Arts & Events

Emanuel Ax with Oakland Symphony in a Beethoven Concert

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday February 09, 2019 - 10:20:00 AM

Oakland Symphony presented “An Evening with Emanuel Ax” on Friday, February 8 at the Paramount Theatre. Renowned pianist Emanuel Ax was certainly the centerpiece of this concert, but this might have just as suitably been dubbed “An Evening with Beethoven,” for all five works on the program were by Ludwig von Beethoven. We heard, in the following order, the Egmont Overture, Op. 84, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15, the Coriolanus Overture, Op. 62, the Prisoners’ Chorus from Act I of Fidelio, and the Choral Fantasy in C Major, Op. 80.  

Music Director Michael Morgan opened the concert by leading the Oakland Symphony in Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Commissioned to write incidental music for a new production of Goethe’s play Egmont, Beethoven, who revered Goethe, was inspired to compose this remarkable overture, which is a marvel of dramatic compression. The underlying theme is the struggle for freedom from tyranny as the Flemish people seek liberation from Spain. In Michael Morgan’s hands, this overture did not quite hold together. Rather, it seemed to lurch from one seemingly isolated moment to another. Only in the build-up to a rousing, triumphant finale did this Egmont Overture demonstrate its propulsive energy and remarkable cohesion.  

Next on the program was Emanuel Ax as soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major. Actually, Beethoven wrote this concerto after his Piano Concerto No. 2; but he switched their numerical order for publication. The work begins with a lengthy orchestral introduction. When the piano finally enters, one is struck by the Mozartean fluidity of its lyricism. Indeed, Beethoven’s first three piano concertos all follow the Mozartean pattern in both structure and style. In this the first piano concerto, I might say that one hears Beethoven in the orchestral passages and a strong influence of Mozart in the piano. However, in the first movement’s strenuous cadenza, played here with technical mastery and interpretive intensity by Emanuel Ax, there is no doubt that this is Beethoven striking out on his own and distancing himself from Mozart even as he pays homage to him elsewhere in this same work. The second movement is a poignant, delicate Largo, performed with loving lyricism by Emanuel Ax. The third and final movement is a Rondo, Allegro scherzando; and it is a wonderfully familiar showpiece for the integration of solo piano and full orchestra. Together, Emanual Ax and Michael Morgan brought this off quite splendidly.  

After intermission, Oakland Symphony opened the concert’s second half with Beethoven’s Coriolanus Overture. Based only indirectly on Shakespeare’s play, Beethoven wrote this overture for a play by Heinrich von Collin. The opening chords are striking and emphatic, and they immediately announce the heroic nature of the Roman general Coriolanus. The second theme is more gentle and melodious, and it perhaps represents the entreaties of Coriolanus’ wife and mother. A section of agitated development signals the storm and stress of a heroic general’s life amidst revolt. The ending slowly fades away to signal the hero’s death.  

Next on the program was the Prisoners’ Chorus from Act I of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. Joining Oakland Symphony were Oakland Gay Men’s Chorus and Oakland Symphony Chorus. Brief solos were ably sung by tenor David Chavez and baritone William Lawley. As a stand-alone piece, devoid of its setting in the opera, this achingly beautiful sigh of momentary relief by prisoners of tyranny loses much of its fervent power. Nonetheless, it was splendidly performed here. 

To close out the concert, Emanuel Ax returned to take the piano solo lead in Beethoven’s Choral fantasy in C Major, Op. 80. This lovely work has often been called a precursor to the Ode to Joy of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. However, overshadowed by the immense grandeur of the Ode to Joy, this Choral Fantasy is rarely performed. In the hands of Emanuel Ax and Michael Morgan, it was a treat to hear this fine work. The rich interplay between solo piano and various sections of the orchestra, especially the woodwinds, was outstanding. The combined forces of Oakland Symphony Chorus and Oakland Gay Men’s Chorus ultimately join in at the end of this piece to sing of music’s transcendent qualities. The student group known as Muse Vivo Orchestra also joined in to perform this Choral Fantasy. 

As an encore, Emanuel Ax performed a Chopin Nocturne.