Review: Stewart Goodyear Inspires Euphoria From the Piano

While driving in central Wisconsin one winter night several years ago, I tuned in to Symphony Hall, the classical radio station on Sirius/XM and was blown away by an incredible performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata piano sonata. Upon reaching my destination, I stayed in the car several minutes to hear the conclusion and to discover that the performer was Canadian composer and pianist Stewart Goodyear.

Fast forward to this past Wednesday night at Galvin Hall in Evanston. Goodyear performed this work, three other Beethoven works, and two of his own compositions as part of the Gateway Festival. Now in its 30th year, this festival celebrates musicians and composers of African descent. In association with the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York, the festival is hosting several concerts in the Chicago area this week, including at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music and at Symphony Center downtown.

Stewart Goodyear has become a Beethoven specialist. This young phenom has made excellent recordings of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. He has even performed them all live in a single day—an act requiring incredible endurance. He has recorded Beethoven’s five piano concertos and the Diabelli Variations.

Piano sonatas played a major role in Beethoven’s career, and he wrote them throughout his life. They encapsulate the changes he introduced to the fabric of classical music. In these and other works, Beethoven vastly expanded the length, range of feelings that could be expressed, and a level of difficulty both to performers and audiences. When these works were first performed around 1801-1805, audiences had never before heard music of such emotion, power, and depth.

Stewart Goodyear. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2024.

In performance, Goodyear presents multi-movement works as a whole, not simply separate movements played together. With a bald head and shoulders slouched over the keyboard, his youthful, angelic facial features and profile make him a riveting stage presence.

These attributes were evident from the first work he played, Piano Sonata No. 17 in d-minor, Op. 31 No.2, “The Tempest,” a name the sonata acquired when Beethoven referred to Shakespeare’s play when asked about this piece. Like the play, it has stormy moments mixed with quiet reflection.

The Opening movement starts with gentle arpeggios at a slow Largo pace, interrupted by flashes of Allegro agitation. The agitation takes over, and arpeggios are part of the main theme. The second movement also starts with arpeggios, but the slower Adagio pace is maintained throughout the movement. This sonata has other features that give it a unified feeling, which Goodyear brought out.

Stewart Goodyear © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2024.

The finale is a quicker Allegretto where Beethoven uses the fateful, four-note rhythmic motif that he used in many other places, most famously in the Fifth Symphony and, later in Wednesday’s program, the Appassionata sonata. Goodyear’s performance wasn’t perfect. He seemed to get ahead of himself, and his hands stumbled a couple of times in the finale. In this performance, however, those mistakes were drowned out in the over all affect.

Unity was especially appropriate for the work that completed the first half, Sonata No. 14 in c-sharp-minor, Op. 27 No. 2, “Moonlight.” Beethoven labeled the two works that make up this opus Sonata quasi una Fantasia, and Goodyear’s performance called out the fantasy loud and clear.

He performed the dreamy Adagio opening movement, where the sonata got its “Moonlight” name, with a warm touch and careful phrasing. He gave a gentle, restrained, approach to the faster Allegretto movement that follows. Finally, he unleashed everything in the rapid, Presto agitato finale. Adding to the intensity was the incredibly fast tempo, which required more than just nimble fingers. Again, he wasn’t perfect, but I’ve never heard this sonata played any better. It left the audience with feelings of total euphoria, and motivated a standing ovation after the first half.

Separating the Beethoven sonatas was Goodyear’s own Rhapsody. It starts with delicate, charming phrases at the treble end of the keyboard. The pace quickens when the full keyboard is in use. It was a very enjoyable piece with interesting intonation that Goodyear played well.

The concert’s second half started with another Goodyear composition, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, which he described in the notes as a “virtuosic piano composition.” That it is. Adding his intensity to the mix, he made it exhilarating.

As a great contrast, Goodyear next played Beethoven’s Andante favori, a charming set of variations originally intended for the Waldstein Sonata. It gave Goodyear a chance to show off his airy but firm touch from start to finish in a single work.

And then…. the performance I’ve been waiting many years to experience: Stewart Goodyear playing Beethoven’s Appassionata, Piano Sonata No. 23 in f-minor, Op. 57. It did not disappoint. It’s hard to imagine anyone finding a way to add passion to Appassionata, but he did it. From the opening arpeggios and Beethoven’s four-note motif, all the way to the ending runs that span the entire keyboard from top to bottom, and then back to top, his performance was from another world.

He gave the second movement variations a sense of reflection, but then let loose for the finale. It was unbelievable how fast he played it. At the very end, where Beethoven requests even more speed, Goodyear still had more to give. There were some lapses. Occasionally the chords he banged with the left hand were too loud for the melody he played in the right, but it did not matter. It was exhilarating, a concert experience I live for.

After several rousing ovations, for an encore Goodyear turned to the slow movement of another of Beethoven’s great sonatas, No. 8 in c-minor, Op 13, Pathetique. Perfect.

Today the Gateway Festival shifts from Northwestern’s Bienen School to Symphony Center, where the Gateway Festival Orchestra and Take 6 perform an interesting program of Black composers and Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Friday, April 19, 7:30. For more information, click here.

Stewart Goodyear will be appearing this summer with Giancarlo Guerrero conducting the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra for performances of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. Friday, July 12 at 6:30pm, and Saturday, July 13, at 7:30. Click here for more info.

Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music offers daily opportunities to hear live music. For a full list, click here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.