Tag Archives: Jonathan Biss

Beethoven: The Marathon Man


The San Francisco Symphony, led by Music Director & Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, recreated an extraordinary day in music history. On December 22, 1808, at the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna, Beethoven premiered his 6th and 5th symphonies, the Piano Concerto No. 4, Choral Fantasy, movements of his Mass in C major, the aria Ah! Perfido. It was a four hour long concert. The story goes that the evening was a disaster. The musicians were not well prepared to play either symphony. The errors in the Choral Fantasy were so egregious that Beethoven stopped its performance and demanded it begun again. Reports include the continuing disappearance of the audience and that the weather was unusually cold. The SF Symphony recreated the event (the weather in SF being fine) with the Beethoven Marathon, June 20. The Hedgehogs were fortunate to hear the full program but divided into two separate evenings, June 17 and 18. (Previous posts about the June 17th concert and the June 18 performance of the Symphony No. 5 are below.)

             mtt_09-black_0598-5-120x67  MTT opened the June 18 program with Symphony No. 5. The shock and awe (isn’t this a truer way to use those words than their more recent history as a pair?) of the Symphony still occupied our beings when the second half of the program opened with the Sanctus movement from the Mass in C major. It begins with only four measures played by the orchestra and then is sung by the chorus without accompaniment. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus with soloists Nikki Einfeld, soprano; Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor, Shenyang, bass-baritone gave us a stellar presentation of the prayer of praise. The Sanctus is also a central Hebrew prayer: Kodosh, Kodosh, Kodosh, Holy, Holy, Holy, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus; the words, meaning and purpose are the same. The purity of the singers’ voices created a new atmosphere in Davies Hall, peaceful and exalted.

Jonathan_Biss_171_credit_Benjamin_Ealovega-120x67 Beethoven was a great pianist as well as a great composer and sought after for his performances. Spontaneous, improvisational “fantasies” were greatly valued by music lovers; Beethoven was a master of this kind of playing. Improvisation disappears as it happens unless a recording device is present. There is some documentation of cadenzas which were written after an improvisation or descriptive writing reporting on the music. Fortunately there is a document of Beethoven’s Fantasy (Opus 77), 1809. This exciting music may be as close as we can get to Beethoven improvising. Performed by Jonathan Biss, the Fantasy was a roller coaster ride of rapidly changing forms and exquisite, high spirited energy. Mr. Biss obviously relished exploring Beethoven’s free ranging imagination. His performance was thrilling.

The Choral Fantasy demonstrates the Beethoven who stretched his arms to encircle the world. It is set to a poem attributed to Christoph Kuffner. It begins, “Ingratiating, lovely, and loving/are the harmonies of our lives,/the sense of beauty brings forth/flowers that bloom forever.” Performed by the SF Symphony; Jonathan Biss, piano; Nikki Einfeld, soprano; Brielle Marina Neilson, mezzo-soprano; Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Matthew Peterson, baritone; Shenyang, bass-baritone; and the SF Symphony Chorus, it was a musical expression of the triumph of the human spirit. It is propelled by the same joy in life that lifts up Symphony No. 9 and takes us with it. On December 22, 1808, Beethoven himself played the piano. Mr. Biss’s power and expression are his own, but one finds him a grand stand-in for the master. Feeling lighter, more optimistic the audience could depart as though at the beginning of things instead of an ending. The SF Symphony fulfilled the Choral Fantasy‘s promise: “When music’s magic exerts its power/and words speak consecration,/something wonderful takes shape…”

Pictures: top: Beethoven; Michael Tilson Thomas; Jonathan Biss



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.