At some point in their careers, most concert pianists tackle some, if not all, of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. Many pianists also commission new music for their instrument by living composers, to keep classical music living and thriving as an art form. But Yael Weiss might be the first pianist to embark on the process of commissioning 32 brand-new pieces to pair with every Beethoven sonata, an ambitious undertaking that will span multiple years and involve composers from 32 different countries on nearly every continent. Weiss will give the first public performance of this new project on January 24 at the Mansion at Strathmore.
Weiss has christened her initiative 32 Bright Clouds: Beethoven Conversations Around the World. The project’s ultimate goal, Weiss says, “is to harness music’s great power for unity and peace. My decision to curate 32 Bright Clouds evolved from a need to go past the boundaries of usual concerts so as to create musical experiences that respond meaningfully to the complexities and struggles of today’s world.”
Weiss offers additional context for how she chose the name of the project: “The phrase ‘bright clouds’ is a poetic expression taken from an old Zen text. It is understood to mean ‘the entire world covered with brightness of wisdom,’ an image I find inspiring as I work on the 32 Bright Clouds project.”
The recital at Strathmore on Thursday will include single movements from two Beethoven sonatas—“The Hunt” and “Moonlight”—and a complete performance of his Sonata in E-flat Major, “Les Adieux.” The bulk of the program comprises the newly-commissioned works, by composers from Indonesia, Ghana, the Philippines, Iran, Syria, and Jordan. Only the piece from Indonesia has been performed publicly before; the rest will receive their world premieres at Strathmore.
The 32 composers Weiss commissioned all come from very different backgrounds, but each hail from a country where conflict and instability create challenges for artists. “There are countries of conflict that were very important for me to include in the project, and sometimes those are places that we normally have very little contact with,” explains Weiss. When it came to finding composers, and asking them to participate, “there are endless research tools available online today and these often helped point me in the right direction. But not everything can be done electronically, and on one occasion I ended up taking a long plane trip halfway across the world to meet and listen to musicians in a remote location.”
Each of the new pieces responds in some way to the Beethoven sonata it is paired with, either through a direct musical quotation, a more abstract rumination on the sonata’s theme, or anything else that resonates with that composer. The composer from Ghana, George Mensah Essilfie, saw a connection between the unique opening rhythm of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 16 in G Major and traditional African rhythms; he used this rhythmic connection as the inspiration for his new work, “Hope for the Shackled.”
All of the new pieces also incorporate another Beethoven motif, a short group of notes drawn from the composer’s monumental 1824 work Missa Solemnis, which Weiss selected due to Beethoven’s inscription directly above the notes: “A Call for Inward and Outward Peace.” For Weiss, Beethoven’s life and music lend themselves naturally to a project so explicitly devoted to promoting unity and peace.
“Beethoven himself lived during a troubled time of transition and manifested in his own life and work a deep belief in liberty and equality, and especially in the creative power of the independent artist to free our minds,” Weiss says. “I have always been in awe of Beethoven’s ability to explore the biggest questions and uncover human commonalities through music. As this project took shape in my mind, I thought it would be meaningful to connect Beethoven’s works of incredible innovation and passion with our own time of transition.”
Other than responding to their selected Beethoven sonata and incorporating the “peace motif” from Missa Solemnis, Weiss purposely did not give the composers much direction as they wrote their pieces. “I offer general rather than specific guidelines, because I really want to leave the creative doors as wide open as possible, and I’m aiming for range and variety among the 32 new works,” she explains. “I encourage composers to write music reflecting their own cultures, and to think of their piece as a way to help start conversations about things happening in the world today.”
As a result of this guideline, many of the composers chose to dedicate their works to an issue or cause specific to their country. Malek Jandali of Syria titled his work “The Hunt for Peace,” dedicated to the Syrian children and their noble quest for peace, while Sidney Marquez Boquiren of the Philippines dedicated his work “Unheard Voices” to “the victims of vigilante violence and extra-judicial killings happening in the Philippines, victims whose voices have indeed been tragically unheard.”
“I have been amazed by unexpected events that have come about as a result of my project,” Weiss remarks. “For example, Amnesty International held a press conference in Indonesia prior to my world premiere performance of the Indonesian work dedicated to Ahok, the imprisoned ex-governor of Jakarta.” In a truly serendipitous turn of events, it was recently announced that Ahok will be released from prison on January 24—the same day as the premiere performance of 32 Bright Clouds.
“This has been a fascinating journey for me so far and has included some wonderful and unexpected experiences,” Weiss says. “Each composer joining the project sheds new light on Beethoven through her or his unique approach, especially the different ways in which the composers work with the idea of peace in their compositions.”
Yael Weiss gives the first-ever performance of her new project 32 Bright Clouds: Beethoven Conversations Around the World on Thursday, January 24, 2019, at 7:30 pm at the Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, in North Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call 301-581-5100 or go online.