As if to inaugurate the autumn in burnished splendor, Arie Lipsky and the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra will open their new season with three popular works by Ludwig van Beethoven, a prolific composer who wrote only one opera–and that one took nearly a decade to reach completion. Now known as Fidelio, it was for many years called Leonore, and of the four different overtures devised during its protracted gestation, many consider the Leonore Overture No. 3, on the Symphony’s program, to be the strongest and most exciting.
Such extensive revision was entirely in character for old Ludwig, who was notorious for compulsively reworking apparently finished compositions. His Symphony No. 5, for example, took some four years to conceive, configure, and finalize. An early admirer of the Fifth was none other than master storyteller Honore de Balzac. Initially a Rossini enthusiast, Balzac was profoundly smitten by the Fifth and is said to have literally rolled on the floor with delight when his friend Franz Liszt devised a piano reduction of it and played it for him. Beethoven’s music found its way into several of Balzac’s novels, most notably Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, which more or less uses the Fifth Symphony as a structural blueprint.
Doubtless more people know the Fifth’s first few bars than any other segment of Beethoven’s oeuvre. Long established as a mossy cornerstone of the European classical repertoire, this warhorse opus has been trivialized on television, lampooned by P.D.Q. Bach, and even performed by an ensemble of hammers and power tools under the direction of a musically inclined carpenter aptly billed as Woody Phillips. While the perils of overexposure are legion, one may revisit Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and still encounter inspiring passages of surpassing beauty. The same could be said for his Fifth (and last) Piano Concerto, which Lipsky and the A2SO will present in collaboration with internationally recognized virtuoso Andre Watts.
Born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1946 to an African American army officer and a Hungarian pianist, Watts was raised to revere the music and work ethic of Franz Liszt. And indeed it was as a precocious interpreter of Liszt that the young musician first attained national renown when Leonard Bernstein introduced him to American audiences in 1963. Throughout his career Watts has concentrated almost exclusively on composers who define the hallowed mainstream of classical music. Capable of articulating dizzyingly difficult passages with disarmingly rapid flights of delicacy, he is equally adept at launching triple-fortissimo thunderheads of passion. This dynamic spectrum is sure to be on display when Watts performs with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra at Hill Auditorium on September 13.