Friends of Chamber Music Honors Two Masters of the Historic Keyboard

Malcolm Bilson and Alexei Lubimov will receive lifetime achivement awards in conjunction with Lubimov’s Jan. 20 recital at the Folly Theater.

During this 40th anniversary season, the Friends of Chamber Music will present Lifetime Achievement Awards to Alexei Lubimov and Malcolm Bilson, two of the world’s most acclaimed proponents of historic keyboard performance practice.

The Friends bring internationally-renowned musicians to Kansas City every season and connections span the globe. But simply being a world-class musician does not qualify one for the award. “We expect this award to go to someone who has been renowned as a performer, but that’s not enough to justify this award,” explained Cynthia Siebert, founder and president of Friends of Chamber Music. “We also look for someone who has made an unusual, off-the-beaten-track contribution to the professional field that has made a significant change . . . an invaluable impact to the field that would not have happened without that person.”

“I thought these two gentlemen fit that category perfectly,” said Siebert.

Traditionally the awardee has been honored at a private benefit event, but this year the award will be presented during Lubimov’s recital at the Folly Theater on Jan. 20. Additionally, Bilson will give a lecture aimed at performers and teachers, but open to the public. That gives more people the opportunity to experience these incredible musicians and pedagogues, as well as creating “an opportunity to extend and expand the public’s knowledge, not only of the artists whom we honor, but also to enlarge the audience’s understanding of the history and context from which these masters emerged.

To the average music enthusiast, the issue of historic performance practice may seem like a subgenre for niggling performers and pretentious musicologists. But knowing how a piece was intended to be performed, and what those instruments sounded like, informs how a piece is performed today.

“Our modern instruments are not ideal for bringing out the richness and subtlety of early masters such as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven even Debussy,” explained Siebert. “One of the most important and striking elements, what happens when you strike a key of the historic keyboard, at least of the Classical Period, is that the sound is at its loudest the first split second you play it and it begins to decay instantly. The opposite happens on a modern piano, where the sound blooms and has a very long decay. This characteristic, alone, changes how we hear the shapes of the music, the phrases of the music, which are often compromised on a modern piano.”

Bilson has performed in Kansas City on multiple occasions, including a four-concert appearance in 1991, playing all of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sonatas during the bicentennial of the composer’s death. Scott Cantrell, former classical music and dance critic for “The Kansas City Star,” wrote “his freshness of approach — and the utterly authentic sonorities — turned old chestnuts into new friends … his performances were unfailingly lively and, in the best sense, provocative.”

Cantrell also attended one of Bilson’s lectures and wrote, “The fortepiano could have no more persuasive advocate then Bilson, whose apparently extemporaneous presentation was clear, concise and entertaining.” The fortepiano was the typical keyboard of Mozart’s day, and Bilson was the first to record the complete Mozart piano concertos with the English Baroque Soloists and Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Bilson is also a professor at Cornell University and created a DVD series, “Knowing the Score,” which discusses the relationship of the instrument to the music performed for it and the importance of period performance scholarship for all the standard-bearers of the literature, like Franz Schubert, Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Frederic Chopin, etc. He also presents lectures and masterclasses at conservatories and conferences around the world.

It was at one such conference that Siebert first met Lubimov, at a dinner party hosted by Bilson during the forte/piano festival at Cornell in 2015. She took Lubimov out for dinner again, learning about his life and career in Russia. “He’s an extremely modest man and so happy, one of the happiest human beings I’ve ever known . . . he’s suffered so much and yet he’s transcended that. I think there is an inner light to this man.”

Originally, the Friends only intended to honor Bilson, but a conversation in Berlin with Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov tipped the balance. A proponent of historically-informed performance, as a soloist and in ensembles such as Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (a favorite of the Friends’ series), Melnikov studied with Lubimov in Moscow. Siebert recalled, “He filled me in even more. He said, ‘You have no idea how important he is in Russia in this particular movement. I myself would not know any of this except that I had the good fortune to have known him when I was a student.’”

Both Bilson and Lubimov have influenced generations of players, some who in turn developed their own departments in music schools and conservatories, and, like Melnikov, perform, record, and promote the importance of historically-informed performance.

Siebert, herself a pianist, emphasized the life-changing experience of hearing music as it was intended to be played. “Historically, musicians in the early music field have to be historians and anthropologists and musicologists; they must carefully research their music before they can create a program . . . Their knowledge about history and languages and culture and politics of almost everything they play is extraordinary. And that’s why those programs are often so profoundly interesting; this is music telling a story, telling a history, telling us how another human wishes to touch us. It helps to teach us who we are.”

This is Lubimov’s first performance in Kansas City. Trained in the great Russian tradition, he started his career championing the modern music of his generation, like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Arnold Schoenberg and Pierre Boulez. The Soviet government didn’t approve, and not only was he forbidden from playing that repertoire, but also forbidden from traveling outside of Russia. So he turned to the past, exploring historic performance practice and establishing the department at the Moscow Conservatory. With Soviet restrictions lifted in the 1980s, he was able to continue his studies with modern, Western music and engage in an international career.

Like Bilson, Lubimov has recorded a complete survey of the Mozart piano sonatas, but this concert will feature selections from Claude Debussy’s “Préludes” and works from Igor Stravinsky, a similar program to his Cornell appearance. At Cornell, he performed on a newly-restored 1873 Blüthner (the same type of piano Debussy had in his studio and similar to what Stravinsky would have written for, too). Lubimov released a complete recording of the “Préludes” on period-appropriate instruments in 2012, described by Fiona Maddocks in “The Guardian” as “at once fresh and enigmatic.”

Alas, Kansas City does not have an appropriate keyboard, and given the fickleness of winter weather and the delicacy of these instruments, getting one loaned proved problematic. So the concert will be on the series’ modern Hamburg Steinway. (For Bilson’s 1991 appearance, he had his own period-appropriate instrument flown out.)

But Lubimov is an all-around player, exemplary in historic and modern music, finding challenge and joy in both. In fact, in celebration of his 70th birthday, he and his students rolled a piano out onto the sidewalk in front of the Moscow Conservatory for an open-air performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” in a marathon 23-hour long event, overseen by the Tchaikovsky monument. (Satie indicates the short, spare musical material is to be played 840 times.) Now able to perform where and what he wants, his repertoire continues to expand from the samizdat of his youth (John Cage, Charles Ives) and the classical masters (Haydn, Mozart, Brahms) to contemporary works from composers like Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Valentin Silvestrov.

The award not only acknowledges these exceptional musicians and their contributions, but it’s also “a way of getting across to an audience how complex the  ecology is in the world of professional music. Our audiences might never know about the importance of historic keyboards or the fact that these two gentlemen have done so much in this field if we didn’t bring it to light in a more public arena,” said Siebert.

It’s a complex world, to be sure, but it’s also an area of research and performance that elicits lifelong enthusiasm.

Siebert remarked, “The thing with the great pianists is that they often get better and better with age.” Lubimov, 72, and Bilson, 81, have changed peoples’ lives and outlooks on innumerable occasions, and their appearance in Kansas City will undoubtedly interest both the knowledgeable and the curious as they are honored for their distinguished careers.   o

For tickets to the Jan. 20 Lubimov recital, www.chambermusic.org

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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