Biss’ Beethoven Project A Hit At Jacksonville SO

Courtney Lewis, music director of the Jacksonville Symphony, likes to mix standards with contemporary gems.
(Photo courtesy of the Jacksonville Symphony)

JACKSONVILLE – Among the generation of up-and-coming conductors who have landed music director positions in Florida over the last few years, Courtney Lewis stands out. Now in his third season with the Jacksonville Symphony, Lewis exhibits a heightened artistic affinity with the Northeast Florida ensemble founded in 1949. He led a stylistically diverse program on Sept. 29, “Beethoven and the Blind Banister,” which featured pianist Jonathan Biss.

Timo Andres’ new piano concerto took its cue from Beethoven.
(Michael Wilson)

The highlight was The Blind Banister, a piano concerto by American composer Timo Andres, 32. Premiered by Biss and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2015, the concerto is one of five SPCO commissions intended for Biss to perform alongside the Beethoven piano concertos that inspired them. When complete, the Beethoven/5 project will also encompass works by Sally Beamish, Salvatore Sciarrino, Caroline Shaw, and Brett Dean.

Sparked by Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, The Blind Banister opens with the soloist playing a succession of repeated notes, suggesting a gentle pealing of bells. The harmonic cornerstone of the piece stems from the solo piano’s descending scales a major second apart. The recurring scales establish an unsettled mood throughout the concerto, which is structured in three continuous movements. As the strings grow in intensity,  a disquieting solo trumpet (principal Tristan Clarke) heralds a new texture.

Two percussionists play unpitched instruments in quick succession, creating an echo effect that was served especially well by the acoustics of Jacoby Symphony Hall. Violas bowed near the bridge produced an acerbic timbre. The solo trumpet returns, this time with a mute that alters its tone color. Dynamics reach a climax to introduce the cadenza – an impressive virtuoso microcosm of the opening of the piece, capped by the initial pealing gesture. Ending with a raucous thrust, Andres’ concerto spirals out in an upsurge of energy.

Though The Blind Banister — a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for music — is rooted in Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto (chronologically his first), similarities between the two are far from evident. Biss, the new work’s dedicatee, found common ground between the two in energetic outbursts and thoughtful restraint.

The soloist approached the Beethoven concerto with controlled emphasis and flourishes of expressiveness. Over Lewis’ brisk tempo in the first movement, he kept the listener alert with subtle lags behind the beat.

Biss, 37, tends to sit back with outstretched arms as his hands dangle freely over the keyboard; in the ethereal second movement he would pull back and let his torso swing as his fingers ran down the keyboard, as if to feel the weight and color of every note. Undaunted by the polyphonic turns of the cadenza, he delivered a fresh and charismatic performance. Even admid slight idiosyncratic gestures, he remained always within the bounds of good taste.

Biss is introducing five new concertos, each inspired by one of Beethoven’s.
(Benjamin Ealovega)

Marked by stark contrast between the Fifth Symphonies of Schubert and Sibelius and the two concertos, the concert was a showcase for Lewis, 33, who served as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 2014 to 2016. He appears to have found a favorable spot in Jacksonville by performing a mix of  standard repertoire and seldom-heard contemporary gems.

In March, he led Ligeti’s uncompromising, polyrhythmic piano concerto of 1988, with soloist Shai Wosner. He has also programmed music by Henri Dutilleux (1916–2013), Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Thomas Adès. Last spring, he made guest-conducting appearances with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic, with whom he conducted the Beethoven and Andres concertos, with Biss as soloist.