I had actually had a ticket last month to hear the winners of this year's Gina Bachauer Piano Compeitionat in recital at Juilliard. I had eagerly been anticipating this event which for me customarily marks the beginning of another season of classical music in New York City. Unfortunately, the press of other matters made it impossible for me to be there. Luckily, the recital was recorded for a broadcast marking the commencement of the forty-first season of WQXR's Young Artists Showcase, one of the longest running classical music series on radio. This was entirely appropriate as the Bachauer Competition Recitals always reward their audiences with outstanding performances by exceptionally talented pianists. This year's winners, Huan Li and Zhu Wang, both of whom are studying for bachelor degrees at Juilliard, were no exception.
After a word of welcome from Damian Woetzel, Juilliard's new President, the program opened with Huan Li performing two selections from Maurice Ravel's five-movement Miroirs (1904-1905). These were respectively the third and fourth movements - Une barque sur l’océan and Alborada del gracioso. The period during which Miroirs was composed marked a turning point in Ravel's career. Though he had failed in 1905 in his final attempt to win the Prix de Rome - he was scandalously ousted in the first round - the composer, perhaps as a result of this rejection by the Conservatoire establishment, at this time began to write some of the most innovative piano compositions of the early twentieth century, beginning in 1902 with Jeux d'eau and culminating in 1908 with Gaspard de la nuit. According to a story told by his friend Ricardo Viñes, Ravel during this period met with Debussy and expressed to the latter his intention of writing piano music so free in form that it would sound like an improvisation, or something taken from a sketch book. Although Ravel, like Debussy before him, strongly objected to being labeled an "Impressionist," his new piano music could hardly escape being categorized as such. This is especially true of Une barque sur l’océan, the only movement of the five without metronome markings, whose arpeggios so brilliantly recreate the sound of waves. Ravel later orchestrated this movement but was dissatisfied with it because he found himself unable to duplicate the shimmering sound evoked by the solo piano. The composer also later orchestrated Alborada del gracioso, another piece that could be considered Impressionist for its incorporation of Spanish musical themes. Both movements are technically challenging and demand virtuosic skill on the part of the pianist.
Following Huan Li's performance came a brief ceremony in which an award for music education and community outreach was presented to violinists Jocelyn Zhu and Mariella Haubs for their selfless work in playing for refugee children throughout Europe. Only Mariella was present, and she accepted the award on behalf of both musicians.
After the presentation, the second pianist, Zhu Wang, performed the final two movements from Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 (1844), the Largo and the Presto, non tanto. While the sonata is longer than most of Chopin's works for solo piano, it is somewhat lacking in cohesion and each of the movements seems independent of the others. This is especially true of the the third movement largo in B major around which the sonata is built and which is in reality a nocturne, one of the most beautiful and moving that Chopin composed. The finale, in contrast, provides a pounding and intensely dramatic finish to the work with ample opportunites for virtuoso flourishes on the part of the pianist.
Finally, the two musicians returned together to the stage to perform selections from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a (1892), here arranged for two pianos by the Cypriot composer Nicolas Economou. These consisted of the opening Overture, the Danse Russe Trepak from the second section, and the closing Valse des fleurs, one of the composer's best known pieces of music. I have to admit Tchaikovsky's ballet has never been among my favorite pieces of music, but the selections played here certainly ended the recital on an upbeat note.