Pianist's last-minute change of tune causes a stir

Review: Valentina Lisitsa spontaneously abandoned her planned piece for the Skaneateles Festival due to an unfit piano.

Grammy Award-winner Hillary Hahn has been performing at the Skaneateles Festival annually since she was a prodigal tween violinist, but the gossip after last night’s concert was less about her than the concert pianist, 

Following a strong presentation of Zoltán Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello, op. 7 from Hahn and cellist Robert deMaine, Lisitsa walked onstage. But instead of taking her seat behind the piano, she turned to address the audience.

Hillary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa.“When I was asked to play a solo for this concert, my first reaction as a pianist was, ‘I want to play Liszt.’” Lisitsa said in her heavy Ukrainian accent.

The pianist had chosen to perform Totentanz (Dance of Death) by Franz Liszt that quotes the famous Latin poem Dies irae from the 13th century.  It is a tune most recognizable from the fifth movement of Hector Berlioz’s Syphonie fantastique, in which the music depicts a doomsday gathering of hideous monsters and dancing witches. 

Liszt’s Totentanz for piano is like a physical representation of the Dies irae with the musician’s fingers scurrying like frantic spiders back and forth across the keys.  It is a piece that requires rapid reflexes from the pianist and a piano that will react as quickly as the performer.

This is why Lisitsa decided not to play it. 

“If I play Liszt tonight,” she said, placing a hand on the Yamaha grand piano, “the piano is going to be in bits and pieces.”  She decided that Chopin, whose music is in many ways tamer than Liszt’s, would be better suited to the high school auditorium’s piano.

The audience didn’t seem to mind the swap as they listened to Lisitsa’s performance of Chopin’s Minute Waltz, which was both comfortable and friendly, as if she was playing in a friend’s living room.  Lisitsa may have played it safe, but the piano remained intact.

For fans of Hahn, the Kodály Duo for Violin and Cello was the highlight of the concert.  deMaine’s technical prowess was perfectly paired with Hahn’s clean, articulate style.  There were no frills here.  Both musicians let the piece speak for itself. 

A slight lack of physical communication on stage between Hahn and deMaine, however, spurred a false rumor that the two had only rehearsed the piece once, just hours before the recital.

“We were actually sight-reading the Kodály on stage,” Hahn and deMaine joked after the concert.  “Could you tell?”

The concert ended with Felix Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49.

Hahn was slated for two more peformances at the Skaneateles Festival, collaborating with Lisitsa and deMaine for several chamber works Friday and then as a guest artist with conductor Daniel Hege and the festival's Chamber Orchestra Saturday.

Photo: Hilary Hahn, violin, and Valentina Lisitsa, piano, Kuss Auditorium, Clark State Performing Arts Center, Springfield, Ohio, March 3, 2009. Credit: Ben Murphy at en.wikipedia.

Love this article! And thanks

Love this article! And thanks for adding the Totentanz video!

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