Beethoven's weighty sounds and chunky hands: Anne-Marie McDermott on the concertos

Anne-Marie McDermott
Santa Fe New Mexican

The pianist Anne-Marie McDermott frequently visits Santa Fe as a recital soloist or a participant in chamber music. On Saturday, April 29, and Sunday, April 30, she shows a different side of her artistry when she joins the Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra for the first installment of a two-season incentive in which she will be the soloist in all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos. This weekend she plays the Second, Third, and Fourth Concertos; next year, Nos. 1 and 5. “What I’m doing in Santa Fe is the kind of project I worship,” she said, “because it’s so interactive when a concerto involves a smaller-scaled orchestra like the Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra. It’s more chamber music-like, and that rings very true to me, having spent so much of my life playing chamber music.”

When we caught up with her by telephone, at her home in New York City, she had just returned from a concert in Georgia and was packing her bags again to leave the next day for Denmark to record the last of three Mozart piano concertos that will figure on a CD release on Bridge Records. (Another Bridge CD — works by Haydn — is set for imminent release.) From there, she would head to Charlottesville, Virginia, for a concert, and then to Santa Fe, and shortly after that to Fort Worth to serve on the jury of the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the most high-profile of all American piano playoffs. Then comes the Mainly Mozart festival in San Diego, where she oversees chamber music activities, and, in late June, the Bravo! Vail Music Festival in Colorado, which she has led as artistic director since 2011.

“It’s a great time in my life to have this variety of artistic undertakings,” she said. “Things kind of evolved as they did. I hadn’t planned to be recording as much as I am, but I’m very happy about that. I love to do concerti; that’s always a thrill. Playing recital programs is dear to my heart, so I’m always looking for opportunities. The recital business involves a more solitary process, since the only person you’re interacting with is yourself. But spending time with solo repertoire is what helps me grow the most as a musician. And, of course, I couldn’t live my life without chamber music. Next season I’ll have another career first, when I will both play and conduct a Mozart concerto — K. 595 — with the Colorado Springs Philharmonic.”
She already played a Beethoven concerto with the Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra in September 2015 — as a third of the solo ensemble in his Triple Concerto, appearing alongside violinist Ida Kavafian and cellist Peter Wiley. (Together, they are three-quarters of the personnel of the Opus One piano quartet, which also performs frequently in town and will be here in August as part of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.) This weekend, however, the spotlight will be turned on McDermott alone. We asked her to share her thoughts on the three Beethoven concertos she will play.

Anne-Marie McDermott: What is so amazing about these three concerti is how different they are from each other. No. 2 is very classical in its musical form and also in the touch that it requires. Still, it is Beethoven, so it comes with a certain gravitas; but it definitely is the lightest of these three. The Third is weighty, fat, muscular; and the Fourth is all about fluidity, fleeting lines, the silkiness of writing. They represent three distinctive perspectives on Beethoven’s voice, and it is wonderfully clear in my mind how each of these is defined.

Pasatiempo: Have you played any of the three previously in concert?

McDermott: I have played all of them. I’ve known the Second the longest; in fact, it was at the center of a memorable early experience in my career. Years ago, I was at the doctor’s — I had a cold or something — and my manager called and asked how I would feel about an engagement as a substitute for another pianist who was scheduled to play Beethoven’s Second with the orchestra in Boca Raton. “When would that be?” I asked, since I hadn’t played the piece in a year. “Tonight. You go home, pack, and we will get you on a flight and then directly to a piano.” I got on the plane, and we sat on the tarmac for hours. The plane landed at Fort Lauderdale at a quarter to eight, and on the drive to Boca Raton I was playing the concerto on my lap until I decided I had better use my time putting on makeup instead, because at that point I would have to go directly to the concert hall. I arrived at the concert hall just before intermission, talked briefly to the conductor — James Judd, who I had never worked with — warmed up for five minutes … and it went great. I was incredibly calm. It taught me a big lesson about the power of brain over fingers.

I have played the Third quite a lot over the years. I haven’t played the Fourth in a long time, but I will be playing it with the Charlottesville Symphony in Virginia the weekend before I go to Santa Fe. At this point, though, they are all feeling great.

Pasa: These three works cover a goodly span of Beethoven — from No. 2, composed over quite a few years in the 1790s, to No. 3 in 1800, and No. 4 in 1805-1806. Do you approach these three concertos as pieces that evolve out of each other, or is it more that they each stand as separate monuments?
McDermott: Much more as separate monuments. Working on these three all at the same time, every day, helps me define the uniqueness of each. And playing them back-to-back in concert invites underlining the different approach to each one.

Pasa: Have you always felt at home in Beethoven, or is he a composer you have grown into through the years?

McDermott: I remember vividly, when I was a teenager, hearing my sister’s violin teacher make a comment in passing that you need to be older to really play Brahms. That made an effect on me, and I feel the same way about Beethoven. When I was younger, Beethoven was always a challenge, and it was because I did not understand two things. First, there is the weightiness of sound. You can’t play Beethoven like Mozart. It demands more weight from the arm and shoulder, which provides a darker sound. Now, in the Fourth Concerto that is less an issue. But on the whole it was not until I was in my early thirties that I reached a new understanding of Beethoven. Then, second, the subito dynamics are crazy challenging — that you flip in a millisecond from forte to piano, that’s not a natural reaction you have as a musician. The more I’ve embraced the subito dynamics, the more logical his writing becomes. He uses a tremendous variety of timbre and dynamics, and you come to understand that every forte is not created alike, that he uses degrees of forte, series of sforzando markings that indicate growth or a crescendo. When you embrace it, it makes sense. You don’t have a choice. Rests are also very important in Beethoven. If you don’t give his rests their full due, it really upsets the structure.

Something else I felt like I discovered in my thirties was how he writes differently when things are more vertical or more horizontal. When I think of the opening of Concerto No. 3, that’s very vertical — a melody going up and down in a stark, pillar-like way. No. 4 is more horizontal — a long line that benefits from having a more natural flow to it. In No. 3, the first theme benefits from not allowing an even flow, but rather keeping the brakes on rhythmically; but then its second theme is more horizontal, a longer, more flowing kind of phrase. That way of approaching Beethoven has ramifications for how you interpret phrasing and rhythmic elements in his pieces. I have never worshipped Beethoven more than I do now. I am just now learning his final piano sonata, Op. 111, which I’m going to perform for the first time this summer. That’s something to keep you awake at night!

Read the rest of the review here