Arts & Events

New: Audrey Vardanega’s Recital to Honor the Late George Cleve

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday January 04, 2016 - 10:17:00 AM

Now twenty years old, Oakland pianist Audrey Vardanega considers herself a protégée of Maestro George Cleve, the founding Director of Midsummer Mozart and conductor of the San Jose Symphony. Maestro Cleve died in August, shortly after I heard him conduct two Mozart works in kicking off the 2015 Midsummer Mozart Festival -- the overture to the one-act opera Der Schauspieldirektor/The Impresario, and Mozart’s 41st and final Symphony, nicknamed “The Jupiter.” (See my review of this concert in the July 21, 2015 issue of this paper.) To honor Maestro Cleve, Audrey Vardanega put together a program of piano works that spoke to her of George Cleve and the music he loved. Vardanega’s recital took place before a packed house on Sunday evening, January 3, 2016, at Berkeley’s Hillside Club. 

First on the program was Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major, K. 282. In program notes, Miss Vardanega indicated that the apparent simplicity of this early sonata by Mozart is misleading. The work’s first movement, in particular, she finds extremely demanding, and this is so in spite – or because – of the economy of notes and the lyricism of melody in this Adagio movement. Every note counts, she states, and every note requires intense focus. Vardanega played this slow move-ment with great sensitivity, emphasizing its lilting lyricism. In the second movement, marked Menuetto I, Vardanega brought out Mozart’s dynamic shifts, the abrupt changes from piano to forte and vice versa. Likewise in the third movement, marked Menuetto II. The final Allegro came off as a spirited and celebratory romp. 

Next on the program were three movements by Franz Liszt based on three sonnets by Petrarch. Sonnet No. 47 speaks of Petrarch’s love for Laura and of the first time he saw her. The music Liszt wrote is full of longing, lovingly played here by Audrey Vardanega. Sonnet No. 104, according to Vardanega, is the most impassioned of the Tre Sonnetti di Petrarca. Here Liszt gives full sway to a wide range of emotions – peace, grief, helplessness, tormented love, and nostalgia. Vardanega played this sonnet with theatrical flair, highlighting the dramatic moments and, alternately, giving a lyrical serenity to the dreamy moments. Sonnet No. 123 is full of drama, as Petrarch reminisces over his love for Laura, recalling both the joy and pain of this pure, idealized love.  

After intermission Audrey Vardanega returned to the $200,000 Fazioli piano to play the Ondine movement from Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. This notoriously demanding work, reputedly the most difficult in the entire piano repertoire, was handled impressively by Vardanega. Ravel’s music evokes the shimmering water-world of a nixie or water-nymph who loves a mortal. Here Vardanega’s awesome technique was clearly in focus, and her passage-work was flawless. To her, this music speaks of transcendence to a world of encompassing light, putting her (and, hopefully, the listener) in touch with states of being beyond human reason. To Vardanega, this music evokes, above all, her mentor Maestro George Cleve, for whom she played this work a week before he died. 

For the final set, Vardanega chose to play Johannes Brahms’s Kalvierstucke, Op. 118. This is a work of late Brahms, in which the composer looks back over a life of unfulfilled longing for love, violent torment, worldly success, and nostalgic regrets. These Kavierstucke are comprised of six pieces. Intermezzo in A minor opens the work with a fair amount of drama. Intermezzo in A Major establishes a lyrical theme of longing, then offers an inversion of this theme that is, if anything, more beautiful than its original statement. Ballade in G minor is agitated and full of torment. In this piece the rather slight Audrey Vardanega proved she has plenty of power and can hammer away with the best and strongest of pianists. Intermezzo in F minor seems full of regrets; and Romanze in F Major evokes grief and loss. The final Intermezzo in E-flat minor seems to me to acknowledge the composer’s sense of his own vulnerability. It brings this set of six pieces to a close on a humble note. However, young Audrey Vardanega’s exquisite pianism was anything but humble. In this final set and in all the music she played in this concert honoring George Cleve, Audrey Vardanega clearly and forcefully established herself as a major talent.