The Composer Took a Bow
It's always refreshing to be part of an audience making this request at the conclusion of any good solo performance. And usually the soloist obliges with an appropriately short piece. But I have yet to hear the cry "Composer! Composer!" (After the performance of some contemporary work, that is.)
It almost happened one evening at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It would be more accurate to say that the request was anticipated - after a remarkable performance of a harmonica concerto. The concerto was the main feature of this "promenade concert" performed before a traditionally standing audience at the Royal Albert. (Seats were conspicuous by their absence on these occasions.)
We had just heard a contemporary piece by British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, composed especially for Harry Adler, a popular American harmonica player in the 1950s.
Adler had performed with exceptional skill. I was very young and very impressed. And the standing audience offered a standing ovation - a long one. Then, to the delight of everyone and entirely unannounced, the composer appeared on stage. The white-haired and full-bearded Vaughan Williams linked hands with the American, and they bowed together repeatedly. The whole evening was an unforgettable Anglo-American tour de force!
I was reminded of all this in a strange way the other night at Toronto's Roy Thompson Hall. My wife, Rosalind, and I were there to hear among other items a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major. The Quebec-born Louis Lortie was the soloist.
This young international pianist held us spellbound. In the allegro, his fingers flew along the keys in sheer delight. In the andante, those same fingers reverently and unhurriedly touched alive each note as if they were savoring the beauty of the concerto for the first time.
Finally, the applause. Yes, a standing ovation. But if Beethoven had been resurrected that evening, he would have stood there, a disbelieving ghost. The unmarred fluency of the performance, the sensitive conducting, the warm audience, all his rich sound coming back to him on modern instruments, would have penetrated his senses irresistibly, but only to stir within him a mixture of pathos and irony - perhaps even retrospective anger! For he would be remembering the disastrous debut of his 4th Concerto on Dec. 22, 1808.
ON that ill-fated day, at the Theatre an der Wien in Vienna, Beethoven gave a concert of his own works. Overwhelmingly long. For the program included his Fifth and Sixth symphonies; the Choral Fantasy for solo piano, choir, and orchestra; the concert aria Ah! Perfidio; an extempore solo; and the premier of his Piano Concerto No. 4. What is more, the composer was the soloist in all three piano pieces!
According to my program note, "the concert was far from being an unmixed blessing - the unheated theater was cold and there were breakdowns that caused laughter, which so enraged Beethoven that he hit the keyboard so hard some of the strings snapped." And that was the last time Beethoven appeared in public as a concerto player. Deafness put further appearances out of the question.
Now here I was applauding in Toronto and, in my mind's eye, there was Beethoven - standing amazed before a Canadian audience, his ambivalence melting as the applause went on washing over him. Almost two centuries later, like Vaughan Williams and Larry Adler at the Royal Albert - here at the Roy Thompson, I distinctly saw the exalted German linking hands with the Frenchman as they bowed and smiled together!
Beethoven seemed in no way deaf to this tidal wave of praise and enthusiasm. Was he on the point of responding to the cries of "Encore!" with a personal performance? Suddenly, the lights came up fully, and my fantasy ended. We were slow to leave our seats.
I've always felt a disparity lurking between biography and art, between the musician and the opus. I didn't know it then, but I was about to witness yet another kind of encore.
As we left the hall that night, the tragic struggle of Beethoven's life became lost for me in his sound. Those grand tonal structures kept collapsing in my ear. I couldn't get the man and the music out of my mind.
Then, as my head touched the pillow that night, I found a resolution. The build and plunge of Beethoven's harmonics came to rest at last in a memory. What floated before my eyes was Rembrandt's use of color in his shadows. A kind of synaesthetic answer. For the resonance of the Dutch painter's brush in my thought drew those falling tones deep into his rich shading and gently gave them home....
That was the last encore before I slept.