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The Hendersonville Symphony under the direction of Maestro Thomas Joiner treated us to two facets of Beethoven’s music in their ongoing cycle of Beethoven’s works, and in so doing showed us the profound range of the composer’s creative mind. On the one hand we have Beethoven, the self-consciously serious and morally engaged composer of the Egmont Overture, and on the other hand the unbuttoned version whose love of life despite its hardships is communicated in his Symphony No. 8. Capping this evening of fine music making was the beloved Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, featuring renowned Russian pianist Yakov Kasman in his second appearance with the orchestra. For this performance Haejin Kim served as acting concertmaster. The concert’s corporate sponsors were Carolina First and Pardee Hospital Foundation. Media sponsors were Morris Broadband and the Hendersonville Times-News. Mr. Kasman’s appearance was underwritten by William and Ann Graves.
Mr. Kasman was born in Orel near Moscow and is a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, where he also served as a professor of piano at the Music College of the Conservatory. He has garnered many accolades during his international career and came to the attention of Americans with his debut in 1997 as the Silver Medalist in the Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Forth Worth. He currently holds the position of Associate Professor of Piano and Artist-in-Residence at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
The program opened with the Egmont Overture Op. 84, part of the incidental music composed to accompany Goethe’s tragedy. It was begun in 1809, the same year in which Vienna was under French occupation. Beethoven was naturally drawn to the subject matter of the drama — a heroic individual’s fatal struggle against injustice, a theme that resonated through much of his work during this, his “heroic” period of composition. Based on a real historical figure, Goethe’s drama is set in 16-century Netherlands, then under Spanish domination. Count Egmont, a young, heroic nobleman attempts to broker a more moderate Spanish rule, only to be martyred by the cruel Spanish Duke of Alba, sent by King Phillip II of Spain to put down the revolt. Egmont’s martyrdom incites his countrymen to fight on until their political and religious freedom is secured. Beethoven was so moved by Goethe’s play that he refused to accept payment from the theater for his music. The orchestra played this dramatic piece with intensity and a great spirit. Occasionally, though, the brass and timpani overpowered the orchestra, and this remained a problem throughout the evening. Although those instruments are seated at the back of the ensemble, they are greatly amplified almost inexplicably due to the acoustics of Blue Ridge Community College's Conference Hall, and some more adjustments need to be made to bring them into balance with the rest of the orchestra.
The Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93 followed before intermission. The opening of this symphony reminds me so much of the opening of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 (“Italian”) with its effervescent energy and sunny disposition. It’s as though Beethoven is on holiday from all that would drag him down, and we also become transported to a brighter emotional plane. There’s no time even for slow movements — instead, we get a second Allegretto scherzando movement with a ticking metronome. He takes a break also from his forceful scherzo that by now usually occupies the third movement spot and replaces it with a studied Menuetto and Trio, though not without his signature metric dislocations so that we are left searching for the “true” downbeat. The final Allegro vivace suffered a ragged start, but once launched unfolded nicely.
Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto was the greatly anticipated work of the second half of the program. This is a piece of such emotional intensity and expressive depth, so masterfully written and universally loved that it’s indeed hard to imagine the degree of withering criticism that was leveled at its composer’s prior work. It’s a work that has everything — a fine dramatic sense (e.g., the opening piano part which introduces the orchestra, a role reversal), pyrotechnics, muscularity, gorgeous and memorable melodies — anchored in music that remains deeply soulful. Mr. Kasman is a magnificent pianist who not only has the technical chops for the work, but is a great interpreter of its essence. The second movement Adagio sostenuto was particularly stunning with its prominent clarinet part (Shannon Thompson) which both accompanies the piano and emerges as one of its most memorable solos.
As if this weren’t enough, Mr. Kasman performed as an encore the Schumann-Liszt "Widmung." "Widmung" was composed by Schumann as a love song for Clara to the incomparable poetry of Friedrich Rückert and this version for piano is perhaps the most famous of Liszt’s transcriptions of art songs. In writing about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, Jonathan D. Kramer reminds us that it was during this period that the composer was struggling with the greatest love affair of his life, an event that would culminate in the writing of the famous "Immortal Beloved" letter, in which he professes his great love to this unattainable woman. What a splendid coincidence that this love song occurred as a spontaneous musical offering with this particular Beethoven symphony on the program!