Alsop Conducts Beethoven – London Philharmonic Orchestra

February 21st, 2015
Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London

Despite really enjoying Beethoven, I had a few reservations about last night’s concert being an all-Beethoven affair.  I though the performance was sparkling and full of energy, no question about it. Marin Alsop is a striking conducting force, and showed a deep understanding for Beethoven’s works and style. She presided over the podium with an intensity of focus that spurred the London Philharmonic Orchestra to some stunning music.

Opening with the overture to Leonore No. 3, the woodwind played with keen ensemble and sense of colour. However, the balance between strings and the rest of the orchestra was not good in the balcony – every time the brass entered they were drowned out entirely. David Fray’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was refined and well-crafted. His second-movement phrasing was particularly graceful, though there was a tendency to be rather heavy in the fast movements.

Finally came the triumphal Symphony No. 7, which the orchestra played with passion and zeal. Alsop always sat on the faster side of the tempo, pushing the music still faster in the final measures of the Allegro con Brio. By contrast, the second movement Allegretto returned to the minor sound world of the piano concerto, lending weight and rich instrumental colours to its memorable melodies.

Day 144 – February 21st – Belated Beethoven

Last night we headed up to London to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra play an all-Beethoven program under the direction of Marin Alsop. It was a wonderful concert, but trains were delayed getting both there and back, and I didn’t make it back to Elmsted until 1am.

More on the concert later today…for now I really need to practise!

Marathon with a Capital B!

3MBS Beethoven Marathon – 3/3/13 BMW Edge, Melbourne

I spent five hours on Sunday listening to pianists play Beethoven. an compared to some of the audience I felt like a distinct lightweight. The really dedicated had been there for seven hours by the time I arrived, and stayed for another two after I headed home to bed. Just piano, just Beethoven. Since I was volunteering at the event, I’m not going to give a review per say. Instead, this is something of a meditation on why musical marathons seem to all of a sudden be incredibly popular.

The basic premise is this: in one day, all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas are performed by Melbourne and Australia’s top pianists. Organised into 2-hour sessions, audiences can either buy single tickets or a full day pass. Rather than being organised in chronological order, which would have put most of the weightier sonatas in the evening, each session was organised so as to provide a contrast of characters and periods. It was a great success by any measure: there was standing room only in every one of the seven session.

What appeals to audiences (myself included) about the intensity of this experience? The classical music marathon seems to have become a mainstay of late. In Melbourne alone there has been the Beethoven Symphonic Marathon (MSO 2011), the seventeen-hour Bach Organ Marathon (Calvin Bowman 2009) and the Impossible Orchestra (MSO 2012) which was essentially a 24-hour long concert.

On one level it seems quite bizarre, one of the excesses of our over-privileged society. Why just limit ourselves to a single, digestible concert when we can have a whole day of it? We can gorge ourselves silly on Beethoven cramming in every single luxurious note. In many ways, it feels like popular culture spilling into classical music making. The movie marathon, the day and weekend-long outdoor music festivals that are a staple of the Australian summer. The difference is, though, that there is a level of concentration in listening to this music that there isn’t in more popular genres. At Pyramid or Falls Festival you can move around, chat with your friends, have a drink. For a classical marathon, you must (still) sit quietly in your seat, just looking and listening. For some, this was clearly too much – a girl of about twelve sitting in front of me in the 7pm session looked (and acted) bored out of her brains, and she was only there for two hours!

In many ways, the marathon ideal makes me think of religious ceremony, the idea of a protracted vigil to show devotion. Except here, the object of meditation is Beethoven. In listening to so many different renditions of his music, the day becomes a homage to his creative genius, an acknowledgement of the profound impact that his music still has so many years after his death. It recognises his entire oeuvre for the keyboard, even those sonatas that are often overlooked in favour of the ‘greats’. Though I am a musician and a music student (though admittedly not of the piano), I heard sonatas that were new to me. Beethoven is revered as a great composer for the keyboard, and such a concentration of his music alone must only serve to confirm this, as each sonata adds something to the collection as a whole.

But is it possible to take in every moment of this musical experience? To appreciate each sonata on a level that one would in a normal-length concert? Of course not, the specifics of each performance must necessarily be sacrificed when presented on such a scale. Memories of individual pieces and performances quickly begin to mix and mingle, especially with less-familiar works.

Yet I wonder whether this is at once precisely the fascination and the challenge. On one level, we aim for total concentration, we strain to take in every note, every gesture, every phrase, and find an meaning in each of them. We want to remember this performer for her grace of melodic line, that one for his delicate staccato passages, another for the chords that he sends ringing round the hall. We want to etch each of these moments into our memory as stunning, but we cannot. Some memories will stay, others will be lost in the deluge of sound.

Instead, a bigger picture must emerge. Rather than thinking of each individual sonata, we think instead of the oeuvre as a whole. We remember the complexity of harmony, the dramatic rhetoric of line, the sincerity of writing. At 3MBS today, a fellow volunteer exclaimed that he had finally realised it was all about the slow movements in Beethoven’s writing. I agree, not only with the slow movements being truly stunning, but with the weight of this gentleman’s discovery. He has, through this listening experience, found a key to furthering his appreciation of Beethoven’s sonatas, to contemplate them on a deeper level. And rather than feeling he had had enough of the composer for a while, he was actually listening to a piano sonata! He wanted to understand this music still further.

For me, the diversity of interpretation and style was most striking. In five hours, I heard eight different pianists play eight different sonatas, and in each I had a profoundly different musical experience. And I think it takes each of them playing a sonata by the same composer to fully appreciate this. Some bemoan the uniformity of playing styles today, and yet I felt that each performer gave me something to meditate on. The physicality of playing the piano becomes incredibly noticeable; some lend the entire weight of their body to producing almost every sound, while others seem to effortlessly glide across the keys. The depth and variety of colour that they drew out of a single instrument was stunning All give everything – their intensity of concentration far outstrips that of the audience – and yet each is different in the way that this reflects on the music.

I don’t know whether I would have felt this sense of euphoria if I had been there all day – those that did all said they loved every minute. Another 3MBS marathon is already on the cards, and discussion naturally turns to what the subject will be. I’m hoping for a day of string quartets, though this is rather more challenging to organise that pianists! One thing’s for sure, for better or worse I will certainly aim to be there for the whole day, luxuriating in the intensity of such an experience. I’ll just be sure to take a cushion – those seats at BMW Edge ridiculously uncomfortable!

Stop, repair, prepare…

Allora & Calzadilla Kaldor Public Art Project

16th November – 6th December

Cowen Gallery, State Library of Victoria

A pianist strikes the opening chords of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, well-known to many but still stunning. More remarkable though, is that they aren’t seated at the  instrument. The piano for this public art installation has been transfigured, or should I say disfigured, to hold the player inside it.

The clever thing about this project is that there are many reasons that it is intriguing and catches the imagination of those passing through the state library’s gallery space. Visually, the whole concept is bizarre. The piano has a gaping hole right where many of the strings should be – complemented by one cut in the lid for visual effect. The player leans out over the keys, playing them backwards and upside-down to create a dazzling contortion of technique. Not only that, but the usually stationary instrument is dragged round the gallery while playing, with the pianist using their body weight to drive the instrument.

All this is clever, and certainly draws an audience, but I think that if this was simply a visual spectacle with little-known music it would be less effective. The power of the project comes from the use of Ode to Joy – indeed the pianist is playing the whole 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony – a piece that is almost universally known and loved. The listener is drawn into the musical and physical struggle of the performer as they do battle with their constricting position. Even those who had no musical training, it seemed, had some idea of what came next, of the magnitude of the music being performed. And, I think, this is one of the reasons they stayed.

Just as the instrument is incomplete, so is the music. Drawing on the idea of a ‘prepared’ piano with nuts and bolts inserted, the piece makes full use of the instrument’s percussive nature. The central two octaves – with strings removed – are nevertheless explored, adding thuds and taps where one would except Beethoven’s melody to continue. The performer also plucks strings – why not, they’re right there? – and even the sound of the instrument moving round becomes an eerie accompaniment to the music. The pianist seems utterly compelled to make this music, otherwise the physical constraints of the upside-down piano would render it impossible.

Audience reactions to this are incredible and diverse. Of course, many film it on iphones, wanting to share the bizarre nature of the performance. Some follow the piano as it moves round the room, others feel that they should stay still and appreciate the piano from a single angle only. Still some whistle or hum along, caught up in the drama of the music.

Stop, repair, prepare is only on until Thursday 6th December at the State Library of Victoria. If you can go, go! Bizarre, indescribable, this is also deeply touching and a reflection on the power that music has on us both as a listener and a performer.

Emperor Concerto – Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Friday 20th April

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – Piano/Director: Olli Mustonen

It’s one thing (and by far taxing enough) to play two Beethoven piano concertos over the course of a single concert. Then add directing from the piano, and having one’s own work for symphony orchestra played in between, and you have Finnish renaissance man Olli Mustonen.

Far less well-known than its Emperor cousin, Beeethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is nevertheless a gem. Mustonen approached it with enthusiasm and zeal, leaping out of the piano stool at every opportunity to drive the orchestra on. That said, it was certainly when seated that the best magic was woven, with the daring, ever so flirtatious cadenza to the first movement being particularly impressive. The orchestra were not afraid to feel the pesante weight of the rondo as the piano danced brilliantly over the top.

Mustonen’s own piece – Jehkin Iivana – was given its Australian premiere with no less enthusiasm. Drawing on Finnish history and folklore, the music wove together fragments of kantele song ( a plucked string instrument using modal tuning, here reproduced by the flutes), church hymn-like melodies, and soundscape sections reminiscent of Finland’s winter wilderness. Despite its atonality, the work’s lilting melodies and constantly shifting texture invited the ear with its contemplative expanse.

In his return to the piano stool, Mustonen confirmed that it is here that his talent and musicality are at their best. The sparkling slow movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, soaring over the already mesmerised audience,  was without a doubt highlight of the evening.