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Concert review

Pianist Gagliano serves up power and individuality en route to Warsaw

Sun Sep 12, 2021 at 1:32 pm

By Lawrence Budmen

Avery Gagliano performed music of Chopin Saturday night at Gusman Concert Hall at the University of Miami.

When Avery Gagliano won first prize at Miami’s American Chopin Competition in March, 2020, it was clear that her technical precision and sense of musicality would serve her well at Warsaw’s International Chopin Competition. That event, normally presented every five years, was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and Gagliano has had to wait until next month for her turn to compete in Warsaw. 

On Saturday night Gagliano returned to Miami for an all- Chopin recital at UM Gusman Concert Hall, jointly presented by the Chopin Foundation of the United States (the American competition’s sponsor and producer) and the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music.

The now 20-year-old pianist exhibited rock-solid technique and acute musical sensibilities. She walked a fine line between the type of brilliant keyboard display often beloved by competition juries and personal interpretations that proved consistently invigorating and expressive. 

Opening with the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, Gagliano added a dash of fire to her fluent performance. Her extremes of volume from the softest pianissimos to crashing fortes aptly demonstrated that Chopin’s music is not merely pretty and genteel. Gagliano’s combination of aggressive strength and fine tonal coloring astutely conveyed the composer’s multidimensional creative palette.

Gagliano’s reading of the Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, no.1 telegraphed her lighter, more subtle side. Three Mazurkas, Op. 56 were sensitively conveyed. The Allegro non tanto was alternately poetic and steely, whirling with a fine sense of pulse and momentum. Gagliano projected the poignancy beneath the elegance of the Moderato and a fleet touch in the Vivace. 

The Etude in F Major, Op. 10, no. 8 was wild and exuberant while the Etude in E minor, Op. 25, no. 5 emerged freshly minted in tinted shades. Gagliano took a more leisurely pace than many pianists to the Ballade No. 1 in G minor which was all the more effective, the score’s sweep deftly emphasized. The coda proved dazzling in a burst of power that was bereft of bombast.

The stormy opening chords of the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, which opened the concert’s second half, set the tone for a performance that offered surprisingly revelatory insight for such familiar music. The avalanche of octaves were assayed with precision and dexterity. In the Scherzo, Gagliano approached the central episode with exquisite beauty of tone and patrician phrasing, sharply contrasted with the high-wire voltage of the outer sections. She gave appropriate weight to the famous Marche funèbre while avoiding overwrought heaviness. The “wind over the grave” Presto (as Anton Rubinstein dubbed it) was nimbly articulated.

The program concluded with the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise. Op. 22 in an arrangement for piano and string quintet by Kevin Kenner, assisted by Polish composer Krzysztof Dombek, that Kenner played on a web streamed concert in July from the Frost Chopin Festival. Gagliano was joined on stage by Frost faculty members Scott Flavin and Karen Lord-Powell, violins, Jodi Levitz, viola, Ross Harbaugh, cello and Brian Powell, double-bass. 

Gagliano played the solo Andante Spianato in a lyrical, almost nocturnal manner. Hearing this transcription of the polonaise played live rather than virtually, one could admire the carefully etched gradations of tone and dynamics in the instrumental writing (which is not merely the string lines of Chopin’s orchestration). The ensemble playing was consistently excellent in unity and balance, Levitz’s solo viola lines a standout. Gagliano’s incisive attacks produced fireworks in the climactic moments, the young pianist smiling at her colleagues at times. 

Whatever may occur in Warsaw, this student of Robert McDonald and the recently retired Gary Graffman at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute is an artist to watch. One looks forward to her continuing artistic growth and maturity and repertoire expansion.

The masked audience was distanced by occupying every second seat in all rows, the hall now open to fifty per cent of capacity. Prior to the performance, Flavin asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for the victims of 9/11 on the twentieth anniversary of that tragic day.

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