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Pianist Boris Berman explores the strange and wonderful sounds of John Cage

Boris Berman plays John Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes" during the Soundings concert at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas, Saturday, February 18, 2017. (Allison Slomowitz/ Special Contributor) Special Contributor

Boris Berman plays John Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes" during the Soundings concert at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas, Saturday, February 18, 2017. (Allison Slomowitz/ Special Contributor) Special Contributor

by Scott Cantrell, Special Contributor
The Dallas Morning News

Legend has it that the composer and critic Virgil Thomson once took his aged mother to a concert of music by John Cage. Asked afterward for her impressions, Mrs. Thomson replied, "Well, I certainly wouldn't have thought of it."

Cage, who lived from 1912 to 1992, is most famous for "composing" a piece of non-music: 4'33", for which the performer sits four minutes and 33 seconds in silence, thereby focusing hearers' attentions on the sounds of their own heartbeats, respiration and digestion--and random sounds in the room. Cage's exploration of unorthodox sonorities led to his development of the "prepared" piano, with foreign objects--screws, bolts, bits of rubber, plastic and what have you--inserted between strings to vary the sounds of different notes.

A Steinway grand piano "prepared" for John Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes," at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas, Saturday, February 18, 2017. (Scott Cantrell/Special Contributor)

Cage's 70-minute Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, from 1948, was the sole fare for the Saturday-night Soundings concert at the Nasher Sculpture Center. The performer was Boris Berman, a pianist better known for Prokofiev and the like, but obviously an interpreter deeply committed to these 16 "sonatas," interspersed with four "interludes."

Most of the sections are in AABB form, each half repeated once, and much about the music is mathematically determined. But one soon abandons oneself to the sheer hypnotic weirdness of the experience.

The preparations turn the piano into a one-person percussion ensemble. The music clunks, clangs, tinkles and thuds, the effects variously suggesting wind chimes, twanging sitar, muted bongos, tollings and pealings of bells. It's not as disconcerting as you might expect, the overall impression often that of a Balinese gamelan ensemble. One marvels that so rich a range of sound can come out of a "mere" piano.

Berman certainly savored the rhythmic nuances, no less freewheeling than the sonorites. The music alternately jerked, danced and twiddled. Occasionally it extruded hints of a would-be melody. 

I once interviewed Cage, back in the late 1980s. For all his reputation as an enfant terrible of modern music, he was soft-spoken and gracious, and obviously didn't take himself too seriously. Sonatas and Interludes is anything but scary. In fact, as Berman proved Saturday night, it's strangely beautiful.

Staff classical music critic of The Dallas Morning News for 16 years, Scott Cantrell continues covering the beat as a freelance.

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Like a Magician, Boris Berman Enchanted Mänttä

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Like a Magician, Boris Berman Enchanted Mänttä

From Aamulehti

Boris Berman, whose background is Russian, does not actually play the piano, but he magically creates pure music by his amazing touch and excellent conceptions.

In the recital, which was one of the finest in the history of the Mänttä Music Festival, he was enthusiastic enough to play a program consisting of the preludes by Debussy in a fairytale manner. One has very seldom a chance to hear such richness and balance of sound!

Berman showed how to realize the continuous change of dynamics and the clarity and fogginess of sound in the most ideal way.

He was like the mythical Blacksmith Ilmarinen from the Kalevala. When he forged the world, he remembered to include all the details, not forgetting the colors of the sunrise and sunset.

Berman also proved that these musical pieces, performed usually one or two at a time, form an actual unity. Each prelude was now a prelude for the next one. Each piece seemed to stem from the previous one.


Also, the difference between these two books of preludes became evident: the first book was like vibrations of inner states of mind and dreamlike pictures, while the second one reflected pictures created by images from the outer world.

Berman charmed the audience with the misty preludes, like the softly glowing images of
Voiles and Brouillards as well as with thorny and mischievous pieces like La danse de Puck.

One of the most dramatic moments of the evening was the intoxicating motion and stormy ecstasy of Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest.

On the other hand, there was an amazing serenity and clarity in the prelude that describes an Egyptian urn. 

The change from the strong wind of Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest into the simple and pure beauty of La fille aux cheveux de lin was an excellent example of the differences in dynamics of the preludes.

And finally, all that Berman did was self-evident, wise and thought-out – and still fresh and created at the moment.
Harri Hautala

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Boris Berman plays Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev on Horowitz Piano Series Nov. 12

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Boris Berman plays Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev on Horowitz Piano Series Nov. 12

The Yale School of Music’s Horowitz Piano Series presents the pianist Boris Berman in recital on Wednesday, November 12 at 7:30pm. Berman, hailed as “a Beethoven interpreter on the highest level of achievement” by the Daily Telegraph, will play music by Beethoven as well as by Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

The first half of the program focuses on Beethoven, opening with the Variations in F major, Op. 34, followed by the Variations and Fugue in E-flat major, Op. 35. The latter set is often called the “Eroica” Variations, since Beethoven wrote variations on the same theme for the finale of his Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” the following year.

After intermission, the Russian-born pianist will play pieces by Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Stravinky’s Serenade in A,  written in 1925, plays with 18th-century conventions in its neo-Classical style.

The concert concludes with two virtuosic Prokofiev pieces: the Sonata No. 5 in C major, written in 1923 and later revised; and the masterful Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 83. Written in 1942, in the middle of World War II, the Seventh Sonata is viewed by some as an outlet for Prokofiev’s bitterness toward Stalin’s reign.

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Pianist Boris Berman proves himself by letting Brahms, Schoenberg speak for themselves

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Pianist Boris Berman proves himself by letting Brahms, Schoenberg speak for themselves

As reviewed by Joan Reinthaler of the Washington Post

How refreshing to hear a concert performed by someone who doesn’t seem driven to say something new. Pianist Boris Berman, who chairs the piano division of the Yale School of Music, was at Catholic University’s Ward Hall on Monday evening with a mostly Brahms program, and he seemed content to focus on letting the music speak for itself. The program included all 20 of the assorted and vaguely labeled intermezzi, rhapsodies and capricciosos that make up the Brahms Op. 116, 117, 118 and 119 “Klavierstücke” (or piano pieces). Berman also threw in, as sort of palate-cleansers, Schoenberg’s six short, delicate Op. 16 pieces — altogether an elegant program elegantly played.

This was Brahms at his most Brahmsian, with melodies that floated effortlessly from the welter of intricate textures, triple and duple rhythms that rubbed up comfortably against each other, harmonies that slid almost imperceptibly between major and minor and timeless landscapes of passion and longing. The nuts and bolts that went into making all this happen included a broad repertoire of legato touches that ranged from the vocal silkiness of the middle section of the Op. 116, No. 6 Intermezzo to the more instrumental-sounding linearity of the spooky middle section of the rollicking Rhapsody that ended the Op. 119 set. There was the care Berman took to keep the bass in check, never letting it muddy the sonorities, and a rhythmic integrity he maintained that still allowed lines to flex and breathe.

Architecturally, Ward Hall may have all the charm of a gutted barn, but acoustically it is a terrific place to hear a piano recital. On Monday night, however, something backstage bumped around loudly throughout the second half of the concert. That Berman was able to keep the noise from affecting his performance testifies to a world-class power of concentration.

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Unearthing Prokofiev: Rare Works Get NYC Debut

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Unearthing Prokofiev: Rare Works Get NYC Debut

by Jeff Lunden, NPR

Sergei Prokofiev is, perhaps, one of the best-known composers of the 20th century, if only for Peter and the Wolf, which serves as many children's introduction to classical music. Symphony orchestras and ballet companies routinely program his music, but now, 57 years after his death, some newly discovered works by Prokofiev will be premiered Tuesday night at New York's Zankel Hall.

When it comes to the music of Prokofiev, pianist and Yale University professor Boris Berman is the go-to guy. He's recorded the composer's complete piano works, written a book about his sonatas and founded the Prokofiev Society of America. Still, until recently, Berman had never seen or heard Music for Athletic Exercises.

The music is part of a 1939 composition, which didn't see the light of day again until 2004, when a facsimile of Prokofiev's manuscript was published. It's one of several pieces Yale faculty, alumni and students will perform Tuesday night. Berman says Music for Athletic Exercises was written to be performed on a grand scale.

"There was a project of putting on a huge athletic pageant on the Red Square in Moscow in the summer of 1939, which would involve thousands of athletes from all over the Soviet Union," he says.

Berman explains that V.E. Meyerhold, a famous Russian director, was hired to stage this extravaganza, but one morning he didn't show up to work on the piece.

"Nobody could find him," Berman says. "He was arrested, as was the habit in these years of the Soviet history. He was arrested, imprisoned and subsequently shot to death."

Traumatic as it was, Prokofiev finished the piece.

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