Teddy Abrams brings Beethoven to the Summer and the Symphony audience

Teddy Abrams
SF Classical Music Examiner

By Stephen Smoliar

The Summer and the Symphony concert series at Davies Symphony Hall allows the San Francisco Symphony to take a bit of a “summer vacation” from the strictly classical repertoire. However, as I observed in my summer preview article, the series includes three classical concerts; and the first of these was given last night. The conductor was Teddy Abrams, a former student of Michael Tilson Thomas and currently Assistant Conductor of the Detroit Symphony. The program was a straightforward overture-concerto-symphony offering, consisting entirely of compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Abrams used the overture from Beethoven’s Opus 84 incidental music for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Egmont to introduce himself to the audience. This was a firm and solid introduction, established immediately through the sharp edges of the emphatic marcato of the opening Sostenuto ma non troppo. Egmont is a play of heroic efforts to free the Netherlands from Spanish occupation during the sixteenth century; and Abrams never short-changed any of the martial rhetoric that Beethoven engaged to establish an appropriate introduction. By the time the overture had progressed to the fanfares of the Allegro con brio coda, Abrams had gradually built up the intensity of his execution to a fever pitch clearly designed to get the audience to sit up and take notice.

Rather than introduce Goethe’s tragedy of a “freedom fighter” (Count Lamoral van Egmont was beheaded under orders from the Duke of Alba in the marketplace in Brussels on June 5, 1568), however, Abrams used Beethoven’s overture to introduce his third piano concerto, Opus 37 in C minor. This was Beethoven’s only concerto in a minor key, and C minor is best associated with his later Opus 67 fifth symphony. In the context of the preceding overture, one could easily assume that Abrams planned to approach this music with martial connotations. The intensity of his expressiveness certainly felt like a continuation of the Opus 84 overture, and that intensity was matched by the solo work of pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Nevertheless, while there are no shortage of grand gestures, particularly in the first movement, to seize the attention of the listener, it is important to note that there is far more to this concerto than the usual clichés of the “scowling Beethoven.”

If we succumb to the metaphor of storm clouds for the first movement of Opus 37, then those clouds pass once we enter the second movement. This Largo movement is all lyric in nature, reminding us that Beethoven could express quiet meditation as effectively as he could summon turbulent bluster. This is then followed by the concluding Rondo, which is a thoroughly delightful exhibit of Beethoven’s cheerful wit at its best.

Unfortunately, while Lisitsa had no trouble summoning the aggressive rhetoric for establishing the first movement, she never managed to let go of it for the remaining movements. She approached the Largo as if she were channeling a somewhat hypercharged Frédéric Chopin playing one of his more passionate nocturnes to a salon of admirers, using the strong touch that had served her so well in the first movement to milk every drop of expressiveness from every single note. Similarly, she never quite caught the playful spirit of the Rondo, approaching it more as a continuation of the technical challenges of the first movement.

That left it to Abrams to establish that Beethoven was far more than a one-sided personality. This he achieved most effectively after the intermission in his interpretation of the Opus 92 symphony in A major (the seventh). This symphony covers a broad spectrum of emotional dispositions without ever dwelling excessively on any one of them. Through intense attention to dynamic control, Abrams was highly effective in disclosing just how much breadth resided in Beethoven’s score. His technique seemed to be to accept that we would all take the familiar for granted and that such familiarity would allow him to tinker with the subtleties of gesture as a device for “establishing character.” It worked like a charm; and Opus 92 emerged as if in a “first encounter,” rather than a “return visit to an old friend.”

Davies may be on “summer vacation;” but last night’s reading of Opus 92 was definitely on the level one would expect during the subscription season.