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Orchestral Music Review Print



Beethoven, Caroline Shaw, and Prokofiev: A Wonderful Eclectic Mix


Event  Information

Raleigh -- ( Fri., May. 17, 2019 - Sat., May. 18, 2019 )

North Carolina Symphony: Biss Plays Beethoven
Performed by Grant Llewellyn, conductor, Jonathan Biss, piano
$ -- Meymandi Concert Hall at Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts , (919) 733-2750 , http://www.ncsymphony.org

May 17, 2019 - Raleigh, NC:


"Something old, something new, something borrowed...." So begins the traditional prescription for a bride's wedding-day accoutrements. While this was a concert rather than a wedding, we heard the old (Ludwig van Beethoven.s Piano Concerto No. 3, in C minor, Op. 37) and the new (Watermark for Piano and Orchestra by North Carolina native Caroline Shaw), whose work includes some notes borrowed from Beethoven's score.

The concert opened with the overture to the only ballet that Beethoven wrote: The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 (1801). In keeping with Shaw's Watermark, which is her musical commentary on Beethoven's 3rd Concerto, the Prometheus overture itself begins with a chord which is a commentary by Beethoven on the opening chord of his own Symphony No. 1 (Op. 21), but even more audacious. Both chords are seventh chords, but the Prometheus version has the seventh of the chord in the bass voice rather than the far-more-bland First Symphony version, where the seventh is high above the root-position (tonic) bass voice. This dramatic beginning set the tone for the performance, as conductor Grant Llewellyn emphasized the work's dynamic contrasts. The excellent rapid unison passage-work in the string sections was testament to their collective virtuosity.

The Beethoven C minor third Piano Concerto followed, with soloist and Beethoven specialist Jonathan Biss, one of those artists (think Glenn Gould) whose mannerisms at the keyboard can be distracting but whose playing commands attention. The distractions are primarily Biss' penchant for dramatic physical explosions at the end of phrases, when he propels himself away from the keyboard, rather reminiscent of Victor Borge's (in)famous falling off the piano bench. Nevertheless, his playing is masterful, with every note clear and incisive. At the close of the first movement, Llewellyn held the audience quiet by keeping his baton raised until after Biss commenced the solo piano passage which begins the second movement in the remarkably-unrelated key of E major. In those passages where the orchestra has all the melodic interest, Biss carefully kept his arpeggiated chords subordinate, in a finely-tuned balance.

If his reading of the Largo second movement was on the Romantic side, Biss made up for it with his quick tempo of the concluding Rondo:Allegro, which was more in the neighborhood of poco vivace. This had the effect of turning some of the piano's thrice-repeated triplet-eighth note passages into arpeggios but also infused the performance with an electricity-tinged brilliance.

After intermission, Biss played another concerto, a work co-commissioned from Shaw by the NC Symphony together with the Seattle Symphony, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, and the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. Shaw's Watermark, so-named because musicologists have been able to date the years of many early compositions, including Beethoven's, by the watermarks on the paper they used, is part of a project spurred by Biss called Beethoven/5, in which five composers were each commissioned to write a work for piano and orchestra which used one of Beethoven's five piano concerti as inspiration.

Watermark does not depend on Beethoven for acceptance; it stands easily on its own, although it does contain fragments from the Viennese master's 3rd concerto. Shaw comments on Beethoven's music, taking a melodic idea of his and re-thinking it in her own musical language. Beginning with a unison vocal hum from the orchestra, rather like a collective tuning-up before a performance, Shaw's concerto draws its primary strength from her multi-colored harmonic palette as she utilizes standard musical techniques such as variation and repetition to make her commentary on Beethoven's opus. It is a fascinating work which invites re-hearing. (Perhaps upon hearing it several times, I would better understand the passage where a single chord on the piano is repeated countless times in succession, or a parallel repetitive playing of a single pitch.)

This is not Shaw's first collaboration with the NC Symphony, and she has also appeared recently with Chamber Music Raleigh; she was present, joining Llewellyn and Biss onstage to share in the ringing applause. Hers is a significant young voice in the world of music of many styles; may she continue to share her talents with her home state!

The concert concluded with an exemplary performance of Sergei Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony, Op. 25. With a performance time under fifteen minutes, this Haydnesque four-movement work sparkled vivaciously, particularly in its Molto vivace finale, a tour-de-force for all (but especially the strings and flutes, for which a "Bravo!" was warranted!).

This program repeats Saturday, May 18 at Meymandi Concert Hall. See our sidebar for details.