Beethoven to receive the royal treatment


The great "Emperor" will be gracing Annapolis with a visit this weekend.

But before you begin reviewing the proper etiquette for bowing to royalty, or sprucing up the State House dome with a fresh coat of paint, be advised that this "visiting monarch" is, in fact, the grand, dashing 5th Piano Concerto of Ludwig van Beethoven that history has dubbed the "Emperor."

That great concerto will be performed by the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra this weekend under the baton of its music director, Leslie B. Dunner. The suite from Igor Stravinsky's colorful and feisty ballet score, Petrushka, and the late Morton Gould's Flourishes and Galop will round out the engaging program to be performed tomorrow and Saturday at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

Composed in 1809 and subtitled "Emperor" for reasons no one is exactly sure of, the work is the largest-scaled and most flamboyant of the five Beethoven concertos for piano.

Its magnetic opening allows pianists to reveal their virtuosity in a series of cascading arpeggios designed to galvanize the listener's spirit.

This opening and the stately martial theme that follows lends marvelous credence to composer Robert Schumann's observation that "Nature would burst should she attempt to produce nothing save Beethovens."

The slow movement, with muted strings playing the flowing theme as the piano ripples a gentle melody above it, is one of Beethoven's most sublime lyrical statements, while the jaunty concluding rondo quivers with joyous energy.

Bringing all this to life from the keyboard will be Jon Nakamatsu, the concert artist who set the music world on its ear by winning the 10th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1997.

That Nakamatsu became the first American since 1981 to win the prestigious Cliburn was, itself, a major story.

But even more extraordinary was the realization that the $250,000 bonanza of cash, clothes, travel expenses, management fees, recital bookings and orchestral appearances guaranteed by the competition's gold medal had been won by a 27-year-old German teacher at St. Francis High School in Mountainview, Calif., who had turned down a performance scholarship to Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music in order to earn degrees in German and education at Stanford University.

Not only had Nakamatsu opted out of the conservatory setting to prepare himself for a career as a high school foreign language instructor, he had broken the mold even further by remaining under the tutelage of Marina Derryberry, his childhood teacher, who had continued to serve as his manager, publicist, consultant and coach into the pianist's adulthood.

True, there was intensive course work along the way in musicology and chamber music, as well as advanced piano study with the noted pedagogue Karl Ulrich Schnabel. But, even at that, the young pianist's path to glory was, truly, "the road not taken."

Today, he seeks to buck the trend even more.

No longer deluged with highly pedigreed engagements as the reigning Cliburn champ, Nakamatsu must continue his ascent with less wind at his back. And it's here that the prestigious competition's track record raises questions. For while the 17-day extravaganza held quadrennially in Fort Worth is musically glamorous, the Cliburn hasn't been especially adept at choosing winners who've maintained front-line careers once their palmy days in the Texas sun have ended.

Nakamatsu, though, already hints at interesting things to come. His Chopin recital recorded for the Harmonia Mundi label is a winning marriage of power and poetry caught in some of the most luscious piano sound I've ever heard brought to disc.

The new release of Lukas Foss' Elegy for Anne Frank and two piano concertos Nakamatsu recorded in tandem with Yakov Kasman, the Cliburn Silver Medalist in 1997, also could help this intriguing artist stand out in the crowd.

Thus does the iconoclast take on the "Emperor" this weekend at Maryland Hall.

The Annapolis Symphony presents music by Beethoven, Stravinsky and Gould at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 410-263-0907.

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