In 1801, when Beethoven submitted his Piano Concerto in B-flat to his publisher, he added a note saying he didn’t consider it to be his best.
We have to assume that he retained a certain amount of affection for it, nonetheless, because several years later he added a cadenza for the first movement that was considerably more advanced than the concerto itself both in style and keyboard technique.
The contrast — the gap — between the two idioms, the cheerful bouncy concerto and the more expansive, dissonant cadenza, gives the piece an added intrigue. It was thinking about that gap and the ensuing cadenza that prompted the 30-year-old American composer Timo Andres to write a piano concerto, which he titled “The Blind Banister.” The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiered the work Friday night at the Ordway Concert Hall. Jonathan Biss was the soloist and Mischa Santora the conductor.
Andres’ piece is the first in an ambitious five-year program wherein the Chamber Orchestra will commission composers to write their own concertos based on each of the five Beethoven piano concertos.
“Think of them as companions, commentaries or responses to the Beethoven concertos,” orchestra president Bruce Coppock said during a preconcert onstage discussion with Andres, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. The orchestra plans to premiere one of them each season, pairing it with the relevant Beethoven concerto. Biss will be the soloist for each. Among the composers who will participate are Sally Beamish from England and Caroline Shaw, the American composer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013.
The Andres concerto made a bold, interesting start to the series. “To try to hear Beethoven in it would be the wrong idea,” the composer told the audience Friday night. Instead, he has written an abstraction on Beethoven’s cadenza, the result being a kind of musical cubism, a cadenza on a cadenza. The entire 20-minute work is a series of variations on the two descending scales that begin Beethoven’s cadenza.
The two scales, just a whole note apart, continually interact and bump into each other, taking on shifting character and color. Eventually, they reverse direction, charting a rising sequence of two-note phrases. The orchestra works along similar lines, building tension that is finally released in fierce outbursts. The piano takes up a quirky leapfrogging pattern in the second movement. The scales return at the end, speaking softly, almost with a whimper, as if exhausted.
It’s not always clear what’s happening in “The Blind Banister.” But the sounds and textures that Andres has come up with, both in the orchestra and the piano, were unfailingly compelling. (Andres himself is an accomplished pianist.) Biss played with rapt concentration, displaying impressive agility, and Santora was an assured presence at the podium.
Playing nonstop all evening, Biss joined four of the orchestra’s expert wind players at the start in a deftly balanced reading of Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Winds. His account of the Beethoven concerto that took up the second half, with concertmaster Steven Copes acting as leader, needed a quicker first movement. It was ponderous. But the adagio movement was sensitively shaped, and the finale scampered along joyfully.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis music writer.