The premiere of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in 1808 was inauspicious. The composer programmed it in a four-hour concert consisting entirely of his own music under his baton. Sitting through it in an unheated concert hall on a freezing Vienna winter night did nothing to temper the audience’s impatience, and the piece disappeared from performance for nearly thirty years. Nevertheless, the concerto is a seminal work in the composer’s oeuvre, its completion dating from the same months during which Beethoven, among other works, wrote his stirring Fourth Symphony, produced his influential Violin Concerto, and began work on his monumental Fifth Symphony—all despite the onset of his famous deafness, unrelated illnesses, and bitter fights with his manager, his publisher, his patron, and his brother.
Fortunately for this tortured soul and his achievements, we live, two hundred and fifty years after his birth, in an age of great pianists and generously heated concert halls. Yefim Bronfman easily counts among the best playing the instrument today, and this lively concert by the National Symphony showcased his talent with a delightful performance of a work somewhat atypical for the concerto form: the piece opens with the solo piano, rather than the orchestra, introducing the main themes. Beethoven’s grasp of the instrument—whose usage had at that time only recently become widespread—was easily translated by Bronfman’s artful playing. He displayed a nuanced synergy with the energetic young New Zealander on the podium, Gemma New, who at age thirty-three has already assembled an impressive array of visiting posts and residencies around North America. With this concert, she made an impressive National Symphony debut.
New’s talents allowed her to introduce ably her countrywoman Salina Fisher, a promising twenty-six-year-old composer from New Zealand whose eleven-minute orchestral Rainphase opened the concert. Rainphase took shape in Wellington, known for its rainy weather, where Fisher lived while holding the post of composer-in-residence to New Zealand’s National Youth Orchestra. Inhabiting an apartment over the harbor, she was taken by the anatomy of rainstorms as they brewed, broke out, and resolved in a process of “obscure beauty,” to borrow her phrase. Beyond the storm trope, the work offers an intriguing homage to Debussy’s Preludes and captures the texture, density, and energy of a natural phenomenon. The approach and instrumentation avoided the vagaries that characterize much recent classical music—often reducing it in quality and importance to that of generic film soundtracks—and Fisher proved herself a musician of talent and a composer to be watched.
The second half of the program was devoted to a full performance of the British composer Gustav Holst’s The Planets (Op. 32). This composite work is a series of essays on our solar system’s principal extraterrestrial astral bodies excepting Pluto, which had not yet been discovered when the work was composed and of which the planetary status is now a matter of scientific debate. Arranged according to their order in the Zodiac rather than their distance from the sun (the outer planets are in their usual place, but the first three—Mars, Venus, and Mercury—go backwards), Holst’s planets possess qualities and personality traits informed by his modish interest in astrology.
New led a robust performance. She began with a driving approach to Mars’s primal energy, which Holst, composing in 1914, identified with the “stupidity of war” then breaking out to devastating effect across Europe. Venus’s harmonies warmly suggested the virtues and desirability of peace. By the time we reach Jupiter, colored with the optimism and generosity that gave the English language the word “jovial,” we are reminded that Holst’s anti-war stance may have softened over time. The movement’s most prominent theme would form the basis of the patriotic hymn “I Vow To Thee, My Country,” while Holst himself eventually accepted military service to boost the morale of British troops on the underappreciated Salonika front, which opened at the foot of the Balkans after Greece entered World War I in 1917. The more sensuous approach to Neptune, characterized in astrology by intuition and the subconscious, was enhanced by the dreamy offstage accompaniment of the University of Maryland’s Concert Choir.