Vermont musicians who know Montpelier pianist Michael Arnowitt — and most do — never fail to comment on his imaginative programming. Since he moved to Vermont in 1983, Arnowitt has devised and performed a concert of pieces written in the year 1911, one of works about water and another with an animal theme. He has designed a program paired with the foods that inspired each composer, and one that accompanied the live creation of a painting onstage. As a jazz pianist — an interest Arnowitt took on a decade ago — he has done concerts incorporating the work of poets from Langston Hughes to Vermont's own David Budbill.
Perhaps none of these programs, however, approaches the challenge and profundity of his next concert, sponsored by Capital City Concerts. In the Unitarian Church of Montpelier on Sunday, February 8, Arnowitt, 52, will play Beethoven's last three piano sonatas in a concert he envisioned 26 years ago. That's when he decided not just to play all 32 of the sonatas in eight concerts, but to perform each concert only when he reached the age at which Beethoven had composed the pieces. Arnowitt has called the project "a study in the psychology of aging."
Beethoven wrote his 30th, 31st and 32nd concertos over two years, completing the final one at age 52, five years before his death. Like many musicians, Arnowitt deems these three works, along with Beethoven's last five string quartets, "the pinnacle" of classical music.
"I joke with my friends that, while I gave myself 26 extra years [to master the three sonatas], I'm not sure that helped me," Arnowitt says wryly by phone from his home. "But it did strike me as useful to wait to tackle the really spiritual pieces."
Shelburne pianist Paul Orgel notes that it's not unusual these days for pianists young and old to both perform and record all 32 sonatas, and plenty have performed the final three in a single evening. But, he adds, it "is always a special event because pianists feel great reverence toward each of the three last sonatas, and interpreting them is a profound, inexhaustible process."
In Arnowitt's interpretation, the three sonatas form an arc: a "journey" from life to death to the afterlife. The first, in E major, "has these birdlike motions — an airy, winged aspect. It has this lift," he explains. For Arnowitt, this life-affirming sonata's first movement has special meaning. Last summer, he played it for his dying father, who had a lifelong love of Beethoven. "He opened his eyes and was conscious of it," Arnowitt recalls. "It was the last time I got to play for him."
"The second sonata [in A-flat major] has a trauma going on," the pianist continues. "One passage is marked 'Wailing Song,' which is pretty unusual for a composer. It comes back twice, and on the second time [Beethoven] even excises notes, as if the heart is failing.
"The third sonata [in C minor] has these very ethereal moments ... If you haven't heard these pieces before, they should be on your bucket list."
For Arnowitt, only Sonata No. 31 is entirely new; he last performed the 30th 10 years ago and the 32nd as a high school student attending the Juilliard School. But even relearning music is an entirely different experience for him now than it was, say, when he was preparing for his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at age 12.
Arnowitt has a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which gradually narrows one's peripheral vision and renders the remaining sight blurry and dim. To learn a piece, he uses a magnifying device that projects a fraction of the score onto a screen beside his piano. Arnowitt can discern at most two magnified measures of music at a time. To perform a concert, he has to memorize all the works on the program.
Despite Arnowitt's diminishing vision, supporters and friends who have attended his previous seven Beethoven sonata concerts identify a definite evolution in his playing. Sandy Morningstar, 78, of Duxbury, was one of a group of friends at a party that Arnowitt held at his home in the early 1980s. She heard the pianist casually play and urged him to start giving professional concerts.
Since then, in Morningstar's opinion, Arnowitt's development as a pianist has been "considerable," and "losing his sight may have something to do with why his music gets better."
Annegret Pollard, 77, of Walden, first heard Arnowitt in concert 25 years ago. Recently, she gave a house concert to help him raise funds for his 50th birthday concert, for which he hired and played with 30 other musicians. In between, she has attended nearly all of Arnowitt's concerts. Pollard recalls that his early playing mimicked the lean sensibility of Glenn Gould, who attempted to strip his interpretations of bravado and avoided using the pedal.
"[Arnowitt] has come into his own now," Pollard says. "Michael is a wonderful interpreter who can sort out the subtleties. He can be very dramatic, but he does not add unwarranted drama."
To his own ears, Arnowitt's playing has "more dimensions" now. "I've learned how to get more rounded, curved shapes out of the piano," he explains. "When I was younger, I was more about the energetic, lively gestures. I've added more of the inner aspect." In that, he parallels Beethoven's compositional approach: The early sonatas are "rambunctious," he says, and the composer "wrote more [of them] faster when he was younger. The late ones are multilayered — beautiful."
Karen Kevra, the flutist who founded and directs Capital City Concerts, recalls when Arnowitt first announced his Beethoven sonata project. "I was a little incredulous," she admits. "I mean, he was twentysomething!" He has since proved himself "a world-class pianist" who is "beloved by our audience," Kevra says.
Asked if ending the Beethoven project is bittersweet, Arnowitt says calmly, "No. There's so much music I want to learn. And sometimes the ephemerality of a project can be nice, too. That's what all concerts are, really."
The original print version of this article was headlined "For Pianist Michael Arnowitt, Beethoven's Last Three Sonatas Mark End of a 26-Year Project"