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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Festival Preview: The Beethoven Concertos

Yefim Bronfman and the New York Philharmonic close out the season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist Yefim Bronfman with an unidentified composer providing inspiration.
Photo sourced from, collage and image alteration by the author. 
In the wake of the New York Philharmonic's hugely successful 11-day NY PHIL BIENNIAL, New York City's oldest orchestra is ready to close out the 2013-14 season with one more festival. For three weeks, the orchestra will celebrate the music of Beethoven with a complete cycle of five Beethoven piano concertos, all played by artist-in-residence Yefim Bronfman and conducted by music director Alan Gilbert.

Beethoven's groundbreaking cycle of five piano concertos  were written in the first two-thirds of his career. Nos. 1-3 (the Second was actually written first) fall into his "early" (pre-Eroica) period. No. 4 and No. 5 (known as the Emperor) belong to his middle, or "heroic" period. This festival also features the rarely performed Triple Concerto (which falls between No. 3 and 4) written for violin, cello and piano.

Mr. Bronfman is a New York resident, a pianist of prodigious ability whose burly presence and muscular playing style sometimes recalls accounts of Beethoven's own abilities as a performer. Capable of moving between cantabile lyric lines and powerful, concert hall-shaking dramatic moments, Mr. Bronfman is a brilliant choice for this three-week festival, which caps his term as Philharmonic artist-in-residence.

The six Beethoven concertos on these three concert programs programs (only the Violin Concerto is absent) will be supplanted by new compositions by the young composers Anthony Cheung and Sean Shepherd. Mr. Cheung and Mr. Shepherd are each the recipients of composing grants from the Kravis Prize, an award for excellence in modern music that was first awarded  two years ago to the composer Henri Dutilleux. Both composers will introduce world premiere works commissioned specially for this festival by the New York Philharmonic.

Week One (June 11-14) will kick off with a program which inserts Mr. Cheung's Lyra between Beethoven's First and Fourth Piano Concertos. No. 1 (Op. 15) is actually the second piano concerto that Beethoven completed, (not counting a juvenile and fragmentary work sometimes referred to as "Concerto No. 0.") This popular score lays out the composer's new ideas about the relationship between keyboard and orchestra and stressing cooperation instead of conflict. The Fourth is universally beloved and evergreen, one of the composer's most inspiring works.

Week Two (June 18-21) will feature Mr. Shepherd's new work Songs wedged between the Second Piano Concerto and the Third. No. 2 was written first, but it was published as Op. 19.  No. 3 is known for its slow movement, one of the composer's most beautiful creations that pushed the limits of what a piano concerto should be and could achieve.

Week Three (June 24-28) is a five-concert marathon that pairs the Triple and Emperor Concertos. The performance of the Triple is also the orchestra's final farewell to its long-serving concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, who has held the first chair in the Philharmonic since 1981. The longest-serving concertmaster in orchestra history will be joined by Mr. Bronfman and cellist Carter Brey for the underrated and rarely performed major Beethoven work. The concert concludes with the heroic Emperor concerto, a work that allowed the fiery composer to tear up the rulebook and expand the form of the concerto to a whopping and unprecedented 41 minutes.

Following the premiere of the Emperor in 1811, Beethoven did plan and sketch a Sixth Piano Concerto for 1815, which may have been abandoned because of his oncoming deafness. That apocryphal work is currently available in a 1987 completion by musicologists Nicholas Cook and Kelina Kwan, and you can learn more about it at The Unheard Beethoven.

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