On Sunday night Justine and I played our third and final Beethoven sonata program, in Memorial Hall in Queenstown, to an audience of about 140 people. We played sonatas 4, 5 and 10. The hall had a beautiful acoustic and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.
Afterwards, I felt a feeling of great accomplishment: like I had done something difficult and come out the other side wiser and better for the experience. This was the first time in my life I have ever played three different complete programs in three consecutive nights. I have had the experience of playing the same recital program several nights in a row, and I have also played on chamber music festivals where I might be playing as many as nine pieces over ten days, but always one or two pieces at a time on a program. Playing a total of more than four hours of repertoire over three nights was a new experience for me.
Here are some of my takeaways from our project:
I had the chance to re-connect with Justine after all these years. Despite all the time we spend alone, practicing and studying, I believe that music is fundamentally about making connections between people (between composer and performer, performer and audience, between performers, and even between teacher and student). It was an absolute pleasure to rediscover Justine and catch up with her, after more than two decades. In the intervening time she had, among other things, spent seventeen years playing with a professional piano trio, of which she was a founding member. Her extensive experience playing chamber music with piano, her many years performing dozens of concerts per season, and her deep knowledge of so much repertoire made her an ideal chamber music partner to collaborate with. One goal of my sabbatical was to play music with other people and have new, meaningful musical experiences, and that goal was unquestionably accomplished through this project.
I was able to immerse myself in a body of Beethoven's work. When I took my last sabbatical eight years ago I engaged deeply with the music of John Cage (2012 was his centenary year). I wanted to do something in Beethoven's 250th birth year that would feel meaningful and allow me the chance to become familiar with an entire subset of his compositions. I have played a number of Beethoven's solo sonatas and piano concerti, all of his cello sonatas, several of his piano trios, and other works such as his quintet for piano and winds, but aside from reading selected movements from some of the earlier works at informal sightreading events, the violin sonatas had mostly fallen through the cracks. So, all but two of the sonatas this weekend were first performances for me, which was a bracing and illuminating experience.
It was a chance to play lots and lots of scales, arpeggios, trills and ornaments. Beethoven's music is full of these kinds of Classical-era figurations. This is why we pianists spend so many years practicing scales and arpeggios: they are the building blocks of our repertoire. If there is a fundamental comfort and familiarity with them, it makes it much easier to learn music like this because you don't have to learn each individual scalar figure as you encounter it.
I became more conversant with Beethoven's style. Even though these are pieces for violin and piano, there is a lot of carry-over to the solo piano sonatas. In fact, these were originally published as sonatas for "piano and violin" - indicating the equality of the two instruments. In each of the ten violin/piano sonatas I have discovered textures, themes, characters or figurations that reminded me unmistakably of a spot in one of the solo sonatas or piano concerti. I have enjoyed the opportunity to immerse myself in Beethoven's musical language and experience these pieces in the context of his vast compositional output.
Collaboration makes me a better musician. It was particularly enjoyable to work through notions of style and performance with another person. One benefit of playing duo sonatas is that each person is contributing to the final musical outcome. And so, rather than just make all of the interpretative decisions on my own, as I would have done had I been learning ten solo piano sonatas, for example, I was in a position of making joint decisions with Justine. Through these negotiations, I learned new ideas from her perspective that will continue to influence how I approach Beethoven in the future.
This is only the start. We are reprising the ten sonatas in late October/early November in Indianapolis, which gives me about eight months to continue practicing, delve deeper, and let the music settle. It is rare to have the chance to explore such a large amount of repertoire by a single composer with a nice big gap between performances.
Here are some photos from Sunday night's concert.