Listen: Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Leif Ove Andsnes Play Beethoven
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Jeff Spurgeon: In New York City, there are lots of ways to get to Carnegie Hall, a subway, a taxi, a walk down 57th Street, you just found another way to get to America's most famous home for classical music. Welcome to Carnegie Hall Live, the broadcast series that gives you a front-row seat to concerts by some of the greatest artists in the world, and you hear the performances exactly as they happen. You are part of the audience sharing the experience of music-making at Carnegie Hall.
On this broadcast, one pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes, One Ensemble, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and one composer, Beethoven, but we'll share two journeys in this concert, Beethoven's journey in writing the second, third and fourth of his piano concertos, and Leif Ove Andsnes' journey in studying, conducting and performing them. I'm Jeff Spurgeon. Joining me for this concert from Carnegie Hall live is a man with a strong history of his own in leadership of great orchestras, not only in Beethoven, but everybody from Bach to Ligeti and beyond. New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert. Welcome to Carnegie Hall Live. Thanks for showing up tonight. Thanks for joining the party.
Alan Gilbert: What a pleasure. It's so great to be able to be at a concert that I'm listening to.
Jeff: [laughs] You're a conductor and a violinist so you know the conducting world and the solo musician world just like Leif Ove Andsnes does, but do you ever think that soloist conductors are a little like the restaurant waiter who wants to carry all 14 entrees in on one tray, just making it unnecessarily hard on themselves?
Alan: Well, they make it really easy for me and when it's someone like Leif Ove, he brings so much to what he does as a pianist and also inspires the musicians in the orchestra. I think it works really well and it also lets us know how unimportant the conductor can be.
I love that.
Jeff: Maybe at times. Well, when we asked you to be a part of Carnegie Hall Live, you said this was the concert you wanted to join us for because of connections that you have, both to Leif Ove and to the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and we'll talk to you about those connections, especially during intermission but as we go along. These days, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is doing something akin to running the final lap in a marathon. Since 2011, Andsnes has been playing Beethoven and pretty much only Beethoven. He told us his Beethoven journey began, as so many exciting adventures do, in Brazil.
Leif Ove Andsnes: I was a few years ago in Sao Paolo, and I was in a hotel for a week and I was going into the elevator and every time I came into the elevator there was music on and it was the first two piano concertos by Beethoven. I ended up hearing fragments of the pieces all the time, and I thought it would make me absolutely mad but it was so refreshing because I suddenly discovered how original, how fresh, how beautiful and true this music is. Especially then by hearing such short fragments made me realize that and that triggered something in me and I thought that now is the time to do this concertos, I have to devote a period.
Jeff: So, Leif Ove Andsnes has devoted the past few years to studying recording and performing the five Beethoven piano concertos. The recordings of all five are now released, they're performed all of them with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the Ensemble joining Andsnes in this concert. Alan Gilbert, each of Beethoven's piano concertos has an arc of its own, but what do we see happening to Beethoven across all five of these pieces together?
Alan: I always think it's interesting to look at what a composer did in this particular genre across the span of his composing life. When you find yourself in the lucky position of hearing these five piano concertos in a short span of time, you realize how connected they are, how Beethoven they are, but also how individual they are. It's really fascinating. There's clearly a progression, but there's something essentially true that remains constant all the way through.
Jeff: The concerto number two's first on the bill, what's interesting in this from the conductor's point of view, what would you expect to talk about with an orchestra?
Alan: I first did this concerto years ago and when I came back to it recently when I did all five concertos with the New York Philharmonic, I was struck by how profound it is, people talk about it as being lighter and maybe not quite as fully formed as the later concertos but I have to say, this rediscovery for me was very exciting, because I think it was really very far and actually establishes his voice right away in this first concerto that he wrote, as you pointed out in a pretty powerful way.
Jeff: All right, lots more Beethoven than we might expect, and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is now on stage, a young band, by and large, formed out of the Mahler Youth Orchestra created by Claudio Abbado and Daniel Harding has a long association with this orchestra too. This is a neat trick for a conductor and a musician to do but it's got to feel totally different. You've conducted from the violin as well. It's a strange feeling, isn't it? To have the instrument in your hand, not just the baton.
Alan: Interesting question. We should talk about this later if we have a chance, because the question of whether a conductor helps or hurts obviously, depends on who it is. Sometimes soloists like to do it all themselves and it could be magic.
Jeff: Well, we're looking forward to some right now, Leif Ove Andsnes is on stage, and we're about to hear Beethoven's Piano Concerto number two, Leif Ove Andsnes and the Modern Chamber Orchestra coming to you from Carnegie Hall l11ive.
The pleasure of Beethoven's music, it's music that takes pleasure in itself. It has such a good time. That was the piano concerto number two in a performance that was greatly enjoyed by the musicians who made it. That is Leif Ove Andsnes conducted from the keyboard, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and this broadcast of Carnegie Hall Live. Backstage I'm Jeff Spurgeon, my co-host Maestro Alan Gilbert. It's just such a ride that last movement, isn't it?
Alan: What a joyous piece of music it is.
Jeff: It's so fun and you were talking about the rhythm and the way that Beethoven just changes it up.
Alan: There's a kind of flair and a daring that I think was really new, I think this is Beethoven at his greatest.
Jeff: It's just a great dance and a great ride. Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, a couple of little salutes from Leif Ove to musicians in the orchestra, and now he's back on stage. Now the musicians are reconnoitering the situation and we've added let's see, what are we added for the third concerto? We have a couple of clarinets.
Alan: Clarinets, trumpets, timpani, and another flute.
Jeff: Young timpani come in and the orchestra is expanded for the third concerto which was written just a couple of years after the concerto number two that we just heard, Beethoven had been busy in between, he wrote almost a dozen piano sonatas between the second and third concerto, and also his first two symphonies. The orchestra is bigger here, and the atmosphere is darker too. Not in a bad way, in a Beethoven way, wind writings richer, and it seems that more of Beethoven's into individual voice comes forth.
This middle movement in this concerto is amazing. It's begun by the piano alone, one of Beethoven's great quiet movements, but unlike Mozart's kind of quiet, which is often very delicate. Beethoven creates quiet with simple solid, carefully voiced chords, almost like a hymn and then this next concerto concludes with another Rondo. In contrast to the first concerto, we heard this Rondo has a trickier melody, the rhythm is maybe a little bit less front and center, and right at the end, there's a wonderful the pianist just takes off. It's like Beethoven doesn't want to ride all the way home. He wants to get out of the car and run the last couple of blocks.
It's a lot of Beethoven's mature sound. Does a conductor, Alan, need to bring that out here? Can an orchestra run away with itself in this in this concerto? You have to hold the reins on him?
Alan: Yes, there's, of course, a kind of classical reserve that's still there and this kind of almost you can feel that he's trying to bust out of that whatever limits he might have felt and he really does it.
Jeff: Leif Ove Andsnes, and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra from Carnegie Hall live.
Beethoven's piano concerto number three performed by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and Mahler Chamber Orchestra. You've heard the performance from Carnegie Hall live. That roar of applause, those cheers that just went up work for the maestro himself turning around to acknowledge the applause of his Carnegie Hall audience. Now off stage comes Leif Ove Andsnes. The orchestra sits back down for just a moment and the audience won't let this man go just yet before intermission. Back on stage he goes.
I'm Jeff Spurgeon. Just backstage at Carnegie Hall along with my co-host for this broadcast Maestro Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, and the musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra like this too, applauding him as well.
Alan: No surprise there what a wonderful performance.
Jeff: It's such an exciting piece and as you have pointed out, as we've been talking a little bit as the performance has gone on, Beethoven flips from three flats to four sharps and you're not supposed to do that, and he doesn't care, he just takes you along with him. He's just going to have it happen that way. He goes from C minor to E, and he just grabs you and does. One more curtain call for Leif Ove Andsnes back on stage. The audience likes it, and he asks the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to rise once again.
Well, we've heard two Piano Concertos by Beethoven so far in this concert. We have another masterpiece to come. We've heard the 2nd and the 3rd of the concerto, and we'll have the 4th and the next part of this concert after intermission. Alan, I'm thrilled to know, and I know that so many people who are listening to this broadcast are thrilled to know, too. Many amateur musicians like to conduct at home while they're listening to a great orchestra play. I'm thrilled to be able to share with them the fact that a professional Maestro also conducts at home while an orchestra is playing on stage. You were conducting backstage. [laughs]
Alan: It's hard to hold back. I love these pieces so much, and there so in my system, I've been doing them recently. I want to take part, although I have to say, it's such a joy to be able to sit and just listen and experience the chamber music aspect of it because of course, it should always be there, but it really has to be there when a soloist is playing is also conducting. Of course, Leif Ove is a terrific conductor. During the Two T's, you can see him moving very beautifully and making gestures that absolutely are totally poetic, but when he's playing, he has to focus on that, and then the musicians have to really listen.
Jeff: Pay attention.
Alan: It's so beautiful when it works as well as it just did.
Jeff: That's a skill.I think I have never heard a conductor take that for granted, the skill of musicians listening. Never.
Alan: Oh, well, you can't. That's the whole point. You try to help musicians play as well as they can, and if you can add to what they already can do without a conductor, then that's, of course, what you hope for as a conductor. Clearly, as we just heard, it's completely possible do a magnificent, absolutely formed performance. It helps to have an orchestra like the Mahler Chamber Orchestra because that's what they're founded on that premise of really working together as a Chamber Orchestra. Orchestras you've heard we say many times, "Guys, I hate it when people say, it's like chamber music here because it's always like chamber music."
Jeff: [laughs] In the next part of this broadcast, the 4th of Beethoven's Piano Concertos. We'll also hear some of the folks who come to hear Leif Ove Andsnes play at Carnegie Hall. Carnegie Hall Live is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, art works. I'm Jeff Spurgeon with Alan Gilbert. This is Carnegie Hall Live.
Jeff: I'm Jeff Spurgeon backstage at Carnegie Hall with my guest hosts on this broadcast of Carnegie Hall Live New York Philharmonic music director, Alan Gilbert. The personalities of the piano and orchestra in this 4th concerto we're about to hear are very distinct, especially in the 2nd movement. Do you ever think of you when you conduct this as being the orchestra's personality? Do you ever get involved as a character in opposition with the piano?
Alan: Well, not any more than I would in any other piece. Obviously, you try to bring up the character of the music, and there is a real dialectic between the orchestra and the soloist in this piece, maybe even more powerfully than another concertos.
Jeff: Yes, some people say it's the soloist versus the orchestra.
Alan: That's actually the paradigm that he sets up very consciously in the 2nd movement. The thing about this concerto that I think is striking as people talk about it as the most autumnal, the most gentle, nostalgic of the Beethoven concertos, but what's amazing is just how far he goes on the strong side of things. The big Two T's in the first movement are as grand as any he wrote.
Jeff: Stage doors have opened here at Carnegie Hall, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is headed out on stage. Our soloist is not yet ready to go, so we have just a few more minutes while the orchestra gets reset up and tuned up. Alan, in this concerto to the orchestra has to keep its part to keep the rhythms tight. The piece can lose momentum when there's so much dialogue with the piano. How do you, as a conductor, keep an orchestra on its toes but also light on its feet?
Alan: Well, in a concerto, any concerto, but especially this one, you have to listen yourself to the soloist really, really intently. A lot of what I tried to do is encourage the orchestra to do that. In a sense, the setup now with no conductor actually takes out a potential complication because there really needs to be this one-to-one connection between the orchestra and the soloist.
Jeff: We don't go through a medium here.
Alan: Yes, and that can be a good thing.
Jeff: In the opening movement of this 4th concerto, Beethoven turns that tried-and-true concerto model inside out. Typically, in his time, the orchestra started things off and gave the theme the pianist would take up, but here, Beethoven has the pianist start the whole thing alone. The 2nd movement starts with the strings all together, and they sound threatening, almost stomping into the room. Instead of answering in kind, the piano turns the other cheek with a soft response, and that contrast between the characters, the orchestra and the piano continues through the movement.
By the end, the strings have calmed down quite a bit. Now, some people think Beethoven had the myth of Orpheus calming the furies in mind when he wrote this.
Jeff: There goes pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes, onto the stage of Carnegie Hall. We're getting ready for the Piano Concerto No. 4 of Beethoven. Leif Ove Andsnes conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard live from Carnegie Hall.
Jeff: From Carnegie Hall Live, you've just heard pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. You heard the bravo's from the audience here at Carnegie Hall, more as Leif Ove turns to the audience. What you did not see was the applause of the musicians on stage for the soloist and the soloist tapping the top of the piano with his hand to pay tribute to the musicians who did the work with him.
A terrific feeling of collaboration between the musicians and the soloist here in a concerto where that collaboration is deliberately set apart, and now Leif Ove was back on stage. You hear the whistles and the cheers here at Carnegie Hall. He asked the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to stand up once again. I'm Jeff Spurgeon backstage with my co-host for this broadcast New York Philharmonic music director, Alan Gilbert.
Alan: Beethoven by this point in his life didn't have to make it complicated as I would say everything in such naive almost childlike terms. It's spectacular.
Jeff: Thank you for listening. I'm Jeff Spurgeon. This broadcast of Carnegie Hall Live is produced by WQXR.
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