Pianist Brian Ganz and Mezzo-Soprano Magdalena Wór Team Up for Special Chopin Concert This Saturday Night at Strathmore

They say the show must go on, and a set of unusual circumstances is bringing together two of Washington’s most distinctive classical performers this Saturday evening for a special concert at The Music Center at Strathmore.

The event is called “Bel Canto of the Piano” and represents one of the major touchpoints of local pianist Brian Ganz’s 10-year traversal of the complete works of Frédéric Chopin under the auspices of the National Philharmonic. The unique flavor of this concert derives from a performance of 10 of Chopin’s 19 rarely performed Polish songs, which were only published after his death in 1849.

Pianist Brian Ganz with "The Art of the Mazurka," presented by the National Philharmonic at the Strathmore. Feb. 7, 2015. Photo: Jay Mallin jay@jaymallinphotos.com
Pianist Brian Ganz with “The Art of the Mazurka,” presented by the National Philharmonic at Strathmore on February 7, 2015. Photo by Jay Mallin jay@jaymallinphotos.com.

The very engaging Brian Ganz, who draws in listeners with an almost tangible sense of Chopin’s pianistic poetry, will be matched with the stage presence of Atlanta-based mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór, a frequent performer in the Washington area ever since her time with the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program.

Magdalena is stepping in on short notice for Polish soprano Iwona Sobotka, who had been slated to sing Chopin at Strathmore with Brian but has encountered difficulties in securing the proper visa in time for the trip, according to the National Philharmonic.

Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wor. Photo courtesy of her website.
Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wor. Photo courtesy of her website.

Magdalena’s substitution is no small thing, as the Chopin songs are in very few operatic singers’ repertory. But they’re squarely in Magdalena’s songbook – she herself is Polish-American, having grown up in southern Poland and moved with her family to the U.S. at age 11. In fact, she talked about the flavor of these songs in my own interview with her for DCMetroTheaterArts last April. And Magdalena’s distinctively rich, chocolatey voice has frequently been heard in the area at concerts of the Russian Chamber Art Society, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary of unique Russian-language vocal programming.

The last-minute pairing of Brian and Magdalena preserves a concept that Brian has been planning for a long time and that he discussed with me last week. “Bel canto” is an Italian term that generically means “beautiful singing” but more specifically refers to a style of vocalizing that was in its prime during Chopin’s lifetime and features long, flowing and frequently virtuosic lines on individual phrases, words or syllables. And to pair with Chopin’s own actual vocal music – for which he’s little known, given Chopin’s almost complete association with music for piano solo or piano and orchestra – Brian has selected solo piano works that fit the bel canto concept in a way that even veteran Chopin fans may not have originally noticed.

Certainly two of Chopin’s very poetic nocturnes that Brian has selected for this concert will represent this lyrical aspect on Saturday. But Brian will also perform Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, by far one of Chopin’s biggest solo works. It’s a half-hour, four-movement work that unlike Chopin’s three other sonatas deliberately follows “Germanic” sonata structure. Yet the third movement has the same sort of long-limbed melody that could also be found in one of the operas of Italian bel canto master (and rough Chopin contemporary) Vincenzo Bellini.

“The vocal beauty of the third movement is right up there with the finest of Chopin’s nocturnes,” Brian says. “It’s complex and harmonically daring – full of sentiment without being sentimental.” It’s encased within outer movements of the sonata that are deliberately majestic and full of the disciplined “development” of multiple themes that are required for a classical sonata. Brian gave a preview performance of the fourth movement last Saturday evening, January 2nd, at a special gathering at PianoCraft in Gaithersburg, a Montgomery County institution for more intimate renditions of major concerts and other events.

Nobody should imagine that there isn’t a lot of fun baked into the Chopin songs as well as nostalgia and poetry. One of them is a drinking song filled with playful and slightly naughty humor, while others speak of nature as well as love and longing. A noticeable element of the Chopin songs is that, as opposed to later Eastern European songs by the Russians Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, Chopin almost never allows the piano to overwhelm the singer’s line with its own show-off sort of “accompaniment.”

Because Brian is also a poetry lover – at the informal concert at PianoCraft he also read a Shakespeare sonnet to illustrate the lyrics in another song he performed – he told me he fully appreciates the difference in the various composers’ approach to vocal music. If Chopin hadn’t been so much more reticent about his vocal music compared to the later Russian composers, then Chopin’s more direct, singer-centered approach to these songs might be better known. But leave it to Brian Ganz – who teaches at both the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland – to unearth these gems and put them on a program at a major venue like Strathmore. The combination with Magdalena Wor, even though it’s coming together at the last minute, should make this quite an event.

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Bel Canto of the Piano as part of the “Brian Ganz Plays Chopin” series, sponsored by the National Philharmonic, will be performed by pianist Brian Ganz and mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór on Saturday, January 9, 2016 at 8 p.m. at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane in North Bethesda, MD. For tickets, purchase them online. For the complete upcoming schedule of the National Philharmonic, see their concert calendar.