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ROUND­ING OUT THE PIANO CON­CER­TOS

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - James M. Keller I The New Mex­i­can

Last spring, pi­anist Anne-Marie McDer­mott set­tled in for sev­eral days with the Santa Fe Pro Mu­sica Orches­tra and Thomas O’Con­nor, its mu­sic di­rec­tor, to work out de­tailed in­ter­pre­ta­tions of three of Beethoven’s piano con­cer­tos. This week, she re­turns to fin­ish the cy­cle by ap­pear­ing as soloist in the re­main­ing two on Satur­day, Nov. 4, and Sun­day, Nov. 5, at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter. O’Con­nor speaks with Pasatiempo to share his thoughts about th­ese mas­ter­works from the orches­tra’s per­spec­tive, touch­ing on how his own ap­proach to mu­sic-mak­ing may help pro­vide a dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter to works that au­di­ences have now cher­ished for more than two cen­turies. On the cover is Zach Ma­hone’s photo of McDer­mott, cour­tesy Bravo! Vail Mu­sic Fes­ti­val.

This past April, the Santa Fe Pro Mu­sica Orches­tra em­barked on its sur­vey of Beethoven’s five piano con­cer­tos by play­ing the com­poser’s Con­cer­tos Nos. 2, 3, and 4 with soloist Anne- Marie McDer­mott. This week, the same mu­si­cians com­plete the cy­cle by per­form­ing t he con­cer­tos t hat stand at the fringes, Nos. 1 and 5. To put a finer point on it, the First Con­certo is re­ally the Sec­ond — which is to say that Beethoven ac­tu­ally com­posed the so- called Con­certo No. 2 (played last spring) be­fore the so-called Con­certo No. 1, but he pub­lished the later con­certo be­fore the ear­lier one, such that they be­came sad­dled with de­cep­tive num­ber­ing. No mat­ter: All five con­cer­tos are be­ing cov­ered in this project, and con­duc­tor Thomas O’Con­nor, who pre­sides on the podium through­out, is find­ing it an en­rich­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. “I re­ally am en­joy­ing do­ing all five con­cer­tos with the same pi­anist,” he said, “be­cause as an orches­tra we es­tab­lished a se­ri­ous work­ing re­la­tion­ship with her. We came to un­der­stand each other in an in­ter­pre­tive sense. My orig­i­nal thought was to pro­gram all five con­cer­tos within a sin­gle sea­son; but it seemed as if it might look a bit heavy on Beethoven, so we de­cided to split them up be­tween two sea­sons. Now we can pick up where we left off.” In fact, the con­certs are sep­a­rated by only six months, any­way, and the per­for­mances f rom l ast April will doubt­less re­main vivid in lis­ten­ers’ mem­o­ries as they em­bark on the con­clud­ing leg of the jour­ney. Last spring, we asked Anne-Marie McDer­mott to share her thoughts on th­ese touch­stone con­cer­tos. Now it’s the con­duc­tor’s turn to of­fer the view from the orches­tra’s per­spec­tive.

Pasatiempo: When we talk about con­cer­tos, we al­most al­ways fo­cus on the solo part. But how do th­ese pieces stack up as or­ches­tral works?

Thomas O’Con­nor: From the orches­tra’s point of view they are great. In Beethoven’s out­put, they de­vel­oped al­most hand-in-hand with his sym­phonies, and we find ideas he used in the or­ches­tral writ­ing of his sym­phonies trans­lated into the piano con­cer­tos. You could al­most say that th­ese are sym­phonic-type pieces with in­cred­i­ble piano parts. His use of winds is quite ex­ten­sive. In fact, Beethoven uses the wind play­ers al­most as co-soloists in some move­ments. Ex­cept in the Fourth Con­certo, the orches­tra “sets the ta­ble” from the be­gin­ning; we in­tro­duce our own in­ter­pre­tive ideas be­fore the soloist makes her en­trance.

Pasa: De­scribe the process of putting to­gether the in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Do you and McDer­mott talk through things long in ad­vance, or does it all hap­pen dur­ing a com­pressed re­hearsal pe­riod?

O’Con­nor: Typ­i­cally it all hap­pens at re­hearsal. An­neMarie and I will get to­gether when she ar­rives in town, and we’ll fo­cus on tran­si­tion pas­sages, to co­or­di­nate ex­actly how the orches­tra needs to con­nect to her solo sec­tions. As the con­duc­tor, I’ll need to get a sense of how she plays her scales at those points, how she groups the notes. But many de­tails of the in­ter­pre­ta­tion we will dis­cover in re­hearsal.

In Beethoven’s con­cer­tos, the first move­ments are where the con­duc­tor and the orches­tra have to be clear­est about the in­tent. We have sig­nif­i­cant or­ches­tral ex­po­si­tions. It is the orches­tra that first sculpts the themes, es­tab­lishes the tempo, clar­i­fies the ar­tic­u­la­tion and the phras­ing that pre­fig­ure what the pi­anist will play when she comes in. In the sec­ond move­ments, it is usu­ally the piano that takes the lead from the out­set, so the orches­tra is more a fol­lower than a leader. And then the third move­ments are romps — tech­ni­cally de­mand­ing for the soloist and yet play­ful and fun, with Beethoven mess­ing with your head when it comes to rhythms.

Pasa: Are there some ba­sic tenets of in­ter­pre­ta­tion that you want to bring to the ta­ble?

O’Con­nor: One of the ideas I’ve ac­quired over the course of my ca­reer is the im­por­tance of play­ing in a ges­tu­ral way. Rather than ap­proach­ing th­ese scores in terms of long, arch­ing phrases, I pre­fer an ap­proach that is con­nected to the art of rhetoric — spe­cific mean­ing for spe­cific mo­ments in the mu­sic. It re­lates to the kinds of per­for­mance-prac­tice ideas that were preva­lent be­fore Beethoven’s con­cer­tos came along, rather than to what came after. I find that those ideas en­liven a piece and give it a dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter.

Pasa: Are there any con­duc­tors of th­ese works — in live per­for­mances or record­ings — who you have found es­pe­cially in­spir­ing now that you are in the midst of lead­ing th­ese pieces your­self?

O’Con­nor: The late Niko­laus Harnon­court, my guid­ing star. I love his story of be­ing a cel­list in the Vi­enna Sym­phony and play­ing too many syrupy per­for­mances of Mozart’s Sym­phony No. 40, to the point where he was ac­tu­ally sick­ened by it. He left the orches­tra and made his own ca­reer around the idea that it was not a gra­cious piece but rather a fe­ro­cious one. His ideas showed great imag­i­na­tion. He rec­og­nized that mu­sic can un­dergo a com­plete change of char­ac­ter, even within a sin­gle move­ment. In Beethoven’s First Piano Con­certo, for ex­am­ple, we have this mil­i­tary state­ment at the be­gin­ning, but then fol­lows a very lyri­cal part of that same theme. Harnon­court would stretch those ideas to the max, and he would take the time re­quired to make a dra­matic ef­fect. Some­times too much — his pauses can in­ter­fere with the flow of the mu­sic — but I am in­spired by what he did. It’s not about im­pos­ing some­thing on the piece, but rather about bring­ing ap­pro­pri­ate va­ri­ety to the dif­fer­ent voices that Beethoven put on the page.

Pasa: Beethoven’s Piano Con­cer­tos Nos. 1 and 5 cover de­ci­sive years — a decade and a half — in his de­vel­op­ment, from maybe 1795 to 1809. Do you find that his ba­sic lan­guage changes from the first con­certo to the last?

O’Con­nor: I think they’re not that dif­fer­ent, even though that may be the most con­se­quen­tial decade-plus in the his­tory of clas­si­cal mu­sic. All of th­ese con­cer­tos are rev­o­lu­tion­ary. He clearly took the baton from Mozart, but right away he trans­ported the con­certo to a unique place. In dis­cussing Beethoven, peo­ple talk about the in­flu­ence of Napoleon or the com­poser’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Prometheus. For me, Beethoven and his idea of hu­man­ity al­ways take the role of the hero. He was the hero in Con­certo No. 1 much as he would be in Con­certo No. 5. His writ­ing is more com­plex in No. 5, mov­ing farther away from Clas­si­cism; but in No. 1 you al­ready hear that heroic, mar­tial qual­ity. Even though his lan­guage be­comes more so­phis­ti­cated, his ba­sic voice is al­ready there early on.

Pasa: Rad­i­cal ad­vances in mu­sic be­come blunted over time once they get re­peated and ac­cepted as nor­mal. Should in­ter­preters try to con­vey the sense of the rad­i­cal in mod­ern per­for­mances — or is that even imag­in­ably pos­si­ble?

O’Con­nor: I think that’s one of the rea­sons I am at­tracted to Harnon­court’s work — he makes fa­mil­iar mu­sic sound new. He does it by ask­ing for ges­tu­ral play­ing. A four-bar phrase may have two ges­tures — maybe one go­ing up and an­other com­ing down — and he will make sure you know that. He was will­ing to sus­pend time, sus­pend the char­ac­ter of the mu­sic, take you to an un­known place, play mu­sic that is fa­mil­iar in a way you’ve never heard it be­fore. We should find ways to bring mu­sic alive and make it as vi­tal as we can with­out screw­ing around with it.

Pasa: Is there a sur­pris­ing mo­ment that pops into your mind from when you started this cy­cle last April?

O’Con­nor: I asked Anne-Marie which was her fa­vorite of the Beethoven con­cer­tos. When­ever you ask a mu­si­cian that kind of ques­tion, the stan­dard an­swer is, “My fa­vorite is whichever one I’m play­ing at the mo­ment.” So I was not pre­pared when, with­out hes­i­tat­ing, she re­sponded, “No. 2.” That was in­ter­est­ing, be­cause No. 2 is some­times re­ferred to as an in­fe­rior piece. But is it re­ally? It’s from an ear­lier time, but it’s still Beethoven.

Pasa: I wasn’t go­ing to ask you, but fair is fair: Which is your fa­vorite?

O’Con­nor: There are mo­ments in all the pieces that are my fa­vorite, cer­tain as­pects of each that I am taken with. Of those we’re play­ing this week, I re­ally love the mar­tial be­gin­ning of No. 1. One thing he does in the ex­po­si­tion of No. 1 is su­per-ef­fec­tive; he in­tro­duces a theme in the strings softly, un­folds the mu­sic, and then brings in the winds stat­ing the same theme forte. The be­gin­ning is very poetic, but when the winds come in, it’s force­ful and the real tempo of the move­ment takes hold. I want that mo­ment to be a sur­prise.

de­tails

Santa Fe Pro Mu­sic Orches­tra presents Beethoven’s Piano Con­cer­tos Nos. 1 and 5, with con­duc­tor Thomas O’Con­nor and pi­anist Anne-Marie McDer­mott 4 p.m. Satur­day, Nov. 4, and 3 p.m. Sun­day, Nov. 5 Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, 211 W. San Fran­cisco St. $12-$80; 505-988-1234, www.tick­etssantafe.org

Thomas O’Con­nor with the Santa Fe Pro Mu­sica Orches­tra, photo Peter Norby

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