WIPAC First Prize Winner Performs at McLean Orchestra Benefit

Pianist Ken Iisaka Connects with the Universality of Music.
An afternoon of music in the intimate setting of Carderock Falls Manor in McLean, VA showcased a brilliant pianist, Ken Iisaka who performed a benefit recital for the McLean Orchestra. The San Francisco-based pianist performed with the same pianistic virtuosity that he exhibited as the First Prize Winner of the 2016 Washington International Piano Artists Competition.
Music Director and Conductor of the McLean Orchestra Miriam Burns, introduced pianist Iisaka, describing his lifelong journey as a young piano student immigrating from Japan to the US with his parents, his pursuit of a career as a software engineer and his passion for music that drove him to perfect his pianistic skills. The Orchestra’s Board President, Margot Townsend Young, thanked the audience for their generous support of the musical event, which was hosted by the gracious Robin Phillips and organized by the indomitable WIPAC Chair, Chateau Gardecki.
Iisaka captivated the music lovers in attendance with annotated commentaries of the piano works included in the program, giving the audience a greater understanding of the story behind the music. Ken Iisaka performed a program of Soler, Debussy, Liszt and Ravel.
An artist who wears his “musical heart” on his sleeve, Ken Iisaka performed with genuine musicality. He referred to the first work, “Sonata in D-Major, R.84” by Padre Antonio Soler, as an “amuse bouche” intended to awaken the senses with its rhythmic intensity and surprising harmonic changes.
Iisaka explained that as a child, he always loved the French composers, but was only allowed to study the Germanic composers while living in Japan. It was only on special occasions that his teachers would allow him to perform French music, to say nothing of playing a Chopin work. His passion for the French genre was clearly evident in his understanding of color and phrase.
Although the “Children’s Corner” by Claude Debussy has frequently been “underrated,”  perhaps because of its title, Iisaka strongly disagrees with that characterization. Contrary to popular belief that it is a work that should be performed by children, Mr. Iisaka explained that in fact it is technically very challenging and requiring great artistic insight. The reference to children is due to the fact that Claude Debussy was inspired by his daughter Claude-Emma, whom he referred to as Chou-Chou.
Each of the six pieces that make up “The Children’s Corner” have their own distinct character. Although Debussy was French, each piece has an English title. Iisaka surmised that perhaps it was because the family had an English governess, Mrs. Gibbs. One piece, Jimbo’s Lullaby is inspired by a visit to the Jardins des Plantes in Paris where an elephant was brought from the Sudan to put on display in the zoo. It most likely was the first elephant that Parisians ever saw. His name was Jumbe which is Swahili for chief, and must have later in the translation turned into Jumbo or Jimbo.
Another piece in the “Children’s Corner” series that reflects the turn of the century’s “Belle Epoque” in France is the “Golliwog’s Cakewalk.” It was inspired by John Phillip Sousa’s performance in France of ragtime music and the cakewalk, which was a dance performed by former African-American slaves as a parody on how their slave masters danced. Debussy’s daughter also had a golliwog doll, which was commonly given to little girls depicting the image of the derogatory minstrel… again, reflecting the times.
Mr. Iisaka commented that he came to the US 35 years ago as a child and studied with a tremendous teacher, Bonnie Keller in Bethesda Maryland who allowed him to play Debussy. She also encouraged him to go to the Phillips Collection to view the impressionist paintings, who influenced Debussy’s contemporaries. While Debussy’s music is considered impressionist by many, Mr. Iisaka commented that Debussy never liked that attribution and considered himself a “Symbolist. “
Mr. Iisaka’s next selection was the “Funerailles (from Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses), S. 173, No. 7” by Franz Liszt. It was written in October 1849 as a series of elegies in response to the defeat of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Liszt was born in Hungary on the border with Austria and in his anger following the defeat, his works reflected a funeral procession, the political turmoil and violence and the desire for political independence. The “Funerailles” was specifically written to honor three of Liszt friends who died in this struggle. The pianist’s performance of one of the most technically challenging pieces for the piano, reflected the darkness of a dirge and the revolutionary spirit of those who fought for independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire.
As Ken Iisaka introduced the final work, Maurice Ravel’s “Sonatine,” he commented on how Ravel was able to create an effect with the use of very few notes. The piece is only 11 minutes long, and with a sparing use of notes “Ravel creates a richness where every note matters.”
Iisaka explained that “Ravel was often criticized as an imitator, but clearly he had his own distinct language. The second movement conveys a deep sense of nostalgia.” The “Sonatine” was the first Ravel work that Iisaka learned as a teenager.
Interestingly, Ravel entered the “Sonatine” into a competition which required that the composition include no more than 72 measures. Even though he was the only entrant, his work was disqualified because the “Sonatine” included 75 measures.
Reminiscent of his performance during the WIPAC Competition, the pianist once again played with ease and facility, and his warm musicality made each audience member feel that he was connecting with them individually. Iisaka touched a chord with the audience as he explained that “Music was something that, just like looking at great art, reading literature, gave me solidarity with others…. Music is the universal language. Whatever we experience today has been experienced by our predecessors and one of the ways they left it for us is through music. Whatever I am feeling, somebody else had experienced it in the past.” He added, “I consider myself extremely lucky that I get to experience so many things… I get to see my own experience through the eyes and ears of other people.”
The event was a grand collaboration between the Washington International Pianists Arts Council and the McLean Orchestra. The artist’s performance was sponsored by Linda and Wayne Sharp and the patrons for the event included Lola Reinsch, Almont Pierce, Robert Hahne, Pamela and Chris Wright, Frank and Haida McGovern, Susan Soza and Chris Payton.

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