By David Cannon
Mocovox Entertainment Critic
October 15, 2012
Often in music, the third time seems to be the charm. There are plenty of pop/rock groups that finally broke through on their third albums: including such diverse acts as Aerosmith, Yes, Bon Jovi, and Queen. It can happen in classical music too.
For their opening concert at the Strathmore Music Center, the National Philharmonic opened with an all-Beethoven concert. Nothing unusual there, but this was a concert with a twist. “The Power of Three” showcased a number of third efforts on Beethoven’s part, and how these efforts broke new ground and produced some of the composer’s best works.
First, an old joke: what is the difference between Beethoven and Rossini? Rossini would write an overture and use it for four different operas. Beethoven composed only one opera but he wrote four different overtures for it. The best one is the Lenore Overture #3, which is almost a standalone tone poem with gloomy introduction, central dramatic conflicts, off stage fanfares, and all this leading to a triumphant conclusion.
Piotr Gajewski, conducting without the score, gave a rousing version of this piece. The slow introduction was appropriately dark and ominous while the ending had the brass playing very well at breakneck speed. Beethoven later wrote a more optimistic and far less dramatic Fidelio Overture, but this piece has all the passion that the composer poured into his opera.
With the Third Piano Concerto, we get to an early work that showed Beethoven at the point of breaking with tradition. The composer’s first two concertos were charming little works that look back to Haydn and Mozart. With the Third in c minor (the composer’s only concerto in a minor key) we see Beethoven maturing, expanding the form, and making the music far more dramatic. It is still a very classical period work, but the seams are starting to bend.
This was a fascinating rendition with piano soloist Orli Shaham, sister of violinist Gil Shaham who opened the current season of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The Philharmonic took the beginning with classical reserve, but it did not stay that way when Shaham entered the picture. Her entrance was fiery and dramatic, and she took the orchestra along with her for the ride.
It was fascinating to watch Shaham because she would sit there at the piano demurely until just before her entrance, and they quickly tear into the keyboard. She gave the hymn like slow movement plenty of lyrical emotion and then jumped right into to spirited rondo finale without a break. It was a great performance and the Philharmonic under Gajewski offered firm support throughout.
If the Third Piano Concerto hinted at great things to come, the work that followed intermission was the real breakthrough. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony may be the most popular symphony out there, and his Ninth the most discussed and admired, but there is no denying that the Third Symphony (nicknamed “Eroica”) is the most important symphony ever written.
Originally dedicated to Napoleon, before the composer famously tore up that dedication, Beethoven broke new grounds with this piece. The first movement, longer than many earlier Mozart symphonies, greatly expanded the form and built to very dramatic climaxes. Even more important, the finale is not a lighthearted movement, but variations on a theme (and equally important bass line) that gave the movement as much weight as the opening.
Still, Beethoven expanded but did not discard the classical model. Conductor Gajewski emphasized the more classical aspects of the score. He took the work at a swift pace, equal to Beethoven’s notoriously fast metronome markings, and got good performances from the Philharmonic. Perhaps nowhere was this more apparent than in the scherzo, with its treacherous passages for the French horns and its sudden meter switch near the ending.
My only criticism is the slow movement Funeral March. Gajewski took it faster than many interpretations I have heard, and the piece lost some of the emotion in the process. But at least the conductor did not fall into the opposite trap that so many other conductors fall into and take the movement so slowly that it dragged. Admittedly this is one of the trickiest movements in all of Beethoven and I have rarely heard it performed live just right.
It was not a short concert – none of these are short pieces – but it was a fascinating one. This is not to dismiss Beethoven’s earlier, more classical works. Many of them are great pieces – the First Symphony is a particularly charming little work. But with these works, especially the Eroica Symphony, the Beethoven that became famous for revolutionizing music really comes into focus.
Sometimes good things do come in threes.
Thus begins the current National Philharmonic season. Highlights later in the season include an all American music concert with a world premiere, an all Wagner concert in honor of that composer’s 200th birthday, several holiday performances of Handel’s Messiah, and Rimski Korsakoff’s Scheherazade.
For a complete schedule and ticket information, call (301) 493-9283 or go online to www.nationalphilharmonic.org.