Tuesday, November 12, 2019

A Beethovenian Special for Second Sunday

Steven Vanhauwaert, with Charles Dickerson and the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. 


Steven Vanhauwaert/ICYOLA, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Numerous recitals have shown Rolling Hills United Methodist Church to be a fine venue for chamber music, and with a platform that is large enough easily to accommodate a small-to-medium-sized orchestra, it was only a matter of time before its acoustic suitability for such larger forces was also tested.

Vienna's Theater an der Wien, location of the first
performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.3
on April 4, 1803, played by the composer himself.
So here—as the latest celebration of that upcoming 250th anniversary—was the answer: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37, played by Steven Vanhauwaert, with the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles under its founder and Artistic Director, Charles Dickerson. This was very much a “family” occasion in fact, as Mr. Vanhauwaert also serves as Artistic Director of the whole “Second Sundays at Two” concert series, while Mr. Dickerson is the Director of Music at RHUMC.

The very opening answered the question of how an orchestra would sound in this space—bold, forward, resonant, though the piano dynamic with which Beethoven marks the start of his Allegro con brio seemed closer to mezzo-forte. Maestro Dickerson’s reading of that Allegro con brio was on the spacious side, but this only added to the sense of a bold journey bravely undertaken. The well-tuned, unanimous thrust of the ICYOLA strings was immediately impressive, despite the platform area limiting their strength to a modest 4-4-3-3-1.

Steven Vanhauwaert.
Beethoven’s only minor-key concerto was probably composed in 1802-03, placing it as a crucial milestone in his early maturity. Like its closest model, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor K. 491, the first movement has a double exposition, the first being purely orchestral. As this unfolded, the orchestra’s energetic observation of the many sforzandi with which it’s peppered enhanced the grandeur and dynamism with which Beethoven sets the scene for the soloist’s appearance.

The second, piano-led, exposition starts with a grand upward keyboard flourish, after which Mr. Vanhauwaert gave the main theme full emphatic value, with glittering exactness in the embellishments that Beethoven decorates its progress with. When the gentle second subject arrived, his observance both of the prescribed piano marking and the fact that the composer doesn’t ask for any expressive slowing was equally keen. Also noticeable was that his scrupulous observance of dynamics and pacing in the solo part seemed to communicate itself to the orchestra, who responded with nuanced playing that delighted the ear in many tutti and solo passages.

With the arrival of the remarkable Largo slow movement, the individual qualities of the woodwinds increasingly made themselves felt: invidious, perhaps to single out any one instance, but especially relishable was the sensitive exchange between solo flute and bassoon over Mr. Vanhauwaert’s delicately precise and fluid handling of the 32nd- and 64th-note runs with which the movement abounds.

Beethoven walking in the countryside: postcard reproduction of the painting by Julius Schmid
which hangs in the Beethoven-Haus, Bonn.

The piano alone opens both the slow movement and the finale, and his unflinching observance of the extremely slow marking for the former, and steady pace to introduce the Rondo allegro, effectively pushed the total duration of the concerto close to the 40-minute mark, but overall the performance never dragged, and in that Rondo finale everyone seemed to relish Beethoven’s ceaselessly inventive interplay between the orchestral tutti, wind/brass choir and solo flights, and the keyboard. And the steady pace for the movement’s main body enabled a really exciting acceleration into the headlong Presto conclusion.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
Before the concerto, Mr. Vanhauwaert played, not a solo Beethoven piece as one might have expected, but C. P. E. Bach (1714-1788)—the first and last movements of his Sonata in A minor, Wq. 49/1, H. 30 ("Württemberg Sonata No. 1"), probably composed between 1742 and 1744. This was a highly imaginative and apposite choice, given (as Mr. Vanhauwaert remarked after the performance) that this second surviving son of the great Johann Sebastian was in his day far more celebrated than his father, and a highly influential composer in the transition between the Baroque and Classical styles.

The performance certainly bore out the quality of the music and the desirability of hearing far more of Carl Philipp Emanuel’s music. The opening Moderato had a poised, stately quality enhanced by observation of the repeat, while the trenchant and harmonically rich Allegro assai finale was, for this listener, all too brief. It was only regrettable that time constraints precluded the slightly uniform effect of the two movements in succession being relieved by the inclusion also of the central Andante. Another time, let’s hope.

There was time, however, for a brief encore to follow the Beethoven concerto, and Mr. Vanhauwaert obliged with a limpid, lingering account of Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples), Scene No. 1 from Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op. 15—which further delighted, if that were possible, the capacity audience.

Altogether, this was an achievement with which all concerned should be truly proud. Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto is promised from the same partnership next June as the 2019-2020 “Second Sundays at Two” season’s final concert. If it’s as finely performed as No. 3 was last Sunday, then it will be memorable indeed. 


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, October 13, 2019, 2.00 p.m.
Images: Artists: The author; Theater an der Wien: Wikimedia Commons; Steven Vanhauwaert: Artist's website; Beethoven: Beethoven-Haus, Bonn; C. P. E. Bach: Wikimedia Commons.

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