Instrumentalist - Piano
Symphony fans gathered together to bask in Beethoven
It's good to go back to your roots every now and then, and what better time to do that than over the Thanksgiving weekend? That's exactly what the Virginia Symphony Orchestra did in its all-Beethoven concert Saturday evening at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk.

For today's orchestras, Beethoven is really the musical root from which composers in the 19th century and beyond grew in many directions.

Beethoven's instruments were still significantly different from modern ones, and he still used the old classical forms of sonatas, minuets and rondos. By infusing these forms with dramatic energy and pushing his instruments to their limits, he created a body of work that, though it sometimes confused his contemporaries, has spoken with convincing power to later generations.

In recent decades, musicians playing Beethoven have restrained the much louder sounds of modern instruments for fear of pushing his balances out of proportion. In doing so, they have often taken the guts out of the music, leaving a rather polite structure that lacks its emotional drive.

Thankfully, we are getting beyond that and are letting that compelling drive back in. Music director JoAnn Falletta, who has in the past put some restraint on Beethoven's spirited energy, let it all out this time, achieving climactic moments of startling force, with contrasting passages of sublime tenderness.

String players dug into their lower range at the opening of the "Egmont" overture. The development was played with a sense of determination that drove forward to the triumphant final section.

Guest soloist Cecile Licad played the Piano Concerto No. 3 with a similar sense of dramatic purpose. Her authoritative command of the keyboard yielded crystal-clear right-hand melodies with supporting left-hand accompaniments.

As strong as she was in the outer movements, she was able to relax in the middle one, which she began with a feeling of breathless slow motion. The orchestra entered a bit too boldly but backed off to match her gentle touch.

Two encores featured other aspects of her playing. The Rachmaninoff arrangement of Fritz Kreisler's "Liebesleid" ("Love's Sorrow") had great flexibility in tempo, as well as variety in tone color. Chopin's "Black Key Etude" was a delightful display of Licad's right-hand dexterity.

The orchestra, which supported Licad so well in the concerto, was back on its own for Symphony No. 7. Again, the playing was strong, as was the impact of Beethoven's writing.

Through the many sections in the four movements, energy grew or subsided to fit the music's purpose, shaping the long work into a convincing progression of moods and musical events.

Played on the fast side, but with great clarity, the two inner movements brought to mind a stately dance and the frivolity of opera buffa.

In the end, it was Beethoven's amazing wealth of ideas and skill in working them out with such a dramatic sense of timing - as well as the musicians' consistent ability to bring the music to life - that left the audience completely satisfied.
Lee Teply, Virginian-Pilot
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