Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the Summer with the Symphony program presented its annual Music of Beethoven concert. Director of Summer Concerts Edwin Outwater led the San Francisco Symphony, choosing to reduce the size of the string section to the sort of scale that one would have expected to encounter in the early nineteenth century. Since modern instruments were being played, this was not, strictly speaking, a “historically informed” approach; but it allowed Outwater to experiment with the balance of winds and brass against strings with impressively delightful results. The program consisted entirely of music by Ludwig van Beethoven and followed the conventional (but not for the early nineteenth century) overture-concerto-symphony plan.
The concerto was the Opus 73 (“Emperor”) piano concerto in E-flat major, also played on a modern instrument by pianist Orion Weiss. This is a score that runs the entire gamut from full-out grandeur to an intimate quietude that almost anticipates a nocturne by Frédéric Chopin; and it turned out that reducing the number of strings facilitated an interpretation through which one could appreciate the full breadth of that dynamic range. How often does one realize that, in one of those quieter moments, the piano is accompanied by little more than a solo cello (played by Associate Principal Peter Wyrick)? Those who know their Beethoven concertos know that the composer engaged this rhetorical device in the last movement of his Opus 58 (fourth) piano concerto in G major; and he apparently liked the effect enough to try it out in another piano concerto.
Reducing the strings facilitated Outwater taking a brisk approach to his tempo selections. At a more rapid pace one could appreciate the extent to which the first movement of Opus 73 is practically a substantially prolonged cadenza, spanning the full duration between opening and closing gestures, into which the orchestra injects the obligatory theme or two. This makes for less interplay between soloist and ensemble than one would encounter in a concerto by, for example, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; but both Weiss and Outwater seemed perfectly comfortable with this break in tradition.
In this slightly unconventional territory, Weiss seemed to focus most of his effort on phrasing. Those sitting close enough to the stage could see his lips moving, suggesting that he was using prosodic shaping to provide a framework for his approach to interpretation. The result was, for the most part, both sensible and effective, even if there were a few barely-noticeable stumbles at the ends of some of the more intricate phrases.
The overall approach to “energy management” by both Outwater and Weiss was at its most effective in contrasting the second (Adagio un poco mosso) movement from the two outer movements. Here, again, there was the sense of an extended cadenza but in a far less flamboyant setting established by the ensemble. Indeed, any sense of thematic material shared between the pianist and the orchestra only came into play with the concluding Rondo. This would not have been a rondo without a recurring theme, and much of the substance of the movement involved how that theme was exchanged between soloist and ensemble. Here, at last, was some sense of Weiss working “in the same universe” as Outwater; and that impression of elements coming together did much to reinforce the conclusiveness of the concerto’s final measures.
Energy management was also paramount in Outwater’s approach to the symphony selection, the Opus 92 (seventh) in A major. This was a reading in which one could appreciate just how much of the “action” was taking place among the wind and brass players. This was where Outwater’s sense of scale paid the highest dividends.
The strings were there to balance the winds and brass without ever overwhelming them. One could thus appreciate the many devices by which Beethoven could unfold his thematic material through a broad palette of instrumentation strategies. However familiar this symphony may have been to much (most?) of the audience, Outwater engaged his resources to provide a fresh perspective for one of the most familiar pieces in the concert repertoire.
On the other hand the opening overture is more easily encountered on recordings than in performance. Beethoven’s Opus 117 King Stephen consists of an overture and nine vocal numbers setting commemorative texts by August von Kotzebue, written to honor Stephen I of Hungary, who became that country’s first king in 1000. As might be guessed, the overture gets far more exposure than the vocal pieces.
Outwater’s brisk account of that overture anticipated the vigor that he would bring to the following concerto and symphony selections. James M. Keller’s notes for the program suggest that Beethoven tried to evoke “a Hungarian flavor;” but this did not seem to involve much more than the alternation of slow and fast tempo selections. Under Outwater’s leadership the more salient characteristics of the overture emerged through changes in dynamic contour at different levels of subtlety. Indeed, there were distinct signs of playfulness in how Beethoven chose to handle those dynamic levels. Both the pace and its good-natured rhetoric almost suggest that this score might have inspired some of the more engaging moments in subsequent overtures composed by Gioachino Rossini. Outwater could not have made a better selection to “warm up” the audience for the delights that would follow.