Monday, May 21 , 2018, 9:42 pm | Fair 59º


Symphony, Lang Lang Bring ‘Beethoven: To Life!’

The all-Beethoven program shows the great expansion of his powers

For once, the term “special event” has real meaning. At 8 p.m. Saturday in the Granada Theater, the Santa Barbara Symphony will present a truly special concert called “Beethoven: To Life!” starring the dazzling, celebrated young pianist Lang Lang, and the symphony, conducted by music director Nir Kabaretti.

As the title implies, this is an all-Beethoven program. They will start with the Overture to Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 tragedy, Coriolan, followed by the Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 19. After the intermission, the same forces will perform the Concerto No. 3 in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 37.

How to account for the immortality of Beethoven? Does it, in fact, need accounting? Sometimes when I hear Beethoven, I feel like the released prisoners in Fidelio, free to imagine the world a better place and myself a better man. Other times, I shiver with mysterious delight. Still more Beethovens inhabit the garden: the sorcerer, the buffoon, the nature-lover, the heart-on-sleeve romantic. How can they all sound so much like the same composer?

“Beethoven said a thing as rash and as noble as the best of his work. By my memory he said: ‘[Whoever] understands my music can never know unhappiness again.’ I believe it. And I would be a liar and a coward and one of your safe world if I should fear to say the same words of my best perception, and of my best intention. Performance, in which the whole fate and terror rests, is another matter,” James Agee wrote in 1941’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Admittedly, Agee’s was an extreme case of Beethoven-worship. (When he was writing for Fortune magazine in the 1930s, he was once discovered hanging by his knees out the window of his office, on the 30th floor of the Chrysler Building, a portable record-player on his desk blaring out Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at top volume.) He thought it a sacrilege that people played Beethoven while eating dinner or playing cards. The way to hear Beethoven, he believed, was to jam your ear into the speaker as far as you could and turn it up as far as it would go. (I tried this once, and I don’t recommend it. It hurt.)

Yet, extreme as it is, this passage speaks eloquently and precisely to my own reverence for the composer. His position in the musical universe is unique — and nonrefillable. As long as we can hear Beethoven, life is bearable. If we come to a point where Beethoven can no longer stir us, all is lost.

A very young Beethoven
A very young Beethoven.

The two concertos on the program take us from the clear, sparkling mountain stream of Haydn into the melancholy depths of Mozart. They illustrate a great expansion of Beethoven’s powers, his grasp of large-scale effects. They don’t quite take us out of the 18th-century world altogether.

The model for the Second seems to be one of Haydn’s harpsichord concertos; the model for the Third is undoubtedly Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra, K. 491 — it is even in the same key. In neither case does Beethoven surpass his model so much as perfect it. Together, the Second and Third concertos represent a suitably Hegelian synthesis of classical and rococo — or something. To go on, he will have to break open the forms, letting all the pent-up romantic passion spill out. That storm, of which he himself never lost control, broke upon European music shortly after his death.

As for Agee’s performance anxieties, the presence of Lang Lang at the keyboard, Karbaretti on the podium and the Santa Barbara Symphony under his baton ought to relieve us from any worry about that.

Anotators never tire of telling us that the Second Piano Concerto was actually written first, the First Piano Concerto came next. Sometimes, they tell us why Beethoven published the two in that order. They never, that I have seen, tell us why we should care. None of Beethoven’s five piano concertos is “better” than the others. In each one, the composer uses the material available to him with unimprovable art. Besides, neither the Second nor the First is actually his first essay in the form. I have a recording of a delightful three-movement Piano Concerto in E-Flat Major — the same key, mind you, as the “Emperor” — that Beethoven wrote in 1782, when he was 12.

Here are two moments I wait for in these concertos:

» In the Rondo last movement of the Second, the piano suddenly rises from the earth as a goblin, prances around in a mini-walpurgisnacht, then disappears back into the cheery swirl — as if to say, with the Book of Common Prayer, “In the midst of life we are in death.” A Mahler moment.

» The opening movement of the Third ends with a majestic, thrilling cadenza, after which, the piano runs out of energy, with soft, listless runs scrolling off the keyboard and dropping into a kind of void. Then, from this pool of exhaustion — all passion spent, as it were — a note of awakening sounds, and another. In a rush, the energy floods back into the music and the movement closes at high tide. In the words of the man who first pointed it out to me, “a tremendous resurrection.”

Tickets to the concert are available by calling the Granada box office at 805.899.2222 or online by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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