Saturday, January 11, 2020

Putting on their anniversary best: ISO opens a long-running celebration of Beethoven

In the lobby, his name in all caps hangs above a white-cloud sculpture seemingly inspired by Alexander Calder's mobiles, the work of a University of Indianapolis art-department team. The pre-concert crowd milled expectantly around, swelled by infrequent symphony attenders drawn by the name and music of the honoree.
Beethoven aloft: The Hilbert Circle Theatre lobby

The occasion was Friday's launch at Hilbert Circle Theatre of BTHVN2020, the vowel-less, freeze-dried signal for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven's 250th birth year. Just add passion and preparation and stir.

But how should an observer proceed? How to welcome the inevitable celebration in a focused manner as BTHVN2020 gets under way? I feel somewhat akin to Stephen Leacock's Lord Ronald, who after a quarrel with his father "flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions."

Here's part of the problem: It has been brought up on previous Beethoven anniversaries (significant round numbers commemorating birth and death [1827]) that the world's orchestras in effect offer a perpetual Beethoven festival in their regular programming.

The best honor, the estimable critic Michael Steinberg decreed half-seriously in the Boston Globe at the 1970 bicentennial, might be not to play Beethoven for a year. Recently the Chicago Tribune published an essay by a feminist musicologist on the same theme, with no tongue-in-cheekiness about it: Replace Beethoven with new music for a year, she urged. And Norman Lebrecht, international star music blogger, viewed the possibility with a predictably jaundiced eye.

A moratorium is beyond the pale when so much of symphony-orchestra health nowadays is tied to marketing: Beethoven sells. And musicians are careful to avoid trumpeting any suggestion they are tired of him. The late Raymond Leppard (who will be given an ISO memorial tribute at 5 p.m. Jan. 13 at its home) was being characteristically frank when he admitted to me long ago: "I thought of him as here's this German always coming at you."

Yet Leppard, surely not driven by marketing but by artistic vision, offered ISO patrons a well-conceived "Young Beethoven" festival thirty years ago. And the composer's Symphony No. 2 in D major was the vehicle in that festival by which Leppard drove home to me what he had accomplished since assuming the music directorship in 1987. This is, in part, what I wrote in my Indianapolis Star review: "Emotionally, the performance maintained almost flawlessly a balance between intensity and charm. The cohesiveness Leppard has imparted to the ensemble can now serve larger expressive natural as to sound spontaneous."

The ISO has built upon those strengths with Leppard's successors. On Friday night, Krzysztof Urbanski drew from the orchestra a full-fledged celebration of the composer's path to revolutionary status. It brought forward Urbanski's strengths as an interpreter, particularly with respect to balance and momentum. Like Arturo Toscanini, whose recorded set of Beethoven symphonies still stands as a milestone, Urbanski thinks of lines running parallel in Beethoven. The hints of the romanticism that was to be in full flower by mid-century mustn't be forced to bloom in performances weighed down with glutinous profundity: Beethoven is not Schumann.

I thought particularly in the second movement that the young German, who had studied counterpoint with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger at the recommendation of Joseph Haydn during Beethoven's early Viennese period, displays how he'd internalized his lessons with personal mastery. The prolific composer Albrechtsberger is known today only as one of Beethoven's teachers, a small collection of masters who, unsurprisingly, found him hard to instruct. (The first time I'd encountered the name was in a "Peanuts" cartoon, thanks to Schroeder.)

Beethoven's willfulness and iconoclasm can be discerned in several places in this weekend's program, which besides the Second Symphony comprises Symphony No. 1 in C major and two new works commissioned for the occasion:  Nathaniel Stookey's "Spire" and Hannah Lash's "Forestallings." The First Symphony has some famous novelties, notably the teasing start of the finale (alertly rendered on Friday). I sensed that Urbanski finds the music preparatory to more characteristic Beethoven. The performance was nimble, if a little too weighty in some full-ensemble passages. The interplay of winds and strings, especially in a slower-than-usual "Menuetto" third movement, was delightful.

Still, I think both the wit and the unleashing of orchestral might were especially scintillating in the D-major Symphony. The admirable Hoosier-trained maestro Kenneth Woods, in his blog ranking of Beethoven symphony finales, puts its "Allegro molto" movement near the top, next to the august No. 9.  He finds No. 2's conclusion both funny and "rude": "the main theme is a sort of deranged musical fart joke," runs Woods' memorable assessment.

Urbanski may not have been aiming at that effect, but it certainly could be applied to how Friday's performance proceeded, right through the Bronx-cheer-like buzzing in the coda, which the conductor summoned up with wildly waggling fingers. Here was music that almost matched Urbanski's hyperbolic image, delivered in an oral program note from the podium, of Beethoven trashing the mansion of Western music, presumably like certain rock bands once vandalized hotel rooms.

In the two new works, there was more a feeling that musical tradition, altered but not ruined by Beethoven, was worth a centered approach. "Spire" opens with a low-register murmur that  brought to mind the episode in Elgar's "Enigma" Variations in which a steamship's whir is evoked. The impression is dispelled as the texture gradually becomes thinner and the tessitura shifts upward. It amounts to a meditation on that teasing scalar passage in the First Symphony's finale. "Forestallings," whose title suggests the push-pull between Beethoven's impulsive gestures and checks he often put on the music's forward thrust, was also attractive, if rather more laconic. There was an impression I can't quite shake (drawn mainly from her video statement) that the composer felt constrained by the five-minute limit in the commission.

Clearly I have not felt such constraints here, and there is more I could go on about: the gleaming contribution of the horns and trumpets, heard in their valveless predecessors in this series of concerts, and my favorable first impression of the ISO's just-announced new concertmaster, Kevin Lin, who's in place this weekend as one of a long series of guest concertmasters.

However, though by no means out of a Ronaldian fit of rage, it seems I've already ridden madly off in all directions. Beethoven will do that to you.

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