Oregon Bach Festival 2011

Shai Wosner

By Tom Manoff

EUGENE OREGON June 23 – July 10, 2011.

PIANIST SHAI WOSNER has received raves in the musical world for more than 10 years. He may not be a household name yet, but he’s on course – especially if audiences distinguish between greatness and hype. Some miss his charismatic playing because of his onstage personality. Wosner hasn’t a hint of self-aggrandizement: No swooning, no hamming it up, and no false theatrics. The drama is completely in the music.

What a fine drama it was on July 10th at the Oregon Bach Festival. Deftly planned, the program explored variation form, each work either an official set of variations or involving its procedures: Handel – Suite in B-flat Major ; Oliver Knussen – Variations Op. 24; Johannes Brahms – Variations and Fugue on a Theme By G.F. Handel Op. 24 ; Beethoven -Variations on an Original Theme Op. 34; – Beethoven Piano Sonata in F Minor – Appassionata Op. 57.

Brilliantly executed, the recital showed the qualities that make Wosner’s artistry so extraordinary. All the pieces were played with the same intensity of attention. The recital had no stand out. Each work was part of the recital’s form, if one can say a recital has a form. There was a fluid excitement in every note, every phrase and every silence.

Wosner’s technique is pristine. He’s quite capable of splashing notes into a hall to titillate audiences with some “favorite -fast-fingers” show. He didn’t and doesn’t. But there were plenty of technical challenges on this program, some unnoticed by non-musicians I suspect. Wosner moves through difficult passages with ease, in musical context and without calling attention to the moment. His gaze into the music structure and “meaning” is all-inclusive.

Wosner’s artistry is based, not on showmanship or audience approval, but in a profound journey through music’s inner life. Form is a rather big concept to use here, but it’s one of the terms, when used in its fullest meaning, that captures this “inner life” of a work. Form is no mere set of boxes into which sections of music fall. Form includes phrasing, melodic and harmonic structure, musical development, relationships between key centers, repetition and variation (to name a few) – all unified as one experience.

Listening to Wosner, I hear musical forms coming alive and revealing themselves anew. The pianist, himself, slips beyond my awareness as the composer’s music emerges as pure creative energy. I can’t ask more from any performer.

Wosner is also an adventurous fellow when imagining new directions for chamber music. His “dream project” (as described to me in an interview) is a collaboration with a dancer to explore the dramatic elements in Schumann’s Carnival.

Wosner’s piano/dance program would certainly find a place in a festival that already presents music with staging, if not always successfully. The “Brahms Soiree” on July 6, an awkward attempt to recreate a Viennese gathering of musicians, needed a lot more schnapps to digest its schnitzel. Wosner was the mainliner, and played intermittently, but the overall program suffered from the uneven level of the artists. It’s no soiree to hear chamber music from players so wildly mismatched in abilities.

There should be simple test for any OBF event. Would it be presented elsewhere – in Portland or L.A. or New York for example ? If not, it shouldn’t appear in Eugene. OBF shouldn’t treat Eugene as the “anything goes” town for the locals.

Wosner’s OBF stop was brief in his full summer schedule. Following OBF, he played chamber music at Chamber Music Northwest, a recital at Oxford Philomusica, chamber music at Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival (with David Shifrin, among others) and New York’s prestigious Mostly Mozart Festival at the end of August, that appearance with one of his regular collaborators, the wonderful violinist, Jennifer Koh. OBF should have him longer. More than that, he is the perfect musician with whom to anchor a first- rate chamber music tradition, something OBF has never had.

Wosner as a concerto soloist would be a fine event for this festival, also, either with a conductor or the pianist leading the OBF orchestra himself from the keyboard – something Wosner does at other venues. He’s a splendid Brahms interpreter. The Brahms Bb flat Concerto at OBF would be a spectacular draw for audiences, and healthy commitment to the next generation of important artists.