Athenaeum hosts Beethoven memorial marathon Monday

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

Beginning at 7 p.m. on March 26, the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library at 1008 Wall St., will host a marathon that’s not just another race-to-the-finish. It’s a tour-de-force concert by two gifted musicians performing all 10 of Beethoven’s sonatas for violin and piano on the 185th anniversary of his death. And violinist Victoria Martino and pianist James Lent have been training like athletes for this very special event.

Not that they’re strangers to marathons. Their first experience, in 2006, was a Mozart Marathon (26 sonatas, eight hours) on the composer’s 250th birthday. Four years later, on Schumann’s 200th birthday, they did a Schumann Marathon, and a pair of marathons (on baroque violin and organ) to celebrate the 325th birthday of J.S. Bach.

The Beethoven memorial marathon will run a mere 3-1/2 hours, less than half the playing time of the Mozart, but Martino calls it their most ambitious project yet. “It’s like climbing Mt. Everest,” she said. “It makes the Mozart seem like a breeze.“

According to Martino, Beethoven is technically, musically, and intellectually more demanding than Mozart. “With Mozart, you’re swept along on some ethereal plane,” she said. “Even after eight hours, we’re so invigorated, we think we could do the whole thing again. But Beethoven expresses the full panoply of human emotions, and there isn’t one note where he doesn’t indicate exactly how he wants it played.”

Martino, who was raised in La Jolla, has had a long and varied career on three continents. She has been playing with Lent, who has a doctorate in performance from Yale, for seven years now, and calls him one of the most sought-after collaborative pianists in Southern California.

Not many musicians, she says, could handle a musical marathon. “It’s really a spiritual experience, a full immersion into the mind of a genius,” she said. “As a performer, I basically try to be completely transparent, and give the composer a chance to communicate directly with the audience.”

Beethoven, a fine violinist as well as a pianist, dedicated the first three sonatas to Antonio Salieri, known to most of us from the film “Amadeus.” Salieri was one of Beethoven’s classical mentors, who included Haydn, and Mozart himself.

“These 10 sonatas are an overview of Beethoven’s development as a composer,” said Martino. “They give you the best of all possible worlds.”

Besides being a Beethoven memorial, the concert is a memorial to Martino’s father, Jim Phelan, her greatest and most personal musical influence, who died last June. It’s also a memorial to several friends Martino has lost in the past few months.

“Working with Beethoven is a constant reminder of the indomitability of the human spirit,” she said. “There was so much suffering in his life, and he put it all into his music. But there’s always hope too, and the last sonata ends with a burst of unconquerable joy.”

Tickets $30-$35 at (858) 454-5872.