So much for the Three Bs. This spring there’s pretty much just one: Beethoven.
Philadelphians will get to hear the 16 string quartets (plus the Grosse Fuge) over a stretch of weeks. All 32 piano sonatas will be performed by various pianists — with the widely adored Mitsuko Uchida providing the Diabelli Variations like a cherry atop Beethoven’s 250th birthday cake.
These two cycles — piano sonatas and string quartets — are being presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society for the first time. Side by side, they highlight the idea that Beethoven more than anyone still encompasses an infinite universe of ideas, not all of them fully understood.
Quantity is assured, but what about quality? Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Beethoven hasn’t been revelatory, but now he’ll have another chance at showing us where he and the composer meet in a full Beethoven cycle with the Philadelphia Orchestra. They start with symphonies No. 5 and 6 in March and end with the 1st and 9th in April.
One major pianist after another will appear this spring. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society brings in Richard Goode, Jonathan Biss, and Jeremy Denk, among others. But the Philadelphia Orchestra also dips its toe into presenting, hosting (without orchestra) Evgeny Kissin in a major Verizon Hall solo recital of … Beethoven.
Right about now would have been a nice time for the orchestra or Opera Philadelphia to perform Fidelio, not only since it’s Beethoven’s only opera, but also to remind us of a few values that seem suddenly quaint in some quarters — you know, liberty and justice and all of that. But social justice won’t be far off. The opera company’s spring brings Madame Butterfly in a production new to Philadelphia billed as a “modern-day commentary on power dynamics and western exploitation.”
Opera-wise, the major event this season is the Philadelphia Orchestra’s semi-staged production of Strauss’ Elektra in May in which a number of singers, including soprano Christine Goerke, are making their debuts with this orchestra.
Strauss may have been more advanced than Beethoven in a lot of different ways. But Elektra is easily decipherable. Even now, it’s tough to grasp the full meaning of the Diabelli Variations and Grosse Fuge — two centuries later and counting.
Beethoven Piano Sonatas (Feb. 11, 12, and 18; March 19, 24, 27, 30, April 2, Perelman Theater). Louis Lortie opens the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s first complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas on Feb. 11 (replacing Rudolf Buchbinder, who canceled, citing health reasons). Llŷr Williams takes over Feb. 12 in a program that includes the Sonata in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2, “Tempest." Jonathan Biss plays five sonatas on Feb. 18, including the Sonata in A Major, Op. 101, a miraculous feat of concise narrative.
Biss is back March 19 with a program that includes the puppy-dog energy of the E Major, Op. 14, No. 1 and G Major, Op. 14, No. 2 sonatas, and then again on March 24 with some more popular of the sonatas, including the “Moonlight.” Veteran Richard Goode takes on four sonatas plus some of the Bagatelles, Op. 119, March 27. Biss finishes up the sonatas March 30 with a program that includes the “Waldstein” and ends with the Sonata in A Flat Major, Op. 110. Mitsuko Uchida follows with the monumental Diabelli Variations April 2. (215-569-8080, pcmsconcerts.org)
Clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Anna Polonsky (Feb. 23, American Philosophical Society). A velvet tone and profound expressivity are what you can expect from this Curtis alum, now principal clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic. Among the gems on McGill’s program: Bernstein’s jazzy, breezy sonata (his first published piece); and the soulful 1970 sonata for the instrument by unjustly overlooked Argentinian composer Carlos Guastavino. (215-569-8080, pcmsconcerts.org)
Philip Glass Ensemble (Feb. 29, Annenberg Center). The group performs Music in Twelve Parts, Glass’ epic work written between 1971 and 1974. Repetitive and something of a lava lamp for the ear, the piece will undoubtedly leave some bored, others pleasantly dazed and even changed. Performed with two intermissions and a dinner break over a span of five hours. (215-898-3900, annenbergcenter.org)
Beethoven String Quartets (March 15, 17, 18, April 21 and 22, Perelman Theater). He didn’t invent the string quartet, but if you never heard another piece by Beethoven beyond these 16, you’d still have a complete understanding of the composer’s stunning scope and innovation. It’s rare to be able to hear all the quartets in the stretch of a few weeks, and so the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s upcoming marathon (a first for the presenter) is a gift not likely to be offered again anytime soon. The workload is shared among the Doric, Takács, Belcea, and Ebène quartets. (215-569-8080, pcmsconcerts.org)
Prism Quartet Premieres Mending Wall (March 21 and 22, Bryn Mawr College, Goodhart Hall). What’s the meaning of a wall in this day and age? Prism, the Philadelphia-based sax foursome, answers in the world premiere of “Mending Walls,” a fully staged theatrical collection of works by composers George Lewis, Arturo O’Farrill, Juri Seo, and Martin Bresnick. The poetry of Robert Frost figures into one work. (610-526-5300, mendingwall.prismquartet.com)
Philly Pops Sondheim Celebration (April 17-19, Verizon Hall). Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, The Frogs, and other Sondheim shows are represented in the Philly Pops’ Sondheim 90th birthday tribute led by conductor David Charles Abell. With vocalists Liz Callaway, Fra Fee, and Damian Humbley. (215-893-1999, phillypops.org)
Musical Roots with Astral Artists (May 2, Church of the Holy Trinity). Blues, hip-hop, and Appalachian singing and fiddling figure into this concert of works by Dan Visconti, Missy Mazzoli, Sulkhan Tsintsadze, and others. We are especially eager to hear Hip Hop Etude in C-sharp Minor by Daniel Bernard Roumain, known to Philadelphians as the composer of We Shall Not Be Moved, premiered at Opera Philadelphia’s O17 festival. (215-735-6999, astralartists.org).
Evgeny Kissin (May 14, Verizon Hall). One critic has said that Kissin’s “authority in the music he chose to play affirmed his stature as a pianist in the grand romantic manner." But that was in a program of Chopin, Schumann, and Debussy in Chicago. Here in Philadelphia, the one-time wunderkind takes on a Verizon Hall solo recital full of Beethoven, promising a different kind of experience. The common thread is a marked individualism. The audience requested, and received, an hour’s worth of encores at his 2007 Kimmel Center recital. (215-893-1999, philorch.org)
Elektra with the Philadelphia Orchestra (May 15-19, Verizon Hall).The orchestra is the star of Elektra. When Charles Dutoit led the score with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012, the performance made that much clear. As I wrote then, it is the oboe that sends Aegisth off to his death even before Elektra does. You want terrific singers, of course, but beneath the action it’s the orchestra in all of its strange subtlety and wall-of-sound power that tells you how to feel. This is only the orchestra’s second outing with the landmark Strauss-Hofmannsthal one-act, and this time it’s Nézet-Séguin offering insights. (215-893-1999, philorch.org)
Yuja Wang with the Philadelphia Orchestra (May 28-31, Verizon Hall). Possibly the biggest piano talent to come out of the Curtis Institute in recent times, Yuja Wang gives listeners a break from Beethoven to make a major statement on Brahms. She’ll play both concertos with the orchestra led by Nézet-Séguin over four days. Solo piano pieces as encores, please. (215-893-1999, philorch.org)
Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel (June 21, Icebox Project Space, Crane Arts). Pieces taken up by the Crossing typically arrive with the ink still wet, like Nicholas Cline’s 2018 Watersheds, to be performed at this concert. So Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, also on the program, is what Crossing director Donald Nally calls “ancient music.” It’s from 1971 and not often performed. The original architectural inspiration is the Houston chapel designed by Mark Rothko, but here listeners may notice Crane Arts’ Icebox with its reverberant acoustic. The enormous, modern “warehouse-like white canvas“ can actually sound like a Middle-Ages Italian cathedral, says Nally. ”Close your eyes and you could be in Spoleto.” (215-436-9276, crossingchoir.org)