The Music Academy of the West kicked off its season with a gala honoring longtime faculty member Jerome Lowenthal. Lowenthal, who has clocked an amazing 50 years at the academy, is one of the world’s foremost pianists and teachers of the instrument. In tribute to the master, four of his former students — Orion Weiss, Elizabeth Joy Roe, Micah McLaurin, and Evan Shinners — along with his partner and fellow piano legend, Ursula Oppens, joined him onstage for a dazzling program of approximately an hour. This was followed by an al fresco dinner and the dedication of a piano studio to Lowenthal, who in addition to his extraordinary musicianship also happens to be a very funny storyteller.
The concert opened with an amusing speech and performance by the Bach specialist Shinners, who chose a 17th-century Dutch work about the fleeting nature of youth. He was followed by Oppens, who played the Caténaires of Elliott Carter, a fiendishly difficult composition that she performed with spectacular ease and panache. Next up was Micah McLaurin, whose sparkling bomber jacket might have pleased Franz Liszt, the composer of the work he chose. Elizabeth Joy Roe shifted the mood with a tinge of blue — George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” in a swanky original arrangement.
The centerpiece of the concert was a suite by Samuel Barber about the Plaza Hotel called “Souvenirs, Op. 28,” which was written for four hands. Lowenthal held down the left side of the keyboard as Shinners, Weiss, and Roe took turns sitting to his right for the different movements. Then Orion Weiss performed a gorgeous Dohnányi “Pastorale” based on a Hungarian folk song. A second piano was brought on at this point for the final two performances, a fast waltz by Rachmaninoff for Lowenthal and McLaurin, and the finale, Witold Lutosławski’s awesome Variations on a Theme by Paganini, which belonged to Lowenthal and Oppens, who clearly enjoyed performing every note of this dizzying tour de force.