Charles Petzold

Young Pianists at Shandelee

August 15, 2009
Roscoe, N.Y.

In many parts of the United States, classical music is now totally illegal. Concert halls have been shut down, radio stations have been silenced, and any child showing the slightest interest in classical music is severely reprimanded. Parents even have access to "deprogramming" services: If a child is caught humming some Beethoven, for example, she can be "tuned straight" through heavy doses of NASCAR and — oddly, though it is said to work marvels — marathon sessions of Two and a Half Men.

Despite these extraordinary pressures to conform, some brave and exceptional young musicians still manage to keep the classical tradition alive through a network of underground instruction, schools, and festivals, including the Shandelee Music Festival — the premiere music venue in Sullivan County, New York. Besides offering several summer concerts of chamber music in a delightful intimate wood pavilion seating about 130 people, Shandelee also sponsors a two-week program for advanced piano students, culminating in two concerts where we (the audience) get to hear them play.

This year, nine students participated in this program, ranging in age from 15 to 27. Five of them performed in a concert on Thursday evening, and the remaining four in a concert this afternoon. I must confess that I was mostly curious about the music these young pianists would choose to play, and I suspected I'd hear a lot of Chopin. I was pleasantly surprised on Thursday; this afternoon — not so much.

First up on Thursday was Nathan Green, currently a student at the University of Nebraska. He began with the first two movements of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30 (Op. 109), adeptly managing the tricky shifts in tempo and rhythm, but unfortunately marred with some noisy peddle action. Mr. Green then played a work by Robert Muczynski (an American composer I had never heard of): the Suite for Piano (Op. 13) from 1960. The program notes described Muczynski as a neo-classical composer, but at times the music was reminiscent of Stravinsky, Bartok, and even Messiaen, and I found it quite engaging.

Seventeen-year old Doris Lee, a junior at the Watchung Hills Regional High School in New Jersey, chose Chopin's Fantaisie in F Minor (Op. 49). She unwound the work's long elaborate melodic lines from their unassuming beginnings, and seemed to become more powerful and commanding before our eyes, skillfully holding together a slow middle part and concluding with a dazzling finale.

Seattle native Matthew Palumbo made a daring choice of music with the 3rd and 4th movments of American composer Samuel Barber's demanding 1949 Piano Sonata (Op. 26), and he brought if off brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly, both in the melancholy searching Adagio that builds to loud ringing chords, and then in the skitterish jazzy fugue that just gets crazzier as it goes along.

After intermission, JooHyun Lee, a native of Seoul and currently a student at Julliard, played Mendelssohn's Fantasy in F♯ minor (Op. 28), also known as the "Scottish Sonata," with great tone, masterful control, and rhythmic precision. I loved the rollicking finale, although I must confess that Mendelssohn is often emotionally opaque to my ears, and I hope I can hear Ms. Lee play some Schubert some day.

Yunjie Chen is also a Julliard student but by way of the Shanghai Conservatory, which he entered at the age of 11. There was no question, however, that his true home was in the lush dense textures and intricacies of Rachmaninoff's Piano Sonata in B♭ minor (Op. 36). Although the music's not quite to my taste, the performance was technically impeccable and deeply felt.

For the second concert this afternoon, the first pianist on the program was 15-year old Kevin Lee, a sophomore at Watchung Hills Regional High School. He began with the Bach Toccata in E Minor, with a nicely balanced adagio and a well executed fugure. In the Chopin Ballade No. 2 in F Major (Op. 38), he had much fun with the alternating sections, switching nicely from delicate to strong.

LA-born 24-year old Esther Keel began learning piano at the age of 3 with her mother, Mihyang Keel. I loved Ms. Keel's serene stage presence, and her Chopin Scherzo No. 1 in B minor (Op. 20) was wonderfully zippy and rhythmically precise with a gentle middle section. More Chopin followed: the long strange journey that is the Polonaise-Fantaisie (Op. 61). Ms. Keel held this mood-shifting, shape-shifting work together with great skill, beautiful tone, and a wonderful delicacy of touch.

I love the late Brahms piano music, so 16-year old Lior Willinger's exquisitely well-paced rendition of the first of the Op. 119 Four Pieces for Piano really only whetted my appetite for more (which I hope he's studying). He got to get louder and faster with the Chopin Fantaisie in F Minor (Op. 49), which was also played Thursday by Doris Lee.

Seoul-born Yoon Soo Rhee, currently living in Berlin, was battling the sniffles but that didn't prevent her from performing a lovely andante and a powerful polonaise in the Chopin Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise (Op. 22), but Ms. Rhee's brilliant playing only seemed to accentuate the superficiality of this work, and I'm afraid the first Liszt Mephisto Waltz didn't add much depth to the program, although it sounded great.

To close out this season of the Shandelee Music Festival, another bench was pulled up to the piano, and Doris Lee, Lior Willinger, and Kevin Lee sat side-by-side to perform a six-hand arrangement of Johann Strauss's K├╝nstlerleben waltz, which delighted the audience and themselves.