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Encores and Curtain Calls

A brilliant, soulful, volatile spirit

Beethoven’s cello-piano masterpieces will take you away Sunday

“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.”

— Ludwig van Beethoven

The fall arts scene in Brattleboro, Vt., is kicking in big time with a Sunday, Sept. 29, performance by cellist Sharon Robinson and pianist Benjamin Hochman at Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro, during which they will offer, in two concerts, the complete cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas and variations for piano and cello. The first half of the pair of concerts is at 3 p.m. and the second at 7 p.m.

The sonatas are five in number and span the three major creative periods of Beethoven’s life, the first two having been composed in 1796 parallel to his early and paradigm-changing solo piano sonatas, the third written in mid-career, and the final two sonatas created at the outset of his inscrutable late period. 

Both performers come with impressive credentials: Robinson is the recipient of the Avery Fisher Recital Award, the Piatigorsky Memorial Award, the Pro Musicis Award and is a Grammy Award nominee. She pivots freely between being a solo recitalist and a soloist with orchestra, or as one third of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. Among the notches on her orchestral gun: the Philadelphia and Minnesota Orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Dallas, San Francisco Symphonies, the London Symphony, Helsinki Philharmonic. She has also appeared on “The Tonight Show,” “The Today Show” and the “Kennedy Center Honors” on CBS and “Prairie Home Companion.”

Robinson and her husband, Jaimie Laredo, live in Guilford, Vt., and are artistic advisors to the Brattleboro Music Center.

Hochman is the winner of the 2011 Avery Fisher Career Grant and has performed with New York Philharmonic and the American Symphony Orchestra, making his Carnegie Hall debut with the Israel Philharmonic. His dossier of orchestral appearances is equally impressive, including the Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Houston, Seattle, San Francisco, Vancouver, New Jersey and Portland symphonies.

One of the great blessings of classical music — especially in our Internet-besieged era — is that it powerfully draws us into a deeper and slower stream of experience. Once the host’s introductory request for cell phones and pagers to be silenced is fulfilled, and the audience relinquishes its obsessive grasp on 21st century technology and the pre-concert hush settles in, the time warp begins.

The hall darkens; two people — in this case a woman and a man — enter, acknowledge the warm applause, seat themselves respectively at the piano bench and a solitary chair several feet distant and prepare themselves in their separate ways for what we all sense will be a rewarding journey elsewhere.

It doesn’t much matter that the music in question was written some 200-odd years ago, in another land by someone we never knew, a man whose life traveled a relatively brief trajectory through promising youth, passion, genius, deafness and extremity in many forms, only to succumb while yet in his mid 50s. Take his first stab at a cello sonata: the moment the first solitary sonority — that of a cello welded to a piano chord — strike the air, the spiritual atmosphere morphs into a provocative hue — deep lavender perhaps, or inky indigo.

The piano then offers a few elegantly descending comments, stepping down from the lighter regions, as if to pacify us with — “Don’t be disturbed, things are not as dark as it sounds,” — only to finally arrive at another cello-piano welded chord of even greater apprehension. This, too, is followed by further solace of elegantly descending piano music.

The piano calms us again, the cello following with mournful acceptance. Now both proceed in a pas-de-deux, nodding and bowing in patient mutual regard, as the cello dares to sing a more hopeful song. Their respectful duet continues to traverse the tightrope over the chasm of hope and despair, but always with utter nobility. As the dialogue proceeds, thought by musical thought, pause by pregnant pause, with spiritual question marks emerging from between every rest, we realize we are being privileged to an inside view of a spirit in the process of making its uneasy peace with life.

Such is the art — the brilliant, soulful, volatile spirit of Ludwig van Beethoven. He always succeeds in making his way from the valley bottom to the mountain top, but leaving blood, sweat and tears everywhere along the way; unlike his tidier and more well-behaved brothers and predecessors, Mozart and Haydn. Like them, he spins a good tune and wields a virtuosic piano, but unlike them, he lets his listeners see the less seemly parts of the journey up close.

Now let’s jump to his last sonata for the two instruments, in particular the third movement. The cello dares a silly upward scale; the piano impishly imitates. The cello picks up his uninspired scale-tune again, piano jumping in midstream, left hand trailing the right, and both trailing the lead cello. And now, lo and behold, out of mindlessly simple scalar silliness, we find ourselves thick in the midst of a brilliantly beguiling fugue whose twists and turns at times tempt us to think we are perhaps listening to a piece from our own century by some new wunderkind.

But it’s only Beethoven, as usual, taking what we were quite sure was a predictable musical convention and turned it into a springboard for a brilliant leap into transcendence — the place where eras, names, nationalities and forms become absolutely meaningless and where meaning itself becomes timelessly real, inextinguishably true.

The series continues with violinist Bella Hristova on Dec. 14, pianist Jonathan Biss on Jan. 10, Escher String Quartet on March 23, and Musicians from Marlboro on April 4. Discounted series subscriptions are available prior to the first concert on Sept. 29. For details visit: bmcvt.org/chamber-music-series/concerts

The Complete Cycle of Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Cello will be performed in two concerts on Sunday, Sept. 29, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church, 193 Main St., in Brattleboro, Vt. Tickets for one concert are $30, $20, $10. The combined prices to attend both concerts are $45, $30, $15. The lowest price tickets have limited viewing.

Concert-goers are also invited to join the BMC for a special dinner buffet at Blue Moose Cafe between the concerts. Cellist and Chamber Series Artistic Director Zon Eastes will speak about the sonatas during the dinner. Advance reservations are required, $30 per person (tax and tip included). Seating is limited. Advance reservations required.

For concert tickets, including series subscriptions, and dinner reservations, call the Brattleboro Music Center at 802-257-4523 or visit www.bmcvt.org.

The BMC’s Chamber Music Series is sponsored by Vermont Public Radio.

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at
josephmarcello@verizon.net.

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