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Pianist making Tucson encore, this time with Bach
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Pianist making Tucson encore, this time with Bach

Piano virtuoso William Wolfram must like Tucson. How else can you explain his visit this weekend as the mercury flirts with 100?

We couldn’t reach Wolfram last week but we’re thinking that perhaps the New York-based concert pianist was remembering his time here last November when he joined the Tucson Symphony Orchestra for a breathless performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. The weather was beyond fine.

Sorry, Bill, those 65-, 70-degree days are history. Welcome to a dry heat.

But the air will be blasting at Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church when he takes the stage Sunday, June 11, to perform Bach’s famed Goldberg Variations with the St. Andrew’s Bach Society. Here’s the 4-1-1 on the concert, which opens the Bach Society’s 2017 summer concert series:

  • All about Bill: Wolfram is, quite simply, amazing. He earned a rousing standing ovation at his TSO concert in November and when he stood to leave the stage, the audience egged him into an encore. OK, so encores are practically written-into-the-program givens, but Wolfram, a graduate of Juilliard who has performed with dozens of orchestras around the globe, looked pretty set on unceremoniously calling it a night after a grueling hour-long concerto performance. After a few moments, Wolfram, a silver medalist at both the William Kapell and the Naumburg International Piano Competitions and a bronze finisher at Moscow’s prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, relented and pounded out a powerful burst of notes that played like a concerto finale.
  • All about Bach: Usually, St. Andrew’s Bach Society Director Benjamin Nisbet programs a big, booming masterwork toward the end of the summer season. But this year, largely due to scheduling, the series’ big blast opens the society’s 2017 summer season.

“One of the interesting things that I’ve encountered in running this concert series is how do you find the big, really important, exciting things that you really need to do almost as a way of curating a musical museum where you are making sure to highlight the really important stuff, the bucket list kind of things?” Nisbet said. “We’ve done these big choral pieces and the big Brandenburg Concerto, but we’ve never done this. Any concert series that refers to itself as a Bach society just has to do” the Goldberg Variations.

  • All about Ben bringing Bill to our Bach Society: Back in November when Wolfram was playing with the symphony, Nisbet and Wolfram got to talking about possibilities of bringing the pianist back for the Bach Society series. Nisbet, who played violin for the orchestra for years before joining the TSO administrative staff two years ago, said, “I mentioned to him the possibility of him coming on and doing something, anything for the concert series — whatever he wanted.

“And he said, ‘Well, as it turns out I will be touring the Goldberg Variations,’ ” Nisbet recalled. “As far as I was concerned, it was a done deal at that point.”

“Of all of the pieces that Bach wrote for solo keyboard, I think this is probably the most compelling live performance,” he said. “This is the one that most effectively lends itself to a really engaging live performance. These pieces are simultaneously an incredible expression of Bach genius, but they are also always going to show a real virtuosic, both musically and technically, side of the person performing them as well. And I think that that combination is always a really strong one for a live audience to experience.”

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch

Cathalena has covered music for the Star for the past 20 years. She's a graduate of Arizona State University has worked at Sedona Red Rock News, Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, New York; and USA Today.

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