Acclaimed pianist Orli Shaham returns to Skyview Concert Hall this weekend to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Vancouver Symphony.
This concert will mark the third time that Shaham has performed with the orchestra. In 2014, she teamed up with Igal Kesselman to delight audiences with the Mozart concerto for two pianos. And in 2017, she dazzled audiences with Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2.
This time around, Shaham will apply her keyboard magic to a piece that she knows like the back of her hand.
“I have been playing Beethoven’s second piano concerto for 34 years,” Shaham said with a laugh. “I played it when I was in the sixth grade. It is one of my favorite concertos, and one of my longest, oldest friends. I still use the same edition of the score that I first learned from. It has a lived-in look and all of the markings that I’ve put in over the years. I’ve performed it at least a dozen times over my career with a dozen different orchestras. Each time I add layers of understanding.”
For Shaham, this concerto, although familiar, always takes her on a new journey.
“One of the things that I love about this piece is rediscovering Beethoven’s thought process,” she said. “When he wrote this concerto, he was so admiring of Mozart yet very much Haydn’s piano student. And he is figuring out how to fuse those two ideas, yet he finds a way to express his style. For example, the slow movement is quintessential Beethoven. It is elegant and ritualist in the way it sets up time. No one else was doing this or had that relationship with time. You would have to go back to monks and medieval music to get that kind of feeling.”
The cadenza at the end of the first movement of this concerto is absolutely wild.
“I try to do everything that he asks in the cadenza,” Shaham said. “There is controversy over a few of the rhythms and notes. Different editions have different things. I haven’t seen the autograph myself. So to the best of my knowledge, I do all of the crazy notes he put in there! I remember that when I first learned this concerto, that cadenza took me the entire summer.”
Last year was the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, but the worldwide celebrations that had been planned were scuttled by the pandemic.
“Beethoven is so very honest about his humanity,” Shaham said. “He doesn’t cover anything up about difficult or slightly off-balance feelings. Things that might have a little edge to them like the third movement of the concerto — all the sforzandi that are not in quite the right place, the jagged edges of the music. But at the same time, he will have the most beautiful, lyrical, thoughtful lines and spectacular pianism. It was clear from this concerto what a wonderful pianist he was.”
Also returning to the stage for the concert at Skyview is conductor Ken Selden. This will be the third time this season that Selden has led the orchestra. He has also worked with Shaham before, collaborating with her in 2009 to play Olivier Messiaen’s “Oiseaux Exotiques” with the Portland State University orchestra.
For the Beethoven piece, the audience will see a more normal-sized orchestra for the first time in a year.
“I believe it’s the biggest wind section the VSO has used this season,” Selden said. “The orchestration calls for flute, two oboes, two bassoons and two horns, and all of them will be spread across the back of the stage, separated from each other and from the strings by plexiglass panels. There is quite a bit of interaction between winds, strings, and piano in this concerto, so it will be a challenge to coordinate when we are completely spread out.”
Selden will also lead the orchestra in Jan Sibelius’ “Andante Festivo,” a beautiful short number. The composer wrote a least three versions of the piece for strings. One version, which Sibelius created for the 1939 World’s Fair radio broadcast, included timpani.
“We will perform a hybrid version for string orchestra without timpani,” Selden said. “No doubt the timpani was necessary to reinforce the final cadence for the sound coming out of the radio in 1939, but I am always concerned that the sudden entrance of the timpani for the Amen cadence will sound too bombastic in a concert hall. So, my solution, in this case, is to use the expanded string section including basses, but without timpani.”
Also on the program is Antonin Dvorak’s gorgeous “Serenade for Strings.”
“I think the challenge for the conductor and the musicians is to find just the right atmosphere and color and pacing for each movement, because they are all quite unique and extraordinary,” Selden said. “One of the fascinating aspects of the ‘Serenade’ is that practically every theme is presented as a canon or a round, where a second voice repeats the melody a bar later in a different register. Listeners might not even notice the canons because they are so organic, but a big challenge for the musicians is to make sure that those overlapping voices are beautifully balanced and complementary.”