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October 14, 2011

Some thoughts on Liszt and the Liszt-Garrison Festival's first concert

The bicentennial of Franz Liszt has inspired various commemorations around the music world. including the inevitable batch of recordings.

In addition to some hefty boxed compilations released to mark the occasion, a steady stream of fresh material has arrived or will arrive soon, such as Lang Lang's "Liszt: My Piano Hero," complete with DVD recital, from Sony.

Of particular note is a brilliant and provocative 2-CD set from ...

pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard on the Deutsche Grammophon label, "The Liszt Project," which places the composer in context with works by Wagner, Berg, Bartok, Messiaen and others. Great stuff.

Local Liszt fans can take advantage of the Liszt-Garrison Festival and International Piano Competition, which offered an interesting mix of instrumental and vocal repertoire in a concert Thursday night at Grace Memorial Methodist Church. Several more Liszt-centric programs and discussions will fill the festival schedule throughout the weekend at Notre Dame University of Maryland.

Also in Baltimore, the Peabody Conservatory has been busy celebrating Liszt since the season started (the composer was born Oct. 22, 1811). Coming up next are three recital programs featuring student pianists covering a wide sampling of the repertoire: Oct. 19 ("Liszt: Traveler Extraordinaire"), 20 (Liszt: Sacred and Profane") and 23 ("Liszt Potpourri").

Some folks will not understand why anyone would bother to remember, let alone perform, Liszt's music. They think of it as cheap, sentimental, flashy, pointless. Such people, bless their hearts, are not entirely well. They're what we used to call tetched in the head. Pay them no mind.

The inescapable fact is that Liszt shaped music history. It was not just the performer side of the man that did this -- the rise (and cult) of the soloist was very much generated and perfected by him (for better or worse). As a composer, he constantly expanded not only what the keyboard could do, but how melody and harmony could be developed, how musical structures could be intensified.

Not every work is a gem. You can say that about every composer (outside of Bach and Mozart, of course). But even when Liszt's music does sound a little, well, cheap, sentimental, flashy or pointless, there is almost always substance beneath the surface. Sometimes, it's just awfully entertaining. Got a problem with that?

A lot of what some folks object to, I think, is based on today's cynical mindset. We think "empty" where 19th century listeners thought "breathtaking." We hear "sentimental" where they heard "poetic" and "touching." (You can say the same about Gottschalk.) Well, call me a sentimental fool, but I can still hear poetic.

Poetic was the word at the start of Thursday's Liszt-Garrison concert, with the darkly reflective "Le lugubre gondola," in an arrangement played with great sensitivity by violinist Jose Cueto and pianist Nancy Roldan. And the "Consolation" in D flat, one of Liszt's most disarmingly romantic piano pieces, received a lovely account from Roldan, who revealed a keen appreciation for legato line and subtle rubato.

The program also offered examples of the composer's rarely heard choral music, performed by the Chancel Choir of Grace Methodist, led by Bruce Eicher.

The 2009 winner of the Liszt-Garrison Competition (Young Artist II division) made an appearance, too.  Yon Joon Yun did not bring Liszt with him, but played half of Chopin's Preludes. His playing was pristine and often dramatic, but I would have welcomed greater rhythmic flexibility and a wider tonal range in places.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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