Rosy Past, Rosy Future

Jonathan Bellman

Last week in the grocery store I was stopped by a friend, the conductor of our local community orchestra (as opposed to our local professional orchestra). He is a stalwart of our community, someone who is constitutionally incapable of doing anything other than giving a great deal of himself, and a gentle, sunny personality to boot—a sort of walking Balm of Gilead. It is always a pleasure to see him and talk music.

A few years ago, he had invited me to do a concerto with his orchestra, and in April 2006 I did the Beethoven Third, even writing my own cadenza. (I mean, why not? Why wouldn’t you, if you have no realistic expectations of doing the piece again?) He apparently enjoyed the experience as much as I did; we met, talked about the pieces, enjoyed the rehearsals, and—for all the nerve-wracking insanity for me (limited practice time, memory, etc. etc.), it remains a warm glow for both of us. I had played the piece before in competitions, years ago, though never with orchestra, so I knew it pretty well. Such a pleasure! As I’m no longer a pianist in Real Life, I always imagine that I will never again get the opportunity to play with a real, live, jan-yew-wine orchestra, so there was this King-for-a-Day cast to the whole experience.

For whatever reason, the Beethoven concertos are the pieces I’d most rather to be playing—with me, they rate up there with my favorite Chopin. Piano concertos per se are particularly close to my heart—you’re not alone up there, and most composers seem to have loved and understood the medium as players as well as composers. I still have the box set of Ashkenazy/Solti-and-Chicago Beethovens that I wore absolutely flat as an undergrad…I don’t think Four or Five will even play straight through any more. (It takes more than one turntable to have that kind of loving effect on a record.) Those recordings have the sound, to me, of My Youth—I love the Levin/Eliot Gardiner ones but there’s something about that old set that was so formative for me; they sound like the Platonic Forms of those concertos. Other interpretions sound plausible, wonderful, questionable, passable, whatever—but those old Ashkenazy/Solti still sound, in my mind like The Way Those Pieces Go.

Anyway—so, back to the checkout line. Dan says, “I owe you a phone call.” “Oh?” “Yes. I have just one question.” “What’s that?” “…Four, or Five?”

I confess my throat caught a little. Not for this coming year, maybe the year after; it’ll take some timetabling. I performed Five (“Emperor”) years ago, again with a second piano rather than orchestra, and would give almost anything for the opportunity to get an orchestra around me for that one. Four, as it happened, I’ve never learned, but it is as close to truly sacred music as it is possible to get—every bit as close as the Bach Chaconne for violin. So, I told him Five, but I’m carrying Four around and playing with it anyway. With that much time, maybe I will actually be able to cobble together the time to learn it. What other opportunity will I have on this earth? When such opportunities are presented, is it not a sacreligious kind of ingratitude to say, “Y’know, yeah, sure, I once howled at the moon to play this piece, but I dunno, maybe another time…” As Rabbi Hillel asked (and I saw this on an Obama poster as well): “If not now, when?”

I must remember to think about this a lot, particularly when I am doing committee work and other necessary drudgery, because it makes me smile serenely both outside and in. Particularly the soft parts.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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7 Responses to Rosy Past, Rosy Future

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    I don’t know how you feel about listening to recorded performances of a piece you’re (contemplating) working on, but if you’re interested in a really fine Four, I recommend Krystian Zimerman.

  2. Andrew W. says:

    Funny bit of synchronicity – I was listening to Beethoven 4 as I read this, the Gould/Bernstein recording.
    With the 3rd mobvement cadenza in my ears as I write this, saying no to an offer like that seems impossible. What a wonderful opportunity!

  3. David Cavlovic says:

    One set of Beethoven Concerto’s often overlooked is that by Julius Katchen. Hard to find, but well worth the search. I grew up on his recording of the Fourth

  4. Sator Arepo says:

    FOUR! Four four four four four four!

  5. Miss Mussel says:

    Hey! Way to go you! I’m excited for you. I don’t play hardly at all anymore, which is fine most of the time but sometimes is just feels like something is missing. Can’t wait to hear more about it.

  6. eba says:

    I was happy enough to be in the audience for your B3 performance, so I’m looking forward to hearing Four or Five. The voting above appears to favor 4….. so far. Maybe 5 will launch some attack spots — err, “contrast” ads — and the balloting will swing around…

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