February 25, 2013
photo courtesy of Pasadena Symphony Orchestra
Oh boy, do I love LACO’s annual Discover concert. This is the fourth year in a row they’ve done it (if I’m counting correctly on my fingers), and it’s both the highlight of the season, and a highlight of my year. If you haven’t been to a Discover concert before, make a note on your calendar and attend next year (LACO hasn’t announced next year’s season yet, but they will in a few months). The premise is simple: they take a singular piece of music, and before they perform it, Jeffrey Kahane presents a fascinating introduction. The Orchestra is onstage to provide musical accompaniment as needed, but it’s mostly Kahane, eloquently talking and weaving stories about the composer, the place and time in history when the piece was composed, and all the sign posts to look (and listen) for when the piece is performed. Not only do you walk away at the end of the night having heard an exemplary musical performance, but you’ve learned something, too – and I don’t know about you, but I love learning! This year, the Discover concert focused on Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.
My favorite part of these concerts are hearing about the historical context of the piece, and Kahane didn’t skimp on comparing this Concerto to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (perhaps the most well-known piece of music ever written), and his 6th symphony, which was also written in the same period. I don’t think much about how pieces of music fit into the timeline of a composer’s life, or how they relate (or don’t) to the other pieces of music being written at the time, so Kahane’s deconstruction of how concertos were written, and how Beethoven played with and ignored these conventions, was greatly appreciated.
Because I’m not a music scholar, there were quite a few references and pieces of information that, despite Kahane’s strong ability to explain for the layperson, are probably not going to stick in my head. But there are always details that will, and one of the stories that will stay in my noggin was about when this piece premiered, as part of a four-hour concert on a winter’s night in a Vienna concert hall that didn’t have heat. Four hours. No heat. I love my LACO concerts, but four hours? How did those patrons do it? Better yet, how did those musicians do it?
After setting the historical context, Kahane dove into explaining the concerto, picking out melodies and transitions on the keyboard, and asking the Orchestra to play key passages and moments. He spent a lot of time sharing a music scholar’s theory on how the second movement essentially told the story of Orpheus descending into the underworld, which, while interesting, was a little lost on my untrained ears.
After an intermission, the Orchestra regrouped, and with Kahane conducting from the piano, they performed the entire concerto. It was a stunning experience, all the more heightened by my new appreciation for the piece and the composer. Oh – and I haven’t mentioned yet that the Discover concert was performed at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, my favorite venue in town! It’s a soaring space that hovers above a giant reflecting pool, and the way that it’s lit at night is beautiful to behold. What could be better than beautiful music in an exquisite setting?