A Program Of Beethoven - In Words And Music

Posted: October 05, 1998

For Karl Middleman, context is almost everything. The conductor of the Philadelphia Classical Symphony uses his concerts to explain the settings, the composer's life and times, and the plan behind the music. The orchestra plays examples to illustrate all that, and the stage is fronted by artwork to help the audience understand the period.

On Saturday, Middleman took on Beethoven, mixing 100 minutes of music with 60 of commentary. Concerts were marathons in Beethoven's day, and the search for authenticity now may require programs of comparable length. It all seemed more an elaborate appreciation class than performance. For the full house at Haverford's Centennial Hall, it seemed a formula that works for his audience.

The orchestra plays music of the classical era using period instruments, from balky winds to cellos without pegs and violins without chin-rests. The softer sound and distinctive sonorities bring a fresh vision of music more often heard from modern instruments.

The program itself was a partial re-creation of one of Beethoven's own - the Symphony No. 6, the Piano Concerto No. 2, and the Choral Fantasy, performed with the Masterworks Chorus of West Chester University. Andrew Willis was soloist, playing a fortepiano replicating one of Beethoven's. Willis is a stylish player whose evolving authority with the instrument has been documented in his concerts here over the last decade. He finds force and subtlety within the instrument's particular voice, and articulates musical lines and their variations in highly expressive ways.

In the Choral Fantasy, the fortepiano sounded more like a collaborator and inner worker than the modern piano can. Willis played the spectacular introduction and variations with shadings to imply a wide range of emotion and seriousness. His playing probed different sonorities in dialogue with the orchestral instruments, and seemed to ride with the chorus in the finale rather than dominating it.

Earlier, he had been soloist in the Concerto No. 2, a reading that won cautious support from the orchestra without striking much fire. Willis' fluency argued for the value of the earlier piano in playing early Beethoven. The clarity of linear writing contrasts dramatically with the weight of chordal playing, qualities Willis developed well.

In between, Middleman led the Symphony No. 6, using a new performing edition that clarifies dynamics and other details, in a reading that stressed the sound of natural brass instruments and the winds.

In his introductions, Middleman presented Joan Kimball, leader of Piffaro, the Renaissance wind band, who played on a replica of a bagpipe from the Middle Ages some of the peasant tunes that Beethoven used in the Symphony.

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