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Rzewski Makes the Political Personal


Benjamin Beilman (Giorgia-Bertazzi)

Dog bites man is famously not news, and violinist and pianist playing Beethoven and Bartok sonatas isn’t either, but a brand-new work from Frederic Rzewski, not only co-commissioned by the Celebrity Series of Boston but tuned politically to the present—that’s news.

For the Celebrity Debut Series at Longy’s Pickman Hall at 8pm on Wednesday March 7, violinist Benjamin Beilman will play, with pianist Orion Weiss, Beethoven’s first and last Sonatas for Piano and Violin, Nos. 1 and 10, Bartók’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2, and Frederic Rzewski’s Demons, a sonata commissioned by Music Accord, of which the Celebrity Series is a member. Beilman has been characterized in the Washington Post as “mightily impressive,” and the New York Times described his playing as “muscular with a glint of violence.”

But our hook is Rzewski’s Demons, written for Beilman and Weiss spring-summer of 2017 and dedicated to Angela Davis. The composer, probably known best for his famous mid-1970s variation set The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, explains:

In Dostoyevsky’s 1871 novel of the same name, the character Kirillov kills himself in order “to become God”. Inspired by the Russian Nihilist movement of the 1860s and specifically by the charismatic figure Nechayev, Dostoyevsky’s book is a study of the self-destructive forces present in the Russian society of his time. It foreshadows Lenin and the Revolution of 1917, as well as the ideas of Nietzsche and Freud, and had a deep influence on writers like Mann, whose “Doctor Faustus” is a similar study of modern Germany.

While it is futile to try to express musical ideas in words, it is possible to say that my piece is a meditation on similar trends in the world of today.

In early November 2016, I had the honor to assist at a spectacular performance of my composition “Coming Together” of 1972 at the San Francisco Conservatory, with Angela Davis as the speaking soloist, a few days before the presidential elections. There was a public discussion that followed. Davis seemed to know the results already. She said that if the Left had done its job, the present situation would not have arisen.

These and similar ideas were all going through my head as I was writing “Demons” a few months later. I am not religious, and don’t know much about devils and such, but as an artist I cannot help feeling sensitive to whatever it is that awakens these ideas in humans, causing them to go crazy. I am not sure that scientists or doctors understand these things any better than writers or musicians. Perhaps, on the contrary, although we cannot explain them in rational terms, we can nevertheless throw some light on them, in our own way.

My piece is in four movements, and so is a kind of sonata…. There are periodic references to two songs throughout the piece: “Iroes”, made popular in the 1990s by the singer Maria Dimitriadis, and a song that became known during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (notably as performed by Barbara Dane), “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle”, which also provided the title for the recent book of Angela Davis.

Thanks to a new generation of classical musicians like Benjamin Beilman, there is a revival of interest among younger players in new music that in some way continues the classical tradition. One can only hope that this trend will continue. Although Marx’s analysis of capitalism as a ruthless system following its relentless course independently of human will continues to be valid, there are nonetheless reasons to think that alternatives are possible. As Mark Twain put it, prophecy is really hard, especially when it’s about the future.

Beilman has received an Avery Fisher Career Grant and a London Music Masters Award, won first prize in two 2010 competitions, and two years ago released his first CD, featuring Stravinsky, Janacek, and Schubert. Weiss released in 2012 a recital of Dvorak, Prokofiev, and Bartok, and undertook a recording project of the complete Gershwin works for piano and orchestra. In 2011 he made his BSO debut at Tanglewood as a last-minute replacement for Leon Fleisher, his second such substitution. His list of awards includes an Avery Fisher Career Grant also. Weiss won the William Petschek recital award at Juilliard, where he studied with Emanuel Ax; before Juilliard he attended the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Orion Weiss (Jacob Blickenstaff photo)

Benjamin Beilman violin
Orion Weiss piano

Wednesday, March 7, 8pm  Longy’s Pickman Hall

BEETHOVEN: Sonata for Violin and Piano, No. 1
BARTÓK: Sonata for Violin and Piano, No. 2
FREDERIC RZEWSKI: New work, co-commissioned by Celebrity Series of Boston
BEETHOVEN: Sonata for Violin and Piano, No. 10

Ticket HERE


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