Abraham Stokman Review-Music Institute of Chicago presents a great pianist in a solo birthday concert

On Saturday evening, May 21, 2016, acclaimed pianist Abraham Stokman, currently teaching piano and improvisation at the Music Institute of Chicago, celebrated his 80th birthday with a concert performance and reception at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, entitled "Abe Stokman is Still Alive and Doing Very Well". The Israeli-born Stokman, who began his piano studies in Tel Aviv at the age of 6, is a a former vocal coach at Julliard, a former pianist-in-residence and assistant professor at Chicago Music College of Roosevelt University, and chairman of the piano department of Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music. He has had fine works composed for him, enjoyed success giving solo concerts, performed at festivals, and recorded. He also founded the “Music for a While” series dedicated to contemporary music.

Abe Stokman; photo courtesy of Mike Canale

The birthday program combined the wonderful playing of 7 great artists with improvisational piano par excellence. Stokman requested suggestions from the audience, and then interpreted them, in extraordinary fashion and seeming nonchalant, in the style of the composer whose work he’d just completed. Since most of the suggestions were “catchy” tunes-think “When the Saints Come Marching In” in the style of Mozart, it was very entertaining and often very moving to hear his complex renditions. Particularly impressive was “Hatikvah”, the Israeli National Anthem, in the style of Schoenberg. This reviewer was skeptical of the results when an audience member requested “Bessame Mucho”, but it was rendered beautifully in the style of Chopin.

The program consisted of 11 works, by Mozart, J.S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin, Richard Wagner, Arnold Schoenberg, and Claude Debussy,  spanning  almost three centuries of great composing, from the liturgical (Bach) to the atonal (Schoenberg). Several of these pieces are notoriously difficult to play, including Richard Wagner’s “Isolden Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, transcribed by Franz Liszt, the first piece after the intermission; Stokman’s hands flew over the keys in this dramatic opera finale, his face rapt. 

The first piece on the program, the last movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata #11, popularly known as the “Turkish March”, is one of the composer’s best-known piano pieces, imitating the sound of Turkish bands. Next came two of Bach’s marvelously deep choral preludes, short compositions using chorale tunes as their basis.  Following this, Stokman performed Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #27, (Op. 90), popularly known as “Les Adieux”, consisting of just two movements-“Conflict between head and heart” and “Conversation with the beloved”. His fingering was masterful, the pieces rang out into the hall.

Stokman completed the first half of the program with two works of Chopin, “Fantasie-Impromptu”, (Op.66) and “Mazurka in C sharp minor”, (Op.50 #3), both written in 1834. The first is one of the most frequently performed and popular compositions, using many cross-rhythms, the second considered to be “an absolute masterpiece”, a study in counterpoint. Stokman was fully in control and handled the pieces with strength and precision.

Nichols Concert Hall; photo courtesy of Music Institute of Chicago

After the intermission Stokman followed the Wagner operatic piece, appropriately, with "3 Pieces" by Schoenberg, (Op. 11). The first two are often cited as marking the point at which Schoenberg “abandoned the last vestiges of traditional tonality”. The third piece juxtaposes extremes of mood, is dramatic and emotional. Stokman handled all three with seemingly effortless virtuoso technique.

Finally, the formal program was brought to a close with “L’isle Joyeuse”,  (Joyous Island) by Debussy, inspired by a Watteau painting, “L’Embarquement de Cythere”,  in which “a happy group of revelers depart for/from the mythical island of Cythera in the Mediterranean, birthplace of Venus, Goddess of Love”. The piece ripples with trills and spirals, fragments of themes, crossed hands; it has been called “fluid and elastic, warm and generous”. It was a fitting ending to an absolutely lovely concert.

The sold-out concert was followed by a lovely champagne and sushi buffet, with fruits and sweets in abundance. The always gracious, charming and soft-spoken  Abraham Stokman gave the crowd a very happy birthday acknowledgement.

 For more information on this great performer and teacher and other Music Institue of Chicago programs.





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