Thursday, April 7, 2011

What Makes it Great?

The second in my week of TSO evenings was What Makes it Great?  Beethoven Symphony 1.  Part of the Exposed Concert series, the concert takes a piece of music, dissects it in the first half by taking the audience inside the music, and then the orchestra performs the full piece in the second half.  The whole idea I think is incredible, there's always so much going on in music that I wonder what I'm missing.  This idea is obviously something that guest conductor Rob Kapilow believes in, and his enthusiasm is infectious.  Interestingly enough, the latest (March 29, 2011) NACOcast interview is with him!  I'm an avid follower of the NACOcast, although a bit behind at the moment.  When I first saw that a new episode was posted, the name of the interviewee didn't mean anything.  However, when I saw it again today, it clicked and I listened right away.  His insights and ability to throw out quotations is impressive.

As for the concert, things were somewhat different as soon as you walked into the hall.  The usual conductors podium was a larger platform with a keyboard set up off to the side.  The orchestra was also noticeably smaller than Wednesday night, given that Beethoven didn't have as much to work with.  The only percussion used is the timpani and since trumpets didn't have valves when Symphony 1 was written their note range was limited, so they are used sparingly.
Mr. Kapilow (having listened to the NACOcast, he doesn't like the title "maestro"), walked out on stage to standard applause and quickly began an introduction to himself and Beethoven.  He has a rapid fire way of speaking, and the difficulty of keeping up with note taking were I a student in his lecture hall struck me.  He never slowed down and everything he demonstrated had meaning.  One quotation (courtesy of his former composition teacher Nadia Boulanger) that would be repeated multiple times throughout the evening was, "A genius can not help but be original.  Therefore a genius need only attempt to imitate to be original."  Given that this was Beethoven's first symphony, there's some throw back to Haydn tendencies that audiences of 1800 would have recognized.  But in Beethoven's genius, he can't help but be original through the imitation.

Beethoven was about what an idea could become, rather than what it currently was and his ideas and developments are laid out on top of the music, not hidden.  Mr. Kapilow described this as Beethoven's music "becoming, not being".   He explained the history of what audiences would have expected to hear at the debut of the symphony by incorporating his own "boring" segments of music for the purpose of counteracting the surprises in what Beethoven actually wrote.  He made everything completely understandable and easy to follow for a general audience, while not alienating those with more musical background.  Quite honestly, I don't think I stopped smiling the entire evening.

The decomposition started with the third movement, technically a scherzo given the tempo, but called a Minuet and Trio in homage to the Haydn and Mozart symphonies which came before.  He took the first few bars, a theme of 4 notes (hmm, seems like a theme with Beethoven, opening of Symphony 5 anyone?), and demonstrated how Beethoven condensed it naming the rhythms "short long, short long, short short short short long" so everyone totally "got it".

Another example of condensation, is in the second movement; the second violins start with fugue type theme, then cellos take over with 6 notes, followed by the basses playing only the first 4 notes.  But now it's determined to not be a fugue but has developed to a full theme.

The evening was not without humour either.  The first movement begins with two chords (not in C major, the key of the piece, incidentally) which sounds like an ending.  Indeed the orchestra played the 2 chords, stood up and bowed :)  The start of the fourth movement has the strings playing a scale, adding an extra note each time which Mr. Kapilow explained as them searching for the right note but not being able to find it.  The cellos (ok, technically celli) then try to "help" in the search.

These are just small demonstrations that I recall, hopefully correctly.  As enthralled as I was with the presentation, most examples have slipped through the recesses of my mind already.  Too much information...I should have taken notes :)

To close, I leave you with this thought from Mr. Kapilow, there's a great difference between hearing and listening.  To make classical music exciting, "all you have to do listen".

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