Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

San Diego Symphony Performs All Five Beethoven Piano Concertos

San Diego Symphony Performs All Five Beethoven Piano Concertos
The San Diego Symphony kicked off it's ten-day celebration of Beethoven this past weekend, launching a festival that includes performances of all five of Beethoven's piano concertos and appearances by renown pianist Yefim Bronfman. We'll speak with Maestro Jahja Ling about the festival.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The San Diego Symphony is presenting all five of Beethoven's piano concertos during its Beethoven Festival. Now, performing all of the concertos in the space of a week would always be a bit of a challenge for a pianist, but there have been even more challenges in this year's festivals. We'll talk about that and about keeping Beethoven's masterworks fresh, plus a bit about the Symphony's upcoming centennial with my guest, conductor and music director of the San Diego Symphony, Jahja Ling. And good morning, maestro.

JAHJA LING (Conductor/Musical Director, San Diego Symphony): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for being here.

LING: It’s a great pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: So the festival got off to a little bit of a bumpy start when pianist Yefim Bronfman had to cancel his first appearance. He was sick. Can you update us on how he’s feeling and what his involvement will be with the festival as it goes on?

LING: Yes. This week he will be performing the Piano Concerto No. 3, 4 and 5. And actually, as we talk right now, he should be arriving…


LING: …in San Diego right now. And we start rehearsing tomorrow.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, that’s good. Tell us a little bit about Yefim Bronfman.

LING: Yefim or we call him Fima…


LING: …I’ve known him since he was like 16 years old. When I was in the piano competition in Israel, the Rubinstein Competition, he was just immigrated from Russia to Israel at that time. And after I played some rounds in the competition suddenly this young man just came to introduce himself to me. He said, I’m Yefim Bronfman and apparently he liked my playing and he introduced himself and became friends since, you know. That was 1977 and, of course, Fima, has grown, you know, came to United States to study with – at Curtis, Juilliard with Serkin, Firkusny and then now he is one of the sought after and, for me, one of the best, most musical pianists in the world.

CAVANAUGH: And, of course, a celebrated interpreter of Beethoven.

LING: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear Yefim Bronfman performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, a selection of it. This is a recording with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, conducted by David Zinman.

(audio of performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major by Yefim Bronfman)

CAVANAUGH: It’s hard to leave that.

LING: Yes, it’s so beautiful.

CAVANAUGH: That’s Yefim Bronfman performing a selection, a part of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. We’re talking about the San Diego Symphony’s Beethoven Festival, and my guest is Maestro Jahja Ling. And the highlight of this festival is the performance of all five of Beethoven’s piano concerti, and I’m wondering where do the piano concertos fit in Beethoven’s body of work?

LING: Of course, you know, Beethoven himself had lived in variety complex when he wrote the piano concertos because if you know Mozart wrote a great, beautiful 27 of the piano concerti. And so he feels when he started to write the piano concerti it was not his best work. But actually when you look again, you know, the development of the concerti and the breakthrough of making it his own language, it was just amazing. Of course, the second piano concerto is written first actually by him, actually was more in the style of the classical and then the first, which was written a little bit later, actually there’s sometimes it’s a little bit overlaps of it in terms of time but then there already show Beethoven with his own character.

CAVANAUGH: So he had to break out of this mold that was set by Mozart and find his own voice.

LING: Absolutely. That’s right, but actually the third, that’s the one that’s the most breakthrough and revolutionary because of actually he heard Mozart, the C Minor, Piano Concerto No. 24 and that was the base, the same key in C Minor. In fact, it actually started in the same triad, you know, but then he’s absolutely show his own uniqueness. But actually the fourth one that is actually the breakthrough completely from the other concerto because usually in the concertis in the classical style, start with the tutte of an orchestra playing, you know, by introduction of first theme, second theme, closing theme. But for the fourth piano concerto, instead of starting with the orchestra, he start with the piano solo, just a few bars, you know.


LING: And then the orchestra started.

CAVANAUGH: Most people know that the fifth concerto, Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto, is nicknamed the Emperor Concerto, but why is that?

LING: Well, actually nobody knows where that name come from.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, really?

LING: Because Beethoven, of course, you know, in fact that he actually don’t like that, have the actually people talking about – The Emperor as Napoleon…


LING: …and really he dedicated the “Eroikas” and he crossed it out. But actually the Emperor himself comes from a source that we don’t – remain unknown. And actually…


LING: Yeah, so Beethoven didn’t assign that. I’m sure that he were not too happy that people refer that actually to Napoleon.

CAVANAUGH: Now the New Yorker refers to this recently as a shameless, virtuoso showcase. What is your opinion?

LING: You mean the Beethoven Emporer?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes.

LING: Well, actually, that’s a lot of work with a lot of depth although it’s a bit tuosic but for Beethoven, you know, especially, the slow movement, that is one of the most beautiful writing, most lyrical writing, and the ebullience of exuberance, last movement rondo was just amazing. I don’t think that’s a work of being too ascetic of showing off the technique of a pianist. In fact, the officer has a big part of it. For some people it’s more like a symphony…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Yes.

LING: …rather than a concerto accompaniment.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, you just told us the story that Beethoven didn’t call it the Emperor Concerto, somebody else did and we don’t know exactly who. How were Beethoven’s concertos received at – during his time? Was this a revolution for people? Did they understand it immediately?

LING: Yes, actually, you know, Beethoven played as a soloist in four concerti, well, premiere actually. With some of them, even Hayden conducted. Yeah.


LING: So the only one that he couldn’t play is the last one, the Fifth, because he already lost his hearing. And – But the third one, he even didn’t finish, actually the composition, you know, it was in the manuscript or in the shorthand, as you say.


LING: And he perform it, a lot of it, by memory and he asked one of the young conductor to turn pages for him. The young conductor couldn’t see the notes and so Beethoven has to give like a glance, please, turn the page now, in order to play. So some of the story goes like that. It’s just very interesting how this concerto, when he played it, you know, such a victory it must show that Beethoven himself was a great pianist.

CAVANAUGH: Indeed, are these concertos difficult to play?

LING: Of course. Is beyond just the technical difficulty. The understanding of style and the profoundness of it, and that’s why, you know, we – I, personally, invited Yefim Bronfman because he’s an artist in that caliber. I mean, Fima can play anything on a piano but to understand the style and the profoundness and to create magic, that’s the one that sometimes, you know, what we always hope for in a performance, that magical thing happen that will touch people’s soul and heart.

CAVANAUGH: Well, of course Yefim Bronfman will be here to perform these works with the San Diego Symphony. Let’s hear a little bit more of Yefim Bronfman recorded. This is a selection from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major. It’s performed by Bronfman with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich.

(audio of Bronfman performing from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major)

CAVANAUGH: And that was a snippet of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 performed by Yefim Bronfman with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich. Maestro Ling, you’ll be conductor through the festival. What are the challenges for you in conducting Beethoven?

LING: Well, to conduct Beethoven, you have to understand that man’s mind. You know, he is a person that with that kind of stubbornness, of defiance against all odds. You know, what he went through, nobody could understand or even could realize or feel, you know, a composer at the end of his life had completely gone deaf. And how can – It’s a miracle actually that he can write and imagine those note and be able to write that, you know. So I think that to show the character of Beethoven, that’s the most important.

CAVANAUGH: And how do you keep it fresh, though?

LING: Well, you have – always have to rethink and restudy Beethoven. You know, I’ve done many, many times – I’ve played the Beethoven piano concerto, all of them, and I conducted them many time with the great artists, you know, including Fima and other people but every time you come back in, you always found something that you sometime missed in the last time because that man was a genius.

CAVANAUGH: Even after performing it, even after conducting it so many times?

LING: Yes, because always there’s something you discover that, wow, there’s something that’s so amazing like voicing, like sometimes inner thing he writes for a viola or something like – I found one in a Beethoven Eighth Symphony last week, again, an oboe that didn’t happen in the other times, only one time that he put that insert the oboe straight, just for one bar. And those things is so amazing when it’s brought out, and the voicing and the color and the character and the orchestration. The texture of what Beethoven wrote that make everything so fresh.

CAVANAUGH: Now I want you to tell us about the Beethoven Festival and the way things are going to proceed this week but I want to sneak in just a fast question, if I may, about looking ahead to the fall and the San Diego (sic) beginning its centennial. Can you give us just a little bit of a preview on how that celebration will be played out?

LING: The centennial of year, very, very special, once in a lifetime event for many of us because we have such a great lineup of artists, repertoire and the orchestra, featuring the orchestra including our own orchestra players, commissioning a new work, and with artists like James Galway, Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang, Emanuel Ax, Garrick Ohlsson, Gil Shaham, Evelyn Glennie and all those people, that’s just amazing. And we also have some returning from a principal player that played with the orchestra like Cindy Phelps, Eric Kim, and in collaboration with artists obligation of the concerts of the Mainly Mozart, Bill Pursell coming. All those thing that really make this a festive and a very special time for the Symphony and we want to have – make sure that the community feel the pride of owning the orchestra like this, a major orchest – that the – recently the League of American Symphony Orchestras labeled us or designate us as a tier one orchestra, one of the top 25 orchestras in the country.

CAVANAUGH: Sounds like it’s going to be an amazing year. If you would Maestro Ling, tell us what’s coming up in the Beethoven Festival.

LING: So the lineup for this week, we will have 4 concerts. On Thursday, April 29th at 7:30, we have Orli Shaham as a piano soloist playing the Piano Concertos No. 1 and 2, and we’ll open with the Coriolan Overture. And then on Friday and Sunday, Yefim Bronfman will play the Piano Concerto No. 5, the Emperor, and I will start with the Symphony No. 8. On Saturday, May one, at 8:00 p.m., Yefim Bronfman going to play the Piano Concerto No. 3 and 4.

CAVANAUGH: Fabulous, wonderful. Thank you so much for coming in.

LING: Great pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Maestro Jahja Ling, and if you missed any of that, you can always go online, Thank you for listening. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.