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A torrid night at the symphony — Beethoven’s mighty emperor it was

by Tennyson Rodrigo
The Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka (SOSL) had its debut with the American Pianists Association on 27th September 2003 at its customary venue — the Ladies’ College auditorium. Possibly there was another debut: a sponsorship by the Embassy of the United States of America and a message of welcome in the program from the US Ambassador who graced the occasion as chief guest.

Altogether it was a torrid night. Outside, the atmosphere was oppressively still and not a leaf stirred. The packed hall was a cauldron of humid air and even the modestly dressed concertgoers were uncomfortable in their sweaty attire. One wondered how on earth a keyed-up orchestra could ever perform in such sweltering conditions sans air-conditioning; the fans are switched off to eliminate noise when play is in progress. For Michael Sheppard, the young American soloist, I feared it could well be a baptism of fire of another kind.

The program’s expectant centrepiece was Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto ("Emperor") with Michael Sheppard as soloist. The concerto was composed in 1809 and premiered on 28th November 1811 in Leipzig, with pupil Carl Czerny as soloist.

Aaron Copland categorized Beethoven as the epitome of the ‘constructive’ type of composer, meaning that he was a formidable musical architect who began with a germinal idea and relentlessly struggled for perfection through compositional mastery. The Emperor, seen as a heroic masterpiece of Beethoven’s pianistic virtuosity and the grandest of his concertos, is an embodiment of the composer’s architectural design.

At the time he composed Emperor, Beethoven’s hearing loss was exacerbating and consequently he withdrew from the role of a performing virtuoso. If this response was poignant, another sought to change the structural approach to his works driven by what seemed to be a touch of egocentric motivation. As he was himself unable to perform, he denied others extemporizing opportunities by locking in cadenzas of his own design into the works he had already composed. The only concerto of Beethoven’s that the great Franz Liszt chose to perform was the fifth, signifying that despite the denial of improvisatory freedom, the work had considerable challenge and appeal for him.

Rich repository

The concerto is a rich repository of material for gratifying collaboration between the soloist and orchestra. Replete with orchestral staccatos, pizzicatos, triplets and passages in countercurrent motion and a lot more, it provides rare opportunities for all sections and players to perform an audible if not a visible part.

Given the challenge of this massive concerto, hesitancy and nervous tension are bound to tell on the players in the opening minutes of the performance. No surprise then that the militaristic power and heroism of the crushing chords were at once surrendered as the orchestra failed to assert its authority. In sharp contrast, the piano’s challenging entry had crystalline clarity and confidence. The opened piano’s sparkling sound in the hall’s acoustics further enhanced the solo dominance. From then on the baton changes showed signs of an unequal contest — though mostly it is the orchestra that has abundant resources to display the full glory of the Emperor’s crown.

The conductor and the players are in the best position to sense whether or not their music making is right. It’s instinctive and infectious. And the body language can sometimes unveil this to the audience unknowingly. The second movement started with hushed tenderness, as it should, with the muted strings kindling the spirituality of this meditative adagio—it seemed the players were relieved that the heavy memories of the first movement were now behind them.

A sustained chord from the bassoons and horns (ending in a semitone modulation) hyphenates the adagio — rondo second movement — one of the most magical designs of musical creativity. Alas, this defining moment was spirited away to some oblivion.

Beethoven uses the timpani to great effect for punctuation, discontinuity and textural coloration. Before unleashing the full fury of the coda, the orchestra and soloist do a diminuendo culminating in a climactic silence, a timpani ostinato smoothly takes over. Another one of those intriguing Beethovenian contrivances. This was well executed by SOSL’s timpanist who maintained good control over the soft dynamics of his tapping.

The moment then arrived to launch the final laps of this triumphant journey. The destination ended with furious fanfare and joyous exultation on the self-same note that it started on—the tonic of the magisterial E Flat Major.

Outstanding

The American Pianists Association (APA) plays an outstanding role in the development of classical pianists in the United States. At the pre-concert talk, the APA’s Artistic Director Joel Harrison, outlined the rigorous, intense and comprehensive process and procedure cycles entailed in selecting and developing candidates for fellowship awards.

Michael Sheppard is the 2003 recipient of the APA Classical Fellowship Award. He holds a Masters degree from the Conservatory of John Hopkins University and is currently studying with Leon Fleisher. He has performed in master classes for or worked closely with eminent artists and pedagogues as Daniel Barenboin, Murray Perahia, Ann Schein, Emanuel Ax and several others and has been a prize-winner at many competitions.

Conductor Ajit Abeysekera was upstaged by the imposing piano placed centrally up-front. Sheppard’s playing and body language were amply showcased for the audience to see and hear. Was he itching to take the baton himself or conduct from the keyboard itself? When he wasn’t playing, his hands and body were synchronistic with the rhythms and emphases of many a passage. My own reading was that having taken stock of the orchestral feedback, he took an approach that had the ingredients of informality, empathy and cultured sensitivity toward the entire orchestra as well as the occasion without a hint of condescension.

I continue to believe that the SOSL does not consistently perform to its full potential or even close to it in its concert appearances. Its brief association with the APA and a young soloist as Michael Sheppard ought be inspirational for everybody concerned with developing classical music in Sri Lanka and more particularly for SOSL itself. The orchestra, individually and collectively must aspire and be motivated to achieve higher standards if not levels of excellence in their performances. One test of its quality will be its ability to attract more and more artists from other counties to produce better music and enjoyment for SOSL and its well-wishers.
(The writer is a member of the Western Music Panel of the Sri Lanka Arts Council).


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