Sunday, December 31, 2017

SFCO’s Beethoven Rings in the New Year

Christian Horneman’s 1803 portrait of Beethoven (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (SFCO) and its Music Director Benjamin Simon presented their annual Main Stage Concert scheduled to take place on the threshold between the old and the new year. The title of this year’s offering was Young Beethoven, and the program consisted of works by Ludwig van Beethoven that were composed between the years 1795 and 1800. By way of context, Beethoven moved from his home town of Bonn to Vienna in November of 1792 and began his studies with Joseph Haydn, his best-known teacher. By 1793 he had established a reputation as a piano virtuoso. (Simon suggested that this was his original intention.) By March of 1795 he was ready to organize his own public concert, which included one of his two earliest piano concertos to be published. (Which one is not certain.) Note that 1795 is also the year of Haydn’s last (“London”) symphony, Hoboken I/104 in D major. By 1800 Beethoven had a solid reputation as both composer and piano virtuoso.

In other words the latest work on the program, the Opus 21 (first) symphony in C major came relatively late in Beethoven’s early period, so to speak. Nevertheless, it is, in many ways, an adventurous piece. It also presents a Beethoven who had discovered that he could outdo Haydn’s capacity for wit and was determined to make sure that Haydn knew it. This is most evident in the Menuetto (third) movement. For many years Haydn had made it clear that he was more interested in triple metre in ternary form than in whether his rhythms were conducive to traditional dance steps. In Opus 21 Beethoven ventured so much further from “minuet tradition” than Haydn had done that, by the time he was writing his second symphony, he had shifted the label to “Scherzo.” One might almost say that in Opus 21 we are witnessing the birth of the scherzo as a symphonic movement.

That movement, however, is just the tip of the iceberg scope of Beethoven’s wit. Beginning the entire symphony with a dominant seventh chord was sure to have raised eyebrows, if not provoking audible gasps. The same can be said of the playful way in which the orchestra hesitates it way up the C major scale at the beginning of the final movement. (We still have a ways to go until Beethoven, in anticipation of Victor Borge, has the pianist run off the edge of the keyboard in the final movement of the second Opus 70 piano trio in E-flat major, which was published in 1809.)

Simon chose to conclude last night’s concert with this symphony; and he was not shy in conveying the full impact of these witty gestures (and all of the others). Thanks to Kaspar von Zumbusch, we tend not to think of Beethoven as being particularly affable. However, affability seemed to be foremost in Simon’s mind in his approach to conducting Opus 21, providing all of us with an abundance of good spirits at the end of what, for most of us, was a very difficult year.

That affability was just as evident at the beginning of the program with a performance of the Opus 20 septet, composed in 1799 and scored for violin (Julie Kim), viola (Alexandra Leem), cello (Eric Gaensler),bass (Michel Taddei), clarinet (Peter Josheff), bassoon (Karla Ekholm), and horn (Katie Dennis). Simon’s decision to begin the evening with (conductor-free) chamber music made for a change in the usual tradition; but it was an informative change. Through this septet one could appreciate Beethoven working out different (and often strikingly innovative) ways to combine the sonorities of instruments from the string and wind families.

The piece is in a single Allegro con brio movement with an Adagio introduction, meaning that it was very modest in scale. Nevertheless, it provided a framework in which the attentive listener could appreciate the skillful ways in which Beethoven managed winds and strings in the Opus 21 symphony, techniques that advanced the symphony beyond the late efforts of both Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Context is everything when one listens to music, and Opus 20 turned out to provide the perfect context for Opus 21.

The concerto offering was Opus 15 in C major, which may or may not have been the concerto that Beethoven both conducted and played at that 1795 public concert. The piano soloist was SFCO’s 2017–2018 Debut Artist, twelve-year old Rin Homma. There was definitely no questioning the solid foundation of technique that Homma brought to her performance, nor was there any fault in her interactions with Simon on the podium. Nevertheless, this was an interpretation that never ventured very far from the marks on paper.

In all probability this was not the sort of performance that Beethoven himself would have delivered in 1795. Once again we need to reflect on his capacity for wit and the likelihood that he saw that 1795 concert as an opportunity for him to thumb his nose at Haydn in public. (Mind you, Haydn was “out of town” at the time!) Furthermore, if Beethoven’s own gestures were not enough to tickle the funny bone, there is also the chance of the Brazilian choro song “Tico-Tico no fubá,” written over a century later and made famous in this country by Carmen Miranda, may have been inspired by one of the themes from the concerto’s final movement.

To be fair Homma is most likely too young to master the sort of comic delivery that Beethoven’s many witty gestures deserve. Nevertheless, because wit plays such a strong role in so many of Beethoven’s compositions, I am left wondering why there should be such an obsession to push the very young into his music before they have enough life experience to appreciate what is going on between all those marks on the paper. (To be fair, I feel the same way about Johann Sebastian Bach. Yes, I know that Bach taught his own children beginning at an early age; but that was a household in which music mattered more than anything else.)

By chance the Music Choice Classical Masterpieces channel on my cable feed happened to be playing Carl Maria von Weber’s Opus 11 (first) piano concerto in C major this morning. Weber may not have had the syntactic or rhetorical depth that one encounters in Beethoven, but Opus 11 offers impressive opportunities for technical dexterity all set in an overall context of high spirits. This is the sort of music that can provide pleasure to young performers and old listeners alike. (I say this with the full disclaimer that my earliest concert experience involved listening to my prodigy-neighbor play the final movement of Beethoven’s Opus 15 at a Philadelphia Orchestra Children’s Concert; and the rondo theme of that movement has never left me.) Perhaps it is time for proud parents and relatives to recognize that there is more to enjoyable music-making than Beethoven!

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