Chicago Symphony Orchestra Rafael Payare, conductor Emanuel Ax, piano
Friday, August 2, 2019
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Tickets: $95 / $35 Lawn: $10
Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica")
Piano Concerto No. 2
Ludwig van Beethoven’s music is often divided into three “periods,” reflecting some distinct styles and musical objectives in his writing. His Third Symphony is such a critical part of describing this idea and marking the transition from the “early” to the “middle” period that often the latter is given the same nickname as the symphony: “Heroic.”
Though still showing signs of the musical imagination that would be unveiled, Ludwig van Beethoven’s early works shared many characteristics with music by Haydn and Mozart. His Third Symphony, however, shattered those comparisons by providing a first movement nearly as long as a complete symphony by his famous predecessors.
Two very personal moments surround Ludwig van Beethoven’s writing of his Third Symphony. The preceding year, he had retreated from the world to reflect on his realization that his deafness was worsening and would not reverse. He came to terms with this in a letter to his brother known today as the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” named for the town he had retreated to. Beethoven had also become enamored of Napoleon and the ideals of the French Revolution, and he originally dedicated the Third Symphony to the leader. However, after Napoleon named himself emperor, Beethoven tore out that page from his manuscript and threw it to the floor.
Ludwig van Beethoven had become so affected by the goals of the French Revolution, as well as its people’s apparent taste for the sort of expressive music that he was beginning to write in the early 1800s, that he had begun signing his music “Louis van Beethoven.” This was when multiple wealthy aristocrats in Beethoven’s adopted hometown of Vienna pooled their resources to offer Beethoven an annual salary to stay in Austria and not leave for France. One of these patrons ultimately received the dedication of the Third Symphony.
Ten minutes before the Boston Symphony Orchestra was due to begin a live concert broadcast, it learned that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Conductor Erich Leinsdorf immediately ordered that another piece of music added to the start of the broadcast to memorialize the tragedy: the “funeral march” second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Third Symphony.
Though his personal style had changed between the writing of his First and Second Piano Concertos—neatly coifed blond locks above a clean jaw had given way to a more memorable bushy, somewhat unruly beard—Johannes Brahms’s musical mind had only sharpened over the intervening 20 years. He gave the Second all the allure of his solo and chamber piano music yet still made it the most “symphonic” of all concertos. Unlike the First, it was beloved from tis first performance.
Ever a self-deprecating joker, Johannes Brahms described his Second Piano Concerto to a friend as an “ever so tiny piano concerto with an ever so tiny and dainty scherzo.” The movement is anything but, adding a punch of passion before the real surprise, a lengthy solo cello part weaving its own theme around the piano soloist.
Pianist Emanuel Ax is himself a joker, revealing during the “Not My Job” segment on NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me that one of his favorite quips is that a trio of himself, longtime friend Yo-Yo Ma, and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter could be nicknamed the “Lizzie Borden” Trio—Ax-Ma-Mutter. Host Peter Sagal called it “maybe the most public radio joke ever told.”
Before Emanuel Ax stepped onstage with the Philadelphia Orchestra for Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto last fall, the Philadelphia Inquirer wondered if the piece “embodies the King Lear dilemma: By the time pianists can truly fathom the piece, can they still sustain its of pianistic heroism?” On the evidence it heard, the Inquirer concluded, “Ax is in that zone where he, indeed, delivers the complete experience … with a crystalline sonority [and] an extra sense of rightness that told you this is the way the music has to be.”