What’s the big deal about Beethoven?

Albert André, The Concert, 1903. Oil on cardboard on wood panel,. 20 3/4 x 26 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1923

Albert André, The Concert, 1903. Oil on cardboard on wood panel,. 20 3/4 x 26 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1923

Last Sunday, The Phillips Camerata began its five-concert exploration of Beethoven’s piano concertos, in collaboration with resident musicians from the National Gallery of Art. In the space of a few weeks, all five concertos will be performed at our two institutions in a project that explores the depth and scale of these great works in arrangements for chamber ensemble. Camerata pianist Irina Nuzova began the cycle on Sunday with Piano Concerto No. 1, followed by Piano Concerto No. 2 performed at the National Gallery yesterday afternoon with soloist Edvinas Minkstimas. Concertos 3-5 will be performed respectively by pianists Danielle Deswert Hahn (April 7 at 6:30 pm at the National Gallery), Thomas Pandolfi (April 14 at 4 pm at The Phillips Collection), and Mykola Suk (April 21 at 6:30 pm at the National Gallery).

What does Beethoven offer us in these works? Almost always a journey of some kind. If we trace an arc from the first to the last concerto, we can see the enormity of Beethoven’s musical achievement. This can also be found in his 32 piano sonatas, 16 string quartets, and in the symphonies, but never is this voyage so uniquely distilled as it is in the piano concertos. By the time he had completed the first concerto, aged 28, Beethoven had established himself in Vienna as the preeminent keyboard virtuoso of his age. He had absorbed the influence of Mozart and Haydn, and this is evident in his first two concertos. Yet having done so in his 20s, he wanted to show himself as more than the inheritor of their tradition, rather as a revolutionary, dragging the coattails of courtly Viennese society into the dawn of a new musical age. By the third concerto, composed in 1800, it is clear that he was trying something totally new and never before heard.

It was a timely shakeup of the status quo. Until the arrival of Beethoven, composers were largely expected to fulfill obligations to patrons and aristocracy, and music was the gilded flower of social elites. However by the late 18th century the system began to break down–music was being written for a broader audience and published and sold more widely. It was becoming universal. Beethoven’s passionate and explosive new music grasped the spirit of his epoch; truly a man of his time, Beethoven’s compositions elevated music to new levels of expression.

Beethoven the man was a complex and contradictory character, however. He was often gloomy, dark, and intolerable. He detested crowds, led a miserable love life, and through his growing deafness suffered the greatest affliction imaginable for a musician. Yet it was precisely through this adversity that he channeled his art, communicating incredible hope, positivity, and warmth. Our fascination with his life is because his music takes us on an intimate journey through it; we share in his joys, loves, and pains in equal measure.

Jeremy Ney, Music Consultant

Late Night Rehearsal

Pianist Alexander Melnikov practices last Saturday night. Photo: Margaret Rajic

Pianist Alexander Melnikov practices last Saturday night. Photo: Margaret Rajic

Saturday evening I had the pleasure of photographing Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov practicing in the beautiful home of Aaron and Barbara Levine. They graciously offered their home as a practice location to Mr. Melnikov, who requested to rehearse late into the evening. His sense of humor and wit after a day of traveling from Kansas City to Washington, D.C., on top of jetlag, was a delight. Mr. Melnikov told me how charmed he was by Washington, after spending only a number of hours in the city—the majority of which were spent rehearsing. On Sunday he gave a concert at the Phillips with a program including Schumann, Scriabin, and Prokofiev.

Margaret Rajic, Music Intern

The Confluence of Sound and Technology

Finish composer Kaija Saariaho appears at The Phillips Collection tonight, Thursday, February 21, as part of the Leading European Composers series. She presents a selection of her chamber music with members of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio.  For more information and to make a reservation please visit www.phillipscollection.org/music

Kaija Saariaho Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

Kaija Saariaho Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

In today’s world we are surrounded by artificial sounds–from the blips and beeps of computers to amplified and synthesized sounds in music. When almost any sound is possible, how do you choose the right ones to create something expressive, beautiful, and within reach? Kaija Saariaho is one composer whose experiments in electronic sound have rendered something unique.

For Saariaho, her discovery of computers in music unlocked the potential to explore the sounds that she heard in her head as a child. She uses electronics as both an enabler and a tool of inspiration, but her music is never subservient to technology. Saariaho employs it as a form or orchestration, building colors, tones, and timbres just as Brahms or Mahler might employ brass, woodwind, and strings.

In the works to be presented in tonight’s program, all but one take inspiration from poetry and literature. Her work Lonh for soprano and electronics uses a poem attributed to medieval French troubadour Jaufré Rudel. Extracts of the poem are recorded in three languages in male and female voices and channeled through electronic process. The soprano triggers these recorded samples at moments in the score, and thus Saariaho creates a dialogue between live and recorded sounds that blends the worlds of real and artifice, past and present. Within this fragmented aural world, Saariaho maintains a feeling of deep human connection–the soprano’s almost plainchant singing conveys a profound sense of spirituality.

Another work on tonight’s program, From the Grammar of Dreams, explores the contrasts of the conscious and subconscious. Saariaho generates a musical collage from two extracts of Sylvia Plath, the poem Paralytic and quotations from The Bell Jar. The piece is scored for soprano and mezzo soprano, and the two voices weave in and out of each text in such a way as they become one single voice inhabiting different interior, psychological states.

What makes Saariaho unique in the field of contemporary music is her ability to convey the intensely personal. Her musical colors, whether rich and complex or simple and clear, are always luminescent in their beauty. Whether or not you engage with the metaphorical, spiritual, or even theatrical elements of her music, it speaks to us first and foremost through its sound.  However just as with contemporary art or literature, the deeper one chooses to participate, examine, and question, the more the music will reveal of itself.

Jeremy Ney, Music Consultant