Thursday, May 21, 2009

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony

At the conclusion of the Hartford Symphony's performance of Beethoven's majestic Symphony no. 7, I held up four fingers for the orchestra to see. I had not done this after four consecutive performances of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony earlier in the season, nor had I done it after four performances of the mighty Eroica , which is longer than the Seventh.

When I held up my fingers, I mouthed the words, 'we did it four times. . . FOUR TIMES!' One player within earshot cracked back to me, 'let's do it four more times.'

My reason for such a display? I will give a hint first. . .

During my pre-concert talk earlier that week (joined by the young gifted musician, Joseph Henaris), I mentioned that the 2nd movement had to be encored at the 1813 premiere. The audience would not let Beethoven continue with the third movement until he repeated the 2nd movement! And in some history circles, there is the belief that Beethoven had to play it a third time.

Well, later that evening, after we did the Allegretto, a number of people in the balcony applauded. It sounded a bit forced, not very spontaneous; the brief clapping probably would not have occured had Joseph and I not mentioned the encores demanded at the premiere. But I felt compelled to address the moment, telling the audience "this is really hard work, and we need to keep going . . . if you want to hear it again, please come back tomorrow night!"

And therein lies the answer -- playing/conducting Beethoven's Symphony no. 7 is completely exhausting, like a half-marathon. Most works have a moment here or there where one can physically dial-it-down, if not mentally. (After a concert, my head is totally spent no matter what the physical requirements may be.)

Wagner knew what he was talking about when he called this piece the 'Apotheosis of the Dance.' Once you get on the dance floor, there's no leaving it until the jig is done.

Verdi's Requiem

Performing Verdi's Messa da Requiem recently, I was profoundly aware of Verdi's position as a composer for the theatre, a composer of music for the stage. Even with massive forces, he was unafraid, for example, to focus on only two people -- soprano and mezzo soprano -- to sing the Agnus Dei. During such a moment, there is a heightened tension, I believe, because the orchestra and chorus become audience.

Whether you are in a concert space designed to surround the performers (Amsterdam, Vienna, and San Francisco, to name a few), Verdi's Agnus Dei transforms the performance space into a circular event, where listeners engulf the two singers.

Or, to take another magical phrase from Verdi's masterpiece, there is the a cappella music for solo soprano and chorus, in the Libera Me. Here, solo singer and choristers are separated by a quiet orchestra, frozen by what they are hearing. Why? In part, because they are listening to what the strings had sounded an hour earlier, at the very beginning of the work. But now, in the Libera Me, there is a new hush to the music. . . it's in a different key, slightly higher, with new text, but melody and harmony are familiar. And the soprano solo's leap at the end never fails to astonish.

Yes -- Verdi knows how to make a wonderful racket (bass drum banging in the Dies Irae), and for this Verdi has often been criticized for not being more sensitive to the text, to the religious underpinnings of a mass for the dead. But then you come to such moments as those in the Agnus Dei, and the Libera Me, and you wonder how a non-religious man would have taken the time to write such heavenly music.