Beethoven's piano trios and sonatas are a doorway to appreciation

| Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 6:20 p.m.

With certain composers, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Johann Sebastian Bach, the first piece you love can be a doorway to a world filled with masterpieces. No matter which symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven was the first to grab you, the others are wonderful in different ways. And then there are his dozens of string quartets, sonatas and other chamber music pieces, which are comparably rewarding and memorable.

Pianist David Allen Wehr began his contributions to local concert life with an outstanding survey of all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas more than a decade ago at Duquesne University. Since then, he's explored a vast range of piano and chamber music repertoire focused on other composers worthy of full-season attention, such as Johannes Brahms, or on other themes, such as French or Hungarian music.

Wehr begins another two-year concert series, this one devoted to Beethoven's piano trios and violin and cello sonatas, on Sept. 22 at PNC Recital Hall at Duquesne University, Uptown. The first program is the Piano Trios, Op. 70, which includes the “Ghost Trio,” and the Septet for winds and strings.

“Beethoven on the Bluff” will feature the debut of the Duquesne Piano Trio, with violinist Charles Stegeman and cellist Adam Liu joining Wehr. Stegeman is chair of strings at Duquesne as well as concertmaster of Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra. Liu is assistant principal cello of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

“My first impulse was to have a dedicated trio to do all the Beethoven trios, which hasn't been done in Pittsburgh since I've been here,” Wehr says. “We're familiar with the named trios, the ‘Archduke' and the ‘Ghost,' but there are others that are fascinating masterpieces. Some of Beethoven's chamber-music writing points directly to Brahms, who also used chamber music as a workshop for ideas he would later use in symphonies and more-public music.”

The opening concert will conclude with Beethoven's “Septet,” an instant hit whose great popularity irked the composer because he felt it overshadowed other pieces he knew to be great. Nevertheless, the Septet's energy, charm and inventiveness are irresistible and directly inspired another masterpiece, Franz Schubert's “Octet.”

“Part of the great gifts of living in Pittsburgh is this great pool of Pittsburgh Symphony players, who are the best,” Wehr says. “The Septet is something for our wonderful woodwind faculty to do in this series. And there's no way I could have this series without Jeff Turner.”

Turner is the symphony's principal bass and also is director of orchestral studies at Duquesne.

Other symphony principal players will join Wehr later in the first season. Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, who played a recital with Wehr for Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society in March, will play all of Beethoven's violin sonatas with Wehr starting in January.

Symphony principal cellist Anne Martindale Williams will join Wehr in January for their second time through the cello sonatas. They played them together in 2004, when Stegeman played the violin sonatas with Wehr.

“One of the impulses for this series was Annie asking if we could do the cello sonatas again,” Wehr says. “How could I answer anything other than yes?”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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