The NAC Orchestra always opens its season with a festival. Surrounding the main stage programming in Southam Hall are other performances and lectures in various nooks and crannies of the centre.
This year’s festival is all about Beethoven’s nine symphonies inside Southam Hall. But outside, in the Fourth Stage, in what is described as a series of musical salons, other aspects of the great composer’s genius will be explored.
The salon is a nod to the many performances Beethoven the pianist gave to small gatherings of wealthy patrons, said Frédéric Lacroix, who has prepared four evenings of entertainment and education to complement NACO’s efforts.
Lacroix teaches at the University of Ottawa, but he has a career as a soloist, a chamber musician and a collaborative pianist. And he has become an aficionado of the fortepiano which he will play in two, perhaps three, of the salons.
Lacroix has a doctorate in music with a focus on the music of Mozart. But, of late, he has embarked on bringing Beethoven’s sonatas into his repertoire.
“I’m slowly getting through,” he said in an interview. “I do a CD’s worth of piano sonatas a year. Right now I’m tackling Opus 10. Over the next three years I’m hoping to get through all the sonatas.
As a keyboardist, Lacroix says Beethoven was well known in his own time “until he went deaf, then he struggled at the instrument. He practiced ferociously. He was avid practicer. That said, his main focus, when playing on the piano, was not necessarily cleanliness but rather the truth of the emotional gesture.”
Beethoven would often sacrifice notes to make sure the emotional impact he wanted to achieve came through, Lacroix said.
“There are stories of him breaking strings.” And he was constantly trying new things with the instrument.
“It’s not necessarily because he didn’t like the pianos he was playing on. It’s rather that any instrument he was playing on was too limited to convey accurately the intensity of his emotions.”
So he pushed the technology.
“The piano makers were sending pianos to Beethoven to get him to use them and hear them. There are stories of pianos that were quadruple strung. There were pianos fitted with an ear trumpet. There is a one of his pianos that had a tent over the top that would help him hear better.
His piano career lasted until he was about 34 when his deafness took hold.
His experimentation continued after he became deaf and his composition was certainly pushing the limits of music.
“Everybody at the time complained about how difficult his music was to play. Even now it is challenging,” Lacroix said.
“There are some demands that appear unpianistic.
“He changed music and piano playing. In terms of the piano, Beethoven made it more symphonic, more orchestral. His sound was much more robust.”
Lacroix said he likes playing Beethoven’s piano music because it so interesting intellectually and emotionally.
In terms of the sonatas, he said, he has a preference for the Pathetique.
“I love the fury of the first movement. The second movement is just incredibly beautiful. I really like the third movement. It is beautifully crafted and so well-written. It doesn’t have the same fire as the first but it has a gentle melancholy to it that I just love.”
In one of the salons, however, he said he will play the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata.
“I will try to do it as he wrote it, with the pedals down all the time. This means the sound just rings out. It makes for harmonic clashes and transforms the piece into something that is very eerie. It makes me think of Hallowe’en when I play it this way.
“There is so much thought and care that is behind the composition of the music. I think there is a different level of commitment from the composer to the music. It is like a good book. You can come back to it and learn something new.”
Mozart is the same, he says, but different.
“I find Mozart very satisfying to listen to and play. It is so natural. Beethoven was trying to push the piano to its limits; Mozart was playing more within the instrument’s limits.”
Lacroix has programmed four salons.
“I was asked last winter to put together some programs to complement the symphonies. So I have different themes. The first one centres around Beethoven the hero.” This salon is on opening night of the festival (Sept. 13) which will see NACO play the Eroica Sympony. All the salons are at 10 p.m.
The second (Sept. 19) focuses, he said, on chamber music. The third salon is more like a lounge and looks at the traces of Beethoven in 2018 (Sept. 20). These contemporary references are everywhere, he said, in books and movies. Hints of the Fifth Symphony can be found in Saturday Night Fever. The final salon is built around the theme of the Immortal Beloved, the unnamed woman in a famous love letter written by the composer (Sept. 22).
There will be guest appearances each night, he said with colleagues from uOttawa and others playing with him,
For more about these Musical Salons please see nac-cna.ca