by Alexander Siloti), Fanny Mendelssohn’s September: At the River and the Op. 19, no. 3 Song Without Words by her younger brother Felix, concluding with Egon Petri’s transcription of Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze. This was a gorgeous, miniature journey from the unexpectedly dreamy romanticism of the Prelude (played with substantial pedaling), then a picaresque traversal of landscapes, a subtle and marvelous transmutation of moods.

Goldstein introduced Schubert’s Op. 90 Impromptus by first mentioning how Schumann was critical of them, and then bringing for the journey metaphor, complete with clever gestures to other Schubert masterpieces via brooks, trouts, and supernatural forest creatures. His pace at the start of No. 1 in C minor was on the fast side, and one wondered how that might work in the end—one finds later Schubert piano works, with their simplicity and length, ideal in a post-minimalist world. But Goldstein answered the question with a stunning performance, and one that felt very personal, pressing through the music with both urgency and clarity, hearing and appreciating the possibilities of the music accumulating power and narrative ideas through time. His inner experience came out as a sort of performing aura, and in little human details like grinning to himself after tiny technical mistakes.

The second half opened with Chen Yi’s Variations on Awariguli, a finely made work that takes a Chinese folk melody and fits it into Western temperament, harmony, and form. The music’s heritage and legacy to Schumann and the like was stimulating, and connected to both the first half and the next piece, Goldstein’s own arrangement of “The Masque” movement from Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety.”

There was great life in the playing—this was true for the whole evening—Goldstein jaunting through the modernist resetting of ragtime and boogie-woogie, the pianist having fun on the keys.

This was all prelude to a stunning finish, Glass’s Etude No. 6 followed immediately by Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39, in C-sharp minor. The Glass Etude is derived from his Glassworks themes and full of agitated subdivisions; Goldstein’s articulation in these was remarkable, keeping up a nervous, staccato energy while still managing a legato feeling and a thrilling sense of hurtling forward at a speed just touching the danger point. That energy erupted into the Scherzo, barely under control, seeking out more thrills, surprises, undiscovered possibilities. Every juxtaposed musical idea was a strand that Goldstein roped into not just the form of the piece but the whole concert.

This was great musicianship with pure intellect, joy, and expression coming out of Goldstein and filling the hall. His well-chosen encore, Scarlatti’s Sonata in C minor, K.11, was less a valedictory bonus than a continuation of the sheer pleasure of the music.

The International Keyboard Institute & Festival continues through July 12 at Merkin Hall.

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