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Can a performer get in the way of a composer?

Years ago, I attended a concert at the University of South Florida Sun Dome, a lavishly advertised appearance by the late, great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. The place was packed, some seats selling at $500 a pop, and his fans swooned over every note.

It was delicious entertainment, but it became more about the man than the music. We see that so often today with star performers in any genre – from country to pop. But classical music poses a unique challenge. Can a performer get in the way of a composer?

I posed this and other ideas to Javier Perianes, the 45-year-old Spanish pianist who appears this weekend (Feb. 23-25) with The Florida Orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the Emperor.

“I honestly feel that the music always goes first and our main goal as musicians is to be just a kind of translator of what we think the composer may want,’’ he says. “Of course, in that process, something from you will be inevitably present in the music you’re conveying, but the performer would never go first.’’

Unlike a pop star – say Taylor Swift – connecting her music to the audience herself, Perianes must interpret Beethoven for his listeners. He respects the score as written while at the same time expressing a point of view.

“Our challenge as musicians is to convey a message, by being just the messenger between the composer and the audience,’’ he adds. “It’s impossible not to leave some kind of fingerprint of yourself on the piece, but I honestly try to intervene and interfere as little as possible. Being yourself is already being different and unique.’’

Perianes will undoubtedly leave his fingerprint on the Emperor, a work most every professional concert pianist must conquer. Cast in E-flat major, Beethoven’s “heroic’’ key, the concerto is a dialog among equals – soloist and orchestra carry the same assertive weight throughout – although the piano is the hero of this story. Its war-like rhythms, pointed melodies and bold character led TFO Music Director Michael Francis to say that it “encapsulates the heroic struggle of the individual and how one determined soul can influence the world around him to a magnificent degree.’’

Unlike most concertos up this time (1809), Beethoven introduces the soloist at the onset, overturning the tradition of a lengthy orchestral exposition. The piano enters like a wave crashing on shore as it unleashes a wash of notes in all directions. That’s no easy assignment.

“There are so many different aspects (of difficulty) to consider,’’ Perianes says. “Finding the right balance between poetry and heroic, establishing fluid communication with the orchestra, considering this concerto as a great chamber music piece, and giving some unity of concept in terms of articulation, phrasing and sound to the whole concerto.’’

So much of Beethoven’s popularity rests on his power, a full-throttled energy that tests a performer emotionally as well as physically. That takes a bit of athleticism.

“I think we’re doing some kind of elite sport because of the muscles we use and the amount of time you spend practicing,’’ Perianes says. “There is, of course, a physical part to the preparation, and so you should be in a good form mentally and physically. I think it’s important to be as fresh as possible, to rest, eat healthy food and exercise.’’

Power aside, Beethoven is also known for his slow movements, which bring tenderness and lyricism to his symphonies, chamber works and sonatas. Imagine the opening and closing movements of his Ninth Symphony unmoored from the central adagio that brings them to life.

The Emperor is no different. The adagio is Beethoven on a spiritual high, the piano’s delicate, ascending melody set against muted strings in what sounds like a hymn. Leonard Bernstein was so enamored by this music that he borrowed its central theme for the song Somewhere in his musical West Side Story.

“The beauty is in its simplicity,’’ the pianist says. “I agree with the feeling that this movement is one of the most sublime in the repertoire and that the simplicity is what creates its difficulty. This goes back to the intervention that an artist could have on the music and the effect it could cause. But sometimes, such as here, less is more.’’

Kurt Loft is a freelance journalist, member of the Music Critics Association of North America and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune. He lives in St. Petersburg.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Pat farnan

    Great insights, erudition. Thank you, Mr. Loft.

  2. Barbara Cooley

    With the hope that you’re not tired of hearing from me, an ardent subscriber for the past fifteen years, I applaud Michael Francis. Under his baton, the Florida Orchestra is developing its own sound. Sadly,
    applause between movements interrupts our connection with the music and the composer’s intention. I discovered other music lovers agree. Do you think Maestro Francis could ask the audience,in his charming manner, to hold their applause until the piece ends.

  3. Kurt Loft

    This has been a polite but distracting practice since the early age of orchestras. And yes, while we’ll intended, it robs musicians and listeners of a moment of reflection, of a space we need to be in that doesn’t require gratuity until the end.

  4. Kurt Loft

    We’ll should be changed to “well”

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