Monday night’s audience at SUBCULTURE was in for a treat as WQXR’s host Naomi Lewin introduced most of the artists involved in the making of the newly released CD American Grace, which features the world premiere recording of Steve Mackey’s piano concerto, Stumble to Grace composed for Orli Shaham. “She is such a class act,” says broadcaster, publicist and producer Gail Wein “…and extraordinarily joy to work with.”

Photo Credit Elliot Sussman
It all started at the Aspen Music Festival in 2007, when the superb Juilliard-trained pianist, born in Israel, and the cool West Coast guitarist/composer turned Princeton professor (and music department chair) met backstage at one of Mackey’s sizzling concert run-throughs and clicked instantly. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that Orli Shaham was pregnant with her now 6 year-old twin boys, and Steve Mackey and his wife were expecting as well; mostly, though, their connection was about their mutual, deep love for music, and their iconic take on music presentation, as they quickly discovered that Shaham felt a deep commitment towards performing works by living composers. The two musicians forged a bond and commissioned a new concerto, beginning a fascinating musical journey, which was shared live on stage at their recent SUBCULTURE show through excerpts from the CD as well as an interactive discussion by the artists involved. There were also film excursions into the landscape of the creative process, showing what is actually involved in the coming-together of ideas in a commissioned work, and how much depends on the creative exchange and rapport between the artists.

Photo:  during rehearsal at SUBCULTURE credit Ilona Oltuski
It turns out that the cooperative aspect is one of the most intriguing facets of contemporary compositions for today’s performers.  While Mackey studied Shaham’s individual performance style, she informed him about personal preferences and details, for example the size of her hands: things one could not ask a classical composer to consider in the past. In this case, Shaham even got to influence the final shape of the work’s cadenza, which Mackey envisioned as a grand finale. It is with this grander version of the finale, swiftly re-arranged by Mackey, that the concerto received its premiere recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Shaham’s husband, David Robertson, who was present as well this evening, acting as a page turner.

Photo Credit Elliot Sussman
Shaham not only exudes her deep understanding of and feeling for the music, but also radiates a contagious joy in performing it: “Every time a part of the score came my way,” says Shaham, “I was more excited to learn it and understand it…I love the different pianistic influences that shine through the music – from Thelonious Monk, to Mozart piano concerti, to Bach’s counterpoint to Vince Guaraldi.”

Mackey’s solo electric guitar performance made clear how broadly his musical understanding reaches. It was fascinating to see the sensitivity and musical insight required to compose music and translate it to the instrument’s specific tactile facility.

Facing Shaham from the second grand piano on stage, pianist Jon Kimura Parker made his appearance. Together they performed John Adam’s Hallelujah Junction, a work for two pianos also performed by both pianists on the recording. Shaham chose to include two pieces by Adams, since she feels that both composers – Mackey and Adams – “are at the forefront of defining what it means to be an American pianist today.” She continues: “Jon Kimura Parker was my dream partner for this work,” which indeed entails the most intricate, rhapsodic rhythmic episodes, fiendishly difficult to pull off as a team. Parker, who is also on the faculty of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, recorded his own transcriptions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Petrouchka last year.

China Gates for solo piano, another Adams work that Shaham performed at SUBCULTURE, showcases the composer’s strongly formulated lyrical vibe, which, as Shaham says: “has inspired as many composers as it has pianists with its beauty, simplicity, and complexity all intertwined.” (Orli Shaham quoted by Frank J. Oeteri in the CD’s excellent liner note.)
As an encore, closing the evening’s performance, Shaham performed the miniature Sneaky March, originally composed by Mackey for Shaham’s curated series Baby got Bach. The concept of creating these interactive, classical concerts for children came to the entrepreneurial pianist when she discovered that there was nothing offered at the time to capture the musical imagination of the 3-6 year-old demographic. “While there where things for babies and older children, I was not able to find anything of musical interest for my own kids,” she shares. “At a time when kids are most susceptive to engage in a second language, which music is as well, I felt compelled – as a parent and someone passionate about music – to do something about it.” Now in its fourth season at the 92 Street Y, Baby got Bach begins with a hand on experience backstage, where children get to playfully explore musical instruments, followed by the on stage encounter of listening to live chamber music, performed by Shaham and friends.

When it comes to music, Shaham’s enthusiasm and gifted engagement does not stop with her performances that range widely from solo and chamber to concerti repertoire with major orchestras, to guest performer at the great summer music festivals, or her work as a recording artist. She is a respected voice broadcaster, music writer, and lecturer, and shapes the world of music through her increasing number of commissions for new music. She feels indebted to her great mentor, pianist and pedagogue Herbert Stessin. In her obituary for Stessin, published in the Juilliard Journal in 2011, she recalls the “consummate pianist who lived and breathed the world of piano and the music around it…a teacher of fourteen years and friend and second pair of ears for the following fourteen.” In her words, something of her own adoring approach to the piano and the world of music comes through. Orli Shaham is four years younger than her brother, virtuoso violinist Gil Shaham, and though at times the two siblings are professionally connected through some of their shared projects, concerts, and recordings, Orli’s is a view clearly gained independently and shared through her own personal charisma.

Audiences will look forward to her upcoming project, for which Shaham will turn to Johannes Brahms’ late opuses, exploring what inspired him and his works, and how a new generation of composers has in turn been inspired by his influence. Commissions to composers like Avner Dorman, Bruce Adolphe, and Brett Dean are going out for a recording to be released in the beginning of 2015 on the Canary record label.

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