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Jean Oelrich
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Pacific Symphony’s 2014-15 Café Ludwig chamber series delves into three sonatas by “Bach, Beethoven and Bartók,” composed at the height of their careers

Orange County, Calif. — February 19, 2015

Enjoy the ever-progressing capabilities of music by “Bach, Beethoven and Bartόk” in the second concert of Pacific Symphony’s 2014-15 Café Ludwig chamber series, which explores music written at the early, middle and late periods of a composer’s life. Led by charismatic pianist and host Orli Shaham, this year’s series features the Symphony’s Principal Cellist Timothy Landauer performing three of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas over the course of the season. For this concert, Landauer’s cello shines in equal interplay with Shaham’s piano during the Cello Sonata No. 3, a work full of serene emotion. The concert opens with Bach’s Trio Sonata for Two Flutes and Piano, which features a genius display of counterpoint played by Principal Flutist Benjamin Smolen and flutist Sharon O’Connor. Guest pianist Peter Henderson joins the Symphony musicians for Bartόk’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion, playing alongside Shaham, Principal Timpanist Todd Miller and Principal Percussionist Robert Slack. Bartók’s piece is an aural exploration of his fascination with the piano as a percussion instrument.

The concert takes place on Sunday, March 1, at 3 p.m. in the Samueli Theater at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Tickets are $65 and $79, and include coffee, tea and desserts. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 755-5799 or visit www.PacificSymphony.org.

 “There is something particularly rewarding about exploring music that was written when the composer was already established in his career,” says Shaham. “In the case of our three composers for this program, each was, by this point, confident and versed in so many areas, allowing him to explore his musical ideas freely, aided by his own expertise.”

Bach composed his Trio Sonata for Two Flutes and Piano around the same time as his Brandenburg Concertos. Although it was written a year after his first wife’s untimely death at age 36, Bach’s Trio Sonata does not reflect his pain from this traumatic event. Instead, it is full of energy, and any downhearted themes transition to feelings of hopefulness. The piece starts with a liveliness, even among the slower middle movement, and plainly ends in stunning beauty. Even though he was writing for the secular audience of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, with Bach, every musical expression of beauty was in praise to God.

“By the time he penned this Trio Sonata, Bach was a confident master,” says Shaham. “The two flutes, the stars of the work, act in partnership throughout to delineate long flowing melodies, at times pensive and at times lively and joyful. The counterpoint is flawless throughout, as is the blend of the instruments. This is generally a sunny piece, with something interesting to listen to at every turn.”

At the age of 38, Beethoven was already a pioneer of the cello as a solo instrument, and he wrote his Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major—along with his four other cello sonatas—while exploring the instrument’s broad range of possibilities. Unique to his time, Beethoven was the only composer to write for cello and piano until Brahms in 1862. Beethoven wrote his first two sonatas in an effort to impress music patrons of the time, so he purposefully made the piano part more challenging and impressive. However, the cello still has many difficult sections in high registers to assert its ability. This changes with the third sonata; all sense of competition between the two instruments is gone, and instead there is a statement of breathtaking meditation.

“Beethoven’s middle Cello Sonata is a work filled with fully developed, uniquely Beethovenian ideas,” says Shaham. “The two instruments are set up as absolute equals, with Beethoven deftly showing off each in the best light possible. Humor, syncopated rhythms and dynamic surprises all serve to make the second movement ear-catching and endlessly inventive. The Finale as a whole is one of the most satisfying in the literature, with a lovely short slow introduction and a strong, heroic ending with virtuosic fireworks for both instruments.”

Bartόk was known for his compelling artistry as a pianist and for giving the piano a unique percussive quality in his compositions. In the case of his Sonata, he decided to write specifically for percussion and piano together. He composed and premiered this piece on piano with his second wife as a sonata in 1937 at the age of 56, and later constructed it into a concerto with orchestra. The sound is unlike most heard at the time; Bartόk was surely a leader of the modernism period of music, leading the way for many composers to come. The work starts off at a fast pace and takes many unexpected key changes leading into its middle movement of eerie dissonance and lonesome melodies, and quickly transitions into a dance; later, the piano drops out and a snare drum and cymbal duet resolve the piece in softness.

Shaham confirms, saying that this piece of Bartόk’s is a “masterwork of incredible originality and power. By this point in his life, he had enough experience to take percussion sounds and technique to previously unimagined places.”

Recognized for her grace, subtlety and vitality, Shaham has led the Symphony’s Café Ludwig series for the past seven seasons. Internationally, she has established an impressive reputation as one of today’s most gifted pianists, and is in demand for her prodigious skills and admired for her interpretations of both standard and modern repertoire.

She adds: “After seven years, I believe I know the musicians of Pacific Symphony as well as the audience of Café Ludwig well enough that I can take them with me on journeys of musical exploration. We always find as we’re preparing a program that there is even more to connect the individual works than we had previously imagined. That is awfully fulfilling!”

 

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