Tag Archives: Beethoven

BEETHOVEN & STENHAMMAR: BLOMSTEDT & OHLSSON, FEB.8-10

The San Francisco Symphony has a great program coming up, February 8, 9, & 10, Davies Symphony Hall. Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor Laureate of the SF Symphony, will lead the SFS and pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and the SFS in Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2. The concerto is so exciting, one sometimes feels not just on the edge of one’s seat but on the edge of one’s seat on a roller coaster. There is an exultant, thrilling sense to it which makes audiences embrace it. Ohlsson is well known for his mastery of Chopin’s perfect piano jewels; the Emperor concerto will reveal him in Beethoven’s expansive energy.

from left: Beethoven, Herbert Blomstedt, Garrick Ohlsson

Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) is considered by many to be Sweden’s greatest composer. He was also widely admired as a great pianist.

Wilhelm Stenhammar

Herbert Blomstedt, Music Director and Conductor of the SFS from 1985-1995, has led San Francisco audiences to discover and love the works of other Scandinavian composers, Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius. While Stenhammar began his music studies in Stockholm, he continued in Berlin and became attached to the works of Richard Wagner and Anton Bruckner. After writing his Symphony No. 1, Stenhammar decided to “free” himself from late Romantic German music. His later work, such as Symphony No. 2, leans toward a more classical style. He was Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony, Sweden’s first, full time, professional Symphony. He died very young, age 56, of a stroke. However, February 7 is his birthday. This is a great opportunity to hear his work and celebrate this great Swedish artist.

Ax & SFSymphony: Mozart & Schoenberg, A Brilliant, Varied Concert

January 13, 2018, the San Francisco Symphony performed a sensational concert with pianist Emanuel Ax. The variety of challenging pieces chosen for the program demonstrated the excellence of the SF Symphony and Mr. Ax, surely one of the absolute top pianists in the world.

Emanuel Ax     First on the program was the Leonore Overture, #3 (1806). This overture, written with Beethoven’s only opera in mind, has so much energy and color, the listener can absorb the revolutionary new principles of freedom embraced by Fidelio, the female character who comes to rescue her lover, a champion of liberty. These were also Beethoven’s principles; they imbue the music with the celebration of the rights of man instead of the rights of dictators.

Ludwig van Beethoven

After the rousing beginning of the concert came Mozart’s Piano Concerto,No. 14, in E-flat Minor(1784). Complicated and beautiful, this concerto manages to offer inventive, complex music which is written so perfectly by Mozart that the listener absorbs its beauty rather than be transfixed by its complications. Mr. Ax transmitted the restlessness and concentrated construction without a hesitation. He so completely embodied the music that he and the SF Symphony nearly disappeared. The music became a living presence. The second movement, Andantino, came as a surprise. It was elegant, almost peaceful, an incredibly eye opening change. The Concerto ends with a rondo, Allegro ma non troppo. The rhythms are engaging; the movement sweeps the audience away to a new level of aesthetic excitement.

Wolfgang Amadeo Mozart

Matching the Mozart concerto with Schoenberg’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 41 (1942) was daring and brilliant. When Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas turns to address the audience, everyone present is tremendously lucky, about to be enlightened by SFS Music Director, MTT, about what we will hear. It was a very beneficial offering. In addition to describing the famous, or infamous, 12 tone method, MTT had Mr. Ax play some of the music from the Concerto as it would have been written in the traditional, major -minor system. That provided an “Aha!” moment. While I wouldn’t pretend to “understand” the composition principles, hearing that example opened a door. It was an intense, dramatic, performance. Both Mr. Ax and the SF Symphony showed that they were able to triumph in this “new” music as well as in the Beethoven and Mozart.

Arnold Schoenberg, photograph by Man Ray

The concert finale was Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, After the Old Rogue’s Tale, Set in Rondo Form for Large Orchestra, Op. 28 (1895). This piece has a special place in my musical education. In my elementary school in St. Louis County, one year, maybe during 4th grade, a Music Lady came to play music and talk about it. She played Smetana’s The Moldau and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. No Peter and the Wolf for us. Ever since that time, I have avoided Till because I remember being told that he was so mischievous, had so much delight in his practical jokes, that he was hanged. The story terrified me. Too much fun? Off to the gallows.

Medieval woodcut of trickster, Tilll Eulenspiegel, courtesy, San Franciso Symphony

Fortunately, I pushed that memory aside and enjoyed a performance that revealed the determined individualism of Till, a character in  many German legends. The music does not involve moralistic commentary. It plays hide and seek with Till’s personality and adventures. The concert, which had begun with the inspiring Leonore Overture, closed with an emphatic exploration of  a character who came to life on the outside of accepted society. The audience was completely charmed by Till and roared its approval.

 

 

Itzhak Perlman at Davies Hall: the Great Human

Itzhak Perlman performed an astonishing, wonderful recital at the San Francisco Symphony’s Davies Hall, January 16. That’s right, it was his usual: astonishing and wonderful. The packed to the rafters audience was entranced by his virtuosity, the graceful program choices, his presence. Seeking words for this article’s headline a phrase from Al Huang, dancer and  tai chi master, came to mind: the great human. That’s what Itzhak Perlman is for all of us.

Perlman-ItzhakItzhak Perlman

Rohan de Silva is the pianist who partners Perlman. He appears to be perfect both as musician and collaborator.

rohan-de-silva_175wRohan de Silva

Itzhak Perlman could play anything, so it is especially interesting to see his choices for this recital. In addition to being technically challenging for a musician, not for this musician but a musician, the selections projected a sense of balance. There were works of four great composers. Each one was a master who created the essence of his era.

Anonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)th-2 Vivaldi’s Sonata in A major for Violin and Continuo (1709), Opus 2, no. 2, is brilliant, quick, lively. It darts and skips yet always maintains its self-control, defining the early 18th century character. It was a time of conservative control pregnant with revolutionary change. It was bursting with creativity.  The program note said the sonata would be brief; it was over before one could be certain what had happened except the dazzling brilliance of the composer meeting his match.

81914355Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Beethoven’s Sonata in F major, Opus 24, Spring (1801) was a Beethoven masterpiece of the early 19th century. It is so lovely and full of delight that one can forget the extraordinary composer’s vision and musicians’ technique required to make this sound easy as water rolling over rocks. Beethoven took risks. In 1801, it was innovative for having four movements instead of three and for the more equal relationship between piano and violin. Beethoven did not give it the name Spring, but it fits. Its cheerful beauty is a pleasure and reminds the listener that great music can smile for us.

SchumannFantasiestucke for Violin and Piano, Opus 73 (1849) by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) has three “fantasy pieces.” Each has a different personality: “Delicate and with feeling;” “Lively, light;” and “Fast and with fire.” This work from the last part of Schumann’s short life is something unexpected. While Schumann was central in creating the Romantic idea in music, by 1849 he had begun to reexamine classical forms and style. Other musicians, including his wife the great pianist Clara Schumann, may have expressed dismay but also may not have fully appreciated Robert Schumann’s searching intellect. Impossible to know what this reconsideration and study might have led him to create, but we do have his late work to enjoy and move us.

StravinskyIgor Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne for Violin and Piano (1933) represented the 20th century. Stravinsky (1882-1971) took five movements from his Pulcinella, a ballet with Leonide Massine choreographer/lead dancer and designs by Picasso, to arrange as the Suite Italienne. Rearranged and published several times with the Italienne name, Itzhak Perlman and Rohan de Silva performed the final version. It includes the original five movements plus a Scherzino. This fascinating suite kept the listener’s attention with surprising rhythms and glorious sounds. Including a Tarantella, Gavotte, and Minuetto, it proudly embraced its origins in dance. The piano and violin definitely danced together and separately. Stravinsky credited Pulcinella as his “discovery of the past” which “made the whole of my late work possible.” Perlman balanced his program with two great composers, one known as Romantic, one as neo-classical, looking back into much earlier music for an understanding of where his own might go.

ENCORES: Anyone who has had the privilege of attending an Itzhak Perlman recital knows the encores are an essential part. He did not disappoint us. He took his bows with his partner, that extraordinary pianist. They left the stage, the audience continued to applaud, hope in every heart. He returned followed by Rohan de Silva and the page turner who carried a tall stack of music books. Not content with one sight gag, Itzhak Perlman then turned through pages clipped together. He told the audience that he keeps a list of the encores he has played in San Francisco. It goes back to 1912. He wouldn’t want to repeat something that someone who had been there in 1912 had heard, but then someone who had been there in 1912 probably couldn’t hear it anyway. He said he wouldn’t be able to remember and the audience could not hear, so he could play anything.

In fact, he played five encores. Each was fantastic in its own way. The unifying thread was the masterful, brilliant technique. He plays incredibly fast, he plays with a lyrical heart; it is all there. First was Tempo di Minuetto in the Style of Pugnani, by Fritz Kreisler. Aria des Lenski from Eugene Onegin, by Tchaikowsky followed. He played Caprice in A minor by Polish violin virtuoso and composer, Wieniawski. Any one of those pieces would be an admirable encore for which any audience should be grateful, but Mr. Perlman has spoiled us. We always want more. He played the theme from Schindler’s List, by John Williams, which he played for the movie. He ended with Brahms’ Hungarian Dance #1. It was the absolute right music to have whirling in my head as we left.

Itzhak Perlman radiates love for music and for his audience. He is now on tour of ten western cities in fourteen days including San Diego, Tucson, Costa Mesa. He could decide to play only for Queen Elizabeth II and select heads of state. He is at the pinnacle; he’ll still play for Mesa, AZ. He plays a Klezmer reunion concert, January 23, in Santa Barbara. His recital at Disney Concert Hall is January 24, Los Angeles. Do not miss a chance to hear him play. See www.itzhakperlman.com FOR MORE HEDGEHOG HIGHLIGHTS ON ITZHAK PERLMAN, please see Ax & Perlman: Dynamic Duo of Music in San Francisco, Jan. 20, 2016, and Itzhak Perlman at the San Franciscio Symphony, Jan. 22, 2015.

Barantschik, Nel, Wyrick Meet Beethoven, Chopin, Shostakovich

Chamber music at the Palace of the Legion of Honor is always a high point of San Francisco’s musical season. Remarkable musicians playing some of classical music’s finest selections in a theater that looks like the inside of magical music box: it’s great. Sunday, November 1, opened the season with Beethoven’s Trio in G major, Opus 1, no. 2; Chopin’s Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Opus 54; and Shostakovich’s Quintet in G minor, Opus 57. Each one was a gem. The character of each was entirely different from the others. I mention that for readers who may think narrow thoughts about chamber music. You have been misled; these are peak musical experiences. 14708Alexander Barantschik, the Concert Master of the SF Symphony, violin; Anton Nel, piano; and Peter Wyrick, Associate Principal Cello of the SFS formed the trio for Beethoven. Michael Grebanier, SFS Principal Cello was scheduled to perform but replaced by Wyrick. The music was delightful. Beethoven plays with bright emotions, letting his lyricism and great heart carry the listener into an ideal natural world. The Scherzo movement offers syncopation and suggests a folk dance. The Finale: Presto sweeps aside any constraint, calling upon the pianist for virtuosic performance and yet keeping all three in an exciting ensemble. It was thrilling to watch and to hear these artists.

800px-Frédéric_Chopin_by_Bisson,_1849Extraordinary pianist Anton Nel heads the Division of Keyboard Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He has performed frequently with the San Francisco Symphony as well as the Cleveland, Chicago, London orchestras, and in partnership with Alexander Barantschik in the Chamber Music series. His performance of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 4 was a gift. Although a life long Chopin devotee, the Scherzo was not familiar to this Hedgehog. It was performed with exquisite style and taste. Nel gave Chopin the leading role and by doing so showed his own brilliance. It is a big piece, not at all a piece of another, grander work. The listeners were given much to embrace and absolutely stellar musicianship.

600full-dmitri-shostakovichIn the Shostakovich Quintet, SF Symphony musicians Florin Parvulescu, SFS violin, and Jonathan Vinocour, SFS Principal Viola, joined Barantschik, Nel, and Wyrick. Concert goers who feel they know Beethoven and Chopin could have been quite surprised by the selections by those composers on this program. They were both fresh and profound. They may have been most impressed and surprised by the Shostakovich. His music is not played so often, was shut out of programming for decades, and when presented now opens the mind and heart with forceful, beautiful, sometimes soul wrenching music. While Shostakovich suffered greatly when out of favor with Stalin and his henchmen, this Quintet was written and premiered during a brief interlude of acceptance. It is glorious. Its premiere was 1940, but it sounds new and full of life. Its performance by this quintet of champion musicians provided music that could send the entire audience aloft. The persistence of the Russian dances in the last movements whirled us along while a thoughtful, musical spirit appears as if to whisper a reminder of a quiet secret. The audience called the quintet back for multiple bows. Each of the performers deserved whole hearted cheers.

Pictures from top: Beethoven, photo of Chopin by Bisson, 1849; Shostakovich.

SF Symphony’s Beethoven’s 5th: Always New, Always Brave

DownloadedFileThere it is on the program: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67, by Beethoven. You know it, don’t you? There’s the image of Winston Churchill holding his hand signaling “V for Victory.” If you are not old enough to recognize that elderly gentleman, you might be old enough to recall this symphony providing a theme song for the Huntley-Brinkley TV news. Maybe you are lucky if those visual images do not cloud your ability to hear the music. Is it possible to hear this music? It was sent into space so that the ETs of a distant universe could know who we humans are. For this writer, it is necessary to admit to not having heard this music for a very long time. In fact, it is  impossible to remember the last time. That is good luck because listening to this music as though for the first time, one realizes that it is forever new. What was Ludwig Van Beethoven thinking while creating this symphony? One can only be sure that he was not trying to walk in the shoes of any other composer or to meet the expectations of the average Viennese concert-goer.

Mahler51213-120x67 The spectacular performance by the San Francisco Symphony, June 18, took my breath away. It opened the mind and heart to new experiences and perceptions. It was so startling that it was necessary to hear it again before attempting to write this post. Fortunately, the SFS, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, did record their performance of the 5th Symphony. It is available on CD from SFS Media. The instantly recognizable opening three short and one long sound happens abruptly and violently. It is there on top of you without invitation or introduction. A lengthened, suspended note does not provide relief; it is suspended on a precipice of the unknown which is coming next. Repetitions make this theme seem almost normal, but it returns to threaten, provoking anxiety. A distant lyrical voice calls and disappears. The martial sounds are resolutely marching forward regardless of any misgivings. The force will not stop for us to reconsider. The Andante con moto, second movementseems like it will be gentler. One hopes to catch one’s breath and disregard the threat in the first movement, the Allegro con brio. That is not to be. The horns sound what might be a royal processional. The king, however, pays no heed to those he marches past or marches on. The quiet music intimates that something is going on behind a curtain. A tune appears with rushing notes, perhaps it carries a message, but the big, slow king returns. Again, welling up like a spring of fresh water a tune comes back. One hears a tiny, distant pipe. It sounds like a far off hope viewed through a window. And yet, the drums and horns take over. The music makes an effort at drawing itself up and then slides down again. The ominous, persistent walking, marching sounds limp back from a war and hurry onward. Suddenly, a quiet plea in a song that picks up the rhythm and sounds so modern; was this really written in 1808 and not 2008? The tiny pipe returns, and the orchestra repeats and repeats and repeats. Just when one’s ear expects the repeats to round out and balance, the movement ends on the upward sound without finishing what was anticipated. The third movement, Allegro (attacca) is the short scherzo on which the life of this symphony turns. It is the first cousin of the the first movement. Its struggles climb over the trenches of fear while multitudes of demons circle. They are relentless. They would be comic if they were not so dangerous. Beethoven gives us odd silences which are not at all restful rests. The many ranks of demons, low to the ground, creep and bounce forward toward us all. In the final Allegro, all changes. There is a dim sound which spirals up to become very loud, and, finally, one is there with the flag of humanity on a hilltop. It is a victory that took so many losses to achieve, and still it is a victory. The struggle is still there in the victory. Just when we think we’ve made it and the fight is done, the swarms of demons encircle our little hill. They are back. There are repeatedly repeated threats, and we are here. The music declares that we are here. We must keep climbing. We cannot relax, but there is melody for our surprising win, our survival. Elements of the orchestra take turns to weigh in on this. The melody almost rocks us and embraces us. It is sustained, and it sustains us. The quiet horn and the piccolo, whistling like a bird, dance on top of it all. All the instruments are rushing like too many clowns pouring out of a tiny coach; all of the themes are rising, and it ends with music that does not sound like an end.

SF-Symphony-4x6-120x67 It is wonderful to have the experience of the 5th symphony in a hall with perhaps 2000 others living it together. And yet, there is also the experience of hearing it when alone so that one can release any inhibitions and spontaneously weep when weeping happens or stand with both arms reaching up or try to run, laughing, with the clowns.

The SFSymphony’s program on June 18 included three more Beethoven works including solo piano performed by Jonathan Biss and two choral works. Please watch this space for the Hedgehog Highlight about those performances. They were too wonderful to go unsung, and the Hedgehog tries to keep posts to lengths manageable for Hedgehogs.

The San Francisco Symphony will perform Symphony No. 5 again, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, June 27, on a program with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.23, and String Quartet in E-flat maj. Op. 74. On June 30, the SFS will perform Symphony No. 5, conducted by Edwin Outwater, on a program with Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan & Ludmila, and pianist Garrick Ohlsson performing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 with the SFS. The Beethoven Festival also presents Beethoven’s only opera, FIDELIO, June 25, 26, & 28. For tickets and information: sfsymphony.org  or call 415/864-6000 or visit the box office at Davies Symphony Hall, Grove St. between Van Ness & Franklin.

Beethoven Festival: San Francisco Symphony Celebrates

mtt_09-black_0598-5-120x67      Michael Tilson Thomas, the remarkable Music Director & Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, celebrates his 20th anniversary with the orchestra with a three week long Beethoven Festival, June 10-28, 2015. The gifted MTT has made a gift to the City–and anyone lucky enough to be visiting–of the great music and of one of his own many gifts: a genius for programming. Last night, June 17, the Hedgehogs and and an eager full-house audience heard Overture to the Ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43; Concerto No. 4 in G major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 52; Ah! Perfido, Scene and Aria, Op. 65; and Symphony No. 6, Op. 68, Pastoral. It was a blissful evening that moved from thrills to calm transcendence. 14708Beethoven’s Overture was brief and full of wonders. It especially intrigued this listener for its continual rhythmic invention. There is a swirling action of the music related to the introduction of human enlightenment in the sciences and the arts through the interventions of the gods. The story is not necessary, indeed, this Hedgehog had not read program notes which allowed the music to dance on its own. Once begun, the energy and magic of the music spins and lifts the listener to a momentary meeting on Parnassus. It ended quickly; the gods and their intertwining rhythms receded to the clouds.

Jonathan_Biss_171_credit_Benjamin_Ealovega-120x67Jonathan Biss is tall, slight, and has the long, graceful hands one imagines for an acclaimed pianist. He also has a magnetic presence onstage which was a perfect match for the SF Symphony in Concerto No. 4. It seemed to me to be unusual for the pianist to begin a Concerto, and it is. The piano offers its thoughts. The orchestra responds. The fascinating rhythms noticed in The Creatures of Prometheus were a good mental preparation for the variety of rhythmic creativity in this Concerto. At one moment, as the Symphony was busily having its say, one note from the piano appeared clearly as though breaking in while its partner had only one beat to catch its breath. Mr. Biss’s fan-like hands compress for the astonishing trills that punctuate the piano’s poetry as the piano leads the orchestra into another atmosphere. The Concerto is spritely and touching. It seems to cleanse the air all around it. The SF Symphony performed as though this Concerto were its own; Mr. Biss gave an inspiring performance, far beyond exact or correct, lifting us up into Beethoven’s world.

Karita_Mattila-Headshot-PhotoCredit-LauriEriksson-120x67Soprano Karita Mattila’s performance of Ah! perfido was her debut with the SFS. She is a much honored opera performer who added drama and character to the Festival evening. She is a statuesque blonde who used the clarity of her diction and technique to create powerful, expressive theater. The aria addresses a lover, the “perfidious, perjured, barbarous traitor,” who has left the singer. How is it possible that there could be an idiot who would leave Ms. Mattila’s character? She endowed her performance with all the anger, hurt, despair, and pain that could seize a goddess or even ten goddesses. “In pity’s name, do not say farewell,/for what, deprived of you, shall I do?” The aria was an interesting addition to the programming. It demonstrated the breadth of Beethoven’s reach into all forms of music. It arrested the attention of the audience with the power of the voice.

81914355And then, Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. It brings us into harmony with the natural world. It offers tranquility. Like a walk through a lovely park, it never disappoints anyone willing to listen. There are commentaries from learned Beethoven specialists who either state simply that this symphony has a “program,” meaning it describes a particular scene and events, or who try to step around that a little, as music with a program may not be truly great music to them. This is truly great music. Beethoven loved to walk in park or wood. “No one can love the country as much as I do,” he wrote, “For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo which man desires to hear.” Yes, even rocks. There is a Shakespearian gathering of rough musicians which could be right out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They may be clumsy, but the author/composer loves them just as he values the rocks and trees. There is a terrible storm, but it passes over, and we are all safe together again. He captures the rhythms of putting one foot in front of another, of jumping over a brook, not a very big brook, of breathing air fresher than one’s usual air. It is steady and calm and beautiful. The SF Symphony’s superb performance captured the world changing beauty of the calm, easy breathing work. Would it be possible to convert those who deny the tragedy of climate change by having them listen to Beethoven’s 6th? It is a hard, closed heart  which could not hear the call in this music full of supposedly common wonders.

Tonight, June 18, The Hedgehogs hear the SF Symphony, Jonathan Biss, and the Symphony Chorus perform Sanctus, from the Mass in C maj., Choral Fantasy, op. 80; Fantasy in G Maj., op. 86; and Symphony No.5. I will look for Winston Churchill. I feel sure he will be there.

For tickets to the Beethoven Festival concerts: sfsymphony.org or call 415/864-6000.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pinchas Zukerman, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Beethoven: Violins Part II

Zuckerman-P_583x336DownloadedFileThe headline tells it all; the writer will elaborate briefly for readers who have not heard Pinchas Zukerman play or who wonder about Beethoven and the violin. However, the  available superlatives all fall away in remembering this musical experience. On January 26, 2014, Pinchas Zukerman was both the conductor and the solo violinist for London’s Royal Philharmonic performing three works by Beethoven: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus; Violin Concerto in D maj; Symphony No. 5. One could say it was a celestial experience if it were not that Beethoven insists upon being an earthling. The music rips right into whatever it means to be human, the myriad things it means to be human, and celebrates life here on earth. The people wanting to build that foul pipeline of tar sands oil across American lands could never have heard Beethoven. Oddly enough, Beethoven’s music somehow encompasses even them. Mr. Zukerman’s low key approach to conducting is deceptive. Those who have witnessed famous adults and highly skilled ten year olds dramatically waving their violin bows in order to tell their audience when they are playing something important and when they are ready for an ovation might find the absence of dramatics disappointing, but his style allows the music to be the only focal point. Mr. Zukerman’s playing is masterful, a joy. In the lengthy concerto it ranged from exquisite simplicity to complex, virtuosic performance that left one breathless. The concerto’s last movement is a delightful dance. The theme sounds like fun, but it is able to be playful because it dances on top of such musical complexity and Beethovenian energy. One moment in Mr. Zukerman’s performance particularly revealed how thoroughly he lives in the music. His back to the audience, he conducted with spare movements and played. He then turned toward the audience, lifted violin to chin, bow to violin, and began to play his solo part. The time between is what fascinated me. He knew physically exactly how long he had to make that 180 turn and begin to play. No rush. Mr. Zukerman would be great at the most challenging jump rope routines. Everyone has heard the 5th Symphony or at least knows how it begins. It was the theme for the Huntley/Brinkley news decades ago. It was the Victory symphony in World War II. The problem with something that we all think we know is that we often forget to listen to it. The Royal Philharmonic and Pinchas Zukerman’s performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony transmitted the greatness of Beethoven’s sense of life. It is possible to hear it telling the tale of human being, alone and together. The music stretches the reach of what we want to think of as Western Civilization, of Culture with the largest Capital C, of human potential good and bad. At the end, when the clowns, chimpanzees, whales, toddlers, miners, mothers, trees, lilies, and weeds, are all in the music, exuberant with life moving in every cell, the listener is elevated to thrill in being. This listener levitated above the crowded staircase out the symphony through the traffic to find her car had been smashed and robbed. This listener, reminding herself that even that was included in the 5th Symphony, even those who want to build the pipeline, was thankful to have heard it.

Andras Schiff/Bach & Beethoven

Andras Schiff_PianistAndras Schiff performed the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by J.S. Bach, and Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Opus 120, by Beethoven, at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, October 13, 2013. Being at this performance was an enriching, exciting, mind opening experience. I would liken it to seeing Chartres Cathedral for the first time, trying to absorb its many parts as well as the overall impression of grandeur, its role in its community, its ability to inspire thoughts enlarging this world. This Livelyblog post is not a review in the sense of a critique. How could it be? First, the great pianist. He does not wave his arms around or fling them in the air and jump to let us know when he has finished. Mr. Schiff walks onstage, bows briefly, sits, and plays. When he has finished playing the lengthy, immensely challenging music, he does something wonderful. He allows his hands to remain on the keys until the smallest perceptible sound has disappeared and then lowers his hands to his lap. It is emblematic of his devotion to the music. The drama is more profound for his control. For this performance, the Hedgehogs were seated up high and able to look down directly upon Mr. Schiff’s hands as he played. This allowed a view of the patterns made by the music embodied by his hands. It was fascinating to see the geometry and design within the music. Some of the rhythm can be seen in the moving hands, but what struck one most was the design. It opened thoughts of the elegance of mathematical equations and the patterns in the universe such as one sees in a nautilus shell or the double helix of DNA. The program book offered Mr. Schiff’s “guided tour” through this work. He comments on the frequent hand crossing in Variations 5 and 8. In Var. 8, the physical act of playing the music adds to the impression that there are four or more voices when in fact there are 2. He advises that despite the charm of the melody, the listener must follow the bass line. He refers to the possibility of admiring a great cathedral without thinking of its foundation. In his notes, Mr. Schiff is aware that this approach to the music will raise the hackles of other musicians. Indeed, during the interval between Bach and Beethoven, one easily had the opportunity to hear a famous Bay Area musician criticize this focus on the bass to the detriment of the soprano voice. Well, a cat may look at a king. The Goldberg Variations opens with the beautiful Aria, a melody with many decorations. The bass line will be like the bread crumb path left by Hansel and Gretel. From then on, there are seemingly endless variations, each one completely different in its form, rhythm, and mood. Originally written for a harpsichord with two keyboards, the possibilities are stunningly complex and achieved by Bach in an expansion of human spirit. Mr. Schiff occasionally would look into the audience with a gentle smile as though acknowledging something funny in the music, or something coming that would turn the development of the whole piece. He did this as what he calls the “colossal build up” began in Variation 28 with the trills “like a concert of birds.” The expansive celebration comes in Variation 30. It has humor and a great heart. After the big sound of Variation 30, the Aria returns. It sounded different; it is the listener who has changed. Bach has taken the listener through so much and somehow, with no specific story to tell, one knows a peaceful, happy ending. There are structural, musical connections between the works by Bach and Beethoven. While Bach was almost unknown in Vienna in Beethoven’s time, Beethoven’s friend, Baron Gottfried von Swieten had a library of Bach’s manuscripts which Beethoven studied. Bach seldom used the variation format for his work; Beethoven worked in it often. In the Diabelli Variations one may join in an exploration of Beethoven’s inventions, fresh springs of structure, rhythm, earthy and celestial revels and revelations. One might search in geology and geography to find comparisons to what Beethoven lets us hear. There are dark caverns with glowing crystals, vast canyons with depths delineated for the eye only by modulations of color, placid oceanic expansions belying a terrific force about to be released. There is the rough dance of cheerful country-folk whose humor will be replaced by the sophistication of a Baroque court dance or the gravity of the piano’s own personality as an instrument. The enormous work challenges pianist and audience to experience the complexity possible in human creation as well as the roller coaster ride of human emotion. It ends with a surprise. The waltz from which the variations grew is transformed. After thirty-two variations, the thirty-third rises up. It is gentle and complete.  Simplicity and purity are in the C major chord with which it ends. It needs no elaboration or emphasis. It is the answer the artist won by traveling through many worlds. Listening to Andras Schiff playing these works offers an opportunity to connect to the grandest excursions into human being that may be found. When he is playing near you, go.DownloadedFileJSBachPhoto of Andras Schiff at top of post by Birgitta Kowsky.