When asked who he thought was the greatest living composer, Leonard Bernstein replied, “Beethoven!”
Having spent three full weeks traversing the nine symphonies, I can only come to the same conclusion. Of course there were weeks, months and a lifetime of study leading up to these performances. Thoughts and ideas changed and a feeling of being overwhelmed permeated my being.
This is the third time I have done the cycle in a condensed period of time. For the most part, I do not like concerts of just one composer, and this kind of programing does not feature very often in my calendar. Considering that the two weeks prior had been devoted to Ravel, this two-composer immersion went against all my thinking. But now that it has been done, I have changed my mind.
We all know that context is everything. One of the most significant aspects of the Beethoven project was to realize how differently the symphonies are considered when focusing exclusively on them. For example, my usual approach to the “Eroica” has been to achieve nobility in the first movement. Taken together with the first two and then the fourth symphony, that perspective caused me to lighten the textures. This applied to tempo as well as sound.
But let’s start at the top.
Two years ago, the DSO was supposed to have done this cycle during the same February time period. The crippling strike caused the project to be postponed. It never entered my thoughts to try it in the ensuing season, as we had too much to put back together and were not sure exactly what kind of orchestra we would have. As it became clear that the 2012-13 season would be more stable, it seemed like a good time to reschedule.
We also had a bit more time to plan. At one time I thought that we would play three weeks and then in a fourth week, play the cycle chronologically. I know that they have sometimes been done with the first three symphonies taking up one program, but for me this seems like way too much of a good thing. My division had one of the shorter ones with one of the longer symphonies. With the exception of 4 and 5, I tried to separate them so as to have an even greater stylistic disparity. As I became engrossed in the study process, it dawned on me that perhaps the earlier pieces were not quite so far removed from the later ones.
As one journeys from the First to the Ninth, one becomes aware of the incredible differences that separate the music. But there are also similarities that must be considered. Beethoven’s string writing is actually more technically demanding in the earlier works. As he moves through the years, he starts to weave the winds into the totality of the fabric. The brass writing also changes, as the French Horns were evolving into more technically assured instruments and musicians.
One of the first decisions for me to make was how to position the orchestra. Our hall works very well for almost any configuration and normally I seat the violins together with the violas on the outside to my right. Perhaps because I sought more clarity rather than power, I opted for the split violins. This means that the celli move to the position usually occupied by the seconds and the basses are put on my left, behind the cellos.
No matter who is there, the musicians on the extreme right do not like it. Being used to hearing the firsts, I was quite surprised how quickly the second violins adapted to this setup. There is a misconception regarding the positioning. Because the conductor is right in the middle, that person hears the violin sections equally. But the audience does not. Most orchestras have one or two more musicians in the first violins than the seconds, but I chose to have an equal amount in order to balance the lines. After living with it for three weeks I decided that this setup works for specialized situations but once we get back to Brahms and beyond, I will keep the violins together.
The next decision was regarding edition. There is a new Barenreiter one, edited by Jonathan del Mar. Painstaking research has gone into this and each score comes with an explanatory volume. Much of what was discovered is virtually inaudible but there were a few things I adopted. It is not so easy to simply change one’s approach after so many years of doing these pieces. I have always done some light retouching here and there, mostly regarding the horns and trumpets. The instruments today can do what Beethoven’s could not and so I will often have the second instrument of each section play notes that were unavailable to Beethoven.
I also try to have some continuity regarding flute passages where Beethoven could not write some of the upper notes that would normally finish a scale pattern. Does this mean that I am not following what he wrote? Certainly. But I am more concerned about the spirit of the music than I am what it sounded like almost two hundred years ago.
As far as repeats are concerned, I decided to take all of them, including the one in the fifth symphony that the copyists seemed to have left out. The only shock to the orchestra and audience was in the ninth, where I do not play the introductory 8 bars other than just as an introduction. It makes no sense to go back since Beethoven always returns the material to the double bar and we never play those measures after the very first repeat. We have already been introduced to the timpani octaves.
There was no doubling of the winds except in the ninth and a couple of isolated spots in the sixth, just to create clarity and balance. My feeling here was that if Beethoven wrote it, we should actually be able to hear it. With today’s larger halls and larger string sections, it is easy to obliterate some of the woodwind lines and placing two instruments on a given part makes all the sense in the world.
As far as the metronome markings go, don’t get me started. Again, it was important to have clarity and some of these indications make it impossible to hear the rhythmic motives. The bar line and the metronome may have been the most damaging inventions in music. If it says Allegro con moto, that is enough.
I emphasized some of these points at the start of rehearsals and tried to get some unanimity of thought through the cycle. Short notes were shorter than usual. Dynamic contrasts were somewhat exaggerated at times. The orchestra seemed eager to try these new ideas. Attention was at an all time high and a feeling of accomplishment was always present at the end of each rehearsal.
Also a feeling of exhaustion.
It was not always comfortable to see the violinists rubbing their arms and shoulders, a sign that they had given their all. The winds had the luxury of changing players between symphonies but the strings all stuck it out. The conductor also felt tired after each session but exhilarated as well.
All of the performances went well. Since we were recording these for release as a digital download, there was a bit more pressure to be as accurate as possible. But I was not about to let a recording get in the way of spontaneous music making. Tempos were generally on the brisk side and I could usually remember the speed at which I took each movement when it occurred the next day.
There were two performances of each program but four of the Ninth Symphony. After the final concert of each group we would have a 25-minute patch session, usually to clean up noises, coughs and page turns. It was surprising how few places had to be fixed within the orchestra itself. Once again, staying within one basic stylist mode for three weeks made all the difference. Only for the Ninth did we have to reposition microphones.
Each concert began with an overture. Fidelio, Egmont, Coriolon and Leonore 3 were heard. In addition, prior to the Ninth, we did three excerpts from Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. This included the magnificent section with harp and solo cello. Our principal cellist Robert deMaine will leave at the end of this season to become head of the cello section with the LA Philharmonic. We will miss him but I am certain that we will find another extraordinary talent to fill our vacancy.
The majority of the concerts were full houses. Snow kept some people away for an early program, but those patrons were offered tickets for the concert two days later. By the end of the Festival, it was impossible to get in. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the same guys who scalp tickets at the sports events hanging around Orchestra Hall?
There were some surprised folks who could not figure out how I did the whole Festival without scores. It is really quite simple. I have been living with this music all my life. For me, I feel that a better connection with the orchestra is established if I do not look down at the music but rather focus my attention on the musicians themselves. There was one amusing moment at one of the patch sessions. Our librarians had put out the wrong score for one of the symphonies. Since one has to refer to bar numbers, I would ask the orchestra what happens at a particular point and then proceeded to correct the problem and conduct the fragment. Again, this is not really as difficult as it seems.
There were ancillary programs as well. Jeffrey Siegel presented a “Keyboard Conversation,” at which he delved into several of Beethoven’s piano works with illuminating discussion, followed by a complete performance of the piece. We had a one-day Piano Sonata Marathon, where 33 local pianists traversed the cycle. I know, there are only 32. One young woman played a shorter piece.
It began at 8:00 in the morning and ended at 10:00 that night. Three members of the audience made it through the whole thing, one travelling 300 miles to hear it. Of the 33 pianists, 26 were women. I made it to six sonatas, what with my own rehearsals and studying going on.
We also had pre-concert presentations, featuring many of the DSO musicians. One remarkable performance saw the great septet performed brilliantly. There were lectures and each concert was streamed live.
There was no question that this project brought the orchestra and me much closer together. Intense periods of concentrated work can do that. By the time we got to the end, we were all on the same wavelength from the first rehearsal. Details that may have been passed over before now emerged as important. Everyone wanted to get it right.
Of course, there is no right in music. We can only learn and grow from each experience. But getting closer to what is perceived as a musical truth is very important. There were no egos here other than Beethoven’s.
He has earned it.
See you next month,