On Saturday October 29, 2016, I went to Carnegie Weill to see pianist Nina Scheidmantel’s Carnegie debut recital. I had decided to attend based on her web site and some videos on YouTube. While the videos were quirky (in more than one her dress magically changed while she was on stage) I could see that she was capable.
Presented by the Artist
Nina’s recital was billed as “Presented by the Artist”, meaning that it was privately funded. I wondered if I might get to meet her manager and gain insight into how to set up such an event myself.
Two hours before Ms. Scheidmantel’s concert I stopped by at Carnegie to photograph her poster. An elfin gentleman in some kind of dress clothing appeared by my side, asking if he could interest me in the recital. When I showed him my ticket, we became instant friends.
It turned out that this affable gentleman was managing Ms. Scheidmantel’s recital. He told me that as a German-Chinese pianist, Ms. Scheidmantel had given recitals in China and earned interest from both Chinese and German authorities, some of whom were expected to attend this performance. It promised to be a great evening.
Balcony at Carnegie Weill
I had not been upstairs at Carnegie Weill before, and was delighted to find that my front and center keyboard-side seat was just perfect. Weill is small (around 260 seats) so even in the balcony I was closer to the performer than most of the audience are in the 2800-seat Stern Auditorium. I had brought my concert binoculars, but I did not need them.
Program and Artist
Nina’s program included Ravel, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Prokofiev. After a brief announcement by the gentleman I had met earlier, Ms. Scheidmantel came on stage in an elegant floor-length black gown, with her hair up in a sparkling silver tiara. I was struck by how tall she was, and how much more Chinese she looked compared with her Carnegie Hall poster. Two of my favorite pianists (Lang Lang and Yuja Wang) are Chinese, so my expectations grew accordingly.
Of Pianists and Dragons
Ms. Scheidmantel attacked her Ravel vigorously. Although Valses Nobles et Sentimentales opens percussively, I have never thought of it as bombastic, but that was how Ms. Scheidmantel came across. Indeed, that was how she also played Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms. At the end of each piece, she clenched her arms in a victorious flourish, as if she had just slain a dragon.
Release the Pedal, Nina!
Nina had a signature move where she would sustain a single note at the end of a section, long enough to transform it into something magical. Unfortunately she came off the pedal so slowly that sometimes she fell foul of damper mechanics. The resonating string would buzz for a long second, making it sound frayed. Was this a flaw in the regulation of the house Steinway, or should Nina have lifted her foot more decisively?
I struggled to repress my discomfort at the endless Sturm und Drang of Nina’s performance. While I was struck by how physically powerful she was at the keyboard, I wish that she had included something more nuanced in her program. If I were her manager I would advise her to switch out Schumann in favor of something leaner. Chopin’s C minor Nocturne Op. 48 No 1 would have suited her style well and made for a rounder program.
After the Brahms I felt that Nina had shown us everything that she could do, so I left. I felt good about supporting a relatively unknown artist, but bad that I had expected more of her than was reasonable. I was also disappointed at the choice of repertoire, which may have contributed to my perception of the pianist as a little heavy-handed.
The gentleman managing the recital had told me that this was not a publicity event so much as a family celebration and Nina’s personal dream. As a pianist myself I can relate to this dream, but when you sell tickets to the public you put yourself in the public eye, and the public has expectations.
Nina Scheidmantel – a Spirited Performance
Nina Scheidmantel carried off her Carnegie debut well for someone so early in her career. She appeared totally at ease and gave a spirited performance that speaks well for her future. I hope that as she matures artistically and her repertoire grows, we will see her again in New York.