Saturday, October 11, 2014

Heroic Beethoven: Starting a New Season

The Harrisburg Symphony's new 2014-2015 Season begins soon with a program called "Heroic Beethoven" and features Stuart Malina conducting the orchestra in two works by - no surprise - Beethoven.

Pianist Alon Goldstein will be the soloist for the 4th Piano Concerto and the second half of the program is the Eroica Symphony, the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat.

The concert will open the newly renovated Forum on Saturday, October 18th at 8pm and Sunday, October 19th at 3pm. Truman Bullard offers the pre-concert talks an hour before each program.

And you can come to walk around the newly renovated Forum - it's "Opening Night" in more ways than one - and look at the newly cleaned and refurbished maps that line the back wall of the promenade, paying special attention to those maps detailing the Napoleonic Era, when Beethoven composed this music.

Here is Alon Goldstein playing the slow movement of Mozart's A Major Piano Concerto, K.488, with the Bucharest Philharmponic conducted by Christian Mandeal:
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Some years ago, I heard a radio announcer (no one I knew) say, “Beethoven is one of the few composers you could make an All-Beethoven program with” – and while that may seem obvious, I think what he meant was that there's enough variety in Beethoven's music, you can create an interesting, varied program of great music all by just one composer. And that's not something you can do with every composer.

Though it's easy to be overwhelmed by it, too – too much of a good (or great) thing, perhaps. So usually programmers balance their concerts by selecting from the three basic food-groups: Early-, Middle- and Late-Beethoven.

Stylistically, you've got the very “classical lines” and leaner textures of Early Beethoven, still emerging from the shadow of his teacher, Haydn; the larger emotions and epic proportions of Middle Beethoven, the “Romantic Beethoven,” say; or the more internal, more spiritual explorations of Late Beethoven, particularly in the late Sonatas and Quartets, which never seem to have been duplicated since.

And then there's “Heroic Beethoven,” the hero striding across the landscape of history, larger than life, with an intensity that can be shattering to us mere mortals, the Beethoven of myth and magic – in short, a composer comparable to today's comic book action heroes out to save the universe from evil.

And yet this music – and the myths we associate with it – came from somewhere more normal. The fact that it transcends normality is what gave birth to the myths that surround it – (insert deep and deeply awed announcer's voice, here) – the suffering, misunderstood artist, the loner, the genius – the composer who went deaf. The one who must be approached with reverence and... well, awe.

What is it about Beethoven – more to the point, his music – that affects us like this over 200 years later? And for over 200 years, that's something people have been asking, something every composer since then has been dealing with (or ignoring). It's that idea of a “giant treading behind you,” the way Brahms felt his legacy.

I'm not sure the Harrisburg Symphony's opening concert of the new season will answer that and that's only because there is no answer, at least one that would satisfy the whole audience. It's the same thing, for many people, one can feel after an exceptional performance of Shakespeare: how could any man create something like that? And why has it rarely, if ever, been equaled since...?

Beethoven's 3rd Symphony has always been known as “The Eroica” and it would seem obvious once you've heard it. The Hero – Napoleon Bonaparte, specifically – that inspired the music may be less important to it than the idea of a hero.

Certainly, Beethoven's Eroica is a ground-breaking work of immense proportions, compared to what people were expecting when he wrote it in 1803, but it is more than a depiction of a historically significant person (and a perception that radically changed from the time Beethoven began it to the time the audience first heard it two years later). And part of the impact of this piece (calling it a “piece” sounds so trivial...) can be heard in the 4th Piano Concerto that opens the concert – and which he began not long after he'd completed the Eroica.

Music, somehow, was going to be different, now.

The soloist in this video – courtesy of last year's BBC Proms and the YouBiquitous YouTube – perhaps will give you an idea of the artist's responsibility in dealing with a work like this, what it “means” to play it, interpret it, take it from the written page to the sounds you hear. It is not a challenge to be taken lightly, tossed off to dazzle the audience with your virtuosity. In fact, if anything, this is about as “un-virtuosic” a piece as there is in the concerto repertoire – in terms of its show-casing a player's technique – but that doesn't mean it's easy to play.

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Mitsuko Uchida, pianist, with Mariss Jansons & the Bavarian Radio Symphony (BBC Proms, 2013)

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Basically, the concept of this concerto grew out of the tradition of those Viennese concertos which Mozart composed in the 1780s – Beethoven played a number of this, particularly the D Minor concerto, K.466, which Stuart Malina will perform with the orchestra here in January – but it has little to do with the concertos that were being written in Vienna after 1800, most of which we never hear any more. And the 19th Century concerto which primarily became vehicles for virtuosic display (think Liszt or Chopin if you're not familiar with those by Hummel, who studied with Mozart, or Kalkbrenner and Moscheles).

It's interesting to realize, also, that for all we think about The Great Beethoven, this concerto was not well-received at its premiere (the length of the concert – 4 hours! – the fact it had been under-rehearsed and not to mention the concert hall was under-heated as well all may have had something to do with the audience's reaction) and fell into oblivion until it was brought into the repertoire by a young pianist named Felix Mendlessohn in 1836, nine years after Beethoven died.

But it varies little from its models, a tradition Beethoven inherited not from his teacher, Haydn, who never quite produced concertos comparable to those symphonies, but from his idol, Mozart. However, it was more subtle than flashy (even by contemporary standards) and more lyrical than dramatic (even with the brief slow movement's dialogue which later critics likened to Orpheus taming the wild beasts). While it's not necessarily more symphonic in the role of soloist and orchestra, it was a direct model for Brahms, especially in his 2nd Piano Concerto, who spent most of his life listening to the tramp of this giant behind him.

Beethoven had his fans and he certainly had his detractors. Most of the audience, then, supporters and otherwise, probably didn't "get" what it is we feel about Beethoven today. It's not like Beethoven wrote a new piece and every other composer went and did likewise. It took a while for his innovations to become part of the musical landscape. It's just that we don't know much about all the other composers who lived and worked during Beethoven's lifetime or even the generation that followed his death. Except for the last few years of Schubert's life, the Marvel Comics version of Classical Music tends to jump right from Mozart (who died in 1791) and Haydn (whose last symphonies were written in 1795) to Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner and Brahms, whose careers all began between the 1830s and the 1850s.

It's a bit sobering to think that, while Mendelssohn was 16 when he composed his Octet in 1825, two years before Beethoven died, Brahms' 1st Symphony (dubbed "Beethoven's 10th") wasn't finished until 1876.

So it's interesting to follow the 4th Piano Concerto with something considered one of the greatest symphonies of all times – different enough to create its own variety despite the fact Beethoven composed the concerto in 1805 after completing this symphony the year before. Even the opus numbers – indicating when the works were published, not necessarily when they were composed – are close: preceded by the Waldstein Sonata, the Eroica Symphony is Op. 55, the Concerto, Op. 58. In between come the “Triple Concerto” (for piano trio and orchestra) and the Appassionata Sonata, followed by the three Razumovsky Quartets, the 4th Symphony and the Violin Concerto, all composed between 1803 and 1806.

I'll get more into the question “Where did that come from?” in the next post, but here's a performance also from the BBC Proms (2012, here) with an orchestra created by Daniel Barenboim with young musicians from the Middle East including Israel, Egypt, Palestine and Iran, among others. I chose this particular clip as much for the performance (even the context of the performers) as for the interview segment that precedes it.

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The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim (BBC Proms, 2012) (with interviews beforehand)

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If you're interested in finding out more about the world behind this music, check back for subsequent posts, including one featuring yet another BBC effort, a 2003 film called Eroica which is about the day Beethoven's new symphony was first heard.

Though I can't embed it here, you can also check out Michael Tilson Thomas' highly recommended “Keeping Score” episode from PBS with Beethoven's Third Symphony, here.

Here's a promo:

As they say, “stay tuned”...

- Dick Strawser

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