When this site reported on the announcement made last November of the retirement of Ruth A. Felt as President of San Francisco Performance (SFP), it tried to draw attention to some of the more unique approaches she had taken during her 36-year tenure to build a robust and appreciative audience for the performing arts. One of the most unique of those approaches was the appointment of Robert Greenberg as Music-Historian-in-Residence. This has resulted in a popular Saturday morning series through which Greenberg has provided vivid examinations of both composers and their works, illustrated and supplemented with performances of both examples and complete works.
Many of Greenberg’s projects have involved working with the Alexander String Quartet, which has been SFP Quartet-in-Residence since 1989. However, Greenberg also prepared, in May of 2004, a highly valuable presentation on the music of Ferruccio Busoni, assisted by pianist Garrick Ohlsson and delivered in conjunction with the presentation by San Francisco Opera of Busoni’s opera Doktor Faust. For next month Greenberg has prepared a pair of lectures that will again involve working with a pianist. This time the pianist will be Roger Woodward, and the topic will be the last four sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven.
Readers may recall that, over the course of last year, the pianist András Schiff gave a series of three recitals, presented jointly by SFP and the San Francisco Symphony, over the course of which he played the last three sonatas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert, and (of course) Beethoven. At that time it was observed that only the three sonatas by Schubert were written near the end of the composer’s life (although they were all written in a single month). Beethoven’s final piano sonata, Opus 111 in C minor, was composed in 1822 and would be followed shortly thereafter by his equally ambitious Opus 120 collection of the “Diabelli” variations.
Many recitalists have prepared programs consisting entirely of the last three sonatas, whose opus numbers are sequential. Thus, Opus 111 is preceded by Opus 110 in A-flat major (composed in 1821), which, in turn, is preceded by Opus 109 in E major (composed in 1820). From a point of view of chronology, it makes sense to include Opus 106 in B-flat major, which, composed in 1819, continues the year-by-year sequence. However, Opus 106 is the technically-challenging “Hammerklavier” sonata, which almost demands as much attention from the listener as it does from the performer and therefore deserves to stand on its own. On the other hand, to the extent that Beethoven’s sonatas have a “late period,” historians tend to begin it with Opus 101 in A major (1816), because each of these five sonatas has its own innovative approaches to “rewriting the rules,” so to speak, where the piano sonata genre is concerned. (When Schiff gave his concert series of all 32 Beethoven sonatas, he coupled Opus 106 with Opus 101 and the earlier Opus 90 in E minor. The following recital then presented Opus 109, Opus 110, and Opus 111 in a single program.)
Greenberg’s approach will be to present two lectures, the first on Opus 106 and Opus 109 and the second on Opus 110 and Opus 111. Woodward will assist Greenberg in his exposition and play each sonata in its entirety. Given the relative brevity of Opus 109, it is probably the best piece to couple with Opus 106, which tends to have a duration on the order of 45 minutes.
Both of these presentations will take place at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The first will be given on April 2, and the second will follow two weeks later on April 16. The venue will be Herbst Theatre at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Individual tickets will be sold for $50, $40, and $30; but, if tickets for both presentations are purchased together, the discounted prices for the series will be $90, $70, and $50. Hyperlinks for the purchase of both series and individual tickets can be found on the event page for the series on the SFP Web site. Further information may be obtained by calling the SFP Box Office at 415-392-2545.