Review by Edward Kliszus
On May 1, 2021, at 8 pm (ET) Leon Botstein led The Orchestra Now in the first of two concerts dedicated to Ludwig van Beethoven. This first program in the Belated Beethoven Birthday Celebration series presented the composer’s beloved 5th and 7th Symphonies, as well as his Triple Concerto in C major, Op 56.
The concert was introduced by acclaimed novelist and chemist Emmanuel Dongala. One of the orchestra’s trombonists explained some of the 5th symphony’s characteristics preceding Maestro Botstein expressing the challenges and difficulties of performing on stage with masked musicians set 6 feet apart. It was pleasing to have a live audience in place, also set 6 feet apart in conformance with CDC guidelines. It was refreshing to finally see a live audience, critical participants sharing with artists their vitality, validation, inspiration, and gratitude.
Ludwig Von Beethoven, portrait by Josef Karl Stieler. University History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock.com
Akin to the Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor’s premiere on December 22, 1808, in Vienna, Maestro Botstein raised his baton in this unique setting, summoning the dramatic opening four-note motif, this streak of lightning, conceived by Beethoven as “Fate knocking on the door”, introducing what expresses Beethoven’s genius in developing an economical, simple musical idea into a titanic clash, a masterpiece of grand proportion from inception to maturity.
This fine ensemble consisting of graduate students of The Orchestra Now was set tonight as a sinfonietta orchestra. Through the 5th and 7th symphonies, Botstein and The Orchestra Now provided a stirring, well-crafted tribute to Beethoven, expressing the music’s import in a remarkable setting. It’s notable that these works are frequently performed today with an orchestra consisting of 60 or so string players plus winds, brass, and percussion. Tonight’s setting is perhaps akin to the early Mannheim Court Orchestra, providing an effective, lighter texture in this era of modern orchestras that perform works like Mahler’s 8th Symphony with 120 musicians with two choirs with 32 singers each, plus a boys’ choir and 8 soloists, or even Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (1910) with 84 stringed instruments. Tonight’s exposed medium required refined, accomplished musicians that clearly comprised the ensemble. We were not disappointed, experiencing a satisfying venture into Beethoven’s oeuvre. One might reflect on the simpler piano of Beethoven’s era compared to the power of a modern nine and a half foot long Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand piano. The concert was masterfully recorded and filmed, sufficiently acknowledging The Orchestra Now artists’ meeting the challenges of effectively presenting grandiose music in an intimate yet expansive stage setting.
The Triple Concerto for violin, cello, and piano (1804) was introduced to the audience by an orchestra trumpeter. With baton in hand, Maestro Botstein initiated the work featuring Australian-American violinist Adele Anthony, first-prize winner of the prestigious Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition in 1996; cellist Peter Wiley, a member of the Beaux Arts Trio from 1987 to 1998; and internationally acclaimed pianist Shai Wosner. Masterful performances all.
What a delight to heard world-class musicians perform this seminal work of lyrical geniality, composed just two years after Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he expressed to his brothers his despair of approaching deafness at just 32 years of age. One can imagine the terror, intensity, and pace at which Beethoven composed his musical ideas while he could still hear. Such beauty and depth created under a cloud of impending misery. The work was performed only once during Beethoven’s lifetime, suffering occasionally since beneath the pen of critics like Marion M. Scott and Paul Bekker. Scott levels a charge that it “deals out platitudinous craftsmanship.” Bekker described the work as “one of the very few examples in which it is clear that technical effort actually outweighs inspiration.” I concur rather with Sir Donald Frances Tovey who opined that the work “satisfies the Greek ideal of combining simplicity and subtlety as the highest quality in art.” He noted that what is required of performers and audiences is the “fullest recognition of the grand manner in every detail.” Bravo to Maestro Botstein, tonight’s virtuosic soloists, and The Orchestra Now!
The 7th symphony was masterfully introduced by one of the orchestra’s wind players. Overviews by these aspiring and already accomplished artists are akin to Leonard Bernstein’s famous forewords at his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Works come alive as audiences excitedly anticipate the joys of music yet to be discovered and articulated. Their words arouse contemplation perhaps on the scale of Richard Wagner’s description of this work as “the apotheosis of the dance…it belongs to the Night Spirit and his crew, and if anyone plays it, tables and benches, cans and cups, the grandmother, the blind and the lame, aye, the children in the cradle, fall to dancing.” To genuflect as nobly but less obstreperously, one might envision rather the song of a bird while sensing the arcadian nature of its musical manifestations.
The Orchestra fittingly inspired listeners through the Finale of the 7th. They captured and expressed the enormous energy, rhythmic incisiveness, the jollity of merry-making peasants, or even the ceremonial dance of the Korybantes, priests of Cybele, at the cradle of the infant Zeus.
The audience and this participant enthusiastically applauded this marvelous musical event.
This was a free concert, with a suggested donation of $25-50. RSVP here to receive a direct link to the live stream on the day of the concert. This concert will be available for delayed streaming on TŌN’s digital portal STAY TŌNED, starting on May 6.
Runtime is about 2 hours.
This concert was dedicated to the memory of Stuart Stritzler-Levine, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Emeritus Dean of Bard College, who passed away on May 1, 2020. Stritzler-Levine joined the Bard faculty in 1964 and devoted 56 years of continuous service to the College.
You must add to your calendars Part 2 of the Beethoven celebration to be presented on May 8 at 8 PM. The commemoration continues with Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory and Symphonies No. 3 and 4, performed by the Bard Conservatory Orchestra.
For upcoming activities and more detailed information about the musicians, visit theorchestranow.org.