More than two centuries ago this week, Ludwig von Beethoven gave what today we would call his 'breakthrough' performance. On March 25, 1795, an emerging Beethoven appeared live at the Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria. He had already been composing, and by that time he had gained popularity playing private parties in the salons of the rich. But this was his big public debut.
Piano Concerto No.2 in B Flat major, Opus 19 is the work most widely recognized as the one that he performed at his Vienna debut. The three movement concerto is commonly referred to as a "presentation piece" that showed off his skills and announced himself as an expert to Viennese society.
To celebrate the milestone in classical music, Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra presented Piano Concerto No. 2 with special guest pianist Adam Golka - back by popular demand - playing the role of Beethoven at the keys.
The concert, at the Michigan Theater on Saturday night, was both "Beethoven and Beyond".
Beethoven was book-ended by two master composers of their own respective generations. Contemporary composer, John Adams composed Short Ride on a Fast Machine (Fanfare for Great Woods) for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's festival, in 1986. And Richard Strauss composed Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 in 1896 as a sort of musical companion to Friedrich Nietzsche's novel.
Adam Golka's piano playing was superb. Beethoven is far from easy, even for professionals like the accomplished 26 year old who has given solo performances all over the U.S. and abroad. Golka won first prize in the 2003 China Shanghai International Piano Competition and took a 2008 Gilmore Young Artist Award and the 2009 Max I. Allen Classical Fellowship Award of the American Pianists Association, among other accomplishments.
A2SO program notes point to some of the challenges that the composition poses to soloists. In the first movement; "The soloist enters with a lot of room to embellish the tuneful scenario. At once the light mood is maintained with complete transparency, scored with a decided emphasis on the mid-range tessitura of the keyboard. But in order for this pristine clarity to maintain, the soloist must tread barely and modestly on the pedals. And, as if the work were not demanding enough, note the exhaustive cadenza just before the end of the movement."
The soloist is tasked with following Beethoven's complex tune, while simultaneously making it their own, embellishing, and putting a bit of themselves into it.
Whether Golka's fingers were flying at what felt like the speed of light, as in the aforementioned tricky cadenza, or slowed down, as in the work's Adagio movement, the pianist embodied every note. And his piano set up a call-and-response pattern in the 3rd movement, a Rondo: Molto allegro, that complemented the orchestra quite nicely.
His face and movements were fun to watch, mostly because I could see the intensity with which he focuses in on each note. It seemed like Golka has the rare ability to, in a split second, ask each note how it would like to be played before laying down his fingers.
After completing his performance of Beethoven, Golka played two encores after a mid-show standing ovation. He was back for a 2nd A2SO performance by popular demand.
Unexpectedly, the Michigan Theater audience got to hear his renditions of a Bach piano solo and Béla Bartók's "The Chase."
A highlight of A2SO's program was Strauss' tonal poem, Also sprach Zarathustra, played with a full orchestra and the Michigan Theater's famous Burton Organ.
The work begins with "Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise)," one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music to today's audience. It is the theme music to Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and continues to pop up in popular culture now and again.
Conductor Arie Lipsky gave an introductory lesson to the work's nine allegories, which helped the audience follow along. The two main characters are the universe and man, the first represented in major keys and the latter in minor. They are often at odds with one another, as Strauss tries to rectify the two, exploring themes like religion, learning, longing, joy, and death.
For example, in the middle, "Das Grablied (The Dirge)" is "a tug between two clashing keys," representing "nature and mortal man" in the keys of C major and B minor, respectively, Lipsky explained to the audience.
By the end of "Nachtwandler Lied (Night-Wanderer Song)," which Lipsky called "contemplative," Strauss' attempt to musically solve the puzzle of man and the universe never happens. Instead, Strauss "leaves us with the riddle of life, the universe and everything, which remains a mystery after all," the conductor said at the concert.
As usually happens when I listen to classical instrumental music, I like to imagine it painting a picture. In a painting, colors, lines and shapes either tell a story, express an emotion or capture a thought. In classical music, sounds do the same thing.
Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine expresses simply the sensation of being in the passenger's seat of a super fast sports car.
A wood block keeps time, as horns and a big crash of percussion are followed by the string section. Momentum builds as the car whizzes through space and hits turns. At first it is exhilarating, but chaos follows. The wood block is sometimes a little off or lost in a whirlwind of sounds. Sensory overload makes the fast ride overwhelming, like when your head spins from the G-force of a roller coaster.