By Tom Consolo
Polina Bespalko has been performing since she was 8 years old. Since coming to the United States, following the completion of a master’s degree in piano at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, the Russian-born pianist has earned an artist diploma and doctorate from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.
In 2007, at age 28, Bespalko was named coordinator of piano studies at Xavier University. She’s now in her third year as coordinator of the XU Music Series. “I’m not sure which is the full-time (job) and which is the part-time,” she said of her two roles.
The series is the combined successor to three separate series that presented pianists, classical guitarists and jazz performers. Combining the series is fine by her. “Music is music,” she said.
She’s particularly proud of the growth in the jazz offerings since she took the reins. “The jazz series shifted in particular from just swing. It was time to expand music tastes.”
It’s a great opportunity for Xavier, she said. “I want to show Cincinnati more of what the jazz scene can offer. Xavier can be a hub for jazz in the city.”
Coming from another country, Bespalko said, “Jazz fascinates me. And anything that fascinates me, I’m going to make other people curious about.”
That outsider’s perspective gives her a bigger-picture view of the musical world. “I don’t like to put frames to separate jazz from classical. A lot of jazz musicians are classically trained. I think it’s about what emotion the music creates. Any music can create that reaction.”
She cited jazz saxophonist Chris Potter. “His favorite composer is Stravinsky.”
This jazz/classical connection is why Bespalko jumped at the opportunity to bring Chick Corea to town. His performance, Oct. 8, is “the biggest event of the year,” she said. It’s part of the jazz legend’s 75th-birthday tour – and one of his last stops before settling into New York’s legendary Blue Note Jazz Club for an eight-week stand.
“We were very lucky to get that date,” Bespalko said. “It’s almost impossible to book an artist with that kind of crazy schedule.”
CRAIG HELLA JOHNSON
Craig Hella Johnson has been busy premiering new music the past few months.
In the spring – and with an encore at the Chorus America national conference in June – he led the world premiere of Kile Smith’s “Canticle” here with the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati.
Then Johnson traveled in late July with Conspirare – the Austin, Texas-based choral group he founded in 1991 – to the St. Olaf Festival in Trondheim, Norway. Conspirare performed at the festival’s opening night – the world premiere of Norwegian composer Kim Arnesen’s “The Wound in the Water” – then gave another concert of its own two days later.
Johnson, a 2015 Grammy winner with Conspirare, returns to Cincinnati in September to lead his other choir, VAE. That program, “The Hope for Loving,” is a trademark Johnson musical collage built around a central theme. In this case, the different manifestations of love.
It’s all recent music, but Johnson isn’t worried about alienating a sometimes-conservative Cincinnati audience. “We try to program programs that are provocative but cohesive,” he said from his Austin home. “We take care of the listener.”
“I definitely want to curate a program that feels alive and vibrant,” he said. This can include his own music, as it will in September. His work “Gitanjali Chants,” setting the poems of Rabindranath Tagore, opens the concerts. Popular song arrangements conclude the concerts, including Johnson’s own of “What a Wonderful World.”
In addition to the running theme of love, the pieces for September have deep-rooted connections to the past. The program’s title piece, by Jake Runestad, uses texts by contemporary poet Daniel Ladinsky that are inspired by spiritual mystics: Rumi, St. John and Teresa of Avila. And Tarik O’Regan’s “The Ecstasies Above” – part of a 2008 Grammy-nominated Conspirare album – is based on Edgar Allen Poe’s “Israfel.”
The new-music concert is a reflection of the connection Johnson said he has with Cincinnati and VAE’s audience. “I’ve been loving it. The ensemble is getting better and better.”
Most important, he said, “We’re really building that sense of trust with our audience.”
Louis Langrée begins his fourth season this month at the helm of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Because of the renovation of Music Hall, the orchestra performs this year at downtown’s Taft Theatre. That’s fine with Langrée: He likes the Taft.
“I like the sound very much,” Langrée said by telephone from New York. “The stage being smaller, and also the hall – actually, it’s easier on stage for the players to hear their colleagues.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to control the variety of colors, ensemble, intonation.”
The Taft, then, is where audiences will experience Part II of what has been dubbed the Pelléas Trilogy, a three-year survey of music inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1893 symbolist play, “Pelléas et Mélisande.” Each year focuses on one composer and one symbol important to the story. Last year, it was Schoenberg and smoke; this year is Fauré and water.
Langrée hopes the project introduces his audience to a less familiar aesthetic, one that is more evocative than declarative. He uses Debussy’s opera of “Pelléas” for many of his examples. (The opera, along with the symbol of stone, is to be the trilogy’s final part in the 2017-18 season. Debussy’s music also rounds out this year’s Fauré program.)
He’s a convert to the opera. “I was stupid to believe that it’s a bad play with sublime music.” He commented that today, he “would put ‘Pelléas’ on my (favorites) list.”
The opera, like the Fauré orchestral suite, captures the indirectness of the action, he said. The weight of the story’s tragedy is in its understatement, Langrée said.
His challenge as a 21st-century conductor is to draw his audience – and his players – into that world from our visually saturated lives. Today’s media must constantly attract people’s attention, he said, “because on TV [the media doesn’t] want them to zap the channel. Every second we have another image.”
The potential payoff of focused concentration is worth it. “It’s the perfect raison d’etre of any artistic organization, because through any piece we go to a concert to forget about our daily life. Suddenly we are elsewhere. It’s a way to go deeper into our sensitivity.”
♦Vocal Arts Ensemble
Cincinnati’s professional chorus opens its season with a program of modern choral music titled “The Hope of Loving.” The program’s namesake centerpiece is Jake Runestad’s six-part work for chorus, soloists and string quartet that sets poems from Daniel Ladinsky’s collection “Love Poems From God.” Also on the program: Martin Lauridsen’s “Sure on this Shining Night,” Tarik O’Regan’s “The Ecstasies Above” and music director Craig Hella Johnson’s “Gitanjali Chants.” Living, breathing, singing proof that music of our time can still feed the soul.
Sept. 16-17, vaecinci.org
♦Xavier University Music Series
To mark his 75th birthday, jazz legend Chick Corea has booked an eight-week stand, starting Oct. 19, at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club. Greater Cincinnati jazz lovers don’t have to go to the Big Apple, though: Corea, a 22-time Grammy winner, makes a stop with Brian Blade and Eddie Gomez at Xavier’s Gallagher Theater for a special event. It’s Chick Corea. In person. In a relatively small hall. What more does one need?
Oct. 8, xavier.edu/musicseries
♦Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
One of Louis Langrée’s most interesting programmings is the three-year look at different composers’ responses to Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play “Pelléas et Mélisande.” Last year’s installment, titled “Smoke,” featured the ultra-Romantic tone poem by Schoenberg. This year, “Water” offers the incidental music written for the play by Gabriel Faure. Rounding out the program are the landmark “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” and “Nocturnes” by Claude Debussy, whose “Pelléas” opera will be the series’ final chapter in the 2017-18 season. A fascinating look at the ways arts genres inspire each other.
Sept. 30-Oct. 1, cincinnatisymphony.org
♦UC College-Conservatory of Music
You probably know about Chopin, but Poland’s musical legacy has been overshadowed by its neighbors Germany, Austria and Russia. CCM, which is in the education business, after all, hopes to rectify that with a four-concert Polish festival featuring the Concert and Philharmonia orchestras, Jazz Orchestra, Chamber Choir, Xavier University Concert Choir, and faculty and guest soloists. The grand finale, 8 p.m. Oct. 2, is built around Szymanowski’s expansive Symphony No. 3, “Song of the Night,” with texts by the Persian mystic poet Rumi. There aren’t many chances to hear the Szymanowski, what some call “the Polish ‘Daphnis et Chloe.’” Don’t miss yours.
Sept. 9-Oct. 2, ccm.uc.edu/boxoffice
♦Kentucky Symphony Orchestra/St. Peter in Chains Cathedral Choir
Greater Cincinnati’s south-of-the-river orchestra marks its 25th season this year with its trademark eclectic mix of programming. In November, the KSO joins forces with the always splendid Cathedral Choir in the latter group’s home for a survey of choral music old and new. Half the program is dedicated to the Gabriellis – Giovanni and his uncle, Andrea – anchored by Giovanni’s “Magnificat.” That’s paired with another “Magnificat,” this time the 2010 setting by the contemporary Norwegian composer Kim Arnesen. The interplay of music and space was integral to the Gabrielis, and there’s no better showcase in town than St. Peter’s. Also, if you don’t know Arnesen yet, it’s time you did.
Nov. 20, kyso.org