Beethoven

Fortepianos and a Misty Lake in the Moonlight

Historically, a keyboard isn't just a keyboard. How you hear Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata can depend on the instrument it's played on.


By JOSEPH ALBERT


When Baroque or earlier music is performed, the question of whether to use period instruments often is at the forefront of the interpretive conception. Organizations like the Oregon Bach Festival and Portland Baroque Orchestra must answer this question for every performance. With keyboard repertoire or keyboard parts of a chamber or orchestral work, this might be a decision of whether to use a piano or a harpsichord. The two instruments have such different sound, however, that asking which is preferred is not unlike asking whether a piece should be played on violin or flute. Thus, while pianists playing solo may choose to play on the piano music that was composed for harpsichord, Baroque and early music ensembles generally will use a harpsichord or organ for keyboard parts to satisfy aesthetic preferences and maintain historical integrity.

During the Classical era, fortepianos (early versions of the piano) began supplanting harpsichords and organs as the keyboard instrument of choice for secular keyboard music. While the earliest keyboard compositions of Haydn were written for the harpsichord, the fortepiano had supplanted the harpsichord by the time of Beethoven and Schubert. Today, keyboard music of the Classical era generally is performed on a modern piano, but the decision of whether to use a period piano (fortepiano) or modern piano can be interesting.

Fortepianist Tom Beghin, in a screen shot from the video below, demonstrating Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” From a demonstration at the Orpheus Institute, Ghent, Belgium, March 3, 2015.

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Austin Hartman: conversing with Beethoven

Pacifica Quartet's new violinist explains why the group is tackling all Beethoven's string quartets this week in Portland, and why chamber music matters

Violinist Austin Hartman joined Pacifica Quartet last year— just in time to embark on performances of Beethoven’s complete string quartets, which the ensemble brings to Portland State University in a series of five concerts presented this week by Friends of Chamber Music. The quartet has impressed Oregon listeners in several previous visits. In the second of our stories about this monumental cycle, ArtsWatch asked Hartman why these quartets and this series are so special, about his journey in classical music, and more. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Oregon Arts Watch: I’ve heard it said that there is Beethoven for people who have lived life, and there is Beethoven for people who haven’t. That rings pretty true for me. How do you see that idea in the quartets?

Austin Hartman: Beethoven is a unique composer in that there is something for everyone. People coming to it for the first time can enjoy it in a fresh and new way, and certainly Beethoven gives you plenty to unpack as a new listener. And then, just as it is with other great master composers, these quartets provide lifetimes of exploration into what it even means for us as musicians. What do these experiences mean? How do we go about bringing out the greatest depth from this composer? And then for the listener: how does that relate to my human experience? This man is exploring a range of human emotion and is writing it at different points.

Pacifica Quartet corners the Beethoven quartet market this week at Portland State University. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Each of the early, middle, and late periods speak to a seasoned listener more powerfully at different times, and I think that is the other benefit of the cycle. It’s like sitting down to have a long conversation with someone — the longer you sit there and talk to them, the more you get to know them. And the way you relate to that conversation might be very dependent on how your day has been going.

OAW: Each concert in the festival you’re playing here in Portland is its own microcosm: each one features early, middle, and late quartets. How did you decide to do it that way, and how has that changed how you play them?

Hartman: Someday we would like to try and do it in a linear way and figure out what that experience is like, and just watch a composer age in the progression of the quartets. The size and scope of the works would be interesting. We would have to figure out how to divvy up some of the late quartets—they are certainly much longer than the earlier ones. And there is no less challenge there: all of the quartets are challenging in different kinds of ways for the performer. And for the listener too.

I think one of the benefits of mixing it up the way we are doing it in Portland is the fact that it really gives concert-goers a sample from each period, and it makes the listener really be on their toes. Certainly the late quartets push listeners in a very different way than the early quartets do.

I’m sure part of the thinking in putting it together this way is we are having a balanced evening, balanced in terms of different keys, different characters, so we aren’t putting all the dark and stormy weather ones together. There are rays of sunshine in the middle. It is interesting that a majority of the quartets go out on a major note: it’s almost like Beethoven just couldn’t allow the suffering or the darkness to sit there.

So part of it has to do with the character and keys and how they relate. It’s really through that lens that we put these together this way.

OAW: How do you treat a cycle of quartets as a single work? It’s so much music to have in your head at one time. And your interpretation of the cycle must develop over time, in the same sense that your interpretation of a single quartet develops over time.

Hartman: You’re preparing not only to present concert after concert, but really to get yourself as a performer ready to engage with the entire scope of the project. With Beethoven, you’re dealing with a man who is expressing his entire life in sixteen quartets, starting with his early works and his youthfulness, and ending with some of the challenges he faced in his later years. As a performer, getting ready to take that on, it’s probably like an actor getting ready to step into character, trying to grapple with the range of experiences this composer is expressing. And then our hope is that we as a quartet can give the listener an opportunity to go on that journey with us and get to know the composer better.

It grows us over the course of the project—certainly, doing it you get to know Beethoven very intimately. His repertoire demands the highest level of technical proficiency and musical depth, and I think we grow a lot. This is a process that will take many lifetimes to figure out and understand completely, but it’s our hope that in our time with the audience, we can all work together to catch a glimpse of who Beethoven was and the impact that he had.

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Pacifica Quartet preview: cycling Beethoven

Renowned chamber ensemble's five-concert series offers a rare opportunity to take a deep dive into some of the greatest music ever written

“I’m sorry, I’m getting choked up now,” says Pacifica Quartet violist Mark Holloway. He’s not talking about a recent family tragedy. He’s talking about a long dead composer: Beethoven. And not about his famous symphonies (“da-da-da da!”), but a more intimate side. Over the next week, Holloway and his colleagues will perform all 16 of Beethoven’s string quartets in five concerts at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

“I feel so humbled by this music,” Holloway continued after composing himself. Even after playing those chamber music standards for decades, “we all have a deep love for it. Today we were rehearsing Op. 135 and the second violin had one of those magical moments only Beethoven can conjure up and I could see the astonishment on his face.”

Pacifica Quartet plays Beethoven this week. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Holloway and his fellow quartet members aren’t the only listeners who continue to be moved. Composed between 1800, when Beethoven was 30, and 1826, the year before he died, the quartets offer astonishing variety, considering they were all written by one composer for the same four stringed instruments. The first six mostly build on the Classical-era forms established by his teacher Haydn and Mozart. The ever-popular middle period quartets document Beethoven’s evolution from Classical elegance to Romantic passion. His final quartets look beyond Romanticism to a more modern, sometimes uncategorizable sound, and still sound thrillingly futuristic even in the 21st century.

With Beethoven’s 250th birth anniversary approaching, Friends of Chamber Music, which is presenting the Pacifica Beethoven cycle, knew that many listeners would want to get to know — or reacquaint themselves with — Beethoven’s music, explains executive director Pat Zagelow. Experiencing the complete cycle (or even a few portions) live provides an unparalleled opportunity to sample or dive deep into what’s universally considered to be some of the greatest music ever written — undistracted by device notifications and news. FOCM also offers an impressive series of free talks, expert lectures, discussions, master classes and open rehearsals to contextualize and enhance the exploration.

And Pacifica Quartet makes an ideal guide. In previous Oregon appearances, the Grammy-winning foursome have demonstrated not just the highest levels of technical chops but also a rare ability to connect emotionally to audiences without resorting to fake flamboyance. Read Alice Hardesty’s ArtsWatch interview for more on the group and its two-decade history.

“They rehearse all the time and work so hard to have such a high level of artistic integrity and cohesiveness,” Zagelow says. “Even audience members who are not as sophisticated musically love them and don’t know why. I love to watch them — it’s so engaging to see them immersed in this. The music is living through their bodies as they play.”

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Oregon Symphony reviews: immigrant songs

Fall concerts include a world premiere theatrical commission and 20th century works by immigrant American composers

An orchestra handles like a steamship, where a jazz band (even a big one) handles like a motorboat, and genre-crossing tends to breed monsters as much as angels. What kind of hybrid might the Oregon Symphony Orchestra produce in performing George Gershwin’s jazz-meets-classical  Rhapsody in Blue alongside Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and a newly commissioned play-with-orchestra last November?

As it turned out, soloist Kirill Gerstein’s clever two-concerto gambit smoothly navigated the tricky course, chiefly by virtue of his own witty and informed virtuosity (he actually began his career as a jazz pianist). Throughout Rhapsody in Blue, he made a point of emphasizing the most avant-garde, “outside” sounding notes, as if to say “speaking of atonality, you ever notice how edgy this note is?” I’d heard my share of the Rhapsody already this year, but Gerstein’s performance made it fresh for me. Any decent concert pianist can finger their way through the tricky bits, and any hack can hammer out those iconically familiar themes, but it takes a special artist to improvise something completely new in the middle of a revered classic. Gerstein’s choice to solo in an especially outré and swinging way, stretching surreal blues licks all around a steady left hand groove, sounded quite legitimately like the sort of thing I’d expect to hear in one of the old-fashioned jazz clubs that Portland keeps closing. It’s the sort of musical witticism and daring that makes veteran jazz audiences chuckle knowingly over their martinis. I’m not sure how well it went over with the symphony crowd, but I loved it.

Gerstein, Kalmar and the orchestra delivered dynamite Gershwin and Schoenberg. Photo: Leah Nash.

My only real complaint is the usual one: Rhapsody in Blue, again? Gershwin composed his perfectly lovely (and considerably more classical) Concerto in F the following year, and I’d rather have heard that one for the first time than Rhapsody in Blue for the hundredth. To be perfectly frank, at this point Ellington’s version is about all we really need.

Where Gerstein brought out Gershwin’s modernity, he brought out what jazziness he could find latent in the Schoenberg. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what he was doing to make it sound so much more immediate and clubby than, say, Pierre Boulez’s excellent recording with Mitsuko Uchida (or his earlier one with Daniel Barenboim). I dunno, maybe just putting these two on the same program was enough to prime my ear for the connections. Conductor Carlos Kalmar certainly reinforced the relationship in the audience’s mind, joking about Gershwin and Schoenberg’s famous tennis partnership in 1930s Hollywood and reminding us of Gershwin’s early connections to the European avant-garde.

Kalmar also joked, when explaining the unorthodox program order, that we should not leave the premises “after the Schoenberg, nor before the Schoenberg, nor during the Schoenberg.” It’s a pretty audacious move putting Big Bad Schoenberg on any program, and although the OSO and their audience are pretty open minded, the Godfather of Horror Music ranks pretty high on the list of Forbidden Composers. The presence of Gershwin—and the stirring, heartfelt performance of the Prokofiev concert opener—smoothed all that over, recontextualized the music as different sides of a story about American immigrants, and made it all considerably more palatable. Hell, I like Schoenberg a lot and this was probably my favorite live performance of his music to date.

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