Beethoven & Arnowitt — the Last Three Piano Sonatas

*The Beethoven & Arnowitt VIII show 3 p.m. this Sunday, Feb. 8 has sold out BUT Capital City Concerts has ADDED a 7 p.m. show also on Feb. 8. Tickets available at the door and in advance at Bear Pond Books and www.capitalcityconcerts.org.*

by Nat Frothingham

Pianist Michael Arnowitt will perform sonatas 109, 110 and 111 by Beethoven on Sunday, Feb. 8, 3 p.m. at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier. Photo courtesy of Sandy Macys.

Pianist Michael Arnowitt will perform sonatas 109, 110 and 111 by Beethoven on Sunday, Feb. 8, 3 p.m. at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier. Photo courtesy of Sandy Macys.

MONTPELIER — As a classical pianist and jazz performer — teacher, writer, lecturer — risk-taker and adventurous innovator — for more than 30 years Michael Arnowitt has been a musical force in Montpelier.

Now Arnowitt, 52, is about to complete a project that he began in his mid-twenties when he performs three of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. Arnowitt will perform sonatas 109, 110 and 111 on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 8 at 3 p.m. at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier.

Arnowitt explained the history of the Beethoven sonata project he is about to complete.

Said Arnowitt in a phone conversation with The Bridge, “When I was 26 years old, I noticed that I was the same age as Beethoven when he wrote his first piano sonata. That surprised me. I thought he might have written his first piano sonata a little younger.”

At age 26 Arnowitt resolved on a project:  He would play all of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. But he didn’t want to play all of the sonatas in one or two years like other pianists have done. Instead he would string them out and play the sonatas when he was roughly the same age as Beethoven when he composed them.

Elaborating on the project, Arnowitt said, “I played the first four sonatas in that first concert. I bunched them up a bit — you have to.”

As Arnowitt conceived the project he would play what he called “the earlier, more spirited, sonatas, when I was youthful.”

Then when Arnowitt was a little more in the middle of his career, he played the well-known middle period sonatas of Beethoven, like the “Appasionata” and “Waldstein.”

Beethoven was 52 years old when he wrote his last piano sonata. Now 26 years after he began the sonata project, and as a mature artist, Arnowitt will play Beethoven’s final three sonatas on Feb. 8.

Looking back on the arc of achievement that describes the 32 Beethoven sonatas, Arnowitt offered this appreciation of the early sonatas, “In the early piece you can feel the excitement of the hammers on the keyboard. They are explosive; spirited.”

The Beethoven of the final sonatas was a man who over time had lost much of his hearing. Beethoven was not totally deaf, but quite deaf. But despite his disability, Arnowitt sees Beethoven’s genius as undiminished. “The last sonatas,” Arnowitt said, “are universally acknowledge as the best pieces he wrote — some of the most spiritual and transcendent music that he wrote.”

Taking the three last sonatas in their chronological order, Arnowitt said, “The first sonata (109) is about living. The second sonata (110) is about dying. And the third sonata (111) is about the afterlife.”

Karen Kevra, artistic director of the Capital City Concert series spoke by phone about the conceptual brilliance of Arnowitt’s project — to imagine performing all 32 sonatas and to perform them over 26 years and to complete the project by playing the final three sonatas at a very high level of performance.

Kevra called the first sonata on the program (109) “her favorite piano piece ever written.” She went on to say, “It’s so emotionally rich and beautiful. It’s a journey — an incredibly moving journey of touching music.”

Kevra said she has friends “who swear that 110 is their favorite.” And turning to 111, she said, “It’s more what you’d expect. It really contrasts with 109. It’s stormy and impassioned.”

In a program note that praises the Feb. 8 concert, Kevra wrote, “twenty six years later, 2015 will mark the end of this unique project with a program of Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas. Written near the end of Beethoven’s life as his health was deteriorating rapidly, these extraordinary pieces touch upon themes of gratitude, healing, resurrection, wonder at nature and spiritual ecstasy.”

Beethoven has had a number of biographers. One of these — George R. Marek — attempted in the final pages of his book to describe the genius of Beethoven’s music. As Marek observed, integral to Beethoven’s musical expression are themes of human struggle and suffering. But despite the struggle and suffering, there is more in Beethoven.

As Marek writes: “Yet Beethoven never succumbs. He is never defeated, his view never goes limp, the color of his work never turns wan or smudgy. Nor does it contain an iota of cynicism. He never denies life. He balances suffering with solace. The legacy he leaves us is an assertion of strength.”

In sharing his appreciation of Beethoven, Arnowitt had this to say, “My personal feeling is that Beethoven has a strong bond with all of us. He dug deep within himself and unearthed something that was human and humane and universal. We know that people all over the world have responded to Beethoven — the playing of the Ninth Symphony at Tiananmen Square or in Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down. It was a couple of hundred years ago when Beethoven wrote his music. That music is still touching people all over the world.”

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