WIPAC’s 16th Grand Prix Celebrates Two Winners Hosted by Romanian Ambassador

Beyond the beautiful music that one always enjoys at a Washington International Piano Arts Council piano recital, it is the special character of these events that continues to attract music lovers year after year. The Sixteenth Annual “Winners’ Grand Prix Concert” featuring pianists Robert Berkowitz and Ken Iisaka was no exception. No doubt, the gracious hospitality of the Ambassador of Romania and Mrs. George Maior, who welcomed the audience to their beautiful Embassy Residence added a glimpse into Romanian culture and delicious cuisine.

WIPAC’s Founders, Chateau and John Gardecki were joined by the Concert Committee Co-Chairs, Mr. Salah Turkmani, Mrs. Chang Turkmani and Rhoda Septilici who were integral in the success of celebrating the performance of the two remarkable pianists.

Pianists Ron Berkowitz and Ken Iisaka left the audience exhilarated with their masterful performances. Dr. Berkowitz is the first prize winner of the 2016 San Diego Amateur Piano Competition, and Ken Iisaka is the recipient of the first prize of the 2016 Washington International Piano Artists Competition.

Taking the stage in the ornate embassy residence, Ron Berkowitz opened the concert with the Mazurka No. 32 in C# minor. The Mazurkas are considered by some as Chopin’s most creative and intimate pieces. Chopin himself said he had “to coax mazurkas out of my conflict-ridden heart.” Musical historians have referred to the Mazurkas as “Chopin’s intimate diary”. Indeed, Robert Berkowitz evoked a feeling of intimacy with mellow sonorities and a rhythmic authenticity.

Robert Berkowitz chose three Piano Miniatures by Hungarian composer Lajos Delej. He performed the pieces with great sensitivity, perhaps because of a family historical link to the composer. Dr. Berkowitz told a very moving story of how Lajos Delej had met his mother, Herzek, when he had attended a recital in Cluj, Romania. Delej courted his mother in her hometown of Baia Mare, Romania. Tragically during the war, Pauline Herzek was sent to Auschwitz, and Lajos Delej to Buchenwald. The composer did not survive while his mother survived to return to Romania, where she met pianist Berkowitz’ father, who was also of Romanian descent. In later years Dr. Berkowitz reunited with members of the Delej’s family and was inspired to perform his music. He dedicated this performance to his own father. Both his father and mother had always regarded themselves as Romanian.

Berkowitz captured the purity and beauty of the melodic line of the Delej work, which served as a reminder of the contrast between the wondrous nature of music and the horrors that later would befall the composer and his mother.

Berkowitz completed his part of the program with a passionate performance of the Chopin Ballade #4 in f minor Opus 52 demonstrating his understanding of the dramatic power of the work.

Opening with the Sonata in D major by Padre Antonio Soler, pianist Ken Iisaka performed the composition by this 18th century Spanish composer with great ease and clarity. Iisaka explained that Soler, who was a student of Scarlatti, “was able to push the boundaries of what was possible with the harpsichord at that time.”

Ken Iisaka also performed the Funerailles, S. 172, No. 7 by Franz Liszt. Mr. Iisaka, who is also a talented communicator, shared background annotations pertaining to the Liszt work. He explained that Liszt wrote the work as a “requiem” tribute to three friends who suffered in the failed Hungarian uprising against the rule of the Hapsburgs in 1848. Iisaka’s pianistic abilities have a transcendent quality where artist and instrument have merged together. The great pianist Glen Gould is quoted as saying “we do not play piano with our fingers, but with our minds.” This is the sensation that Iisaka projects.

Iisaka characterized the next piece, Ravel’s Sonatine by quoting Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” He explained that despite the fact there are millions of notes, Ravel was very sparing with his notes. And Iisaka played each note to perfection.

In homage to his Romanian hosts, Iisaka chose a work that is rarely heard by Romanian composer Dinu Lipatti, who was also known as a great pianist. His Andante Espressivo from Sonatina for Left Hand, Op. 10 completed the musical evening with a sense of an artist who is also a humanist.

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