Hello Music Lovers of the Valley,
Among the many cancellations in our Basalt Library music series was a concert of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas performed by our talented Valley pianist, Amanda Gessler. Amanda is a meticulous scholar and consummate performer of Beethoven’s works. She has done extensive study of the master with the noted authorities and widely recognized pianists, John O’Cornor and Richard Goode. Our music coordinator Charlotte McLain asked Amanda to share some reflections on her passionate study of the works of this genius. Her response, below, provides an intimate portrait of becoming a Beethoven devotee. Enjoy!
My "discovery" of Beethoven happened in a piano lesson and in a grocery store. I was nine years old and had started piano lessons a few months prior. I had grown bored of the standard method books and, having had no exposure to classical music, I wasn't sure what the point of practicing was. I decided to quit. As I went into my lesson to tell my teacher that I was quitting, she sat down at the piano and played the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" sonata. "This is Beethoven", she said, and I was instantly drawn in. I just had to learn it, to feel it in my own fingers and to shape it with my own expression.
A few weeks later, I was in a grocery store with my Mom when I found one of those kiosks that samples music with the push of a button (I don't think those exist anymore!). I eyed one sample that said "Beethoven", and it suddenly occurred to me that "Beethoven" was a name of a person and not the title of the piece I was working on! Which meant there must be more! My Mom bought me the cassette tape which featured his most popular piano pieces (accompanied by nature sounds in the background) and from that day, his music became my life work, my obsession, my solace through a tumultuous childhood, and my guide throughout life and emotion.
While I am slowly working through all 32 piano sonatas, my latest project was the performance of his last three (although I have unfortunately had to cancel five concerts of this program in April and May). I began learning opus 109 while studying in Vienna (Beethoven's own city!), in 2005 and performed it there for the first time the following year. I started work on opus 110 sometime in 2012 or 2013, but performed it for the first time only a few years ago. The last sonata, opus 111, is brand new to me, and I have yet to give my first performance! It takes me about one year to learn a sonata well enough to feel ok performing it, but I never feel "finished" with a piece. I will often return to a piece after neglecting it for years, and have a whole new experience with it. Especially in Beethoven, there are infinite layers of expression and understanding. There is no end to how deep one can go. It feels good to know that I can return to these pieces throughout my entire lifetime and never get bored with them!
My recent experience studying these sonatas with Richard Goode proved to me yet again that there is so much more to discover. As I played for him in his New York apartment, he was a master at getting me out of my own mind. To experience the piece, to really live the piece while one is playing it, one has to let go of thinking and just be fully present in the world of sound. To get me out of my thinking, (often, worrying-mind), he would dance and gesture around the room, singing along to encourage a lyric legato, or, if I needed to build intensity, he would sit very close to me and growl in a deep voice. His growl would crescendo along with me, sending chills down my spine. At a climax, he would jump out of his seat ecstatically, singing freely, totally unconcerned about what pitches happened to be coming out!
There is so much planning, practicing, and thought that goes into preparing Beethoven's music, but in the end, in order to have a genuine, moving performance, one has to let go of all of this preparation and simply live the emotional story that the piece tells. If I am successful in this, the audience will be right there with me, and Beethoven's music will be expressive of their own life and story. One could say that his music allows us to see that, beyond the surface of our personal problems, we really are all the same.
You can listen to Amanda perform Beethoven's Sonata no. 31 in A-flat major in the following two videos. Visit www.amandagessler.com/ to hear more!
We can't wait until it is safe for us to offer live Music at the Library performances by talented musicians like Amanda again. Until then, we hope you enjoy these virtual musical performances and reflections.
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