Beethoven sonatas inspire 21st-century composers

At Strathmore. pianist Yael Weiss played world premieres of five compositions intended to inspire audiences with a message of unity and oneness.
Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

It started with Beethoven, the most classical of classical composers, pianist Yael Weiss said a bit breathlessly last week at the Mansion at Strathmore in North Bethesda. She had just played five world premieres intended to inspire audiences with a message of unity and oneness. The new compositions were written by composers from nations in conflict to reflect musically on Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and his 32 piano sonatas.

It’s part of a multi-year project Weiss calls “32 Bright Clouds,” which will bring new music, each based on a Beethoven sonata, to audiences around the world emanating with positive messages.

Among Beethoven’s works, the Missa Solemnis contains a singular phrase, the “peace motif” — when sung in Latin “Pace, pace” or “Peace, peace” rings out. That became the seed for 32 new compositions, each inspired by a Beethoven sonata and the entire cycle unified by that aching “peace motif.” The Israeli-American pianist inaugurated “32 Bright Clouds” on Jan. 24 in Strathmore’s intimate mansion where barely 90 attendees filled the small hall.

Since, she’s spent much of her artistic life — now based in New York — with the Beethoven sonatas. Last week’s concert and conversation opened with Weiss’s finely honed playing of the Sonata in E-Flat Major, called “The Hunt.” She shared her hope that these new works, of which she is the sole commissioner (and seeking funding to pay the composers), will enlighten listeners about regions under conflict.

The works were not without challenges, including “Unheard Voices,” by Sidney Marquez Boquiren. The Philippines-based composer dedicated the work to victims of extrajudicial killings, “whose voices have been unheard.” This piece requires the pianist to listen to to the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No.7 in D Major on earbuds, unheard by the audience, while she plays the conversational notes of Boquiren’s study, which murmur and rumble across the keyboard.

George Mensah Essilfie’s “Hope for the Shackled” plays with African rhythms in a classical environment. It sounds both energetic with its lively rhythmic patter, but also strident amid the pounding rush to its ending. Essilfie dedicated the work to many Ghanaian psychiatric patients who have been tortured and treated inhumanely.

Following an aching rendition of the Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, Weiss introduced Ananda Sukarlan’s “No More Moonlight Over Jakarta.” The piece features sonic influences from Indonesia’s melting pot of ethnicities and Eastern religions, including Chinese scales, pop, rock and Javanese Gamelan. Dedicated to “the bravery of Ahok, the imprisoned ex-governor of Jakarta,” the work, Weiss noted, was played before the Amnesty International press conference which announced Gov. Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama’s release following a 20-month sentence on a blasphemy charge.

“Encouraging these kinds of conversations through music, I feel that is a beautiful thing,” Weiss said after the concert. “Just by conversing with these composers has helped me really see things from their point of view, which they express through music.”

For Weiss, as for many of her fellow Israeli-born musical compatriots, her goal is to harness music’s great power to promote unity and peace.

Israeli American pianist Weiss hopes music inspires change

This start of Weiss’ international tour will take her across the United States, Canada, Cuba, Korea, Indonesia and beyond. At each program Weiss introduces audiences to her newly commissioned classical works penned by artists in Ghana, Indonesia, Jordan, Iran, Philippines, Syria and Venezuela — all nations facing unrest and conflict.

Weiss came to the Baltimore-Washington area in 1990 to study with pianist Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. “During my junior year there,” she recalled, “[Fleisher] felt that our class was ready so he had us play the complete 32 Beethoven Sonatas in a single day. We started at 10 in the morning and played until midnight. It was a fantastic experience! A total immersion. I played the Hammerklavier, which may be one of the most challenging.”

“Music is such a wonderful tool for sharing commonalities among people,” she explained. “What I’m trying to do with this project is both show unity and oneness and also truly enjoy the differences among us … while maybe getting people to think about otherness when they leave the concert.”

–Lisa Traiger

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