The traditional and the new both have a place at the International Beethoven Festival.
As if to underscore that openness, the closing gala of the 2001 Festival features a work by Beethoven and one by Charles Ives, an American composer whose music still sounds revolutionary nearly a century after it was created. I'm Rick Fulker welcoming you to this Deutsche Welle Festival Concert from Bonn. The combination of the traditional and the new is also seen in the presence of a new wunderkind in the teen league of violinists, Shunsuke Sato, as soloist in Beethoven's Violin Concerto.
Conductor Ingo Metzmacher boldly couples Beethoven with Charles Ives' Symphony Nr. 4. With Ives on the program, we're reminded just how modern and "difficult" Beethoven's music often sounded to his contemporaries. Here, in fact, we have two revolutionaries sharing the same stage. The seeds of Beethoven's revolutionary later masterworks had already germinated in the progressive soil of Bonn.
Apparently it was a lot more than musical sketches that Beethoven brought with him to Vienna from his birthplace. In fact, the citizens of the musical metropolis on the Danube weren't always completely receptive to the forward-looking spirit of the Rhinelander. Here's part of what a local critic had to say about the premiere of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in Vienna in December 1806:
"Musical connaisseurs are unanimous in their verdict of Beethoven's concerto: granted, it has some attractive features, but we can only attest to a complete lack of a unifying structure. Some of the common-sounding passages with their endless repetition could easily create fatigue. It is feared that Beethoven will not do himself or his public any favors if he persists in this manner. Such music will eventually cause anyone without complete mastery of the rules and difficulties of the musical art to find absolutely no enjoyment in it, and to leave the concert hall in a depressed state and, in view of the mass of unconnected ideas and the tumult of different instruments, with an unpleasant feeling of exhaustion."
Sounds like a critique of Charles Ives, doesn't it?
We might be tempted to dismiss it as evidence of our ancestors' inability to recognize greatness when they were confronted with it. Only – don't we also frequently hear such opinions voiced by the taste-makers of our own time? In any case, Beethoven did in fact make some revisions in the work after its hastily organized premiere at which the soloist, Franz Clement, apparently had to practically sight-read his part because the ink from the composer's pen was barely dry. And one of those revisions was nothing less than radical: in the following year Beethoven himself recast the work as a piano concerto. But it's a newly discovered bright star in the galaxy of violinists whom we'll hear on this occasion, only 17 years old, born in Japan: Shunsuke Sato. Mr. Sato already has appearances with leading orchestras on three continents under his belt, or should I say chin? Here at the Beethoven Festival he's still an unknown quantity as he steps with quiet poise from the wings of the Beethoven Hall in the company of conductor Ingo Metzmacher, who has brought his Philharmonic State Orchestra of Hamburg to Bonn for this gala event. Together they now perform Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, op. 61.
Yet one more of the precocious talents shepherded towards superstardom by that doyenne of violin teachers, Dorothy Delay at the Juilliard School in New York. The audience in the Beethoven Hall in Bonn is evidently quite charmed by the boyish-looking young man who has just played the entire Beethoven Concerto firmly planted in one spot. You get none of the common bobbing and weaving nor distracting mobile facial expressions from this violinist; he seems to put all the physical energy of his playing into his bowing arm, his wrist and hands. Following two or three curtain calls in the company of conductor Ingo Metzmacher, Shunsuke Sato is called back to the stage for two more solo bows; he accepts the accolades with a shy but gracious mien, and is finally persuaded to offer a solo encore.
With strikingly calm demeanor, expressing himself purely in sound rather than gestures, Mr. Sato played the Gigue from the Second Violin Partita of Johann Sebastian Bach, in a musical gesture of thanks for the warm reception he's been given by the audience on his first foray into Germany.
Shunsuke Sato's mother has probably told the story countless times – the story of how her son discovered music and the violin at age two. At a family outing to a shrine back home in Japan, young Shunsuke was apparently so transfixed by the sounds coming through an open window across the street that they had to stop to investigate. It turns out the source of those sounds was a Suzuki violin studio, and it seems the career of a new violin virtuoso was launched right then and there. The boy's talents evidently blossomed so quickly that he was soon presented to the master himself, Shinichi Suzuki.
By age twelve, he became the youngest winner ever of the presigious Young Concert Auditions, which opened the door to many concert appearances world-wide already in his teens. The critics praised his astonishing technique and his rich tone as well as the impressive poise and musicality of someone so young – qualities all very much in evidence to this concert-goer. And so is one other quality: his modesty.
I was probably, like many violinists, I was quite intimidated in the beginning. And I really sensed a responsibility but at the same time I took it as a challenge, and challenges in music are something that I always welcome. And so I took it from there and I just worked and worked. First of all I needed to find a way that I could express Beethoven, I needed to find my Beethoven, like what do I hear, and when that was set, to go to that, to work towards it. And it's a never-ending process, just with anything, and you make it close to your ideal, but then again your ideal itself may change, too. So, it's constant work, I guess one could say.
That dedication to work will undoubtedly make Shunsuke Sato a name to remember and watch as he matures. Already his concerto repertoire lists just about a complete inventory of the classic violin concertos, from Bach, Mozart and Beethoven to the Romantic standards and on to several moderns like Khachaturian and Miklos Rozsa. How a teenager managed to achieve all that without neglecting the required course work at his high school in Philadelphia is something that his mother answers in a way that echoes her son's statement: "Work. A lot of work."