Last night in Herbst Theatre the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Bridge to Beethoven: A Journey in Four Nights project resumed with the third program in the four-concert series. The series, based on a suggestion made by SFP President and Founder Ruth Felt to violinist Jennifer Koh, was based on a performance of all ten of Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonatas for “piano and obbligato violin” (Beethoven’s preferred wording); and each program featured a new work, commissioned to provide a reflection that portion of the repertoire included on that program. In November commissioned composers Vijay Iyer and Jörg Widmann each decided to focus on a single sonata on the program.
Last night, however, was the only program in the series organized around a single Beethoven publication. Performing (as on all the other programs) with pianist Shai Wosner, Koh wisely chose to present the three sonatas published as Beethoven’s Opus 30 as a single unit. These were all written between 1801 and 1802, published in 1803, and dedicated to Emperor Alexander I of Russia. The commissioned composer for this program, Andrew Norman, decided to respond in kind, taking on the full collection as his object of attention. He wrote three cadenza-like pieces under the collective title “Bridging,” which of which provided a transition from the conclusion of one Beethoven sonata to the beginning of another.
Such “bridging” is familiar to the jazz community. Bridges provide transitions between different sections of a song (particularly when there is a change in mood); and they can also link different songs in a medley. If jazz musicians indulge in parlor tricks, then the favorite would be to have someone name any pair of tunes and then provide a bridge from one to the other (and back again, if you are really good at it). (Imagine trying to do this for “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Fables of Faubus.”)
The one problem that Norman faced is that, in a program of three sonatas, there are only two transitions. He solved this by having “Bridging I” introduce the first of the sonatas on the program (and the first in the Opus 30 set in the key of A major). “Bridging I,” however, began aggressively in C minor, the key of the final sonata on the program (the second in the Opus 30 set). Thus, the conclusion of the program “bridges” both Beethoven and Norman back to the far earlier Guillaume de Machaut, famous for the rondeau “Ma fin est mon commencement et mon commencement ma fin” (my end is my beginning and my beginning my end).
Sadly Norman was never quite up to either Machaut or Beethoven in the bridges he built. He tended to focus on a single surface-level feature at either end without giving much thought to the nature of the transition. This was particularly disappointing when one realizes how much of the nuts-and-bolts music in the Opus 30 sonatas is there for transitional reasons. One might almost say that the substance of any Beethoven sonata resides in the bridges Beethoven chose to build, rather than the themes that are there simply to provide the pylons from which the bridge will be suspended.
Fortunately, Norman’s contributions were brief; and Beethoven ruled over the rest of the evening. Koh and Wosner continued to present themselves as an excellently-paired duo. Wosner maintained his impeccable judgment in his choice of dynamic levels, never trying to hide the technical display in Beethoven’s keyboard writing but always keeping it in its proper place. Similarly, Koh was always focused on her balance with Wosner through the full gamut of expressiveness, whether it involved aggressive bowing or a serenely cantabile rhetorical delivery. Performing together, the duo captured all of the youthful energy that went into the Opus 30 sonatas along with the aggressive presentation of self determined to draw listeners into that energy.