By Ted AYALA
Would Beethoven have been surprised to learn that his works would still be played and loved nearly 200 years after his death? How would he react to know that his music remains a core repertoire staple—so often played that for some listeners even the thought of listening to the German master’s music brings on fits of apathy, if not nausea? It’s tempting to think that everything in Beethoven has been said and then some. Can a new approach to music be found today for music that is well-respected, if not well-worn to other ears,? When performances abound, not to mention recordings of Beethoven’s music that literally number in the thousands? A lot of gimmickry has been tried in the past few decades—foremost among them adherence to conjectured “period” performance—to bring back the splendor and danger in Beethoven’s music afresh; to evoke for the modern listener the thrill of newness that Beethoven’s contemporaries would have felt confronted with his music for the first time.
But sometimes the only trick to making the music ring verdant again is to simply play the score and play it beautifully.
Jeffrey Kahane, with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, managed to do just that last Saturday at Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium. Part of the orchestra’s annual “Discover” concert, Kahane opened up the score to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, placed the music under a microscope, and gave the audience an idea of what makes the score tick, how it’s related to other works by the composer, and how it fits into the context of musical history. There wasn’t too much that was new revealed for those profoundly familiar with Beethoven’s life and work. But it was entertaining just the same to hear Kahane’s erudite and witty presentation, peppered with tantalizing fragments from other concertos by Bach and Mozart. “Tantalizing” because the excerpts played made one hungry to hear Kahane play them in their entirety.
Two seasons ago Kahane made a memorable traversal of the same Beethoven concerto at the Alex Theatre. The follow-up in Pasadena surpassed that masterly performance in every way. Few pianists today can rival Kahane for sheer beauty of playing and luminescent sense of poetry. Within the compass of his ten fingers he gave way to entire worlds of color and shade in Beethoven. Nothing was pushed or cosmeticized. As the music glided overhead, one had the impression that this was no mere performance, but the distillation of an entire lifetime’s experience.
Backing Kahane was the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra with playing with a unity of feeling that made one wonder whether the players weren’t merely extensions of Kahane’s piano—or vice-versa. Especially beautiful were the orchestra’s winds, with principal flautist David Shostac and principal oboist Allan Vogel at the forefront.
Whenever the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra plays something it’s an event. When Kahane joins them at the piano it becomes a must-hear occasion—one to treasure for a lifetime.