“You can’t always convince,” young Israeli conductor Noam Zur said at his North American debut, “but every performance has to make a statement.”
Known as an important educational and recreational center for the performing arts, as well as a place of spirituality, Chautauqua originated as a Sunday school, and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra (CSO) became a professional performance ensemble in 1929. Chautauqua draws its mostly long-time members out for nine weeks, employing them for an intense schedule of 21 concerts. Part of Chautauqua’s charm in music making is that these shows craft an intimate communal experience.
Chautauqua’s unique and exemplary educational role supports an endless variety of learning experiences in a congenial atmosphere. At times, Chautauqua’s performances are also brought to a wider public through PBS and NPR broadcasts, bringing together the new, the noteworthy, and the extraordinary, and projecting it to all who care to listen.
Noam Zur’s effervescent demeanor and his ability to connect with both the orchestra and the audience made for a fantastic season-closing concert at Chautauqua last week. Zur opened his show with high-energy, uptempo repertoire that included a traditional rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Johann Strauss Jr.’s Fledermaus Overture. The show was the last in a lengthy series, so the technical execution was less than perfect at points, but nonetheless the orchestra achieved nuanced ‘picture-perfect’ moments during Ravel’s orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ managing to expertly convey the miniature scenes’ suggested sound-worlds. Zur’s demands of both the orchestra and the audience were persuasively articulated at all times; his undeviating directorial approach completely exemplified a conductor’s ability to form connections between the visual and audial occurrences that make up the energy of a live concert.
Performing Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto under Zur’s baton for the second time, Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov had many towering expectations to fulfill as the anchor of this featured piece. Trifonov’s honors precede him, as he has recently won awards at three major international piano competitions, and his talents have been endorsed by superstar musicians, including Martha Argerich, who said she had “never heard a touch like his” (Financial Times 2011).
What brought both Zur and Trifonov together at Chautauqua speaks to the dynamics of international concert culture, and how friendships are born on the competition circuit.
Vice president and Director of programming Marty Merkley manages Chautauqua’s program office’s annual budget of $8 million. This generous endowment allows the ensemble to invite reputable and up-and-coming guest artists, including many young First Prize winners on the international competition circuit. Merkley, having been involved with several major projects in the music market like Michael Tilson Thomas’ New World Symphonyin Miami, is able to actively engage with competitions, and the artists that they endorse.
As the First Prize winner of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in 2011, Daniil Trifonov was offered several performance opportunities by Uri Zur of ArtPro- Management (Noam Zur’s father), who has been handling Prize winners’ concert performances since 2003. Former First Prize winner Alexander (Sasha) Gavryluk‘s 2005 performance at Chautauqua is still remembered by its music-loving audiences. It was a feature concert like this taking place in Tel Aviv which brought Trifonov to the Kulturwald Festival in Germany’s Bavarian Forest last September to perform with Noam Zur for the first time. Noam Zur had become Principal Conductor of the Frankfurt Chamber Philharmonic, and had been chosen to direct a production of Die Zauberflöte at Kulturwald. It did not take long for the festival’s director and Uri Zur to realize that this dynamic could easily translate into a performance with Trifonov, Zur, and orchestra.
Uri Zur, who has covered a lot of professional ground in the music industry including managing Naxos’ record distribution in Israel, and of course founding his artist management company ArtPro, is always in close contact with Marty Merkley at Chautauqua, but he had not intended to promote his own son for this concert season. Nevertheless, when Trifonov expressed interest in performing at Chautauqua at a time when CSO was without a conductor, there was no reason not to look to Noam for the position, given his substantial merit as a director.
The festival’s extremely chaotic schedule only allowed Zur and Trifonov one rehearsal before their live performance, so the team decided to reprise Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto, and attempt to recreate the captivating performance that Zur and Trifonov had presented in Germany. Asked about rehearsals, Noam Zur commented that “conductors never feel they have the right amount.” He says, “it’s either: ‘I don’t know what to do anymore, and we still have three days left,’ or ‘there is so much to do and we only have three days left!’ Especially in Opera, it happens a lot that you get no rehearsals.” He says that sometimes, performers need to get by on very little rehearsal, or even just ‘wing it’: “I know the piece, you know the piece, let’s meet in the evening.”
Noam Zur assisted Pierre Boulez at the Lucerne Festival’s academy orchestra from 2006 to 2008. Inspired by the great Maestro’s style, he embraced an ambitious, yet relaxed attitude. He still recalls conducting for Boulez in an open master class at Lucerne. As Zur shook in his shoes and dripped with sweat, Boulez stopped him saying: “this was very, very good…now do it again, and this time do it fantastic!” Zur recalls that, “in all the animated music discussions we had, he never tried to impose his opinions. Yet I learned to be discerning and critical enough not to let people get away with everything.”
As a former trombonist, Zur says he looks at the score from the point of view of an orchestral musician. “It’s not choreography,” he says. “In this measure I stand still… it’s important how it looks, it should look beautiful still, but only because you want a certain sound. The movement is the impetus that gives the performing musicians the meaning and phrasing – the philosophyof what it should sound like.”
Even though Trifonov had concerts lined up after taking gold at the 2011 Rubinstein, which is a notable marathon of pianism, and an extremely draining experience, he decided to see if he could continue his winning streak at the Tchaikovsky competition, as he was already enrolled. Uri Zur, noted that Trifonov “did not have the highest expectation, having just completed the Rubinstein, but he was going to give it a shot anyhow.”
Trifonov’s superior rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, in the last round of the competition with the Mariinsky Orchestra under Russian conductor Valery Gergiev won him yet another gold. Gergiev did not hesitate to support his young compatriot, whom he had awarded the competition’s Grand Prix prize. Gergiev brought Trifonov on board for several concert events, at times he even trafficked Trifonov across the hemisphere from performance to performance in his own private jet. “Once he dropped me at a performance rehearsal, then went on to conduct his own concert and made it back to my performance. [They were] in different countries.” Trifonov smiles at this memory, thankful for the generous attention that the artist he calls “one of the most towering [and] busiest musicians worldwide” extended towards him. This past season alone, Trifonov performed with Maestro Gergiev in multiple concerts, tackling repertoire including Prokofiev’s 1st Piano Concerto, Gusonow’s 2nd and Liszt’s 1st.
For the 2013 season, Trifonov is preparing a great deal of new repertoire for even more performances under Gergiev, including Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto, and Prokofiev’s 2nd, which he will perform at the White Nights Festival in St.Petersburg. “I am also going to learn some Schedrin. It’s modern, for a change. I am very interested to explore more of the modern repertoire, which I did not have had much of a chance to do yet,” says the 21 year-old virtuoso pianist. “The Russian School of Piano concentrates on the Classical works, some Bach and the Romantics,” he says.
Two days prior to his own performance in Tel-Aviv, Trifonov had a chance to attend a performance of Chopin’s 1stConcerto with the iconic Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin under the baton of Zubin Mehta, the Israeli Philharmonic’s Music Director for Life. Trifonov was always a big admirer of Kissin’s artistic individuality. Both musicians attended Moscow’s famous Gnessin School for Gifted Children, which Trifonov describes as lacking the wonderfully equipped practice rooms he now uses at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he is about to enter his fourth year. “At Gnessin-School I played on an upright, old, banged up Bechstein,” Trifonov recalls. Having access to modern, well-maintained Steinway Concert Grands makes a tangible difference in practice and performance according to Trifonov, especially when conquering ‘large’ repertoire like Rachmaninov, which he only started to explore this year. At the Cleveland Institute, Trifonov studies under Armenian pianist and conductor Sergei Babayan. Trifonov’s repertoire was always heavy with Chopin, but his recent studies with Babayan have opened him up to a whole new understanding of the idiosyncratic microcosm that constitutes Rachmaninov’s body of work. “He showed me a very different approach than the one I learned in Russia. Even though ultimately everyone goes back to Neuhaus, there are very different approaches within. Babayan opened my mind without taking away what I had. With him it’s all about the touch! He added an enormous dimension to my playing,” Trifonov says. When asked about how he learned his otherworldly pianissimo touch, Trifonov describes how students hold their breath during Babayan’s studio performance classes in an effort to hear his impossibly quiet tones. It seems that it is a combination of the Russian School’s principles and Babayan’s ethereal, yet calibrating modes of touch that brings these pianists’ pianissimo to the next dimension. I personally have heard Babayan perform and it is true- one hears the echo of the master’s touch in a personally processed nature.
The young artist says that he aims to continue studying for an artist diploma with Babayan even though he only studies about 15 percent of the time, as he still feels like he has much to learn. Trifonov realizes that he must come to learn the music of each new composer in his own time. He sees himself tackling Beethoven at a later point in his career. “Even Schubert was a challenge for me,” Trifonov admits modestly, playing Schubert’s last Sonata in B flat-minor, “though the Mozart concerti have always been a special experience for me.”
The collaboration between Noam Zur and Trifinov was a resounding success. “It ended up a spellbinding and hair-raising experience. The audience did not dare to move in order not to miss any sound in this fantastic ‘Chopin at the barn’- like atmosphere,” Zur recalls. “We really connected not only musically. We definitely became friends. I am so happy to be together again this year with Daniil, and I really have to thank him for this one here.” To no one’s surprise, Trifonov delivered pure lyrical lucidity in his piano playing, and Zur expertly supported even the most delicate pianissimo that Trifonov extricated from the piano with his delicate, almost magical caress. Their synergy was never more evident than in the concerto’s strikingly poetic and extremely affecting Lhargettomovement. Zur and Trifonov indeed managed to yet again reconstruct some of the most magical moments of their first performance together.
Thanks to performance opportunities at festivals like Chautauqua, young talents like Trifonov and Noam Zur can begin to instill in audiences an ever-expanding sensibility for the beauty of music and life, and continue in a longstanding tradition of talent that permeates the international concert scene. While this concert was Noam Zur’s North-American Debut, it was also a touching curtain call for the eminent CSO lead cellist Chaim Zemach, who exited the stage at Chautauqua in a revelatory state of mind after 45 concert seasons. As Chautauqua moves forward, I am sure we can continue to expect excellence and innovation on its stage.