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Tradition has it that an orchestral concert will consist of an overture or single-standing work of less than 15 minutes followed by a concerto and then an intermission preceding a symphony to end the evening. Of course, variations on this scheme are certainly not uncommon, but what is rare is a program that features three concerti. Make that three out of the five Beethoven piano concerti, each with a different superb soloist, and you have an experience to be treasured for a long time.
The Eastern Music Festival (EMF), which takes up residence at the bucolic Guilford College campus in Greensboro, has garnered an international reputation for excellence and creative programming. The 2007 season began with a showcase of the tremendous talents of the piano faculty of the EMF. Surprisingly, this wasn’t a sellout crowd, a near given for almost any other concert at Dana Auditorium. This was a unique opportunity to hear and compare three of Beethoven’s early-to-mid-career compositions and to also listen to three very different approaches to these concerti. This evening was very interesting because it also gave me (and from my perspective, the entire audience) a chance to hear how one truly special player can rise above two other extraordinary players. What is that extra something? Why is it almost instantly discernible?
Conducting an assemblage of faculty and exalted students was José-Luis Novo, a frequent guest at the EMF. Novo, a citizen of Spain, has a long and impressive resume and is well on his way to securing a position with a major orchestra. Depending on your location in the auditorium, he tended to be blocked from view by the raised piano lid, but you could still tell his clear beats and involved but not abrasive body language.
The first contestant — I mean pianist — was Gideon Rubin, who took up the Second Concerto in B-flat major, written in 1794-95. Major revisions followed before Beethoven played it again in Prague in 1798, which is the version known today. As it turned out, Rubin was the only soloist who played entirely from memory, although the presence of music for the other two hardly hindered their performances. Rubin is an introspective player, a quality that especially suits the mystical adagio. He certainly had the chops for the myriad scales and pianistic pyrotechnics, but in the end I wasn’t convinced that there was any real investment in the music other than the ability to play it.
Yoshikazu Nagai stepped up to the bench for the Fourth Concerto, written in 1806 and again premiered with Beethoven as soloist. This work has a very close relationship with the composer’s Sixth Symphony, written in 1808. It too is pastoral in feeling and has much of the same harmonic language. There are untold analyses and descriptions of Beethoven’s music, but the concept of extreme contrast might be the most salient feature. These concerti, with their three-movement form, demonstrate this. Nagai played the magical slow movement with remarkable clarity and pathos before launching into the spirited, upbeat, even slightly silly rondo. He and conductor Novo successfully avoided a possible “do over” when some memory slips — even with the music on the stand — almost derailed the action.
Now, these previous two artists are superb musicians, and their biographies testify to their successes and talent. These were both excellent performances and the audience was quite enthusiastic in its response. That is why it’s musically interesting to hear and see someone who raises that bar several notches. Christina Dahl was that barrier-breaker; she chose the Third Concerto in C minor, considered by many to be Beethoven’s favorite key. After a brooding orchestral introduction that introduces the main theme, Dahl thundered in with the soloist’s turn to voice those themes. There was a palpable energy that filled the air with just a few moments of playing. As the movement proceeded you could literally feel it affecting everyone present. As I looked around you could see people looking at each other and nodding in the realization that this is one super player. A woman who is blind was in the next row, and she had a smile that was not there prior to Dahl's performance.
The orchestra was outstanding during the entire evening, but a rising musical tide affected everyone, and there were noticeable increases in spirit, energy, and joy in the playing. Dahl not only displayed monster technical control but also brought playfulness and grace to her playing that spoke to anyone fortunate to hear her. This is the essence of great music: it inspires the listener to rethink the piece and/or marvel at the personal story the player was telling.