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Turning off the lights to see better: Ory Shihor re-opens The Wallis with Beethoven piano sonatas

Last Thursday night, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills became the latest venue to re-open its doors to the public, ending 18 months of coronavirus-induced silence. Doing the honors was pianist Ory Shihor.

The LA-based musician and educator was supposed to help The Wallis celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday year in 2020 with the composer’s “Most Beloved” sonatas (to parrot the marketing language of the day): Pathetique, Moonlight, Tempest, and Appassionata. Five hundred and fifty-one days later, Beethoven was still on the bill, but with a different theme: “Darkness and Light

The intent was to compare and contrast a lesser known sonata to a more famous cousin, plus highlight differences within each: No. 27 in E minor was matched with the Moonlight, and No. 12 in A-flat major with the Appassionata. To emphasize the notion, each pair was played as an uninterrupted whole. [See note on this below]

Beethoven’s compositions are heavily laden with contrasting dark and light, so asking someone to actively listen for that in any of his works is akin to asking a dolphin to get wet. Not surprisingly, the thematic gambit worked, yet not as advertised: in the end, the biggest contrast was between the first and second halves of the concert, not within a given pair of sonatas.

Mr. Shihor’s interpretive approach to the first half was subdued, even analytical. The opening 27th sonata was charming if diffident. His Moonlight sonata was particularly compact and monochrome, smoothing over differences in the famous work’s three starkly contrasting movements: the often brooding first movement was simply quiet and contemplative; the potentially playful second movement seemed melancholy; the bucking bronco of a third movement tamed to an efficient thoroughbred.

He wasn’t subverting Beethoven’s intentions, but he wasn’t underlining them either, as if trying to show how the composer didn’t need help in demonstrating tonal or timbral range. It worked intellectually but was less satisfying emotionally.

On the other hand, the second pairing felt more free and organic, particularly in the Appassionata. Here, Mr. Shihor seemed more willing to push and pull tempos and dynamics without ever becoming effusive, heightening drama without wallowing in it.

Even more compelling was his take on the 12th sonata that preceded it. This less extroverted four-movement work can become dull, even sullen, if taken too straight. No risk of that here. Mr. Shihor deftly opened up the work just enough to showcase its subtle shifts in temperment, shaping phrases masterfully. He was aided by the excellent acoustics at The Wallis: clear without being clinical.

The audience responded to each pair accordingly: applause after the first half were earnest yet polite; after the second half, they were rapturous.

For an encore, Mr. Shihor played even more Beethoven: the Andante from Sonata No. 25 in G Major, Opus 79. 

Random other thoughts:

  • No hardcopy programs were distributed. Instead, attendees were emailed a link to a website with a digital program.
  • If one were to actually go to open up the digital program and then click on the specific link to read the program notes, you’d be confronted with the following request:

Each of the two sonata pairings – 1st and 2nd sonatas, and 3rd and 4th sonatas – will be performed without a break to more effectively portray the contrast between the two works, so Mr. Shihor kindly requests that the audience hold their applause between them.

  • Given that this was NOT repeated before the performance began by the PA announcement or by Mr. Shihor from the stage, I expected the request to be violated. Much to my pleasant surprise, it wasn’t. I’m chalking it up less to the everyone reading the warning ahead of time, and more to the pianist taking only the slightest of pauses between sonatas combined with the audience being extra polite and attentive.
  • Covid-19 protocols were in place. Attendees were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative test before being admitted. Masks were mandated at all times, but social distancing was not. Everyone appeared to keep their masks on without incident.
  • Joining Mr. Shihor and host Brian Lauritzen during the pre-concert discussion was Lucas Sha, a 17-year old student of Mr. Shihor’s.

Ory Shihor, piano: October 7, 2021; The Wallis
Beethoven: Darkness and Light

Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90 
Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2: Moonlight 
Sonata No. 12 in A-flat major, Op. 26 
Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57: Appassionata 


Photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho

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