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ROUNDING OUT THE PIANO CONCERTOS
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.
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