MONTPELIER — Michael Arnowitt is one of Vermont’s most beloved performing artists, so it was no great surprise when his fans overwhelmed Montpelier High School’s Smilie Auditorium on Sunday afternoon for the pianist’s 50th birthday concert.
And Arnowitt, despite his severely diminished eyesight, had no trouble reminding his fans why they were there.
The concert, as well as Arnowitt’s artistry, was summed up in the encore. The Aria, or theme, from J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” is one of the most sublime gems in all of music, and Arnowitt delivered it with a gentle lyricism and depth, articulating each of its probing lines with finesse and, without affectation, making it very personal — and touching.
This was the expert performance of a truly fine pianist and mature musician.
The major work was Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Opus 83. This is one of the largest concertos in the piano repertoire, and performing it is a Herculean task for the soloist. In the first two movements, Arnowitt delivered the poetry beautifully but had trouble with some of the virtuosic passages, no doubt fatigued by playing for most of the first half of this quite long concert.
The final two movements were another story. After cellist Linda Galvan’s tender and sensual solo opened the Andante, the slow movement, Arnowitt plied Brahms’ poetic lines with his usual expansiveness coupled with lyricism. For the finale, Allegretto grazioso, the pianist enjoyed its dancing quality, then, with clarity and warm sound, built to its growing passionate virtuosity.
It was a big success, bringing the audience immediately and enthusiastically to its feet.
For this concert, Arnowitt brought together a 55-plus-piece orchestra made up of excellent instrumentalists from the Northeast, including members of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and even a few from the Vermont Philharmonic and the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra. Expertly led by Scott Speck, an international conductor from Alabama and a childhood friend of Arnowitt’s, the orchestra played not perfectly but beautifully, and delivered the glorious sound of the Brahms.
Arnowitt showcased his talents as a jazz composer and pianist in his big band-style “Bulgarian Hoedown.” Arnowitt led a combo from the piano, including violinist David Gusakov playing Eastern European-tinged jazz licks quite expressively, virtuoso trombone by Dan Silverman, with Clyde Stats on bass and Todd Watkins on drums. Arnowitt’s playing was natural, free and beautiful.
Arnowitt the composer was represented by the premiere of his “Haiku Textures” for three cellos (John Dunlop, Rob Bethel and Bonnie Klimowski) and orchestra. Well-crafted, using myriad compositional styles, including atonal and minimalist, the attractive but sprawling work’s harmonies and rhythms are based on the fives and sevens of the haiku. Small instrumental groups spread around the hall, answering the three cellos and orchestra, added to the dramatic effect of this somewhat cerebral work.
The concert opened with Arnowitt’s own arrangement of Bach’s “Italian Concerto,” normally played on solo harpsichord or piano, for piano and orchestra. Unfortunately, this reviewer, due to an emergency, missed all but the final movement. That was a beautifully executed, albeit a Romantic-sounding, take on this masterpiece.
Another work that truly represented Arnowitt’s high level of pianism and unique artistry was Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major, Opus 118, No. 2. Here again, the pianist took an expansive approach, plying the lines nearly as far as they could go, but with a passion and musical depth that resulted in a deeply moving experience.
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