Lola Astanova, a young pianist with an endearing flair for old-time showmanship, was the featured performer at a benefit for the American Cancer Society the other night at Carnegie Hall. Shooting her arms in the air, crouching over the keyboard, arching her whole body back and away from the Steinway (Vladimir Horowitz’s, don’t you know), she worked hard to conquer a fickle audience in her Carnegie debut.
Judging from how many people left at intermission, much of the crowd had come more to be seen than to enjoy the music, or perhaps out of a sense of obligation, having bought tickets as a charitable act. But that didn’t faze Ms. Astanova, a native of present-day Uzbekistan who has made a name for herself in the West as something of an enfant terrible on the classical music scene. Though some of her stylistic choices weren’t to my taste, she delivered a spectacular performance on the whole.
After brief speeches by the odd pairing of Donald Trump and Julie Andrews, who received awards for their support of the American Cancer Society, the combined Stonewall Chorale and Melodia Women’s Choir performed a trio of simple but full-bodied pop-tune arrangements: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Love Changes Everything” (from Aspects of Love; “Midnight in Moscow” (my personal favorite selection); and, not surprisingly, “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music. Alas, Julie Andrews didn’t return to the stage to take part! Then the main event began.
Ms. Astanova opened with a couple of familiar Chopin pieces, a Nocturne and an Etude, in interpretations that didn’t do justice to the works, as she weighed them down with self-conscious rubatos that resulted in a loss of melody – a shame in the music of the great Romantic melodist. The Sonata No. 2 fared better, with more settled tempos and less ostentation, allowing for more rhythm, clarity, and force, as well as exquisite beauty in the middle section of the third movement, the famous Funeral March. Here the liquid sound of Horowitz’s 1941 Steinway shone especially brightly; Carnegie Hall’s amazing acoustics, and the pianist herself, did this classic instrument proud.
After intermission Ms. Astanova proceeded to what was for me the apex of the evening, her lovely and lyrical rendering of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 32 No. 10 followed by the passionate presto of the composer’s Moment Musicaux Op. 16 No. 4. Her strengths seemed best used in these intriguing, emotional pieces. She closed the Rachmaninoff mini-set with the legendary C# minor Prelude, surprisingly sedate at first, then falling prey to her tendency to play fast sections so fast it seems the goal is to impress with speed rather than musicality, with muddy results. This is certainly part of that well-crafted showmanship I mentioned, often great for audiences, sometimes not so great for the music itself.
Two Scriabin selections were also pleasing; perhaps being from the old USSR Ms. Astanova is especially at home with Russian works. A fast Etude, Op. 42 No. 5, displayed its melodies proudly; a slower one, Op. 8 No. 11, read as sweetly thoughtful. Then the pianist went all-out demonstrative, Lang Lang style, when she returned to Chopin with the Etude Op. 25 No. 12, and she closed with the Chopin Scherzo Op. 3 No. 2, infusing it with again-frightening speed, neglecting pieces of the melody in the process. But by this time I was wondering if the romantic Chopin might have approved these excesses. Maybe my own head was just spinning.
Criticisms aside, Ms. Astanova made a deep impression in her vivid tribute to Horowitz on his very own Steinway. She’s a true virtuoso in the old style, supremely hardworking both at the keyboard and in promoting the music she loves, well-known online for creating virtuosic pianistic interpretations of pop songs, among other projects. (Her composition inspired by Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” has a million and a half YouTube hits – ten times more than her “Jingle Bells.”) I’d go and see her again any time, especially if Russian works were on the program.
Photo credit (this page): Matt Peyton