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“What I have in my heart must come out; that is the reason why I compose.” The opening measures of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 are unlike anything contemporary audiences would have previously experienced. Ever the innovator, Beethoven was widely recognized as one of the leading pianists of his generation, and used his technical acumen and knowledge of emerging trends in piano design to construct a concerto of brilliance.

Here are four features of the work that broke new ground at its premiere:

  1. Unusual Opening: Unlike many concertos of the Classical era, Beethoven’s fourth foray into the genre begins with solo piano rather than an orchestral fanfare. This hushed “curtain raiser” effect was a remarkable innovation for the time, and demonstrated the composer’s daring approach to emancipating the solo instrument from obligatory introductions.
  2. Poetic qualities: Despite elements of grandeur in the first and third movements, lyrical and poetic qualities reign supreme throughout the concerto—particularly in the second movement. Technical advancements to the piano were being introduced during this time, with a major one being new pedal systems that allowed the performer to partially mute the strings for a gentler, cantabile effect. Beethoven was a noted advocate for sensitive and expressive playing, telling his pupils “to play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.”
  3. Composer as performer: Beethoven himself premiered the Piano Concerto No. 4 in 1808 as part of a mammoth concert in Vienna (the performance also featured the unveiling of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Mass in C and the Choral Fantasy). Beethoven’s hearing loss was worsening by the day, and he was forced to rely on memory and stage vibrations to stay in contact with the orchestra. This concerto would be the last of its kind to receive a premiere at the hands of its composer.
  4. Influence: Despite being composed during a remarkably fertile period—the Violin Concerto, Razumovsky Quartets, Coriolan Overture, and sketches for Fidelio date from this time—the Piano Concerto No. 4 would be mothballed soon after its premiere. As part of his efforts to revive previously under-appreciated works, the composer and conductor Felix Mendelssohn would arrange the second-ever performance of the work in 1836, and the concerto has enjoyed popularity and acclaim to this day.

On Friday, February 16, celebrated pianist Eric Lu takes the stage at Hill Auditorium to perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, joined by Music Director Earl Lee and the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. The concert also features Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 1, Maurice Ravel’s La valse, and GRAMMY-nominated composer Zhou Tian’s Transcend.

Tickets can be booked at www.a2so.org/beethoven-4 and discounts are available for students and kids.

Concert details:
Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4
Friday, February 16, 2024 (8 PM) — Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor
Eric Lu, piano
Earl Lee, conductor and Music Director

Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 1
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Zhou Tian: Transcend
Maurice Ravel: La valse