Making It New: Robert Levin and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Music Center at Strathmore, February 27, 2010

How do you get people excited about hearing works they’ve already heard dozens of times? Tell people you’re not going to play those works like you normally do. Heck, even take some risks — make something up on the spot. It’ll draw a crowd, for the same reason that the high-wire act draws a crowd while watching cars drive over a bridge remains a lackluster spectator sport. (And people did indeed pack the houses where Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven improvised, those flights of fancy now surviving only in contemporary accounts of the blown minds left in their wake.)

On Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brought in guest conductor Nicholas McGegan and pianist Robert Levin to flip the script, calling the program “Beethoven & Mozart With a Twist.”

Other pianists approach a performance as a perfectible endeavor, hewing closer and closer to an inviolable score; Levin approaches his performances first as creative endeavors, getting into the spirit of the music by improvising in and around it, as his forbears did. Levin made his name in period performance, but on Saturday night in Beethoven’s first piano concerto, he used a Steinway to whip up a spirit that felt Beethovenian to these modern ears.

Levin noodled along with the orchestral tutti parts in the same manner Beethoven is reported to have done, playing the bassline like a classical-period continuo or underscoring a forte unison with a little pounding. He threw in some tasteful ornamentation, giving passagework a little extra spice. He improvised his own cadenzas in the first and third movements, taking enough risks in the latter to run off the rails with some overpercussive keyboard-storming and then regaining his balance with quiet noodling on a tiny little figure to lead into the tutti. He was more surefooted in the first-movement cadenza, whipping together an effective blend of the movement’s principal motives in stormy Beethovenian style, but the fact that he was willing to take enough risks to screw up the third-movement solo separates him from almost every other classical performer out there.

Of course, Levin commands more conventional pianistic virtues too. He and McGegan adopted quick tempos, with the Rondo finale just this side of breathless in its exuberance, yet kept a head-nodding lilt in the main melody. Even while speeding along, Levin’s articulation of Beethoven’s virtuoso figurations (and his own additions) remained clean and bright. He spun out some lovely melodic playing in the slow movement, at times looking directly at principal clarinet Steven Barta as they traded melodic phrases, not relying on McGegan to mediate. Levin threw in a touch of rubato at times, caressing the melodic contour without manhandling it. Levin has the chops to do a compelling conventional performance of Beethoven 1, but he also wants to take it someplace new each time he plays, and more power to him for that — it’s what made me excited about attending this concert.

Levin’s love for risk-taking manifested itself most strongly in his improvisations in the style of Beethoven, based on some rather boring themes suggested by Saturday’s audience. (To be fair, Beethoven set that bar pretty high.) Though he couldn’t make a silk purse out of those four sow’s ears, Levin showed his Beethovenian chops here too, fleshing them out with flashy rhetoric and some surprising transformations. The willingness to try something and potentially fall flat made for a tension and excitement you just don’t feel at many symphonic concerts.

McGegan contributed to the twisting of Beethoven and Mozart by getting the Balmer Symphony to play with minimal vibrato and a smaller, more clear sound than usual, a period-performance style on modern instruments. The leaner BSO still produced enough volume to fill the Music Center, especially in Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, which closed the program. McGegan’s fast tempos hustled the Mozart forward without robbing it of the grandeur this symphony’s nickname suggests. (The strings did occasionally have trouble keeping up in the faster passagework.) The slow-movement melody still sighed with poignant rests, even if the silences were a little shorter than usual; the minuet, at a tempo fast enough to (theoretically) dance to, sounded like music of the spheres in the “Blue Danube”/”2001″ mold.  The clarity of the BSO’s sound made the finale’s counterpoint extra thrilling; what normally sounds like warm bustling in modern-instrument performances here revealed the myriad gears that power this irresistible locomotive. My only regret is that McGegan did not take the repeat of the finale’s development and recapitulation, which (when taken) allows the audience to nearly double its listening pleasure in the last movement.

I admit that hearing Levin and McGegan take on ultra-familiar classix made their efforts at defamiliarizing more dramatic. Still, given all the unconventionality in the rest of the concert, you’d think the BSO could have programmed some curtain-raiser besides the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” in which MeGegan secured vigorous rhythmic playing but not the ensemble string articulation needed to make the overture sizzle. I can’t imagine that anyone decided to come to this concert because this overture was on the program; why not try an overture to a different Mozart opera? Or an overture by a different classical-period composer? Perhaps that would have been a risk too far, but in context, it would have been fitting to take it.

AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

This may be a good time to note that Levin was the piano soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic when I saw them in Berlin. I was 15, and the concert remains lodged in my memory as the best one I’ve ever heard. I kept a travel diary in which I discussed this concert (among the other highlights of my family’s Berlin trip), and at some point I thought I was going to quote extensively from that diary, but it appears I am too embarrassed by my youthful ignorance and stylistic infelicities to do that. Still, this quote continues to apply 17 years later:

I have never heard anyone have that much fun with a piece. “Fun,” though, has too many connotations; how about “He was the quintessence of the direction con brio“?

Yes, writing improves with practice, but memories like that get better with age.

Other People’s Perspectives on Thursday’s performance of this program: Anne Midgettte, Tim Smith.

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