Concerto by Hummel, incidental music by Beethoven on the program Feb. 23–24
By Peter Alexander Feb. 21 at 2:45 p.m.
The program for the next concert by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra began with a pair of socks.
There are two works on the program, both written in the 1810s and both just outside the central Classical repertoire. The first will be Beethoven’s complete incidental music for Goethe’s drama Egmont, composed in 1810—a less-known work by a major composer. The Third Piano Concerto of Beethoven’s younger contemporary Johann Nepomuk Hummel was written only a little later, in 1819—a major work by a less-known composer.
Joining conductor Bahman Saless and the BCO for the concert will be soprano Christie Conover to sing two arias from the Egmont music, and pianist Andrew Staupe for the Hummel Concerto. Performances will be Friday, Feb. 23, in Lone Tree, and Saturday, Feb 24, in Boulder.
But back to those socks.
Saless first met pianist Andrew Staupe when he played with the Colorado Symphony. “He invited me to his concert, and I think he did Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto,” Saless says. “I met him there, and I was intrigued by his socks.”
His socks? “He wears colored, very obviously different socks on each leg, and he purposely wears shorter pants so you can see the socks. I liked this guy already!”
Thanks to those socks, Saless and Staupe became friends, and one day Staupe asked about playing the Hummel Third Concerto. It’s not performed often, partly because it is so difficult, but it was a piece he really wanted to do. “He knew I’m the kind of person who likes to do things that are not often played,” Saless explains.
Hummel lived in Vienna at the same time as Beethoven, and the two of them studied with the same teachers when they were starting their careers. An informal but mostly respectful rivalry developed between them as pianists, and Hummel wrote his concertos as virtuoso showpieces for his own performances.
As a result the Hummel piano concertos have the reputation of being extremely difficult to learn. Saless recalls talking to another pianist who said he might be able to learn one of them in two or three years.
The Third Concerto in particular is, Saless says, “a crazy piano marathon. I don’t know how anybody performs it. The soloist rarely stops playing, and it is unbelievably hard. It’s inhuman!” In fact, the piece is so rarely performed that there is no full score available; Saless will conduct from a two-piano score.
A link between the classical and Romantic periods, Hummel wrote in a highly decorative piano style that anticipated later composers. “The forecasting of Chopin is ridiculous,” Saless says. “So you hear Chopin, and you hear a little bit of Rossini here and there.”
Beethoven received a commission for music to accompany a performance of Goethe’s play Egmont, to be presented in the summer of 1810. The play, about a nobleman who was executed in the 16th century for resisting Spanish tyranny in the Netherlands, appealed to Beethoven’s own political idealism, and he wrote some of his most powerful music for the performance. The Overture is especially well known, and was associated with the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union.
Beethoven wrote 10 pieces for the play, including the Overture, two songs for the character Klärchen, and dramatic entr’actes to be played between the five acts of the play. Because Egmont’s death leads to a victorious uprising, the final piece is titled “Victory Symphony.” Played as Egmont is led offstage to his execution, it repeats the final triumphant section of the Overture.
Saless first heard the complete music to Egmont at the Colorado Music Festival in 2003, and since the two composers knew one another, he thought it would be a good piece to share the program with Hummel. The entr’actes are more than just filler between acts, often being part of the drama as it unfolds. “Some are very theatrical, as you might guess,” Saless says
“A couple of movements are literally oboe concertos, following the theme of the previous aria by the soprano. Other movements are militaristic, with snare drum playing like soldiers marching.
“The arias are absolutely beautiful—very tuneful arias. Some of the movements have the sudden changes of mood that we’re so used to in Beethoven. He does such a good job [of telling the story].”
To make sure that the storytelling is not lost on the audience, Saless will provide projections to explain the drama as it unfolds in the music. Between Beethoven’s explicitly theatrical music and the challenges of Hummel’s “inhuman” concerto, it should be a dramatic concert. And Saless has some cogent advice for the audience:
“Pay attention to his socks!”
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Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Bahman Saless, conductor
With Andrew Staupe, piano, and Christie Conover, soprano
Beethoven: Incidental Music to Goethe’s Egmont
Johann Nepomuk Hummel: Piano Concerto No. 3
7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23, Lone Tree Arts Center, Lone Tree
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, Boulder Adventist Church, Boulder