July 5, 2023

New International Summer Music Festival Opens with Acclaimed Pianist in Recital

By Nancy Plum

A new music festival has set down roots in Princeton this summer. The John Perry Academy of Music, previously based in Los Angeles, has relocated to this area and launched its summer activities this past weekend. Bracketing 12 days of master classes, lectures, and private lessons for musicians are two piano recitals, the first of which took place this past Sunday evening. Russian pianist Mikhail Voskresensky, who left his homeland in 2022 in protest of the invasion of Ukraine, opened the festival with a concert of 18th- and 19th-century piano music at Mayo Hall on the campus of The College of New Jersey.

Voskresensky’s concert Sunday evening began with two musical gumdrops from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Like others of Mozart’s works, Fantasy in d minor for piano was unfinished at the time of his death. In a type of musical fan fiction, Mozart’s widow turned to colleagues and friends to finish a number of these pieces. The last 10 measures of the Fantasy were thought to be written by German composer and organist August Müller, and his added fugal coda fit well with Mozart’s baroque intents in this short piece. Voskresensky paired this work with Mozart’s Fantasy in c minor, also left unfinished at the time of the composer’s death. The 28-bar original fragment was completed by composer and priest Abbé Maximilian Stadler, who titled the piece a fantasia and maintained the same baroque flavor that Mozart had begun.

From the outset, Voskresensky was an unassuming pianist, clearly old-school without a lot of flash but a commanding presence onstage. The piano in Mayo Hall was a rich and resonant instrument in a very live space, and seemed to be more suited to the more romantic music on the program, but Voskresensky found clarity and drama in both the Mozart Fantasys. He took his time on the languid opening “Adagio” passages on Fantasy in d minor, playing each repetition of the thematic material with more intensity. In both pieces, Voskresensky drew out phrases to create drama, and in the second in particular found the musical humor which Mozart later incorporated into The Magic Flute.

In 1802, the same year Mozart’s baroque-infused keyboard music was being published posthumously, Ludwig van Beethoven was creating some of his most dramatic works. Beethoven composed piano music for a more advanced instrument than Mozart, with an aim toward performance in a concert hall, rather than a private salon. His Piano Sonata in d minor was the second of the Op. 31 trio of sonatas, and was a centerpiece of power, earning it the nickname of the “Tempest” sonata.

Throughout his sonatas, Beethoven took a conventional classical form and turned it into a multi-stage drama, aided in the case of this work by his own despair over impending deafness. Voskresensky began the opening “Largo” with fire, moving through the nonstop musical action with each phrase repetition more intense. This piece was particularly well-suited for the instrument in Mayo Hall, as Voskresensky took his time bringing out the majesty and reverence of the second movement “Adagio.” He found a great deal of contrast in the closing movement, infusing the music with a sense of urgency and particularly fast and furious episodes foreshadowing the composer’s Symphony No. 9.

Nineteenth-century Polish composer Frédéric Chopin looked to his homeland for inspiration for his piano works, creating small pieces to be performed in small spaces. Among Chopin’s piano repertory were 57 mazurkas — dance miniatures capturing the folk culture of his native Poland. In Sunday’s concert, Voskresensky played three mazurkas, which Chopin had combined as Op. 63, the last set published during his lifetime.

Voskresensky played all three of these mazurkas with lightness and humor, bringing out the sauciness of No. 1 and its mazur theme, the pensiveness of No. 2, and the rhythm-bending triple-meter kujuwiak dance flavor of No. 3. Voskresensky followed the trio of mazurkas with Chopin’s 1841 Polonaise in F# minor, Op. 44, another tribute to the composer’s homeland. He opened the Polonaise with dark and mysterious passages and fiery octaves and a particularly striking upper register on the keyboard. This piece marked a beginning of Chopin’s diversion from the polonaise dance form into a more improvisatory and fantasy-like work, and Voskresensky built intensity through repetition of the motives and maintaining the distinctive polonaise rhythm in the bass register.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives was a cycle of 20 short (many less than a minute) piano miniatures written over the course of two years for the composer’s own friends and colleagues. Despite their brevity, these vignettes contained passages of technical difficulty and quick tempi. Based on this collection, Prokofiev had a wide circle of diverse friends, and Voskresensky conveyed well the range of characters in the music, from relaxed impressionism to fast and driving rhythms reminiscent of Bartók. Voskresensky closed the program with a spirited performance of a piano transcription of the “March” from Prokofiev’s 1921 opera The Love for Three Oranges.

In its summer workshop, The John Perry Academy seeks not only to guide the next generation of musicians, but also to demonstrate the power of music to unite. The academy has taken a cue from the 1942 siege of Leningrad, when amidst the worst of wartime circumstances, music was still created. With classic style and performance technique, Voskresensky is a perfect master teacher from which the academy’s young students can learn, fitting well into the academy’s mission of utilizing music to show how to appreciate the beauty of life.

The John Perry Academy of Music will present a second piano recital on Saturday, July 8 at 7 p.m. in Mayo Hall on the campus of The College of New Jersey. Featured in this concert will be pianist Ann Schein performing music of Chopin and Elliott Carter. Information about this recital and all of the Academy’s summer festival activities can be found at johnperryacademy.org.