Evanston Concerts Review - Skyline/Liszt and Bach Week Feature Fine Solo, Duet and Orchestral Performances

Piano Master Sergei Babayan performed at 2 recent concerts in Evanston. On April 27th, he appeared both as part of Northwestern University’s Leigh and Henry Bienen School of Music’s Skyline Piano Series and as the introductory event of the 2017 American Liszt Society Festival hosted by Bienen at The Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall, 70 Arts Circle Drive, on the Evanston campus. He also played two pieces (one a duet with Grace Fong) the following week, on May 5, 2017, at Nichols Hall, 1490 Chicago, as part of the second evening of The Bach Festival.

Pianist Sergei Babayan; photo courtesy of Christian Steiner

 The program/selections for the April 27 Skyline/Liszt concert were as follows:

-Franz Liszt, “Ballade No. 2 in B Minor”
-Vladimir Ryabov, “Fantasia in C Minor”, Op. 21, in memory of Maria Yudina
-J. S. Bach, selections from the “Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach”:
     “Prelude in C Major”, BWV 939
     “Prelude in C Minor”, BWV 999
     “Menuet-Trio in G Minor”, BWV 929
     “Prelude in E Major”, BWV 937
     “Sinfonia in E-flat Major”, BWV 791
     “Prelude in D Minor”, BWV 926
     “Prelude in C-sharp Major”, BWV 872
     “Prelude in F Major”, BWV 901
-Frédéric Chopin
     “Polonaise in C-sharp Minor”, Op. 26
     “Valse No. 2 in C-sharp Minor”, Op. 64
     “Barcarolle in F-sharp Major”, Op. 60
-Franz Liszt, “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12”, S244/12

 In encore, Babayan performed “Études Tableaux in E flat minor”, Op. 39 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

 The beauty of the music was overwhelming, the piano works alive with sonority and complexity. The countenance of Babayan was suffused with naked emotion, the eyes often closed. His hands hovered and flew over the keys with masterful fluency. Watching him at the brilliantly polished Steinway, against the enormous clear transected windows, several stories high, Lake Michigan visible but a short distance away, was in itself a tableau of human transcendence.

Babayan played two pieces by Liszt, the first and last of the evening, of course excepting the encore. The first piece on the program, Liszt’s “Ballade No. 2 in B Minor”, was imbued with enormous driving power coupled with naked lyricism. Barely had these notes faded away, when he gave the audience Ryabov’s “Fantasia in C Minor”, another ultra-dramatic piece washed in intense emotional color and tone. The penultimate work, Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12”, was played with a bold shape, never strident, and with an earnest ardour.

The set of J.S. Bach  selections are from a collection of keyboard music Bach wrote for his eldest son, although authorship is contested and some scholars even believe certain pieces to have been written by that son! Many of these are contained in other collections, notably in “The Well-Tempered Clavier”, with which Babayan has long demonstrated his expertise;  some, as well, are in “The Twelve little Preludes”.  The first piece performed, No.939, has been called “A small prelude that sounds big”, and big sound balanced with tremendous sensitivity was a defining characteristic of these works of art played by Babayan.

The three Chopin pieces were delivered with strength and passion. The “Polonaise” is very diverse in mood and texture; the dynamics were well controlled. The “Valse” was pervaded with fluency and feeling, expressive and refined. The “Bacarolle” was somewhat wistful, thoroughly romantic, just a beautiful lyrical piece.

Finally, the Rachmaninoff encore, “Étude Tableau No. 39”, a technical and interpretive showpiece, wove a melody of epic proportions with impressive chords that left the audience in admiration for Babayan’s prowess.

Pianist Grace Fong; photo courtesy of Bach Week Festival

 On May 5th, Babayan contributed in a program entitled “Virtuoso Soloists” as part of the 44th Annual Bach Week Festival; this concert, the second of three, was held at Nichols Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston. The virtuosos-both solo, in duet, and in orchestral ensemble- gathered together this evening put on a wonderful concert.

Babayan’s portion featured “Concerto in E Major for Keyboard”, BWV 1053 as well as a performance of “Concerto in C Minor for 2 Keyboards”, BWV 1062 in duet with his former student, Grace Fong, now Director of Keyboard Studies at Chapman University Conservatory of Music. The two Bach piano concertos were also performed by the excellent Bach Week Festival Orchestra led by the ever elegant and deft conductor Richard Webster.

Babayan’s performance of BWV 1053 was washed in expressive warmth and gladness. The composition is bathed with subtlety and was explored with a richness and a fully mature counterpoint from the orchestra in ensemble, sprightly and dancelike in portion, haunting and resonant in the whole.

BWV 1062 was transcribed from the well-known BWV 1043, “Double Violin Concerto in D minor”. The 2 pianists, with Babayan in front on the stage, accompanied with subtle expression by the Bach Festival Orchestra under Webster’s firm and commanding baton, skillfully played the three movements spread throughout with counterpoint. The central movement is especially lovely and the 2 artists at the pianos seemed to work in fine accord.

 Also on the program were two superlative Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians, Katinka Klejin, cello, and Jennifer Gunn, flute.  Klejin opened the program with “Suite No. 2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied cello”, BWV 1008 while Gunn performed the final piece but one of the evening, “Partita in A Minor for Unaccompanied Flute”, BWV 1013.

Klejin was thoroughly immersed in the 7 movements of No. 2 (with it’s two minuets), which, along with his other 5 cello suites, is one of the more “frequently performed and recognizable solo compositions ever written for cello”. Each movement is based around a baroque dance type, and the work as a whole was decidedly uplifting as well as being technically challenging..

Gunn’s remarkable performance of BWV 1013, with it’s advanced and demanding articulation was breathtaking. She seemed to radiate the essence of the baroque, with delicacy, gentle swelling and varied dynamics.

Conductor Richard Webster; photo courtesy of Bach Week Festival

As always, the Bach Week experience fills one with delight and the desire to return next year.






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