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Beethoven at the Yale School of Music, Richard Goode (pf), Philharmonia Orchestra of Yale, Peter Oundjian, Woolsey Hall, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 22nd October 2004 (CA)

For sheer crowd-pleasing popularity among U.S. concert-goers, it is hard to beat an all-Beethoven programme. For those who prefer a familiar orchestral experience, this is it; the Fifth piano concerto (the so-called Emperor) paired with the Third Symphony, the Eroica. Top this off with Richard Goode as piano soloist and you have a programmer’s dream evening, and Yale’s vast Woolsey Hall was, not surprisingly, nearly full.

But let us take a step back. While there is a certain academic interest in hearing yet another rendering of these war horses, it really takes a transcendent performance to give us something new that is really worth listening to. On this particular evening I wondered if the Yale Philharmonia, made up of graduate school of music students, could bring something fresh to the music that is usually missing from a typical subscription concert performance.


After all, this was revolutionary music when Beethoven wrote it. The Eroica is often cited as the piece that changed symphonic writing forever; the point at which the classical style of Haydn and Mozart made a break toward the lyricism of Schubert and the romanticism of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms. The Emperor (never called this by Beethoven and a name not used in the German-speaking world) was Beethoven’s last and most heroic concerto. In contrast to the “pure” music of its predecessors, it follows a distinct program of adulation, mourning, and celebration of the hero, which in this case is thought to be the collective human spirit and not the despotic emperor whose forces were bombarding Vienna while Beethoven composed this concerto.

Fortunately, there was nothing flaccid about the evening’s performance. Richard Goode is astounding. I found myself involuntarily sitting up to attention right from the opening, introductory chords of the Allegro. He has a commanding style of such force that you wonder if he was personally coached by Beethoven’s ghost. At the same time, his long lyrical line has a clarity that just does not come across when listening to a recording. His Funeral March was appropriately moving, yet also full of sweetness. The bombast of the rondo was wholly thrilling.

Richard Goode, a short, rounded fellow with white hair (Santa Claus without the beard) is also a presence to watch. Every movement of the arms seems purposeful and without waste. Yet his mouth is in constant motion, as if he were singing along. When the orchestra played he could barely resist conducting. And as if to snub his nose at convention, Goode actually played from the music and turned his own pages. Who cared? This is a performer who is completely engaged in the performance and can’t help showing his love for the music.

For their part, the Philharmonia and guest conductor, Peter Oundjian, gave wonderful support to this irresistible soloist. The tempos were quick, the attacks precise, and the enthusiasm of the young performers was evident. They seemed to be enjoying the music as much as the audience.

So far so good, but the massive Third Symphony without the guiding force of Goode to set the mood is a much more challenging matter for the orchestra. This time it was Oundjian who led the way, which is as it should be. Oundjian is a relative latecomer to conducting. He was the first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet for 14 years and is still on the violin faculty at Yale. In the past ten years he has made himself into a compellingly skilled conductor, as well.

If anything, the sound of the orchestra was even richer for the symphony, even though the scoring is the same as for the Concerto but with the addition of a third horn. Rather than the back and forth of tutti sections with ornate solo passages, the symphony is full of opportunities for intimate chamber playing contrasted with vigorous fortés and fortissimos. The horn trio and string quartet sections were beautifully played, highlighting the individual skill of the players in this young but accomplished group.


Finally, there was the sense all evening that the players were enjoying their music making. They seemed pleased with the fruits of their efforts and we in the audience couldn’t help being pleased with them. Gosh, what a night of good feelings. And as Beethoven would have it, there really is hope for the future of music.

Clay Andres

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