Much had been written about the gauntlet tossed down in front of young, gifted pianist Adam Golka by his older brother, Tomasz, music director and conductor of the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra.
It was Tomasz who challenged Adam to perform all five of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano concerti over the course of one weekend, three on Friday and then closing with concerti numbers 1 and 5 (the “Emperor”) at Saturday’s concert at the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center Theatre.
Yes, Adam Golka had performed Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, in chronological order, in a series of concerts throughout 2006 at the Texas Christian University School of Music.
Yes, the now 24-year-old pianist has a place in his heart for Beethoven, stating this week that Beethoven “represents the peak of creativity and genius of the human mind” — and comparing his compositions to “Shakespeare dramas, in that he was probably the most comprehensive in terms of the emotional and intellectual parameters of his music.”
Nothing, however, could have prepared listeners for the performances by Golka and Lubbock’s orchestra Friday.
Let me try to at least set part of the scene.
This year’s concerts by the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra see starting times moved up from 8 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The first thing anyone must have noticed when entering the theater at the civic center is that the LSO’s grand piano was not locked down at center stage.
Rather, a gorgeous, gleaming Busendorfer grand was there in its place, even the gold pole holding up its lid seemingly polished for the occasion.
Mary Saathoff, president and CEO of the Lubbock orchestra, said, “We brought the piano in from Dallas just for Adam; it has a beautiful sound worthy of Beethoven and our remarkable young pianist.”
At 7:15 p.m., I looked over my shoulder into the balcony and saw several empty seats, which, on occasion, greet this orchestra for no good reason. Yet 15 minutes later, the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center Theatre at least had the appearance of being filled to capacity, certainly what was expected, especially upon learning that some music fans were traveling to Lubbock to hear Golka play.
More than one person appeared nervous when making the usual pre-concert requests and introductions. At one point, I leaned toward the woman on my left and, referring to a disembodied voice reminding us to turn off cell phones, I asked, “Did he just tell us to enjoy these violin concertos?”
She laughed and answered in the affirmative.
By 7:40 p.m., concertmaster Annie Boyle had prepared the ensemble, and the Golka brothers opted to take the stage together.
Adam took his seat at the piano. He offered a tight-lipped smile while waiting for a gentleman in the balcony to finish coughing and clearing his throat.
(In fact, the same unfortunate patron was forced to make the same sounds, disruptive within the hall’s acoustics, almost a half dozen times before perhaps departing.)
The orchestra began to play, the first notes signifying a 65th season underway and, with the introduction of themes, Adam Golka’s performance began.
To remark that Golka’s playing was exquisite is akin to saying something as obvious to everyone present as the sun rises each morning.
My seats allow a view of the pianist’s countenance and form, but, regrettably, not his hands.
In fact, Saathoff explained ticket sales with, “We were close to sold out. We had tickets available in house right, but of course everyone wanted keyboard side.”
One need only listen to grasp that Golka can play very fast when the score demands, taking virtually no time to sweep the keyboard before providing a trill in the upper register.
That said, Golka is never overly dramatic; he does not end any movements with familiar head whips or what his brother calls “showy thunder and lightning.”
Neither is he overly melodramatic.
Still, it was obvious throughout that Golka knows this music intimately — he is playing all of the Beethoven piano concerti from memory — that he truly loves this music and that, most of all, he has formed a personal understanding, or at least a bond, with these particular concerti.
Some memorable portions also arrive as Golka’s instrument converses with the entire ensemble, led by Tomasz Golka.
Make no mistake, few would walk out saying they enjoyed equal impact. Friday found Adam in the spotlight, with eyes trained on him and the sound of the piano dominant. But Beethoven obviously wanted the orchestra’s voice heard, and these full-bodied concertos depend on piano and ensemble literally complementing, and depending upon, one another.
Golka performed the second and third concerti prior to intermission, and Beethoven’s fourth afterward. Especially during the third, which began at 8:10 p.m., Adam Golka so ably captured, and communicated, every nuance of the dramatic theme that one sensed the music traveling a painful path from heart to fingertips.
Yet this lengthy drama segued into a movement commanding a touch so light that the music may as well have been a prayer.
The final movement is much more light-hearted, but not so much so that one can ever forget the musical baring of emotion that preceded it.
So much of Beethoven’s piano concerto music is instantly recognized when played. The fourth concerto, with Golka’s pauses equally dramatic, differs from the very beginning, as he plays before the orchestra.
The concerto’s complexity is fascinating, with Golka once appearing to offer a life line, or base, with one hand, and a melody with the other.
Once again, his long fingers move with astonishing speed when he so desires.
Golka said earlier that the sudden arrival of strings in the first movement always gives him goosebumps.
More than a thousand listeners Friday shared a plethora of other honest emotional reactions. For example, a friend of one violinist was overheard afterward telling the musician that she wept during parts of the evening’s performance.
I dare say she was not alone.
But of course, as soon as concerto four concluded, there was a volcanic-like eruption of every form of praise. Applause and “bravo”s, of course, but also whistles from the balcony and shouts.
Everyone would have been willing to stay on their feet through countless curtain calls, with Tomasz wanting to keep his brother alone at center stage, braced by the standing orchestra — and Adam all but pulling Tomasz back with him, or at least attempting to
Soon, though, Adam was grinning and holding up first one finger, then five, a plea to all to come hear him play Beethoven’s first and fifth concerti the next night, a silent promise that he had even more to give. And then he was gone.
Friday’s performance alone, however, became a special, probable once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most listeners, exceeding all expectations.