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It takes no time to be who you are, but it takes time to be misguided. And as the music started and lights dimmed at 8 p.m. at the Mondavi Center Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, to an almost sold-out audience, a sense of time disappeared.

World-famous pianist Emanuel Ax tapped lightly on the ivory keys of the antique piano in front of him, made in Vienna circa 1700 AD, while musicians playing replicas or authentic instruments of the same time period sat behind him. The

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Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra played Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4, using only the instruments of that period.

“Baroque is the period in which the music was written and played on the instruments of that time,” explains conductor Nicholas McGegan.
Before the performance, McGegan spoke to patrons about the concert, saying, “You will be watching Emanuel Ax play on a Baroque piano, made in Vienna … It is similar to an actual piano Beethoven would have played.”

McGegan, during the lecture, set up promises and expectations for his audience. “Modern orchestras play at a higher pitch,” he said. “The tone of our Baroque symphony will be lower in pitch; this is because the instruments are all wood … they would become firewood otherwise.”

The explanation helped, because when the orchestra opened and the sound of the piano’s “tink” hit audience members’ ears, it set up anticipation for more, and even a sense of “What will come next?” Will there a startling bang from the

 timpani or a rocketing spike in tone from the violins?

But as promised, the music stayed soft, gently drawing patrons’ ears toward the stage. The slight pop on the piano, whip on the oboe and flicker of the clarinet pushed and pulled the audience members in their seats. The heavy volume of big accompaniments was subdued.

Apparently even outside of Jackson Hall in the concession area, manager of food and beverage services at the Mondavi Center Marissa Tidrick said, “I could feel the ebb and flow of the concert from out here … the acoustics are really good.”

Other patrons who sat inside the theater at orchestra level, including patron Gary Matteson, said, “The piano was too soft.”

Allison Lukanich said, “The seating was really tight; my back started to burn and it distracted me from the music a good part of the night.” Another problem was entirely due to staging; because of the way the piano sat on the stage, only the left side of the auditorium could see Ax’s hands or fingers titillate the piano keys. The right side was left out of this visual experience.

Despite some minor irritations for some in the audience, McGegan’s end product was delivered and appreciated. Martha Dickman, a resident of Davis since 1970, who regularly gives tours of the Mondavi Center, says, “’Piano’ means soft,” and points to the word “FortePiano” in the program guide, “And ‘Forte’ means ‘plucked.’”

The softer sound meant the ears had to be more patient, which caused a certain amount of anticipation. There wasn’t much pounding on the bassoon. Instead, the musician brushed across the top with authentic sticks, all of which kept the symphony light and even, exactly as McGegan had explained it in the preshow lecture, “Beethoven sometimes used a single instrument to bump up the base.”

Nonetheless, the musicians’ command of their instruments was apparent as they followed McGegan’s lead precisely; timing, pace and a small amount of banter between the instruments seemed to amuse the audience.

“When I watch a performance I marvel at the expertise, talent and the display of perfection,” says Mort Schwarts, 90, and patron of Mondavi Center for the past 25 years. “The Mondavi Center has some of the finest acoustics, and I feel energized when I leave here.”

Other patrons came to see Emanuel Ax again. “I saw him perform 10 years ago in New York,” said Kaveh Barami, 47, who came to the Mondavi Center with his 13-year-old son, Khalid. “I hope to be blown away by tonights performance.”

Indeed, many were blown away by the performance as they gave a standing ovation to the

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Orchestra, conductor McGegan and solo pianist Ax.

And even if the soft sound of the baroque orchestra or the cramped seating was distracting, the experience left many supporters smiling. “I felt like I could see the dancing in my head,” said Peggy Egli of Davis. “I found that I got carried away with the rhythm and the melody.”


Editor’s Note: The second and fifteenth paragraphs of this article have been amended.  Please note that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is not affiliated with Western Health Advantage.  Western Health Advantage only sponsored this particular event. 

The fifth paragraph has been edited per the author’s request to reflect the correct instrument.