A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Mar 8, 2014
07:39 AM
Classically Speaking

A Piano Concerto Doubleheader, and Beethoven to the Max

A Piano Concerto Doubleheader, and Beethoven to the Max


Yefim Bronfman

In an all-Beethoven concert Friday night at Overture Hall that should go down as one of the great memories of an already compelling year in Madison, Yefim Bronfman made something visible that it can only be hoped all could see and appreciate.

At the end of Beethoven’s unsurpassed “Emperor” Concerto, Bronfman popped up off his piano bench, and as the immediate standing ovation engulfed the hall, he spoke earnestly for several seconds with conductor John DeMain. And then, as he turned to acknowledge the applause, he gestured toward DeMain not once, but twice.

You see, artists such as Bronfman (and for that matter, competent artists of a lesser stature—Bronfman is one of our time’s giants, in case you’re unaware), tour the world and frequently go through their paces with orchestras better than Madison’s, and with conductors more famous—and don’t achieve the artistry we heard Friday night. What happened here is simply the reason we go to hear live music, in the hope that we will have one of those experiences where a creation like Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 takes on a life of its own for forty minutes or so, and unfolds in almost indescribable beauty and power of expression. This is the reason musicians of Bronfman’s stature come to Madison—and come back again and again.

I had already made a note in the “Emperor” slow movement, that, like a referee or umpire who does their job perfectly, they are scarcely noticed by the fans. That is what DeMain was doing, and the Madison Symphony Orchestra was in spot-on response from start to finish. We had already been given a hint of what was to come, as Bronfman had closed the first half of the program with Beethoven’s actual first piano concerto, published as Piano Concerto No. 2. Here were the vestiges of Mozart from the budding genius who was still in his mid-twenties when he composed it.

The night opened with a reading of Symphony No. 1, and for the first half I felt something akin to the classic “It’s not you, it’s me” syndrome of dating break-ups. There have been enough persuasive chamber orchestra readings of early Beethoven, here and elsewhere, that at first I longed for the transparency and lightness of a smaller ensemble. But when the scherzo and finale came around, all was right once again. After all, the point of such a work is that it is a snapshot of the time when the orchestra itself was growing, and Beethoven wrote both for what was at hand and what he really wanted. The second half of the evening began with the brief Overture to the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, which proved a worthy rambunctious romp.

But to return to Bronfman…there were multiple curtain calls of course, following the “Emperor,” with the orchestra members demonstrating their approbation as well. Finally Bronfman gave a little shrug, sat down at the keyboard again and launched into one of the Chopin Etudes, which proved less to be about technical mastery, but, because it was dazzlingly presented, became an object lesson in finding expression in every little opportunity.

I inevitably thought back to a time nearly twenty years ago; I was unexpectedly blessed to observe an entire day’s recording session at UCLA’s Royce Hall with Bronfman, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The assignment was Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and space does not permit me to say all the things I learned that day. But Bronfman and company had given me memories that have vividly lasted over two decades—and Friday night he gave me some more.

Two performances remain, Saturday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30. There is no better to way to celebrate the retreat of the polar vortex—in case you need a reason!

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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