It was hard not to notice an aisle seat covered in white flowers as the much-anticipated Beethoven 250 Festival at Harris Theater got underway on February 27.
After walking out onstage and bowing to applause, Sir John Eliot Gardiner addressed the audience and said that the “exceptional” musicians onstage behind him from over fifteen countries “are united with our belief that we all share in the power of music to inspire us, to uplift us—to engage with one of the most powerful musical minds the world has ever seen—to comfort us, and to heal us.
“And with that in mind, I would like you to agree with us tonight to dedicate—not just this concert but this whole series—to Patricia Barretto, the CEO and president of Harris.”
Barretto, who has been battling breast cancer, was placed under home hospice care just last week. “Alas, she cannot be with us tonight but we are going to stream this music directly into her home and into her heart,” Gardiner continued. “Without her dedication, her persistence and her enthusiasm, we wouldn’t be here on this stage. This series of concerts would not have happened.
“She’s a dear friend and was so uplifted two-and-a-half years ago when we came with Monteverdi operas that she was so happy to make sure we came back, this time with Beethoven symphonies.
“And remember please before we all get too sad about it all, that we’re starting with the Eighth Symphony, the most exuberant and life-affirming of all the nine symphonies. I would like that to be uppermost in your thoughts as we start to play tonight.
“Imagine that you’re standing outside of the door to a house or a big room and you vaguely hear that there’s noise going on and you open the door and you’re almost hit sideways by the roar of a party, a wild celebration. That’s what this is like,” he said, turning to start the piece.
The tempo was brisk, the excitement palpable, the momentum always forward. The ensembling and execution of the standing strings, with eleven first and ten second violins (ten each) divided on each side of the conductor and eight violas, seven cellos and five contrabasses with winds behind them, provided a rich and balanced sound.
Gut strings and shorter horsehair bows, cellos supported by players’ own legs rather than an endpin, no keys on winds, no valves on horns or trumpets, animal skin timpani, lower tuning, all create a darker, more compact and more natural sound than our more brilliant and bombastic modern symphony orchestra.
But it isn’t just the materials that are different, it is an entirely different aesthetic approach that needs to be employed for those materials to be effective. And even players of Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, now thirty years old, lead split lives having to alternate between playing period instruments and modern instruments in other orchestras.
For this first installment of five, traversing all of the Beethoven symphonies, the Eighth Symphony benefited more from these materials and approach to these ears than the Ninth.
The first two movements of the Ninth worked well, again, taken at breakneck speeds, even if sackbuts (early trombones) seemed unduly raucous as the second movement climaxed.
But the Adagio—for many of us the heart of this music—seemed rushed, almost a gallop at times. (Twelve minutes: surely a record?) A natural horn solo cracked at a key moment, although in fairness, that can happen on a modern valved horn as well.
There was more variance of tempo for the finale and Gardiner did a superb job of building timbres from the low strings to the pulsating orchestral statement of the “Freude” (“joy”) theme.
Substitute English bass Matthew Rose unenviably replaced scheduled Kuwaiti-born German bass Tareq Nazmi and intoned the introductory solo vocal portion with more vibrato than heft or gravitas. Rose was better as part of the vocal quartet and the remaining British trio of soprano Lucy Crowe, contralto Jess Dandy and tenor Ed Lyon were superb.
Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir, luxuriantly supplied for the occasion, were superbly balanced among themselves though with thirty-six voices, were underwhelming in their impact given that the orchestra was larger and often louder.
A word must be said about Gardiner’s journey as a conductor over the three-plus decades since he first came to Chicago. Primarily an early music specialist then, his repertoire and his conducting prowess have vastly broadened. Conductors, like fine wine, often improve with age and we are fortunate to be experiencing an era of vintage Gardiner.
The Beethoven 250 Festival continues at Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, (312)334-7777, through March 3.
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org