Beethoven and Wine festival concludes with the Eighth Symphony and Third Piano Concerto

Beethoven, without wine.

Beethoven and wine; wine and Beethoven, the Seattle Symphony kicked off the 2010/2011 season with three shorter all-Beethoven concerts preceded by an hour of wine tasting. The Beethoven and Wine festival isn’t new. Last season was its inagueral season. It’s a disappointing world we live in. These days it takes putting “wine” in the title of the program to fill Benaroya to near capacity. Wine and ___ (fill in the blank with a composer or musical period) has proven to be such a successful model that I noticed a new Baroque and wine series has been added to the SSO season. Other orchestras have included wine tasting in their programs as well.

Chateau Ste. Michelle comes to Benaroya.

When it comes to wine tasting and classical music I am of two minds. You couldn’t help but be impressed by the size of the crowd for Friday’s performance of the Third Piano Concerto and Eighth Symphony. This was not the usual SSO crowd. Young, professional, well-appointed, and generally unfamiliar with classical music sums up my observations. If live performance of classical music is going to have a future, that future will depend on the exact same people who bought tickets last night. Friday’s audience is reason to be optimistic about classical music’s future.

The classical music snob in me has an entirely different reaction. Beethoven as a secondary attraction to wine defaces his contribution to music – which you don’t need me to say, is significant. It seems unlikely that the SSO and Gerard Schwarz could give three different Beethoven programs the attention each deserves. Throw in tonight’s gala – with two new pieces, Mahler’s Songs of Wayfarer, and Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Suite – and it is impossible.

Schwarz’s Beethoven is unlikely to impress people who are enthralled with period performance practices or the swifter tempi and lighter textures popular with orchestras these days. His Beethoven is a throw back to the grand orchestral tradition of the last century. Measured tempi, plush orchestral sound, broadly shaped from the podium is what Schwarz offers. His Eighth sounded Brahmsian and aligned closely with the paradigm shattering Ninth Symphony. Hearing the first movement, a ponderous allegro, you would never suspect that this symphony was composed at the same time as the Seventh and as Steven Lowe writes in his program notes is a  “light burlesque mood.”

The Third Piano Concerto is my personal favorite of the five. There is so much to love in this concerto – the drawn out orchestral introduction, shadowy triad theme, suggestive lyrical second theme, explosive piano entrance – and these examples occur in the first five minutes of the piece! Charlie Albright, a homegrown product, was the night’s soloist. Albright wouldn’t have been my first choice for a soloist. His feathery playing was easily overwhelmed by the orchestra. Phrases that normally would have sounded warm, were steely and cool under his fingers. Too often Albright’s view of Beethoven was competent but emotionless compared to Schwarz’s human conception of the piece.

For a second year in a row it can be said that the SSO’s Beethoven and Wine festival was a success. Seats were filled, music was played, and wine tasted. Friday’s crowd seemed more attracted to the novelty of a wine tasting rather than the novelty of Beethoven. This still perplexes me. Every concert could be a wine tasting, a happy hour with entertainment. Drink and gnosh are for sale before every concert and during intermission (which these concerts did not have). Think of the possibilities. A few glasses before the concert, a glass at intermission, and a glass or two afterward at Wild Ginger or the Triple Door. If you bought a ticket for one of the Beethoven and Wine concerts be sure to check out “Prokofiev and Wine” and “Dvorak and Wine” later this month. After awhile you might end up just skipping the wine entirely and allow the music to intoxicate your senses. Music can do that, if you give it a chance.

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