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.