Pianist and composer Jodi French prepares to perform Beethoven's 'Hammerklaveier' in the Music Recital Hall on the Southern Oregon University campus. [Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta]

Jodi French performs Beethoven's 'Hammerklaveier'

Ludwig van Beethoven's piano sonata "Hammerklaveier" may have surprised audiences in 1818.

"That big piece," says composer Jodi French, "is his greatest sonata, some say his most challenging to play."

It was considered dissonant and chaotic, she says. Seemingly avant-garde because no one at that time had heard a hammerklaveier — a piano built larger than its predecessors.

"It had more low and high notes," French says. "The range was bigger, and a composer could do more of everything with it. Beethoven created this piece by jumping back and forth between those extreme highs and lows, sometimes at the same time, sometimes lickety-split between the two. These were sounds no one had heard before because the instrument's size was new.

"We don't feel shocked by much of what we hear now, although the piece probably has a few almost intense moments," she says. "Our modern ears are so experienced, we've heard everything."

Pianist French will perform Beethoven's "Hammerklaveier" as part of the Tutunov Piano Series at the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University. The recital is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, in the Music Recital Hall, 405 S. Mountain Ave., on the SOU campus in Ashland.

Tickets are $20, free to students, and can be purchased at oca.sou.edu/events, by calling 541-552-6348, or at the door.

"In the piano world," says SOU professor of piano Alexander Tutunov, "'Hammerklaveier' is a Mount Everest. There are people who have done it and people who haven't. Beethoven wrote 32 sonatas for piano in his life, and when he wrote this one, he was completely deaf. It is a monument of a piece.

"This is the biggest reason I don't play all of the Beethoven sonatas," Tutunov laughs. "I play 29 or 30, but this is the one I'm yet to conquer. Jodi is braver. She has tremendous support, but it is a wrestling match in a lot of ways. Of course, it's the performer's job to make it look all graceful and pretty when it's vast and immense."

Tutunov is artist-in-residence at Oregon Center for the Arts at SOU, and French joins the ranks of his annual Tutunov Piano Series that features professional musicians from around the globe.

Next up, on April 17, flute and piano duo Luis Meireles and Maria Jose Souza Guedes of Portugal will perform. On May 12, Tutunov will present a solo piano recital.

"There was a vote, and everyone said they'd heard me play in enough various combos — with orchestra, two pianos, piano and violin, piano and cello. It's time to do a solo," he says. "I want to do something unexpected, but there are many considerations when planning a program. It has to be just the right length, and have the right coupling. I think it's going to be Franz Liszt and Sergei Prokofiev."

Tutunov's 2017-18 Piano Series will be announced by May 12.

French, who also is composer-in-residence for Southern Oregon Repertory Singers, says "Hammerklaveier" is one of the last pieces Beethoven wrote.

"Beethoven's life was harsh and painful," she says. "He didn't do well in relationships, he was drunk in public a lot, he struggled in his personal life and in his art, but he wrote the most magnificent music."

He was deaf by the age of 48, but suffered from tinnitus. He imagined sounds and harmonies without hearing them on instruments. Attempts to heal him at the time were painful and only worsened his distress.

"He was brilliant, but his genius is what tortured him. He struggled to write what he wanted to express. He was able to do it, but it was painful. Brilliant people have to work harder because they have so much to say, they almost can't get it all out.

"'Hammerklaveier' is an amazing piece of music," French says. "It holds all parts of life, all of the joys, and long, soaring, absolutely magical melodies. For all of the chaos and jumping around, there are the lovely dreamy pieces. While it represents the struggles he experienced, there's also hope and deep love. It has everything. Every part of being human is in this work."

French will open her recital with George Frideric Handel's "Chaconne with 21 Variations."

"It has a pedestrian title, but it's a short, sweet and beautiful piece," she says. "It's from the end of the baroque period, so there is ornamentation on the music. Everything has a little halo of swirls and trills around it. Handel embellished quite a bit, and I add ornamentation of my own. I love it. It's like playing early jazz."

Joseph Haydn's Sonata in G Major fills out the program.

"There aren't that many keys on a piano, but Haydn wrote about 60 sonatas," French says. "They're all delightful, sweet and full of small, charming surprises. He was composing music during a time when the style of music was as conversation: friendly, polite and elegant.

"The Beethoven piece is so far out of the bounds of anything he had ever written that it is somewhere in a universe of its own," she says.

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