Shai Wosner, world-acclaimed pianist, comes to San Miguel this weekend

By Fredric Dannen

Shai Wosner, the Israeli-born pianist who will make his San Miguel debut on August 16, is being spoken of by music critics as not only one of the finest classical pianists of his generation, but also as a performer of discerning intelligence – some reviewers are already comparing him, at 37, to Rudolf Serkin and Alfred Brendel. Yet there was little in his background to foretell his becoming a keyboard artist at all. He grew up in a suburb of Tel Aviv as the youngest in a family that was not particularly musical, in a house with a piano that no one played. True, his mother had once studied violin, but gave it up, Wosner says, when she came to the conclusion that she “didn’t like the instrument,” and although he began picking out tunes on the piano at an early age, he was at first ambivalent about his own instrument. “Opera interested me a lot more than piano music,” he recalls.

By the time he was 21, however, Wosner’s ambivalence toward the piano was long gone, and he performed for Isaac Stern and Stern’s accompanist, Yossi Kalichstein, during one of the celebrated violinist’s visits to Israel. Stern and Kalichstein were so impressed that they recommended Wosner to the renowned pianist Emanuel Ax, who was looking for a private student. Wosner moved to New York to study with Ax, and has lived there ever since. Today, Shai (pronounced “shy”) Wosner is in demand worldwide as a solo recitalist, and has performed concertos with some of the world’s premier symphony orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

He is equally in demand as a chamber musician, a circumstance that led to his upcoming visit. When the Parker Quartet agreed to appear at this year’s San Miguel Chamber Music Festival, the string ensemble wanted to include a performance of Dvorák’s Piano Quintet in A major, and specifically requested Wosner as the pianist. Wosner not only accepted, but also agreed to give a solo piano recital at the festival, one devoted almost entirely to the piano music of Franz Schubert.

On a recent afternoon, at a café near his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Wosner, who is charming and self-effacing, reflected on his career, and on the music that stimulates him most. Tall and slender, Wosner wears rimless glasses, and has short curly black hair, giving him the scholarly look of a rabbinical student. He acknowledges that he is sometimes regarded as a “cerebral” pianist, but says audiences never find his programming choices too demanding, and adds that his goal is “to captivate even the uninitiated.” He recently performed his all-Schubert program for an enthusiastic audience at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The reviewer for the Washington Post, Cecilia Porter, described his rendition of Schubert’s lyrical Sonata in A major, D. 664, as “enthralling.”

Self-effacing or not, Wosner must also be self-confident; one is hard-pressed to think of another pianist his age who would attempt an all-Schubert recital. His own former teacher, Emanuel Ax, is on record saying he was “afraid” to tackle Schubert’s sonatas and impromptus until late in his career. Wosner says one reason he is so drawn to Schubert is that Schubert’s “sense of time is unlike any other composer’s. It seems to inhabit an infinite horizon, not constrained by this world – as if his music has been going on forever, and will continue to go on even after the piece ends.”

The only work in Wosner’s recital not written by Schubert is “Idyll and Abyss,” an homage to Schubert by the contemporary German composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann. Wosner describes it as a blend of “different gestures from Schubert’s music, in a dream-like sequence.” He met Widmann in 2009 when the two men performed Brahms together at a chamber music festival in Germany. Wosner notes that Widmann is a rare living example of what was once commonplace – a classical composer who is also a performer – just as it once was commonplace for concert pianists to compose music.

Wosner, for his part, studied composition, and although, he says, “I love to improvise,” he does little writing nowadays, preferring instead to work on the masterpieces of the piano repertory. Being a concert pianist, he adds, “is a very solitary occupation. You sit in your room for hours on end and practice by yourself. You might as well spend that time with the great composers.”

Fredric Dannen is a San Miguel and New York City resident who has been a staff writer for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, who recently met with Shai Wosner in New York for an interview about his concerts in San Miguel.

The 35th Annual Chamber Music Festival’s Gala Concert Series ends this weekend with the Grammy Award Winning Parker String Quartet and the “aristocratic and riveting” Shai Wosner (NPR’s All Things Considered).

Tonight, Fri, Aug 16, 7pm

Shai Wosner performs Schubert’s 3 Klavierstücke, D. 946; Widmann’s Idyll and Abyss (Six Schubert Reminiscences); Schubert’s Sonata No. 13 in A Major, D. 664; and Schubert’s Sonata in B flat Major, D. 960

Sat, Aug 17, 7pm

The Parker String Quartet performs Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat major, Op.18, No.6; Erwin Schulhoff String Quartet No. 1; and, with pianist Shai Wosner, Dvorák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81.

Seats are still available starting at 150 pesos, sold at the Teatro Ángela Peralta box office from 10am until 6:55pm, 154-8722.

Sat, Aug 17, 1pm

Final 35th Anniversary Free Concert Series, ‘Perfection and a Picnic with a Saxophone Quartet.” A free special concert celebrating the last day of the festival will feature a fine time with Anacrúsax’s concert at Rancho Los Labradores’ Auditorium playing from Chick Corea, Michael Torke, F.B. Mendelssohn, J.S. Bach, Pedro Iturralde and J.P. Moncayo among others. Afterwards enjoy a poolside picnic (50 peso donation). Free transportation leaves from in front of St. Paul’s Church on Cardo at 12:30 pm.

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