The ivory tower: PianoSummer at SUNY-New Paltz

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Master pianists Vladimir Feltsman, Phillip Kawin and Paul Ostrovsky work with students from all over the world each July at PianoSummer at SUNY-New Paltz. Part concert series, part master class and part competition, PianoSummer 2015 runs from July 11 to July 31. (Courtesy of SUNY-New Paltz)

 

“Invasion of the Pianos” sounds like a clunky B movie with an untenable backstory (ghosts of angry elephants?) and some silly stop-action horror sequences in which the 88 teeth strike again. It would have died in the pitch if it ever made it off the couch; but SUNY-New Paltz’s PianoSummer has proven to be no gimmick at all, as acknowledged master pianists, well-vetted aspirants and fans of the serious piano repertoire (like me) have descended upon the partly vacated campus each of the last 21 Julys.  Except I didn’t have to descend; I am just here.

Part of the State University developmental strategy is to create centers of excellence and points of branding differentiation between campuses. This particular beacon of distinction at New Paltz stems back to the late ’80s, when former college president Alice Chandler was instrumental in the safe passage of Russian-American virtuoso pianist Vladimir Feltsman to the US. Feltsman began his tenure at New Paltz in 1987, shortly after performing at the White House and at Carnegie Hall. The PianoSummer program commenced in 1991.

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As a top-tier classical recording artist, Feltsman has covered a lot of time and territory. His early career is heavy on Bach and on the Russians, but he dipped into Romantic literature early as well, with some distinctive readings of Chopin’s Nocturnes and, later, his gorgeous waltzes. Among Feltsman’s most recent recordings are two exceptional volumes of Schubert, a purely lucid pass at Schuman’s Album for the Young and a tribute to the technically grueling Russian proto-modernist Alexander Scriabin. As I write, I am listening to Feltsman’s edgy reading of Chopin’s Waltz no.7 in C sharp minor and enjoying the way he exaggerates the hitches and kinks in its famous phrases, rather than smoothing them over. His technique and touch are immaculate, as you would imagine; but at this level, it is all about the choices, not the chops.

Part concert series, part master class, part competition and part, one imagines, a series of nicely catered parties at which one must be cautious with the firm handshakes, PianoSummer 2015 runs from July 11 to July 31. In the Jacob Flier Piano Competition, qualified pianists under the age of 35 play requisite pieces and electives as they compete for the chance to perform with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic Orchestra on July 31. The first round takes place on Monday, July 20 at 3 p.m. in the Studley Theatre in the Old Main Building, the final round two days later, same time and place.

Master classes and recitals with the esteemed visiting teachers fill the weeks. This year’s diverse faculty includes Hung-Kuan Chen (whose recital happens on Saturday, July 18 in Studley at 8 p.m.), Vladimir Ovchinikove (Saturday, July 25, 8 p.m.), Alexander Toradze and others.

PianoSummer is bookended by a pair of galas: the Faculty Gala on Saturday, July 11 in the Studley Theatre and the Symphony Gala with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic on Friday, July 31 at 8 p.m. in Studley. For information on tickets, the performers and their programs, call the box office at 257-3880 or visit www.newpaltz.edu/piano.

 

PianoSummer, July 11-31, SUNY-New Paltz; (845) 257-3880, www.newpaltz.edu/piano.

 

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