Frost Chopin Festival opens with little Chopin but impressive artistry

By Lawrence Budmen

JJ Jun Li Bui opened the Frost Chopin Festival Sunday night at Gusman Concert Hall.

A nearly three-hour program featuring an extraordinarily talented young pianist and a veteran competition winner opened the Frost Chopin Festival Sunday afternoon at UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables. 

The music of the eponymous Polish master was relegated to just one work while the keyboard scores of Bach took up the concert’s second half. A stunning transcription of a Stravinsky orchestral staple and rarely heard Debussy provided musical diversity.

JJ Jun Li Bui offered a mini-recital on the first part of the free concert’s generous program. The 18-year-old Canadian pianist already has an impressive resume. He won sixth prize at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw last fall and has performed with numerous major orchestras. Currently a student at Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory, Bui displayed the technical agility, command of the instrument and musicality that portends a major career. 

Opening with Chopin’s Polonaise in B-flat minor, he brought out the music’s introspective aura with an almost natural sense of pulse that encompassed imperial majesty and a haunting beauty.

The second book of Debussy’s Etudes expands the pyrotechnical challenges of Chopin’s works in that genre into impressionist modernity. Bui was more than equal to those demands. His  speed, subtle dynamic shifts and distinct flair for the light and dark coloration provided top advocacy for Debussy’s fiendish vignettes. The folksy arpeggiated figurations of the fifth etude were deftly scaled and the blazing dissonance of “Pour les accords” (no. 6) were given full force with extremes of volume and rhythmic dexterity in abundance.

In Guido Agosti’s transcription of three movements from Stravinsky’ Firebird Suite, Bui led off with fury, taking “Kastchei’s Infernal Dance” at a fast clip that no orchestra could approximate. He breezed through the volleys of notes with dare- devil wizardry, his vast sonority engulfing the hall. 

By contrast, his tempo for the “Berceuse” was deliberate, sensitive to the movement’s gentle contrasts of dynamics, almost bluesy – a fresh take on familiar musical territory. Over rippling figures in Bui’s right hand, the theme of the “Finale” sounded forth in his left, leading to a climax symphonic in scope. This exceptionally gifted young musician is definitely an artist to watch as his career progresses.

Ewa Poblocka performed music of Bach Sunday night.

Ewa Poblocka was a prizewinner in the Tenth International Chopin Competition in 1980 and has maintained an active career in concert, recording and pedagogy. In recent years, music of Bach has become her major focus and she offered a generous selection of his works. Indeed, her nearly ninety-minute presentation proved overstuffed for a considerable number of audience members with the auditorium emptying out between selections. 

Still, she offered finely patrician Bach playing. In the Preludes and Fugues in C Major (BWV 846) and C minor (BWV 847), Poblocka alternated between a lithe touch and grand soundscape with a rich tonal spectrum. Contrapuntal voices in the fugues were always clear and transparent. The famous “royal theme” of the ”Ricercar” from The Musical Offering was given appropriate grandeur, the fugal lines cleanly articulated.

There was invigorating lilt in the Prelude and Fugue in G Major. Continuing in that key, the Partita, BWV 829 received an idiomatic reading, seasoned with individualistic interpretive paths. Poblocka produced organ-like registrations in the “Preambulum” and the “Allemande” was infused with charm. Her playful hesitations delightfully enhanced Bach’s version of a minuet. The final “Gigue” emerged ebulliently and replete with verve.

A series of four  preludes and fugues in minor keys illustrated Bach’s daring harmonic invention. The A minor, BWV 889 score contains one of Bach’s most famous fugues and Poblocka imbued it with highly personal turns of phrasing while articulating the rapid strokes with zest. There was tonal beauty and wonderful momentum in the B minor Prelude (BWV 869) and the succeeding fugue was given weight, the layered textures building to a grand climax. With a vivid demonstration of youthful talent and seasoned musicianship, the festival is off to a fine start.

The Frost Chopin Festival continues with an evening of Ukrainian and Polish song featuring soprano Olga Pasichnyk and pianists Ewa Poblocka, Kevin Kenner, Katherine Liu, Malvyn Lai, Angelina Ning and Shih-Man Weng 7 p.m. Wednesday at UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables. The performance is free but registration is required and the performance will be webcast.;

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Mon Jun 20, 2022
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