Mari Kodama and Kent Nagano
Mari Kodama directs the festival and Kent Nagano is Artistic Advisor | Credit: Yen Bachmeier

Osaka-born, Paris-educated Mari Kodama, 54, and California-born and raised Kent Nagano, 69, have been girding the globe, but they have always maintained residence in San Francisco.

Pianist Kodama and conductor Nagano have lived in Lyon, Berlin, Quebec, Munich, and Hamburg, among other places where Nagano led orchestras and opera companies, but they also remained San Franciscan residents.

And now, they bring a unique music festival to their hometown, Nagano as artistic advisor, Kodama — a Steinway artist and acclaimed Beethoven interpreter — as artistic director and participant.

The event they have long planned, but had to postpone during the pandemic, is a festival of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, performed in four concerts over two days by 17 pianists at SFJAZZ’s Miner Auditorium.

SFJAZZ is the venue for “A Portrait of Beethoven”

Kodama told SF Classical Voice:

“One evening over dinner, I was discussing with Kent my wish to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday in San Francisco with the Musical Days Productions team. He suggested the idea of performing 32 piano sonatas, beginning at 9 a.m. and finishing at midnight. When we shared the idea with our friends and founding members of Musical Days Productions, it was received enthusiastically.

“Due to the pandemic, the project was postponed to 2021 and changed to a two-day event to ensure safety for our guests and performers.”

The original project was “A Day in the Life of Beethoven,” but now it’s “A Portrait of Beethoven,” as SFJAZZ requires three hours between concerts to UV-clean the venue. These concerts also require from the audience vaccine documentation and masks are to be worn throughout the event; the auditorium is limited to 50 percent of its 370-seat capacity. Kodama continues:

“In curating the lineup of performers, I wanted to be sure to include pianists from all generations whom I admire for their interpretation of Beethoven. With Kent as artistic advisor, we have invited some young promising pianists from the Bay Area: Alexander Fang and Gloriana Wolf are representing the Conservatory, Olivia Pham the Pre-College, and Cameron Akioka as a winner of the Beethoven Competition in San Jose.

“Additionally, we are fortunate to have wonderful concert pianists residing in the Bay Area; Stephen Prutsman, Nicholas Matthew, Shunsuke Kurakata, and Markus Pawlik will join. I also invited some winners of international competitions I judged: Daniel Hsu, prizewinner of the Van Cliburn Competition and Kenneth Broberg, prizewinner of the Van Cliburn and Tchaikovsky Competitions.

“Performers also include colleagues from the East Coast that I admire enormously: Adam Golka, Miri Yampolsky, and Xak Bjerken. Richard Raymond will join from Canada. And finally, we are fortunate to have Momo Kodama from Japan and the master for this cycle, Stephen Kovacevich, originally from Berkeley.”

Kodama has not only recorded the sonatas, but also an unusual collection of six — not the customary five — Beethoven Piano Concertos, including “Number Nought” (WoO 4), edited by Kodama from the autograph score.

Mari Kodama
Mari Kodama | Credit: Yen Bachmeier

She says of the event:

“The 32 sonatas marathon is a testament to the piano’s development and the possibilities of the instrument. You can hear that development when you hear them one after the other. Beethoven never repeats himself in all 32 of the sonatas. So, I wanted to do this with the help of my colleagues, because I cannot play 15 hours of sonatas on my own.

“There will be 17 pianists, ranging in age from [young students] to 81 years old (Stephen Kovacevich, with Op. 109 in E Major and Op. 110 in A-flat Major).”

Stephen Kovacevich recording
Stephen Kovacevich will turn 81 a week after the SFJAZZ concert

Kovacevich said: “When I was an adolescent, I thought Beethoven was boring. Boring, loud, and crude. Until I heard the recording that Rudolf Serkin made of the Diabelli Variations. I was blown away and that piece of late Beethoven changed me.”

Kodama, Nagano, and a small group of friends maintained a semi-private music organization, Musical Days in Forest Hill, for 10 seasons over 15 years, giving chamber-music concerts at first by invitation only, then for a small audience.

Each festival offered four concerts plus a concert for children, starting with four musicians from Vienna in 2003. Among the artists were some well-known names such as Augustin Dumay, Cho-Liang Lin, Matt Haimovitz, Johannes Dengler, Anne Queffélec, and Clara Bellegarde.

With the rules in the Forest Hill Clubhouse changing, the group lost its venue, and disbanded in 2017, but Kodama went on to organize a festival in Postignano, in the hills of Umbria. Now, with the pandemic under tentative control, the newly renamed Musical Days Productions — still consisting of volunteers only — is giving its first large-scale public presentation with the Beethoven sonata marathon.

Pending on COVID developments, vagaries of visa and travel conditions, this is the lineup:

Concert One — Saturday, Oct. 9: 1 p.m. – 4 p.m.

Gloriana Wolf: Op. 2 No. 1 in F Minor
Markus Pawlik: Op. 2 No. 2 in A Major

Adam Golka: Op. 2 No. 3 in C Major
Stephen Prutsman: Op. 7 in E-flat Major, (“Grand Sonata”)
Markus Pawlik: Op. 10 No. 1 in C Minor

Alexander Fang: Op. 10 No. 2 in F Major
Adam Golka: Op. 10 No. 3 in D Major

Concert Two — Saturday, Oct. 9: 7 p.m. – 10 p.m.

Kenny Broberg: Op. 13 in C Minor. (“Pathétique”)
Nicholas Mathew: Op. 14 No. 1 in E Major
Shunsuke Kurakata: Op. 14 No. 2 in G Major

Daniel Hsu: Op. 22 in B-flat Major
Adam Golka: Op. 26 in A-flat Major (“Funeral March”)
Richard Raymond: Op. 27 No. 1 in E-flat Major “Sonata quasi una fantasia”
Mari Kodama: Op. 27 No. 2 in C-sharp Minor “Sonata quasi una fantasia,” (“Moonlight”)

Xak Bjerken: Op. 28 in D Major, (“Pastoral”)

Concert Three — Sunday, Oct. 10: 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Cameron Akioka: Op. 31 No. 1 in G Major
Miri Yampolsky: Op. 31 No. 2 in D Minor, (“Tempest”)
Kenny Broberg: Op. 31 No. 3 in E-flat Major (“The Hunt”)
Olivia Pham: Op. 49 No. 1 in G Minor
Mari Kodama: Op. 49 No. 2 in G Major
Daniel Hsu: Op. 53 in C Major, (“Waldstein”)

Markus Pawlik: Op. 54 in F Major
Richard Raymond: Op. 57 in F Minor, (“Appassionata”)

Concert Four — Sunday, Oct. 10: 4 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Momo Kodama: Op. 78 in F-sharp Major, (“A Thérèse”)
Richard Raymond: Op. 79 in G Major, (“Cuckoo”)
Kenny Broberg: Op. 81a in E-flat Major, (“Les adieux/Das Lebewohl”)
Nicholas Mathew: Op. 90 in E Minor
Markus Pawlik: Op. 101 in A Major
Mari Kodama: Op. 106 in B-flat Major, (“Hammerklavier”)
Stephen Kovacevich: Op. 109 in E Major
Stephen Kovacevich: Op. 110 in A-flat Major
Richard Raymond: Op. 111 in C Minor

In an interview with Piano Magazine, Kodama talked about Beethoven’s role in the development of the piano:

“Because he lived during the Age of Enlightenment, he believed in the advancement of technology. He thought that each person should always be progressing in life and look for something new to develop. So, he was responsible for many of the advancements of the piano.

“He heard more possibility on the keyboard than what was available at the time. Together with piano builders, he developed the keyboard towards the version we have today. When we study his piano sonatas, he clearly uses the full capacity of the newly developed instrument for him by using the entire keyboard from the lowest to the highest note.

“When I was growing up, Beethoven still had this image of a very academic, complicated, and boring man, very serious and masculine. Of course, many of those notions have changed with all of the studies happening today by researchers. I’ve always felt as a child that Beethoven had something very warm in his music. His music always touched me. [Alfred] Brendel taught me that Beethoven had a great sense of humor, even when he was suffering.”

Correction: The article, as originally published, misstated that SFJAZZ would admit audience members on the basis of a negative COVID-19 test. Actually, the venue only accepts proof of vaccine.

Update (Oct. 1): Pianist Xinran Shi, who was originally scheduled for the event, is no longer able to perform. The article has been updated to reflect this.