Ludwig Van Beethoven is much revered for his symphonies. He composed nine of them. The ninth is his most famous, closely followed by at least the first four notes of his fifth. Many of his others are also much admired, if not loved. The third (titled “Eroica”), the seventh, and the sixth (the “Pastoral”) are also very popular and are oft heard on classical music radio stations, if not in concerts.
Among Beethoven’s “lesser” symphonies, perhaps none is less appreciated and performed than the fourth. It was, therefore, something of a surprise to see it programmed by the Sacramento Philharmonic on an all-Beethoven night that was headlined with his violin concerto. In most symphonic programming, the concerto, perhaps preceded by an overture, would comprise the first half of the concert; the symphony, normally the more substantial work (at least in terms of audience appreciation) would then be the second half offering.
But when the two compositions—the fourth symphony and the violin concerto—were billed together in a concert at the Community Center Theater, the symphony was the “opening act” and the concerto was the headlined work.
And the order did make sense. The fourth (in b flat major) is an entirely pleasant composition, charming in its cheerfulness. But if elevator music had existed in Beethoven’s time, this might have been it. Easy listening is what it is, especially if you are not possessed of the sophisticated ears that can appreciate the many subtle touches that Beethoven sprinkles into it. Principal among these is the wondrous opening of the first movement, wherein the composer dabbles in minor, unrelated keys, before settling uncertainly, and then definitively, into the b flat major that carries most of the rest of the work. And that introduction is set in a peaceful adagio, in contrast to the rest of the movement, which is noted as Allegro vivace.
We were uplifted by the orchestra’s playing of the fourth. Guest conductor Michelle Merrill led the musicians through all four movements with a graceful hand. And, while the result was not the kind of momentous experience that accompanies a performance of the fifth or, certainly, the ninth, this was Beethoven in his youth, perhaps the last of his symphonies that he was able to fully hear performed (he became largely deaf by the time he completed his fifth and was reportedly completely hard of hearing when he wrote his ninth). And a certain youthful playfulness can be heard here and there throughout the work.
But the sold out audience in the large Community Center hall had not come to hear the fourth; the violin concerto was the main attraction, and it followed the intermission (during which more than a few audience members were heard grumbling that the symphony they had just heard sounded nothing like the Beethoven they knew and loved.) And whatever was to be said of the symphony that preceded it, the violin concerto was a big hit with the large crowd.
For it, the Korean virtuoso Chee-Yun Kim was the soloist. Ms. Kim, winner of the Young Concert Artists International Auditions at the age of 19 in 1989, has amassed a distinguished career that now includes performances with most of the major orchestras around the world. Her mastery of Beethoven’s difficult concerto was evident from her opening solo, after the extended orchestral introduction in the first movement.
Playing without a score, Ms. Kim was completely in control of her instrument when she played the two extended cadenzas that Beethoven provides (in the first and third movements) and throughout the balance of the work when her solos were accompanied by the full orchestra.
The three movement work contains some classic Beethoven touches, many of them assigned to the full orchestra. For instance, the first main theme consists of only five notes, which the full orchestra plays in a variety of forms while the violin plays off of the theme in a series of technically demanding riffs. The second movement is a lovely Larghetto which has the violin playing non-stop from start to finish, often in complex chords that float over the orchestra’s peaceful accompaniment. The end of the second movement leads directly to the classic Rondo of the finale. It is majestic and breathtaking in the demands it places on the soloist.
Throughout, Ms. Kim was unperturbed. Her playing seemed effortless, albeit she was hard at work with some very challenging passages, including that last cadenza. But it all worked, and the audience gave her a long standing ovation, to which she responded with a short encore: a solo arrangement of the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” It was delightful, even if decidedly un-Beethoven.