Happy Belated, Beethoven: BCM Autumn Celebrates Composer’s 250th Birthday

Pianist Gilles Vonsattel. Photo by Marco Borggreve.
As of late, pianist Gilles Vonsattel has had two sonatas in his fingers. The first is a technically challenging exploration of radiance with a glowing sound, and the second is its opposite — a dark, passionate and compact piece, rife with a sense of doom.And they were both composed during the early 19th century by none other than Ludwig van Beethoven, only to become two of the three most important piano sonatas of his middle period, a time defined by his progressive hearing loss and the despair that came with it — leading him down a more experimental path that ultimately changed his style of composition.

“I think we can all relate to the feeling that life can be like climbing a mountain sometimes, and these pieces really touch on that feeling,” explained Vonsattel. “When I’m working on this music, I recognize that side of Beethoven in these two sonatas.”

This weekend, the pair will kick off Bridgehampton Chamber Music’s inaugural fall series, “BCM Autumn,” which belatedly celebrates the 250th birthday of the composer and pianist — who is widely considered one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time — starting on Saturday evening at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church.

Pianist Gilles Vonsattel. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

“It was our mission to get back and have live music,” said Marya Martin, artistic director of Bridgehampton Chamber Music, which took a hiatus last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. “And we did it.”

Vonsattel’s performance will mark the first solo piano recital in the organization’s 37-year history, with two sonatas that have been played by virtually every great pianist throughout history, he said, for good reason.

“Their ability to communicate emotion is so powerful and so direct,” he said. “In a way, even though there’s a lot of architecture and subtlety in the music, there is a very unmistakable message in the music and something that we can all relate to — and they’re very different.”

The concert begins with “Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53,” which is better known as “Waldstein” — in dedication to Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein of Vienna, who was not only a patron, but one of Beethoven’s few close friends. The music is ecstatic and warm, Vonsattel said, and a complete departure from what comes next.

“The pieces are written near each other chronologically,” he said, “so it shows the worlds that Beethoven could inhabit were so different.”

The second and closing piece is “Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57,” colloquially and aptly named “Appassionata” for its powerful impact in a relatively short span of time — giving the impression that Beethoven did not waste a single moment in composing it, Vonsattel said.

“There’s this looming sense of disaster in the piece,” he said, “and it all comes to a crashing end with the pianist playing unbelievably fast at the end. It feels like you’re just rushing into an abyss.”

At this point in his life and career, the Swiss-born American musician, who began playing piano at age 4, has performed a tremendous amount of Beethoven, from solo music and concertos with orchestras to chamber music and violin sonatas. With each concert, Vonsattel dives deeper into the composer’s world and, over the last four decades, he has come to feel like he knows him on some level.

“He lived through his music — and he put so much into it, so it’s there for us,” the pianist said of Beethoven. “These sonatas come really from this incredible breakthrough period where he was figuring out how to write something much more primal, and something that spoke to what’s inside all of us, in terms of the intensity of the emotion and the epic struggle of the music.”

The second and final concert of the mini series on November 13, “Beethoven Winds,” enlarges Beethoven’s musical forces with his “Trio for Flute, Bassoon, and Piano in G Major,” and “Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major,” explained Martin — the former quite whimsical, vivacious, fun and light, while the latter is the lynchpin piece, she said, which “sounds like a symphony orchestra up on the stage.”

In between the two works is Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja for Wind Quintet,” which means “unity” in Swahili. “It’s a great little piece and she’s wonderful,” said Martin, who will be joined on the remainder of the program by oboist James Austin Smith, clarinetist Yasmina Spiegelberg, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, Eric Reed on horn, and Orion Weiss on piano.

“Just a feeling of camaraderie in the audience and camaraderie with the musicians is the thing that has really blown me away,” Martin said. “You go through these unusual, difficult times and what’s hit me is how important music is — and that I’m not the only one that thinks that way.”

At the start of the pandemic, Martin and her family retreated to their home on the East End, where she leaned into her role as the house mother, she said. For the first time in about 40 years, her days were open-ended. She went for long walks on the beach, she said, reevaluating how she previously spent her time and why, taking a step back to look at her life.

BCM’s Marya Martin during a previous concert at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church. Michael Lawrence photo.

And she put down her flute in the process.

“I’ve been playing since I was 6 years old and this was the longest break I’ve ever, ever had in my life. It was quite a cleansing to give my fingers a rest,” she said. “When I came back to it, which was about five months later, I loved practicing again. I started just with slow beautiful works, I did lots of scales, and I couldn’t wait to get back and practice again.”

When considering the lineup for the 2021 Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, which was held in August after taking a year off, Martin said she did not want to use the canceled 2020 program, which celebrated Beethoven’s birthday — hence the belated festivities this month.

Instead, she chose some of her favorite works in the world, she said, “like comfort food.” She wanted music that would make audiences sigh with relief and relax.

“Last summer was really about getting back together again and connecting through music and just being happy again,” she said. “The thing that got me was when the very first concert came, when we first walked out, people stood and cheered and clapped. People have written me these wonderful emails saying, ‘I started crying at the first concert.’ It’s been a really wonderful reawakening.”

Bridgehampton Chamber Music will kick off its inaugural fall series, BCM Autumn, with “Gilles Vonsattel Plays Beethoven” on Saturday, November 6, at 5 p.m., followed by “Beethoven Winds” on Saturday, November 13, at 5 p.m., at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church. Tickets are $45 or $65, and $10 for students. For more information, call 212-741-9403 or visit bcmf.org.