When Joellen Wilson of Visalia told her friends she was going this weekend to Fresno Philharmonic concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, she raised some eyebrows.
“They all think I’m crazy,” she says.
But there’s a good reason for Wilson to make the drive each day. The orchestra, featuring acclaimed guest soloist Antonio Pompa-Baldi, will present all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos over a three-day period. It will be his first time doing all of them in a weekend. The feat has been done before, but it’s still not very common in the classical music world.
And, yes, the whole thing does sound a little crazy at first — especially for the pianist and members of the orchestra, who have put in lots of extra rehearsal hours to prepare essentially three different programs and then perform them in a 36-hour window.
Talk about a marathon.
Pompa-Baldi jumped at the chance.
“I think I can quote the great American pianist Abbey Simon,” he says. “When someone asks you to perform all the Beethoven concertos, they’re basically giving you the gift of a lifetime. You don’t say no to that.”
Beethoven’s five piano concertos, composed from 1795 to 1809, are among the standards of the classical music canon. Pompa-Baldi, along with almost other professional pianists, have played each piece at some point during their careers.
But playing them together in just a few days ups the ante considerably. The orchestra’s music director and conductor, Theodore Kuchar, likens the challenge to that of an Olympic swimmer who normally swims the 400m freestyle and then opts to swim the English Channel.
“It’s not so simple to find somebody who is willing to do this circus-like feat,” Kuchar says with a smile.
Pompa-Baldi agrees that playing all five concertos — which clock in at more than three hours of solid music — is a matter of mental endurance.
“If you play this repertoire, you’d better be able to do it justice,” he says. “These are beloved masterpieces that everybody knows. You also want to be able to bring your own fresh viewpoint, always within the idea of respecting the text and the composer.”
There are also physical challenges.
Pompa-Baldi often can’t fall asleep soon after a nighttime concert because he’s so energized. With this weekend’s schedule, he’ll need to be up early Saturday and Sunday mornings for the required additional dress rehearsals. He says he’ll need to schedule his time carefully and definitely stay away from the coffee.
The endurance of the orchestra members will be tested, too, notes Robert Ware, a longtime Fresno Philharmonic season-ticket holder who plans to see all three concerts.
“It’s an extraordinary marathon in a sense because the orchestra is going to have to learn those five concertos,” Ware says. “That alone will be a great achievement.”
When Ware learned of the chance to hear all five of the concertos performed live, he knew he wanted to attend all three concerts.
“If it’s going to happen here, I couldn’t pass it by,” he says.
Pompa-Baldi has been to Fresno before. In 2002 he was featured in the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts program soon after winning the silver medal in the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Along with a busy concert career, he is on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music.
He has played with Kuchar on the podium once before, in South Africa, while finishing up another “comprehensive” series, this one of the complete Rachmaninoff concertos — another endurance test. (In that series, though, the concerts were more spaced out than the ones this weekend.)
Kuchar admires Pompa-Baldi’s willingness to tackle big projects.
“He’s a bit of a professional wrestler — he takes on opponents twice his size and body slams them,” Kuchar says.
For Pompa-Baldi, the act of playing all five Beethoven concertos together has made him that much more aware of the composer’s genius.
“Contemplating them in their totality, I’m just in awe of this music even more,” he says
For those audience members willing to make this an all-orchestra weekend, the series offers a rare chance to hear in real time how Beethoven’s music grew in complexity and substance. In the first and second concertos, you can hear the influence of Mozart and Haydn. In the third concerto on, you start to hear him blazing completely new paths.
Wilson, of Visalia, is more than ready for the experience. Those friends who say she’s crazy? She agrees.
“They know I’m crazy about nice music,” she says.