Now Playing: Denis Matsuev

A few weeks back, Jenny at The Teaching Studio kicked off an occasional series on Famous Pianists. I look forward to learning more about the great names of our profession through her future posts. She also inspired me to try my own version: Currently Performing Pianists Whose Concerts I Happened to Have Attended. Catchy, no?

Last Sunday evening I heard Russian virtuoso pianist, Denis Matsuev give a most glorious concert! Judging by the nearly 100% Russian make-up of the audience at Davies Symphony Hall, it seems as though much of the world is missing out. Really, it felt a little bit like being in an alternate dimension. Same city, same symphony hall—but an audience straight out of my childhood! On the first half of the program, Mr. Matsuev played the Schubert Piano Sonata No. 14 in a minor and the Beethoven Appassionata. Having thus warmed up his powerful hands and the piano (which got a tuning adjustment at intermission) he continued the second half with Lizst’s Mephisto Waltz and the Rachmaninoff Sonata No. 2 in B flat Major. Oh and then he played six encores.  As the program suggests, Matsuev’s technique is enough to frighten mere mortals and he can create a torrent of powerful sound. As a person who has been known to turn her nose up at “mere virtuosity,” I have to say that he really blew me away. Matsuev’s playing is emotional, intelligent and communicative. Even his most dramatic moments were musically convincing and did not come across as artifice or gesture for gesture’s sake. Then again, he was not above indulging in a bit of showing off on the encores. Played with an air of slightly comedic brinksmanship, this was encore number six!


Some facts on Matsuev (gleaned from his program bio and several charming interviews on Russian talk shows– YouTube never ceases to amaze):

  • born in 1975 in Irkutsk, Russia (Siberia- he takes great pride in being Siberian!)
  • a die-hard soccer fan (apparently his parents convinced him to move to Moscow at age 15 to pursue his musical studies by pointing out that he would be able to watch his favorite team play live!)
  • studied with Sergei Dorensky, whose students have won over 100 prizes at the major international competitions (including first prizes at the Chopin, Van Cliburn and Tchaikovsky competitions)
  • won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1998
  • chosen by Alexander Rachmaninoff (grandson of the composer) to record some previously never-performed works, on Rachmaninoff’s own piano
  • in additional to classical music, Matsuev loves jazz and apparently is quite the improviser!

If you get the chance, go hear him! (and start practicing your Russian now so that you can chat pleasantly with the person next to you at intermission…)

Working Rehearsal

One of the supposed perks of being (mostly) self-employed is the flexible and somewhat un-orthodox schedule. As a piano teacher and musician, I am hard at work weekday afternoons, evenings and weekends. Weekday mornings, however, I am left to my own devices. Most of the time, this simply means catching up on an endless stream of emails, doing some household chores and dealing with the week’s inevitable rescheduling of lessons (basketball game, soccer practice, baseball team photos…does the fun never end?)

Well, today I actually made good use of this “free time”! I spent the morning attending one of San Francisco Symphony’s Open Rehearsals. I am a little ashamed to admit that this was my very first time going—so many opportunities missed! But it certainly won’t be the last. For a ticket price of only $22 (admittedly, a $9 fee is added on top of that) you show up at 8:30am for coffee and donuts, hear a pre-concert lecture at 9:00am, and then at 10:00am hear the orchestra rehearse their program. Admittedly, I was a bit late and missed out on the donuts and only caught part of Scott Foglesong’s energetic synopsis of Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony. The whole event is open seating (though Loge, Boxes and Front Orchestra are “reserved”- I assume for subscribers?) and the orchestra level was already quite full by 9:15. Knowing that what I really came for was Yundi Li playing Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto, I made my way up to First Tier where I had no trouble finding an entire empty front row with a perfect view of the keyboard. There were plenty of seats to go around, and considering that for a regular performance my seat would have run me $65, I was a happy girl!

And I have to say, I got considerably more enjoyment out of today’s rehearsal that I have out of many a concert. Maybe being a musician myself gives me such great affection for seeing all our esteemed symphony players in their jeans and khakis,  marking their scores as they play, periodically getting up to adjust their chairs. The first part of the program was the Sibelius D Major symphony. First and second movements were played straight through, though Blomstedt did give some notes in between. One the bassoonists, whose chair had been conspicuously empty, walked in about half way through the Andante. Having finished the movement, Blomstedt took them through the opening again- turns out it is a bassoon duet, not a solo!

That second hearing gave me even more appreciation for a piece that is brand new to me. Just listen to this: timpani, low strings, and bassoons (two of them!)

The second half was Yundi Li (in jogging pants and a t-shirt!) on the Tchaikovsky Concerto. His technique really is breathtaking. Perhaps he was holding back a bit expressively without a true “audience”, I don’t know. At the conclusion of the run-through he didn’t acknowledge the audience at all and just leapt right up to talk to Blomstedt about a transition in the Finale. They then ran that section two more times.  I loved that he had a score on the piano the entire time and every time the orchestra was playing, he would be flipping over to the appropriate spot. There really was a sense of the work being done. Thus the term, working rehearsal. I’m a teacher at heart I guess—I  like seeing the work.

All in all Yundi didn’t quite win me over as much as I had hoped, but I did buy his latest CD of the Chopin Nocturnes. And I am definitely won over by SFS open rehearsals and plan on attending whenever I can. Next up: Sasha Barantschik plays the Mendelssohn violin concerto…