Music prof plays a marathon – 10 Beethoven sonatas in eight hours

When asked why he would take on the challenge of playing all 10 of Beethoven’s sonatas in eight hours, internationally acclaimed violinist and York music Professor Jacques Israelievitch replies simply: “I like crazy ideas!”

A seasoned chamber musician who has played with such luminaries as Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman and Yo-Yo Ma, Israelievitch recruited Japanese-American pianist Kanae Matsumoto to collaborate with him in the unusual and demanding performance, which takes place this Sunday, June 21, at Gallery 345 in Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood. The musical marathon runs over eight hours in three sets: Sonatas Nos. 1 to 5 starting at 1pm, Nos. 6 to 8 at 4pm and No. 9 and 10 at 7:30pm. 

Right: Jacques Israelievitch

Part of Israelievitch’s reason for playing all 10 works at one go is that some of them are very rarely heard in live performance. “Because the Spring and Kreutzer sonatas are so popular, they are played at the expense of the others,” he says.

Beethoven wrote the sonatas during the period 1797 to 1812. He dedicated the first three to his teacher, the composer and conductor Antonio Salieri (immortalized as Mozart’s archrival in the film Amadeus). Sonata No. 5, known as the Spring sonata, has lent its Adagio movement to the hit stage show Fame. The demanding Sonata No. 9 takes its name from its dedicatee, the French violin virtuoso Rodolphe Kreutzer (who considered the work unplayable and never performed it).

“Some of the lesser-known sonatas are very intimate in character, with brilliant finales,” Israelievitch says. This intimate quality makes the 100-seat Gallery 345 an ideal venue for the concert.

In addition to talent, skill and dedication, marathons – whether for runners or musicians – require endurance. As concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for 10 years, followed by a record 20 years as concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1988-2008), Israelievitch frequently played orchestral works lasting up to two hours. He has also played chamber music “for fun” for up to six hours at a stretch. 

“You just keep breathing, and stay loose,” he says. “The idea of a marathon appealed to me, and I think it will to audiences, too.”

Tickets are $25 for each set or $65 for the whole day. For information and ticket reservations, call 416-822-9781 or visit the Gallery 345 Web site.

There’s a break between the sets, so audience members who are staying for multiple segments have time for a quick meal at a nearby restaurant, or can pack a picnic to enjoy between the musical courses.

When asked if he’ll be joining his audience in noshing between the notes, Israelievitch laughs. “Well, I’ll certainly want to put my feet up, but I might limit myself to a banana for energy to keep going.”

The concert was conceived in part as a special event to commemorate Israelievitch’s 10th summer teaching and performing at the historic Chautauqua Institution in New York state, where he heads the string program. Matsumoto is also on faculty there as a collaborative pianist. Israelievitch will repeat the Beethoven cycle with Matsumoto at Chautauqua on July 19. His other performances during the nine-week summer retreat include concerts with the New Arts Trio on July 6, July 28 and August 13.

“I look forward to Chautauqua every year,” says Israelievitch. “As well as working, it’s a vacation retreat for me. Family members come there for an annual reunion.”

In September, Israelievitch will be recording a CD with the New Arts Trio, with whom he has performed for 10 years. Recognized as one of America’s most distinguished piano trios, the ensemble has appeared to critical acclaim across North America and Europe.

September also brings Israelievitch’s debut recital at York. He will launch the 2009-2010 Faculty Concert Series on September 22 with a program of French masterworks, partnered by his department colleague, renowned pianist and music Professor Christina Petrowska-Quillico.