There are 100-year comets, four-leaf clovers, and sometimes even a World Series win by the Chicago Cubs — and then there’s a performance of Beethoven’s complete cycle of Sonatas for Violin and Piano.
The capstone of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s 2019 season takes place Tuesday through Thursday, Aug. 13-15, when Ida Kavafian and Anne-Marie McDermott perform Beethoven’s complete sonatas for violin and piano at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.
The individual sonatas are frequently played, but performances of all 10 — which were composed between 1797 and 1812 — as a cycle are rare. (The most recent traversal of the sonatas in America seems to have been in La Jolla, California, in 2017.) “This is an incredible opportunity for Santa Fe audiences,” observed the festival’s artistic director, Marc Neikrug. “Pinchas Zukerman and I played these sonatas all over the world for 35 years, and we never did more than seven or eight full cycles during that whole time.
“You feel exhilarated and exhausted at the end of playing them all, but you also have this incredible feeling of community — that you and the audience have given each other a great gift by going through this transformative experience together over such a short time. It’s really the Ring Cycle of chamber music. Doing them in chronological order means the audience is traveling with Beethoven through one of his most important periods. He was breaking through the stylistic formalities of the time, moving from classicism to romanticism.”
Kavafian and McDermott bring exceptional performance credentials to the festival’s sonatas cycle. McDermott has performed as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the orchestras of Atlanta, Dallas, St. Louis, and Seattle. Her recordings include the complete Prokofiev piano sonatas and all of Gershwin’s music for piano and orchestra. Kavafian was a longtime member of the Beaux Arts Trio and the pioneering TASHI ensemble. Her recordings include collaborations with the Guarneri Quartet; she has also toured and recorded with Chick Corea and Wynton Marsalis.
Both women serve as artistic leaders of important chamber music groups. Kavafian was the founding artistic director of Colorado’s Bravo! Vail Music Festival and New Mexico’s Music From Angel Fire, now in its 36th season. McDermott has been Bravo! Vail’s artistic director since 2011; she’s also the artistic director for Florida’s Ocean Reef Chamber Music Festival and curator for chamber music for the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego.
Tuesday, Aug. 13
Beethoven wrote the first three sonatas when he was 27. They are the work of a confident young composer who has mastered the prevailing style and is starting to deepen its expressive possibilities. The first, in D major, features many fast key changes and sudden dynamic contrasts. During the third movement, the music comically jumps into a completely unexpected key and then out again, as if the composer made a composition mistake and forgot to go back and correct it. Beethoven’s sense of humor also comes to the fore in the second sonata, which seems to end with a big final cadence by the violin, only to have the piano continue for another two measures. The third sonata, in E-flat major, is especially notable for its virtuoso piano part and the deeply emotional middle movement.
Sonatas four through seven see Beethoven expanding the scope by starting to add a fourth, contrasting movement. They’re scherzos, which are relatively short and are in a triple meter, so they have the feeling of a waltz. Scherzo is the Italian word for “joke,” and they can have a comic aspect — as in the fifth sonata, in which the violin sounds like it can’t keep up with the piano. Beethoven also widens his emotional palette by choosing minor keys for two of these pieces. The seventh sonata is especially interesting. It’s in C minor, which is Beethoven’s choice to convey intense drama, as in the Funeral March from his Eroica symphony, which he was starting to sketch out at the time, and in the fifth symphony. The seventh sonata also contains several structural innovations that prefigure his later compositions.
Thursday, Aug. 15
The final program’s most remarkable work is the ninth sonata, the Kreutzer Sonata, because it’s so unlike all the others. It’s much longer — with an incredibly showy and difficult violin part — and much more dramatic. In reality, it sounds like a violin concerto with the orchestra replaced by a piano. It starts with a slow introduction, followed by an agitated presto movement. The second movement is more relaxed; the third returns to top speed with a tarantella, a fiery Italian folk dance. The program-opening eighth sonata, in G major, shows Beethoven at his sunniest and most charming, reflecting the time he spent in a forest outside Vienna during its composition. A nearly 10-year gap separates the tenth and final sonata from the ninth. Beethoven wrote it shortly after finishing his seventh and eighth symphonies, so here his mature style, with its probing intensity, is fully in evidence. Because it was written for Pierre Rode’s relatively restrained playing style, the tenth sonata has fewer violin pyrotechnics than most of the others.
▼ Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival presents Beethoven’s Sonatas for Violin and PianoWith Ida Kavafian and Anne-Marie McDermott
▼ 6 p.m Tuesday through Thursday, Aug. 13-15
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ $15-$77, discounts available for subscription to all three performances (inquire by phone) and for ages 35 and younger
▼ 505-982-1890, santafechambermusic.com
Breaking barriers: George Bridgetower
Beethoven’s famous Kreutzer Sonata was premiered by a stereotype-busting violinist with an incredible backstory. George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower was born in Poland in 1778 to a German mother and an African-Caribbean father (probably a freed slave who made his way to Europe). He was a child prodigy as a violinist, and almost certainly studied with Franz Joseph Haydn as a very young man, making his solo performing debut in Paris at age 11. He was soon concertizing across Europe to great acclaim and royal patronage. In 1803, Bridgetower met Beethoven, who described him as “a master of his instrument” and wrote the fiendishly difficult violin part in his ninth sonata with him in mind.
Bridgetower and Beethoven premiered it in Vienna on May 24, 1803. Beethoven finished composing it at the very last minute, with no time for a copyist to produce a complete violin part, so Bridgetower played much of it from the manuscript without any rehearsal. After the successful concert, Beethoven decided to name the sonata after Bridgetower, but the two soon quarreled over a female friend, and the angered composer dedicated it instead to French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer — who hated the piece and never played it.
Bridgetower, played by Everton Nelson, made an appearance in Immortal Beloved, the 1994 Beethoven biopic starring Gary Oldman. The film inspired Rita Dove, a U.S. poet laureate, to write Sonata Mulattica, a collection of poems about Bridgetower that is now being turned into a documentary film.
Passions inflamed: Tolstoy’s novella
In his 1889 novella The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy depicts a performance of Beethoven’s sonata as casting so strong an aphrodisiacal spell that two of the main characters immediately begin an adulterous affair. It ends with the stabbing death of the errant woman by her husband. (Ticket holders for the Chamber Music Festival’s performance of this sonata on Aug. 15 are hereby warned.)
The author’s intent was to promote the cause of celibacy, but his content was so vivid that publication of the work was banned in Russia — and, briefly, in the United States. Tolstoy’s music-inspired novella later inspired the creation of another piece of music: Leoš Janáček’s first string quartet, subtitled “Kreutzer Sonata.” He wrote it in 1923, just as his intense but apparently platonic affair with a much younger married woman was heating up.