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On June 26, the Brevard Music Center Orchestra performed the Overture to Egmont, the rarely-played Triple Concerto in C, Op. 56, and the Symphony No. 5, in C minor, Op. 67. It will be a long time before you have this degree of distillation, this level of artistic concentration, and such a wondrously well-played hit of Beethoven to enjoy all at once, on purpose.
It was so good I don't even want to talk about it.
Thanks for coming.
No? Ah, let's see.... Outstanding features of the BMC concert series are pre-concert lectures in Thomas Hall, adjacent to the Whittington-Pohl Auditorium. It's no longer necessary to do all that time-consuming homework before a concert – you can just show up an hour early and one of the BMC artists or scholars or faculty musicians will give you a forty-minute overview of the composer(s) and works for the day.
On this rainy Sunday afternoon, James Howsmon, a member of the BMC piano faculty and Associate Professor of Instrumental Accompanying at Oberlin College Conservatory, talked about helpful historical facts and rumors and played musical anecdotes before a great view of Lake Milner, encircled by ducks, geese, and all manner of lush greenery.
Right away the thing to know is Beethoven was just The Stuff. He was heir to the emerging classicism of Haydn and Mozart as it sailed through Vienna's door, yes, and he even met Mozart while a boy. Imagine those two in a room together! He knew Haydn and later was a neighbor of Schubert when both were working major projects. But it's hard to escape the simple fact he was the most influential musician of the 19th century, one whose influence no serious practitioner of music can ignore. For all his physical defects and personal flaws, this guy defines the long curve of creative art; he worked like a dog and produced his most profound works right at the end. The late string quartets are considered masterful creations by a master. And then there's the Ninth Symphony, you know....
First on this concert was the Overture to Egmont, Op. 84. Egmont is a war tragedy-drama by Goethe, a contemporary of LvB. It's about the Spanish invasion of the Netherlands. It was common for composers to write "incidental" music for theater productions of the day; this was comparable to and served the same function as film soundtracks. Written during 1809-10, the premiere was June 15, 1810, in the Imperial Hofburgtheater, Vienna. Minor alterations made it suitable for concert performances, and it made the rounds. On hearing a performance of this music in Leipzig around 1828, Richard Wagner made the decision to become a composer, so something must have been working.
Beethoven's score has an Overture and nine movements: 1. Song: "Die Trommel gerühret" (Clärchen), 2. Entr'acte I, 3. Entr'acte II, 4. Song: "Freudvoll und leidvoll" (Clärchen), 5. Entr'acte III, 6. entr'acte IV, 7. Music for the Death of Clärchen, 8. Melodrama, and 9. Victory Symphony.
The refrain we hear about Egmont is that "Beethoven's score is so descriptive and dramatic you don't even need to know Goethe's story." Apparently that's true. I've never perused it, only one soul at the lecture, a native German, had read the story, and of audience members polled later, none knew the drama, yet they loved this music, which is compelling and filled with emotional pathos.
Whatever! From the opening chords it was clearly Beethoven – that reedy writing in the strings, talkative cello and bass, the lyrical woodwinds, a familiar F major ostinato in the horns at end, and a true symphony scale with 86 musicians. David Effron conducted without reference to the score.
Next came the Triple Concerto, Op. 56, with soloists Douglas Weeks piano, Marjorie Bagley violin, and Andrés Díaz cello. All are BMC faculty and have distinguished performance credentials. The piece was composed 1803/4, but not premiered until May of 1808, and features the typical sonata-allegro concerti format with an opening Allegro, lyrical Largo then, attacca, Rondo alla polacca.
The initial thematic entry is in the cello, then the violin and finally the piano take it up. At one point, the cello churns an ostinato that sounds like a locomotive! Each artist played demanding parts with distinction amid the restraint associated with classic era performance practice. Weeks' piano cleanly produced Beethoven's familiar keyboard treatment, and Bagley, statuesque in a red satin gown, delivered tasteful strains from the violin. But we need to single out André Diaz for deft execution of what appeared to be a bone-crushing cello part. He never missed, and he clearly enjoyed this performance. Certainly one reason the piece isn't played often is that you need three virtuosos in town on the same night! Another thing to consider is that this piece is just a little long in the tooth. With three soloists, you no longer have the binary give-and-take between an instrument and orchestra. Now it's among three instruments and the orchestra, so each motif is tossed around – what? four times? – and everybody gets a shot at every developmental idea. Oy! Such a headache! Who's counting? Well, it's a great piece to hear once.
After intermission came the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, composed 1807-8 and premiered on December 22, 1908. It begins with what are easily the most famous four notes in history, notes that are certainly "covered" as much as The Beatles oeuvre and that have come to signify a human experience bordering on feast. It is a clinic of motivic manipulation, of diminution and augmentation, of handing off to various instruments, and of harmonic tension, and the overall result displays absolute mastery of drama. We should talk about every aspect of this thirty-minute frame in time but it would require more space than CVNC has broadband capability and more time than you or I can spend right now.
Instead, let's talk about a musician: David Effron. His official title is Conductor and Artistic Director of the Brevard Music Center, and for three straight days he was the go-to guy on this property, wielding his craft through a vast program of opening-night styles, a 19th-century staple-of-the-repertoire opera, and then a highly-concentrated ride with Beethoven. The guy is deep and smart, and I won't go into it here. Instead, go look him up at http://www.brevardmusic.org/about/effron.php [inactive 11/07].
I don't mean to slight all the wonderful and terrifically trained and accomplished musicians who played, but the real emphasis here is just one guy. His instrument is what's called a symphony; a gang of instruments specified by the composer, the usual suspects from 19th-century inventory, arrayed across the entire stage and forming a wall of sound. Beyond what I consider to have been a spectacular music education at Florida State University School of Music, my personal take on this piece was formed after hearing Sir Georg Solti drive the Chicago Symphony through rehearsals and a complete performance. David Effron belongs in the same company.
Now, for those of you humming the disco version, please be aware that the first note is on a weak beat, and the four note theme can be found in almost every bar of the first movement. If that's news to you then please leave – go buy a Kalmus pocket score and a set of CDs of the complete nine symphonies from the bargain bin at the 7-Eleven, and then you can come back.
From the outset, Effron shook like an earthquake; his downbeat was so forceful it drove the theme into place. The first cadence, sharply in contrast to the gliding strings, is an articulated marcato. The sound dynamic is exciting, building tension through each phrase while masterfully exploiting legato strings and punctuated chords until suddenly we're at the double bar. During the repeat, Effron, warmed up, clearly began to smell a good read. He gestured to each section, not providing entrance cues but giving emotional guidelines. And again, as noted on opening night, some beats were more important than others. If the band has it all covered, he doesn't bother to show the beat at all. Only when his artistic vision is on the line does he look directly at a given section, with plenty of lead-time, picking up the beat in anticipation of the next grand statement. When the horns entered solo, Effron slowed the tempo to savor the majestic sonority; and then he turned back to the strings and the brisk come prima, sometimes lifting a finger to his lips as a sign for less volume, sometimes – like the Statue of Liberty – demanding everything the players had.
At the development, its hard to negate the voice of Peter Schickele ("The horns are starting it off") from his New Horizons in Music Appreciation. And then again, at the oboe solo, nicely performed by Eric Ohlsson from FSU (and no oboe jokes right now please, we'll get to that story soon enough), I thought of Schickele (a.k.a. PDQ Bach) and the line, "I can't believe my ears, he's playing a cadenza. He'll be fined for this...." But of course that's not true, and Effron was totally relaxed until the pace picked up again. (Also making great sound were single reeds and the clarinet of Steven Cohen.)
When the movement ended, booming out those famous forte chords, Effron had no greater state of relaxation. He was unhinged, pacing around on the rostrum, loose until time for the Theme and Variations, where the cello section truly shined. His body language slowly formed the image of the opening lines and then, absolutely at bottom of his pattern, the music began. It was here that I realized he was actually using a stick this time – ah, I'm sorry, a baton – but no score, the whole thing was straight out of his head.
The lilting second movement hints at Germanic folk roots and the familiar cadences we've come to expect when celebrating optimism. The elegant motif is treated in variation form, delivered so clearly on this occasion that we heard and knew the entire story. Soon we were into the combined third and fourth movements that have that tremendous fugal statement initiated in the cellos and passed up to the violins. Effron wanted all these entrances clear and fast – and they were.
Because the last two movements sound as one, without a break, we get the feeling that only three movements are played. It's helpful to study the score a little and to locate the material around that seamless transition between the last two movements. This device and – obviously – the thematic material, contribute to continuity and a feeling of necessary sequence. There is a long transition passage between the movements, and ultimately there is a sense that one movement is resolved by the other. Then we have that emphatic last-movement coda, with its big, noisy chords – a common technique from the era.
You know, other than that, I don't know what to say. Maestro Effron Rules. The guy served up the most clear and exciting interpretation anyone could possibly want. He thanked the musicians, thanked the audience, and left.
I caught up with him on the lawn. I said, "You're not well."
He seemed to understand.