Photo: Mahler Death Mask
After his mammoth Eighth Symphony, Mahler composed “Das Lied von der Erde” and originally subtitled it a symphony. But given that Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner had all died after writing a Ninth Symphony, Mahler superstitiously refused to place that ominous number on the work and felt that he had somehow cheated fate as a result.
Ironically, Mahler would go on to write a Ninth, and even an un-orchestrated Tenth Symphony, which he would not live to complete. While “Das Lied” is really more of an orchestral song cycle than a symphony, the symphony that Mahler did complete after “Das Lied” and actually did affix the fateful number “Nine” to reflects a resignation of the acceptance of death despite enjoying every last moment of life. The Ninth is an immensely personal statement, as the composer had recently lost a daughter and had himself been recently diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. Like the finale of “Das Lied,” the finale of the massive, conflicted and personal journey of the Ninth fades into existential nothingness and remains a pivotal symphonic statement, culminating as it does the Romantic era of the nineteenth century as well as serving as a precursor of the twentieth-century music that would follow. Read the rest of this entry »
When Beethoven died, John Quincy Adams was President of the United States. Illinois had been a state for less than a decade, and Chicago wouldn’t be incorporated for another seven years. That Chicago will play host to the world premiere of a Beethoven love song is astounding by all measures, none more so than the respective age of the composition, older than the city where it will be performed for the first time. To celebrate the momentous occasion, The International Beethoven Project, led by President and Artistic Director George Lepauw, have assembled a broad swath of love-inspired performers, including Wilco’s phenomenal drummer Glenn Kotche, and Gray, a band started by the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The programming often takes musicians to task, asking them to perform variations on a theme, most potently Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” which will get special piano and experimental electronic treatment resulting in a great number of entirely new compositions. And though the festival is his namesake, Beethoven is not the only composer represented. Matthias Pintscher, music director of Paris’ Ensemble InterContemporain, will conduct Bach’s “Saint-John’s Passion,” Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” and “Overture to Tristan and Isolde,” and Mozart’s “Gran Partita,” all as a buildup to his take on Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral Symphony).” Read the rest of this entry »
Beethoven is recognized as one of the greatest composers of classical music—and yet, the full force of his genius has, for many, been reduced to little more than a history lesson. George Lepauw wants to change that, and to change how we experience classical music.
Beethoven was not just a musical genius, says Lepauw, but also a “cultural activist,” a deeply humanistic thinker influenced by the democratic ideals of the French Revolution. “He hoped that this music would live on for many generations and help the world come together. It’s really a testament to his genius that we’re still playing and loving his music today,” says Lepauw. Read the rest of this entry »
Riccardo Muti/Photo: David Banks
Not to take anything away from the Grant Park Music Festival across the street, nor Ravinia up on the North Shore, but it’s hard to think of the summer music season as having begun in earnest when Riccardo Muti is upstaging everything else by closing out the regular Chicago Symphony Orchestra season in late June this year. After leading the CSO on a triumphant tour of Russia and his Italian homeland, Muti is with us during the summer for the first time in his tenure as music director. That has its own curious advantages, including Muti being the first CSO music director to throw out a ceremonial opening pitch at a sold-out Cubs game at Wrigley Field last Wednesday night, an extraordinary feat for a man who will turn seventy-one next month who admits having no prior experience with the American pastime. (Yes, he took the task very seriously, did practice and cleared the plate.) Read the rest of this entry »
I was strolling through Tower Records at 4th and Broadway in Manhattan back in 1999 when the strangest thing happened. It was closing time and I was absorbed in a search for a gift for my parents. I was the only one browsing the classical section, and I guess the Tower employees were in a big hurry, because before I could get out the door, they locked up the store and accidentally left me inside.
Now you might imagine that being trapped overnight in such a store would be a dream come true for a music fanatic, but you have to remember, I was stuck upstairs in the classical section and couldn’t get anywhere near the stuff that I really liked. There I was, sitting on the floor surrounded by thousands of CDs—it just didn’t seem fair. Instead of digging around the vintage reggae recordings or sampling the latest jazz releases, I was forced to amuse myself by examining the works of Bach and Chopin. Read the rest of this entry »
Jorge Federico Osorio
Last month’s downtown Beethoven Festival that had departing CSO principal conductor Bernard Haitink traversing all nine of the Beethoven symphonies across three weeks of concerts gets a magnificent and compact summer cadenza at Ravinia with a rare and wonderful opportunity to experience all five Beethoven piano concertos across two consecutive concerts.
Mexican-born pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, who has long made Highland Park his home but who had to prove himself the world over before being taken seriously as a rank concretizer of choice here will be the soloist, a coup for all involved. Ravinia is loosely attempting to tie in the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence to Osorio’s heritage, but an opportunity to hear a complete Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle with a pianist of Osorio’s caliber needs no such gimmickry and is a major musical statement in and of itself.
Mozart is often credited with creating the piano concerto as we know it, but it was Beethoven who not only gave the orchestra an expanded and eventually a role equal to that of the soloist, but who made the piano concerto a more personal vehicle of self-expression and emotion, marking the transition from Classicism to Romanticism. Read the rest of this entry »
John Treleaven as Siegfried (Courtesy of L.A. Opera)
With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s downtown Beethoven Festival going late into June, Ravinia has had to make due for its first weeks of programming without its longtime premier partner. In the past when this has happened, the North Shore Festival has experimented with residencies of other orchestras and chamber groups to pick up the slack, but this year classical programming gave way primarily to pop and jazz offerings instead for those opening weeks.
With the end of the Beethoven Festival and departing principal conductor Bernard Haitink’s moving farewell where after all of the PR rhetoric and awards were said and done, he characteristically and humbly chose to thank Beethoven “who had such a miserable life and gave us so many wondrous masterpieces.”
Meanwhile, Ravinia music director James Conlon is not to be outdone in his opening CSO summer concerts and is including a highlights program of the Los Angeles Opera’s first-ever Wagner “Ring” Cycle that he will finish conducting mere days before arriving here and which will feature soprano Christine Brewer as Brünnhilde and John Treleaven as Siegfried. Read the rest of this entry »
As Bernard Haitink brings the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s three-week Beethoven Festival and his four-year principal conductorship to a close this weekend with performances of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, it is fascinating to note how much this music has been associated with historical events in modern times, for better and for worse, on all sides of the political spectrum.
The “Ode to Joy” finale of the piece, which speaks of the brotherhood of man to poetry of Schiller, continues to serve as the official Anthem of the European Union. Yet the same piece was also a favorite of Adolf Hitler’s, and there were frequent performances of the entire work with the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler to mark special Nazi celebrations, such as the Führer’s birthday. Almost as quickly, once the Allies had defeated the Nazis and were occupying Germany, performances of the Ninth were used to help restore hope for German civilians. A young and future CSO music director Georg Solti—himself a refugee during the war in Switzerland—led a performance sponsored by the American Army in war-torn Munich that was broadcast across Europe in the months after the war. Read the rest of this entry »
Those lucky enough to have heard the debut concerts of the CSO’s Beethoven Festival last week heard something very special indeed as the orchestra offered some of its best playing for outgoing CSO principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink of his entire tenure here. Particularly gratifying, whether by accident or design, was the noticeable absence of some of the most conspicuous principal players who have routinely blighted concerts under the Haitink era as their skills have deteriorated. Haitink uses a mid-sized orchestra and offers some surprising tempos, much more moderate than you might expect for some of the uptempo movements and brisk, indeed, sometimes almost breakneck, during moderate and slow movements.
This week Haitink and the CSO turn their attention to two groups of symphonies: Nos. 4 and 6, the “Pastoral,” and Nos. 1 and 7. Beethoven’s First Symphony has often been described as “Haydnesque,” and while it is the most conventional of his symphonies, from its opening chords we are in a different sound world than the symphonies of Haydn, or Mozart, for that matter. It is a shame that we are hearing it so late in the cycle where its full impact is diminished; it would have made far more sense to present Symphonies 1 and 3 in the first program, 2 and 5 in the second, and then 4 and 6, which are being paired together, and then 8 and 7, with the Ninth on its own, as it will be next week. Read the rest of this entry »
The second program in Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s traversal of all nine of the symphonies of Beethoven pairs the less familiar Symphony No. 2 with the iconic Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica,” a work that is often cited as making the shift from eighteenth-century Classicism to nineteenth-century Romanticism.
Yet there is already a whiff of Beethoven’s musical revolution in the smaller-scale Second Symphony, even if it came to its full fruition in the large-scale Third Symphony, an avant-garde work that occupied Beethoven for five years and indeed broke every convention of the Classical era. Critics and audiences did not know what to make of a work that, for starters, was more than twice the length of any symphony of Haydn and Mozart. But its real revolution is what Beethoven did with the stalwart sonata form that had so dominated the era, the ABA form of exposition, development and recapitulation which in Beethoven’s hands are blown up and the pieces sometimes scattered almost beyond recognition. Read the rest of this entry »