Summer Arts Highlight

September 2, 2008

As summer closes, I like to take a look back and savor the summer’s highlights. I’m a ‘summer person’ so I need to say goodbye to every summer. Take a deep breath and savor, so I’ll never forget.

There’s no arts event in New York I enjoy more than the Summer Keyboard Festival at Mannes School for Music, that is, the International Keyboard Institute & Festival (ikif.org) Gracing the last two weeks of every July, IKIF hosts a torrent of music activity–piano recitals, master classes, and the Dorothy MacKenzie Piano competition. All wonderful enough, but it’s the social energy among piano music lovers that sets IKIF apart for me. Festival-goers are the welcome guests of arts impresario Jerome Rose and Festival Director Julie Kedersha. International means exactly that. All around the lobby and concert hall, old friends from Russia (Israel, China, Korea …) exclaim in delight as they run into each other for the first time in ages. You’re likely to run into friends of your own, and meeting new friends is as easy as asking ‘what did you think of the Beethoven?’ Everyone there loves the piano repertoire. ‘I heard Serkin play that piece . . . Yes, yes, Berman does it best.’ And everyone has an opinion: ‘The largo was a little too largo.’

Pianists say how much it energizes them to play for an audience that listens closely. The atmospheric charge of focused listening is palpable in the concert hall at IKIF. Believe me, no one here falls asleep in the slow movement. The audience knows the repertoire intimately; many have played the pieces themselves. I’d bet a quarter of the audience are master level students or performing pianists. Look around the room, there’s Hamelin, there’s Kobrin, there’s Leslie Howard. There’s Dubal, there’s Shakin, there’s Levyatov. And when something truly special happens — like Ukrainian Mykola Suk staking a daredevil’s claim on the Liszt Sonata — it’s the talk of the Festival for days. Might I add that something special happens often at the Keyboard Institute.

There’s a touch of The Magnificent Seven about Mannes. Night after night, another world class virtuoso rolls into town and throws down at the keyboard. One night the Appassionata, the next night, Four Chopin Ballades, the next the Schumann Carnaval. Momentum and excitement build from one night to next, and there always seems more to come.

Then there are the Master Classes at the Keyboard Institute. Running all day, every day, our next generation of grand prize winners and Alice Tully debutantes take intense instruction from the Institute faculty and festival artists. So how’s this for excellent? Van Cliburn gold medalist Alexander Kobrin teaching the Rachmaninov 2nd Sonata to a brilliant Russian prodigy, for whom the technical demands of the piece are less than an afterthought. (Master and student were kind enough to conduct the lesson in English for my benefit.) I heard Mykola Suk teach the Liszt Sonata before exemplifying his insights in his own revolutionary performance. But two summers ago it was the same, Chinese Master Fou T’song illuminating Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor phrase by phrase, after performing the masterpiece in his recital–simply delicious. Then its Jerome Rose coaxing a young competition medalist, who plays her Chopin Sonata ‘too perfectly’, to the next level of artistry. And as these developing stars debut at Lincoln Center in a few years–be assured, they have and they will–you will remember them from the Master Class at Mannes.

I’ve come to appreciate very much the contributions of artists like Jerry Rose, Julie Kedersha, David Dubal, and so many others who create events that bring music lovers together to share our passions. There’s always a concert to go to, but arts events like IKIF, with that extra dimension of musical community, especially enrich my enjoyment of the masterworks we cherish.