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CME Presents Piano Celebration: Volume 1
rec. 20-22 January, 2015, Concert Hall, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, USA
MSR CLASSICS MS1559 [76:19]

The Center for Musical Excellence is a New-Jersey-based music school with a global network of tutors, which provides “high-caliber training and individually-tailored assistance to gifted young musicians – regardless of their age, background, and nationality.” I’m quoting from the booklet notes because this is the clearest explanation of what, exactly, the CME is. They appear to have been around since 2010, and to already boast a roster of over a hundred graduates. The CME doesn’t seem to be affiliated with an existing music institution.

Anyway: this CD assembles five distinguished piano alumni, along with CME founder Min Kwon, for a 75-minute romp through joyous encores and other guilty pleasures. To give you an idea, the most “serious” music here is the Brahms Hungarian Dances.

The format of the CD introduces a graduate of the CME program in ten minutes or so of solo music, then a four-hands duet with founder/tutor Min Kwon. First up is Ming Xie, a young man whose other teachers include Matti Raekallio and Sergei Babayan. He romps through Clément Doucet’s Chopin pastiche Chopinata with extraordinary aplomb, then charges through Horowitz’s variations on the gypsy song from Carmen as if it’s the easiest thing to play in the world. If I could play piano this well, I’d be playing that music the way Ming Xie does.

Reed Tetzloff, a young American who has already been a soloist with the Cincinnati and Minnesota orchestras, takes on a set of variations by Nikolai Kapustin, whose composing idiom famously takes its inspiration from the piano jazz of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. Halfway through (4:40), do I hear a jazzified version of the bassoon solo that begins The Rite of Spring?

Soyeon Park has served as an associate faculty member for the CME, taken a master class from Leon Fleisher, and given several master classes herself. Her contribution is two of Earl Wild’s virtuoso etudes on the Gershwin songbook, played with major panache and lightness of touch. Carl Patrick Bolleia, acquiring his doctorate at Rutgers and in the meantime a very active player of chamber and sacred music, adds Frederic Rzewski’s Down by the Riverside, a medley of civil rights protest anthems which must be one of Rzewski’s most audience-friendly works. (American listeners will recognize much of the piece.)

Finally, Erikson Rojas pays tribute to his Cuban heritage with three pieces by Ernesto Lecuona. Rojas dramatically defected from Cuba in 1996, using a fake passport to conceal the fact that he was a talented teenage piano prodigy, the kind of youth the Cuban government would want to keep in the country as a source of national pride. Along with the famous Malagueña, Rojas adds Mazurka en Glissando, which is exactly what the title promises, an eccentric treat.

Min Kwon joins her students and colleagues for a number of duets, like Barber’s Hesitation Tango, a Rachmaninov polka, and with Bolleia a virtuoso eight-minute abridgement of Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit. She also takes the solo spotlight herself for pieces by Poulenc and Ginastera, plus Robert Livingston Aldridge’s gorgeous, sentimental transcriptions of “Over the Rainbow” and “Moon River.”

As a calling-card for this music school and its graduates, the CD works well. I do want to hear much more from them on disc, and Ming Xie and Carl Patrick Bolleia in particular. But most people will approach this CD as a collection of popular hits and encores, and it succeeds there too. The pianists all understand that levity and pizzazz are the order of the day.

This release is strange because nowhere on the cover are we really alerted that its purpose is to provide an hour of colorful encores and crowd-pleasing international hits. On the other hand, the booklet does a pretty confusing job explaining what the Center for Musical Excellence is. But if you focus solely on the auditory pleasure, the result is well worth it. This is a whole lot of fun.

Very strong recorded sound, too.
Brian Reinhart

Full track list

Clément DOUCET (1895-1950)
Chopinata [3:38]
Wim Statius MULLER (b. 1930)
Nostalgia [1:35]
Vladimir HOROWITZ (1903-1989)
Variations on a Theme from Carmen [3:14]
Ming Xie, piano

Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Hesitation Tango [3:27]
Ming Xie and Min Kwon, piano four-hands

Nikolai KAPUSTIN (b. 1937)
Variations, Op. 41 [7:19]
Reed Tetzloff, piano

Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Polka Italienne [2:00]
Reed Tetzloff and Min Kwon, piano four-hands

Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Improvisation No. 15, “Hommage a Edith Piaf” [3:43]
Min Kwon, piano

Earl WILD (1915-2010)
Etudes on Gershwin, Nos. 4 and 7 [4:57]
Soyeon Park, piano

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Hungarian Dances Nos. 1 and 4 [6:48]
Min Kwon and Soyeon Park, piano four-hands

Frederic RZEWSKI (b. 1938)
Down by the Riverside [6:13]
Carl Patrick Bolleia, piano

Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Le boeuf sur le toit (abridged) [7:54]
Carl Patrick Bolleia and Min Kwon, piano four-hands

Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983)
de la moza donosa [3:37]
Min Kwon, piano

Ernesto LECUONA (1895-1963)
Ante el Escorial [5:21]
Malagueña [3:43]
Mazurka en Glissando [1:52]

Ástor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992)
Libertango [3:50]
Min Kwon and Erikson Rojas, piano four-hands

Harold ARLEN (1905-1986)
Over the Rainbow (arr. Aldridge) [4:12]
Min Kwon, piano

Henry MANCINI (1924-1994)
Moon River [2:55]
Min Kwon, piano

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