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Improvising Stravinsky

One of my standard rants – typically inflicted on young pianists – is called “The Piano in the 21st Century.”

I begin by asking if anyone can name an important pianist before 1900 who was not also a composer and/or conductor. It’s supposed to be a trick question – all the names that come to mind (Liszt, Thalberg, Rubinstein, Pabst, von Bulow, Busoni, etc.) support my point that the “performance specialist” – the pianist who only plays the piano – is a 20th century anomaly. (I had given this talk dozens of times before someone said “Vladimir de Pachmann” and I realized there is at least one right answer.)

Anyway, I am delighted to notice that young pianists get it – more and more of them compose, improvise, or both.

In my experience, the most gifted improviser in the world of classical piano is Genadi Zagor, who combines the ingenuity of a jazz artist (which he also is) with the command of sonority, color, and nuance associated with the big Romantic concertos. It’s possible that no one quite like Genadi has turned up before.

You will not have heard of Genadi Zagor because his career is at best nascent. He never thought to play jazz or improvise in concert. Only his friends and colleagues (in the Toradze Piano Studio) were privy to his genius. At parties, suitably lubricated, Genadi would materialize at the keyboard and take over the room. I will never forget – as the single funniest musical performance I have ever witnessed; better than Borge; better than anyone – his send-up of Chopin’s F minor Ballade, in which the modulations of the fugato meandered for many hilarious minutes, and the insatiable fury of the culminating coda all but consumed the pianist.

I take credit for thrusting Genadi’s madness on stage. He now improvises in concert at the Toradze Studio’s one-composer marathons. He’s also acquired Rhapsody in Blue, which he performs with improvised solos. (The unforgettable 25-minute Rhapsody in Blue he did with Post-Classical Ensemble last season led to an engagement playing Gershwin with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in St. Petersburg weeks later; he opens the Green Bay Symphony season with Rhapsody in Blue this fall.)

Genadi’s most recent improvisation was the climactic event of Post-Classical Ensemble’s “Stravinsky Project” at Strathmore last Spring; it drove the audience to its feet. As it was recorded for a forthcoming WFMT Radio Stravinsky special, you can listen to it here:

Next season, for Post-Classical Ensemble, Genadi performs Gershwin at a DC jazz club: the Bohemian Caverns. You can also see him play Scriabin’s Vers la flamme on YouTube – not an improvisation, but a singular galvanizing interpretation by an artist who takes no prisoners.  

an ArtsJournal blog