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Philharmonia Baroque presents all-Beethoven concert

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From page A9 | November 06, 2012 |

That’s the ticket

Who: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, with pianist Emanuel Ax

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday (with a pre-performance talk at 7 p.m. by Nicholas McGegan, conductor)

Where: Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts

Tickets: $45-$93 general, $22.50-$46.50 students; www.mondaviarts.org, 530-754-2787

Curious to hear Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Fourth Symphony on the sort of instruments that were used during the composer’s lifetime?

Then you may want to check out Wednesday’s 8 p.m. concert at the Mondavi Center by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra — the noted period instrument ensemble from the Bay Area — with highly regarded pianist Emanuel Ax joining in as the soloist on a fortepiano.

Ax has performed at the Mondavi Center before (most recently in December 2009), but always on a modern piano, which is much louder and more powerful than the keyboard instruments available in Beethoven’s time.

“Beethoven’s piano was a lot smaller and a lot lighter in sound,” explained Nicholas McGegan, conductor of Philharmonia Baroque, in a phone interview two weeks ago. “So there isn’t going to be that sense like there is in a Tchaikovsky piano concerto, that you have the whole orchestra versus the piano.

“(In a piece like the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto, with a fortepiano) everybody’s playing together. It’s got a chamber music feel to it, which is terrific. And Beethoven was particularly delicate when he was scoring this concerto, you don’t have to bash the piano to be heard.”

Asked to describe the sound of a fortepiano, McGegan said, “It’s got a silvery tone. It is not as brilliant as a modern piano. If you wanted to describe it in terms of a comparison with light, a fortepiano is more like candlelight, and a modern piano is more like neon.  The fortepiano has a delicate, soft and rather romantic sound, rather than brilliant, bright color,” McGegan said.

“And since Beethoven was always pushing the limits of any instrument, he pushed the limits of how delicate it can sound in this concerto. In the slow movement, which is really like an aria and recitative, it’s rather operatic. It’s the same sort of delicacy you find in Chopin’s Nocturnes, which were written (for the piano) not much later,” McGegan said.

“This is also the last of his piano concertos that Beethoven played in concert himself,” McGegan added. (The composer was going deaf, and did not perform his fifth and final piano concerto, turning it over to another pianist.) “This is also one of the Beethoven concertos that Philharmonia Baroque hasn’t done before.”

It also will be the first time that McGegan has worked with Ax. “I’m looking forward to meeting him,” McGegan said, adding that Peter Pastreich, former executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, had helped connect Ax with Philharmonia Baroque.

Since the 1990s, Ax has become more and more interested in performing 19th century concertos on pianos from that period. Working with the late conductor Charles MacKerras and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, a period instrument group, Ax recorded the two Chopin piano concertos on a restored Érard piano from the mid-1800s. Ax discovered the sound was quite a contrast to the recordings he made in the 1970s and ’80s of those same works on a modern concert grand, in conjunction with the late conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

McGegan said he’s also looking forward to conducting the Beethoven Fourth Symphony.

“It’s one that some people skip over; they go from the ‘Eroica’ (Third) straight to the Fifth. And they forget how original the Fourth is. It has an incredibly long, slow introduction, but it’s the slow movement that is really the core of the work — the longest movement he wrote in any of his symphonies, until he got to the Ninth.

“It’s a big, full Adagio, incredibly well thought out, a deeply moving piece. And it’s got all that good humor like you find in the late Haydn symphonie. But with Beethoven, it’s a bit rougher. It’s like playing with a bear cub — it might bite.”

Rounding out the program will be Beethoven’s “Twelve Contredanses for Orchestra,” a relatively obscure piece that McGegan described as “music that is rarely performed, but it’s by a very famous composer. It is a bit of fun, music to be danced, not grand concert music. But one dance is a tune that eventually became the well-known theme of the last movement of his Third Symphony. I hope people will be intrigued.”

Tickets for are $45-$93 general, $22.50-$46.50 students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or by calling 530-754-2787. McGegan will give a pre-performance talk at 7 p.m. discussing the music on the program, and given McGegan’s way with words, that talk should be almost as much fun as the concert itself.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.

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