By Jim Berkenstock, Artistic Director, Midsummer’s Music
If you were to ask any music lover to name the most famous piano concerto, more than likely the answer would be the “Emperor” of Beethoven. Sure, the Grieg, Rachmaninov 2nd, Tchaikovsky, etc. would be right up there, but Beethoven’s final piano concerto has an aura about it befitting its title. Interestingly, Beethoven did not give it that name. He had gotten over the “emperor” thing when he did away with his dedication to Napoleon for his Third Symphony upon learning what a tyrant he really was. When Napoleon named himself “Emperor,” Beethoven is reported to have said, “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” Beethoven tore off the dedication to “Bonaparte” and replaced it with the title “Sinfonia Eroica.”
That was all in 1804. Now in 1809, Beethoven was completing his 5th and final piano concerto, Napoleon was at the outskirts of Vienna, and exploding shells could be heard in Beethoven’s environs. It is unthinkable that he would put a title with reference to Napoleon on any piece of music. In fact, the title is not from Beethoven. Instead, it seems to come from some fans soon after its premiere who considered it the supreme example, or Emperor, of all concertos. At any rate, the name stuck.
This is the only concerto of Beethoven’s that he did not premiere as the soloist. At the age of 39, his hearing was nearly totally gone, and performance would have been impossible. Imagine his attending the first performance in the audience where he could only feel the vibrations of his new work coming up through the floor and see the reaction of the audience. It had to be a unique form of agony.
But this is a work for piano and orchestra, one of the greatest, and Midsummer’s Music is presenting it as a chamber work? In fact, what about the Haydn symphony (the “Surprise”) on the same program? How can you have two orchestral works on a chamber music concert?
I can offer two explanations. One is historical. The other is that these chamber versions offer an opportunity to hear the same musical material in a more “concentrated” form. One is not distracted by orchestrational nuances. This is the basic musical material boiled down to its very essence, and in some ways, that essence becomes more apparent and more direct in these versions. It is not a replacement for the wonderful orchestral setting, but it can be an interesting and thought-provoking alternative perspective on a great piece of music—and an impressive one at that.
Historically speaking, this was a common practice in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Public orchestral concerts were exceedingly uncommon. Most standing orchestras were housed in the large estates of the rich nobility and royalty. Attendance was by invitation only. Wider dissemination was through chamber or two-piano arrangements. And these arrangements not only meant more hearings but the opportunity for more sales of the music with a burgeoning middle class looking for music for home and social gatherings. Mozart arranged several of his concertos for piano and string quartet himself. In the case of Haydn’s last 12 symphonies, he authorized his friend and colleague, Peter Salomon – the superb violinist, conductor, composer, and impresario who brought Haydn to London for his last 12 symphonies – to make the arrangement we have chosen (the famous “Surprise” Symphony). I find these versions for flute and strings revealing and delightful. Heather Zinninger, flutist with the Milwaukee Symphony, and David Perry, violinist with the Pro Arte Quartet, will lead this work with great aplomb.
In the case of the Beethoven, our pianist, Jeannie Yu, will create her usual magic in this iconic work of passion, power, and virtuosity. The arrangement is by Vincent Lachner, a composer and friend of Franz Schubert. Our program opens with a scintillating Quartet for Flute and Strings by the 18th/19th century composer, Bernhard Crusell. He is the only composer we ever feature who was born in Uusikaupunki, Finland, a place that is now home to the Crusell Music Festival every year. As a wind player himself, Crusell wrote a number of challenging and rewarding works featuring the flute, oboe, or clarinet with strings. It will showcase Heather’s fantastic talent as a flutist and will demonstrate why we eagerly have her back each year.
Please join Jeannie, Heather, David, and the rest of our string group for an emotional and highly charged program to be featured at four different locations:
Saturday, July 15th, 7:00 pm, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Sister Bay
Sunday, July 16th, 5:00 pm, Hope United Church of Christ, Sturgeon Bay
Wednesday, July 19th, 7:00 pm, Kress Pavilion, Egg Harbor [SOLD OUT]
Friday, July 21st, 7:00 pm, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Ephraim Please call 920-854-7088 or visit www.midsummersmusic.com for tickets or more information. One performance of this popular program is already sold out, and we expect that more will as well, so make your reservations as soon as possible. You don’t want to miss a note!