A funny thing happened Monday night in the narrow open spaces of the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre.
The Beaux Arts Trio, recently reconstituted, celebrated its 40th anniversary by playing a trio of Beethoven piano trios. But first, a couple of politicos talked about the arts.
Zev Yaroslavsky, county supervisor in residence, made some reassuring remarks affirming the importance of culture in our society. In the process, he sang the praises of his predecessor, Ed Edelman, who had toiled long and hard as elected patron-saint of music in Cahuenga Pass.
Yaroslavsky mentioned a thwarted plan to place Edelman’s name on the freeway bridge that spans the Ford and Hollywood Bowl. The idea was abandoned, he said, when it was learned that bridges can be named only after deceased honorees, and Edelman found the honor premature.
Ergo, the county decided to name the recently redesigned stage of the Ford after Edelman. Smiles all around.
When Edelman took the mike, he waxed nostalgic about the sensitive acoustics of the Ford. He recalled, with gratification, how he himself had tested the sound with his amateur cello. He invoked the lofty ghosts of Heifetz, Piatigorsky and Rose, who had played here without electronic assistance.
Then the concert began. Ida Kavafian, Peter Wiley and Menahem Pressler climbed down the steps to the Edelman Stage to begin the C-minor Trio, Opus 1, No. 3. And then the trusty technician seated at the console at the rear of the hall began twiddling the knobs that adjust the microphones hidden in the Edelman Stage.
Contrary to what official sources had reported, the technician later explained that he always applies a degree of amplification in this concert locale. The trick, he admitted, is to keep it discreet.
True to his word, he did that on Monday. The basic sound of the trio seemed delicate and natural, after a fashion, from the 13th row during the first half of the program. The basic sound seemed delicate and natural, after a fashion, from the distant 28th row during the second half.
The intimate Ford certainly didn’t afford a distortion festival in the manner of the gargantuan Bowl across the street. The scale was happily human. Expressive nuances stayed in perspective.
Still, there were problems. Pressler’s piano dominated, even when he made every effort to respect the composer’s pianissimo markings. Kavafian’s violin sounded slender and fragile, though its tone never threatened to evaporate in the humid night air. Wiley’s normally assertive cello did threaten to evaporate.
The bass response tended to be weak. The treble response tended to be strong. So, incidentally, did the music-cricket obbligato.
So what was a critic to do among the crickets? Blame the timbral and dynamic imbalances on the distinguished players, who have worked as an ensemble only since 1992? Or blame the alfresco technology? It gives one pause.
Some interpreters regard Beethoven as the last of the classicists, a composer whose complexity is always cloaked in refinement. Others regard Beethoven as the first of the romantic revolutionaries, a composer desperately eager to break rules and expand boundaries.
On this occasion, the Beaux Arts Trio seemed intent on reinforcing Beethoven’s classical roots. Every melodic idea was delineated with delicacy. Every harmonic progression was traced with clarity and order. There was much grace under pressure, though little pressure under the grace.
One admired the suave give-and-take of subtle ideas. One admired the pervasive elegance and polish. One waited in vain, even during passages of agitation, for the storm behind the calm.
This was true in the lyrical C-minor Trio of 1795, in the somber “Ghost” Trio of 1808 and in the grandiose “Archduke” of 1812. Even in those relatively rare moments when the gentle pianist played in the cracks, when the subdued violin turned wiry and the cello sighed off pitch, poise triumphed over passion. The titanic Beethoven remained oddly polite.
Perhaps next time. Perhaps indoors.