He came, he played, and he conquered. Adam Golka played all five of Beethoven’ piano concertos before two dazzled Lubbock audiences on Friday September 23 and on the following Saturday. Actually, he played the cycle twice. There were dress rehearsals Thursday night and Saturday morning. This feat, unique in my experience, requires prodigious doses of stamina, endurance, memory, and the invulnerability of youth. Golka is 24.
And of course, these are not ordinary concertos for piano and orchestra; they are Beethoven’s. They are the summa of the genre. Young Golka has an extraordinary technique that was easily up the the great challenges that Beethoven presents, but even more impressive was the artistry he displayed. This was the complete package. There were a few wrong notes – how could there not be? But his playing was vitually spot on throughout the artistic marathon.
Friday night started with the Concerto #2 (actually the first written, but second published). Golka sailed through the very difficult cadenza in the first movement. Beethoven wrote this years after he had written the concerto. The lovely adagio was played with exquisite sensitivity and feeling. The last movement is a rondo written, several years after the first two movements, for the work’s first performance in Prague in 1795. It’s marked Molto Allegro. And that’s the way Golka played it to the delight of the near capacity audience.
The Concerto #3 was written in 1800 and first performed with the composer as soloist in 1803. Though there are many cadenzas for the first movement Golka opted for Beethoven’s as he did for all the concertos except the 5th which doesn’t have one – at least in the usual sense. Golka’s playing has the audience on their feet at it’s conclusion which marked the intermission.
The performance concluded with Beethoven’s 4th Concerto. This is a work where Beethoven moved into a world no one had visited before. The first movement starts with the solo piano playing a few cords. After a pause the orchestra enter. This opening has dazzled both critics and audiences for the past two centuries. The second movement is equally original. you can hear the precursor of Beethoven’s late style in it, the style characteristic of the final piano sonatas and string quartets. It’s beautiful and unlike anything else in the concerto literature. The last movement, a rondo, is in traditional form unlike the preceding two movements. The audience was ecstatic at the close of the performance.
The Lubbock Symphony Orchestra was conducted by its music director, and the pianist’s older brother, Tomasz Golka. Maestro Golka is in in his fifth and final season as the orchestra’s head. Under his taut leadership the ensemble has reached an artistic stature level unequaled by orchestras found in cities the size of Lubbock. These two concerts were not just a challenge for the soloist; the orchestra was equally challenged. They had to prepare two different programs in the time normally allotted for one. Realizing that they were part of a unique event they played like Orpheus. The maestro is always a sensitive collaborator when the plays with a soloist; he was specially attentive during these performances.
The orchestra was grouped in a new arrangement. The basses and cellos were on stage right while the percussion was on the left. Also new was the piano. In place of the usual Steinway, in need of major repair, a Bösendorfer concert grand was trucked in from Dallas just for these two evenings. This piano has a bright sound and is vaguely reminiscent of a forte-piano. Beethoven would have loved playing it.
Saturday began with the 1st concerto. Written in 1796-7, Beethoven gave it its first performance in Prague in 1798. It’s form is that of the tradition classical concerto. The first movement has three cadenzas by the composer. Golka opted for the longest and most difficult which he dispatched with elan.
The second movement is a lovely largo in ABA form. It requires a switch from technical virtuosity to poetic restraint. Golka made the change without effort. The last movement is another exuberant rondo with Beethoven’s characteristic syncopation and rhythmic drive. Again the audience was on its feet.
The series concluded with the 5th concerto – The Emperor. The name was not given by Beethoven, but by Johann Baptist Cramer, the English publisher of the concerto. But the work obviously deserves the appellation. The 1st movement starts with three cords in the orchestra whereupon the solo piano takes off on a wild journey that lasts more than two minutes before the orchestra returns. The simple and beautiful adagio runs directly into a seven part rondo.
Unfortunately for Lubbockites Saturday evening was also the occasion for a Texas Tech football game. Many who might have gone to hear Golka went to the stadium to watch the Red raiders eek out a one point victory over a Nevada team that was supposed to be a sacrificial offering. They would have been far better off to choose Beethoven over pigskin.
Golka, the pianist, is still studying in Baltimore with the famed American pianist Leon Fleisher. Given the technique and mature artistry that he already possess I’m not sure what he has to learn from another pianist. It’s experience and solitary study that are most likely to benefit him. I asked him if he intends to do all five Beethoven concertos again. He said that he would first do each one alone 30 times before considering another attempt at the cycle – a wise reply. What could have been a stunt was a great artistic event – poetry and bravura. Those fortunate to hear the series are likely to remember it for a long time.