Although much is made of the classical music scene in Goa, from time to time, I try to find an excuse to visit Mumbai for the vastly superior fare usually on offer at the NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts) at Nariman Point. One can book concerts online, and most of them are quite affordable and extremely good value-for-money, especially if you compare it with what is served up at outrageously-overpriced, shoddily-rehearsed, hastily-cobbled ‘music festivals’ here. Participating musicians have themselves told me of ending up playing under-rehearsed concerts, and the multiple onstage slip-ups. But our gullible public laps it all up, with ‘standing ovations’ to boot.
Due to Child’s Play and other commitments, it gets difficult to stay away from home for too long, and often the NCPA concerts, especially featuring their Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), have gaps of several days between them. This makes sense for Mumbaikars but is impractical for out-of-town visitors.
So when I scanned the month’s schedule and found two back-to-back concerts featuring the Camerata Ireland, I was naturally interested. And when I learned that their founder, Irish pianist-conductor and winner of the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 1986, Barry Douglas, would be playing (and conducting from the piano) all five Beethoven piano concertos, I was sold.
I’ve heard the Beethoven piano concertos performed live before, but never as a cycle. To play and conduct them all is a huge feat in itself, but hearing them in almost chronological order also reveals huge insights that might otherwise have been missed.
I said “almost chronological order”, because in terms of planning programme length and onstage orchestral forces, it seemed more practical to pair off the Third (C minor, opus 37) and Fifth (E flat major, opus 73) Piano Concertos on the second day: both require a pair each of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets; and timpani and strings. On the first day, we therefore began with the Second Piano Concerto (B flat major, opus 19), followed by the First (C major, opus 15), which actually makes chronological sense as the Second was written before the First, even though they were later published in the reverse order; and the Fourth Piano Concerto (G major, opus 58) followed after the intermission.
The orchestral forces summoned by Beethoven are the so-called “standard complement” of doubled winds and brass that became common from the first half of the nineteenth century. But in his First, Second and Fourth Piano Concertos, the score specifies a single flute. Another good reason to programme these on the same day.
In keeping with HIP (historically informed performance) practice, Douglas followed the placement of the string section prevalent in Beethoven’s day: first and second violins to left and right of the audience respectively, with the violas and cellos from left to right (as seen from the audience) between them, and the double-basses behind the second violins. The woodwinds and brass were arrayed in two rows behind the strings, with the timpani next to the basses. And the piano? A modern-day concert grand, with its lid completely taken off, with its keyboard facing the audience, so that Douglas could play and conduct in the very heart of the ensemble.
The seating arrangement of the first and second violins brought out the interplay in the writing, and the bouncing of themes back and forth between them. This “stereophonic” effect gets lost when the violins are lumped together in the ‘modern’ arrangement. And speaking from personal experience as an orchestral player, it helps to be seated closer to the bass line, and one gets a better sense of the harmonic foundation of a composition when ‘period’ seating is followed.
(In contrast, here’s a clip of Barry Douglas and the Camerata Ireland playing the Second Piano Concerto, but with more ‘conventional seating and placement of the piano)
Written between 1788 and 1809, Beethoven’s Piano Concertos cover a timespan straddling both the so-called ‘early’ (the first two concertos) and his more mature ‘middle’ (the last three concertos) periods of his compositional career. This was also when great innovations were being made in the evolution of the piano as an instrument, and Beethoven was quick to assimilate these advantages into his writing, in terms of expressivity, tonal and dynamic range. As soon as more notes were added to the gamut of the keyboard, Beethoven would use these in his composing, so that anyone wanting to play his music had to have the advanced piano model. Conversely, contemporary piano-makers sought and valued Beethoven’s opinion and suggestions. One could therefore hear a sea-change in Beethoven’s writing for the instrument, from the Mozartean elegance of the ‘early’ concertos to the Sturm und Drang of the ‘Emperor’, the last in the Piano Concerto cycle.
One fact that leapt out just from scanning the programme: every final movement all the Piano Concertos is a Rondo (which means it has a recurring principal theme interspersed among other contrasting ones). He does this in his other concertos as well (his Violin Concerto, and Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano).
If one marveled at Barry Douglas’ sheer stamina, to say nothing of his virtuosity, in accomplishing the marathon of the Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle in two consecutive evenings, one has to also think of the powers at Beethoven’s command. Apparently, on the day of the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto, he arrived (already unwell due to abdominal colic) to find the instrument flat by a half-tone. The winds couldn’t tune down as well, so the simplest expedient was for him to transpose the solo part for the whole concerto up a half-tone, in his head, and perform it!
Why can’t we have the same concert decorum here that the NCPA has? They constantly attract newcomers from all walks of life to classical music concerts, yet all their concerts go off without a hitch. The doors close a minute before (no ‘VIPs’ waltzing in and out whenever they like), everyone is seated with their phones off, and the concert begins on the dot.
Latecomers are allowed in by ushers only after a whole work has finished, and not before. No wailing babies, or children running up and down the aisle, no chit-chat once the music begins. A simple pre-concert announcement about switching off phones and not clapping between movements ensures near-total compliance. Those who unwittingly whip out their phone-cameras to make recordings are spotted at once by ushers and gently dissuaded, but even this happens less and less often.
For decades now, we keep hearing about the need to ‘educate’ audiences here, but this has to go hand-in-hand with just a few, very simple changes put into effect: doors (that do not slam, creak, squeak or click, but open and close noiselessly!) manned by trained staff who only let latecomers in after whole works are completed, and not in between. This and a few pre-concert announcements about phones and concert etiquette, reinforced by vigilant ushers, have made a huge difference to audience behaviour (and enjoyment of the concert-going experience) there, and could easily be achieved here as well.
(An edited version of this article was published on 27 May 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)