(Piano soloist Orli Shaham)

By Montague Gammon III

The Virginia Symphony opens its 2023-24 Season with a Beethoven Festival whose bounties Music Director and concert conductor Eric Jacobsen twice likened to a “steak dinner with dessert,” a two course musical feast of “pieces that will bring people together for many years to come.”

Ludwig’s van Beethoven’s unique 1803-04 Triple Concerto – formally, Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C major, Op. 56 –  opens these mid-September Thursday and Friday  concerts with what might be seen as a mash-up of chamber and symphonic music that lasts a little less than 40 minutes.

The symphony that Beethoven himself supposedly termed “one of [his] best works”, his 1812 Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, fills the post intermission 40-some minutes of the concert.

Jacobsen, a skilled cook, said in a phone chat, “It’s about as much a steak as you can get…It’s steak and desert all wrapped into one.”

The Triple Concerto, about the most sumptuous first course imaginable, puts three soloists – violin, viola and piano – onstage with the orchestra, rather than using the more conventional concerto scoring of single soloist plus.

There’s a careful grandiosity in the Concerto’s opening, with a first movement of clear, chamber-music-like conversations among and between the soloists, then between orchestra and the trio, as individuals and in ensemble. Building tempo and intensity foreshadow the progression of the whole piece.

The second movement begins with cello leading, followed by piano, then violin, then orchestra swelling, in sheer transcendent loveliness. 

The cello strings tug on the listener’s heartstrings, singing of something lost or wished for or unattainable. Themes are tossed back and forth as if the soloists were happily bantering siblings, the orchestra goading them on, the tempo building with breathtaking virtuosity, until the piece ends with some unmistakably Beethovean “So there!” chords.

Piano soloist Orli Shaham (Gil’s sister), said on the phone that she had been playing this Concerto since high school (Juillard pre-college), when she had her own chamber music trio.  About 15 years ago, Jacobsen also mentioned, he soloed on cello with her at Carnegie Hall. 

Comments from our conversation:

“…what [Beethoven]’s  doing with the trio as a sort of single soloist he manages to pull off so elegantly.”

 “it’s very  delightful and it’s so gloriously beautiful.”

“One of the things that I find interesting about that concerto is starts with low stuff, the cello, and  in certain ways this Triple Concerto is a cello concerto.”

“It just sparkles in a way that only he was able to do, to get the instruments ringing off each other beautifully.”

Cellist Raphael Bell, who has shared a cello teacher with Jacobsen, and violin soloist Tessa Lark, “a unique voice in our world,” join the “incredibly virtuosic” Shaham as soloists.

Jacobsen calls Lark “incredible…a unique voice in our world,” and notes that he he has shared a cello teacher and played “five to ten chamber music concerts with cellist Raphael Bell.

When Jacobsen heard that VSO Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Wilkins had said that Beethoven’s 7th Symphony convinced him – Wilkins – that Beethoven was the greatest of composers, Jacobsen said, “That sounds about right.”

It’s easy to hear, during this work, numerically between Symphonies 5 and 9, echoes of the attention commanding chords of the first and the rhapsodic finale of the later. Even a hint of the pastoral 6th sneaks in, at least once. Jacobsen explains that is because “He’s constantly rejiggering his work. He’s a perfectionist…He fine tunes one idea.”

Yet describing any Beethoven symphony is like trying to put into words a beautiful sunrise or sunset behind a Rembrandt. This one goes from a propulsive opening through an almost dirge-like second movement into a finale so fast and intense that an allmusic.com critic wrote, “in the final movement…Beethoven became a race-car driver.”

The finish line, to use a comment Jacobsen made, is “a piece is going to give you [the experience] of a lifetime.”

Beethoven Festival

Virginia Symphony Orchestra

Sept 14, Ferguson Center for the Arts, Newport News

Sept 15, Chrysler Hall, Norfolk