Music review: Arcadia Players perform Beethoven

Last modified: Friday, December 19, 2014

The Arcadia Players performed the music of Beethoven Sunday, and the experience was pure delight.

The professional orchestra performs baroque music on original instruments, that is, instruments that were used in the period from the late 17th century to the early 19th century. It is led by Ian Watson, the conductor and a brilliant keyboard player, who was recently appointed to the prestigious post of resident conductor at the nation’s oldest music society, the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston.

Their concert Sunday was in the Wesley Methodist Church in Hadley. The church has no curtains or carpeting, so the acoustics are excellent and free of echoes. The nave is wide and comparatively short, while its dais rises only two steps above the nave. Thus the players were close to the audience, and in a trio that opened the program, they were on a level with the audience and quite close to them. The same players were the soloists in the “Triple Concerto” that closed the program.

The concert began with Beethoven’s first Piano Trio, Opus 1, No. 1, played by Watson, Susanna Ogata, a tenured member of the Handel and Haydn Society, and Guy Fishman its principal cellist. Although it was composed in 1792, 17 years before Haydn’s death, Beethoven, then 22 years old, clearly announced that he had broken with the tradition of the piano trios of Haydn and Mozart, in which the cello seldom had an interesting part to play.

Here Watson had a demanding part on the fortepiano, yet he was in equal partnership with the violin and the cello, helped by the limited power of the fortepiano, an early type of piano but without pedals. The string players were expressive, especially in the lovely slow movement, and it was easy to observe Ogata’s baroque-style bowing, holding the bow well to the left of the frog (the wooden piece that holds the right hand ends of the bow’s hairs).

The second part of the program began with the seldom-played Overture to “The Ruins of Athens,” composed in 1811 for a play of the same name. The overture is a powerful piece that indicates what Beethoven could have done if he had composed other operas than just “Fidelio.” The play is long-forgotten, but its overture is deservedly remembered. In the close quarters of the church one could observe the baroque instruments, especially the woodwinds, oboe and flute, wooden not metal, and the two horns, without valves and with replaceable crooks, which were indeed replaced twice in the Triple Concerto, so as to allow the horns to play in a different key.

Finally came the Triple Concerto of 1803, Opus 56, for fortepiano, violin and cello. The fortepiano had plenty to do, but its passages lay mostly under the fingers, providing what was more of an accompaniment for the string players than a conventional concerto part. Here the cello had by far the most difficult and interesting part, which enabled Fishman to show off the beautiful mellow tone of his Italian cello made in 1704. He held the cello between his knees, as did the three cellists in the orchestra. This was a polished performance, which left everyone in a happy mood.

The next performance by The Arcadia Players will be Handel’s “Messiah,” on Dec. 19 at 7:30 p.m., in the Abbey Chapel at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. For information, visit


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