This past weekend, the Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore set itself a very difficult task. Take one of the most popular works in the repertory, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and try to say something new about it.
As the first of this season’s Off the Cuff concerts, conductor Marin Alsop gave it a very good shot. These Off the Cuff concerts are more casual affairs – the concerts are shorter (in this case, about 75 minutes), the conductor talks about the piece and is a little more freewheeling with the audience. In the process we learn something about the composer and his work and then hear some good music in the process.
The concept really works with a piece like the Beethoven Fifth because, on one hand, it is so familiar. Even people who shun classical music know that opening four note motive. One of the best laughs that evening was when the Walter Murphy disco version got piped over the intercom (and Alsop noting that she actually enjoys this arrangement). On the other hand, this familiarity blinds us to the fact that the Fifth Symphony is a very strange piece, even for Mr. Beethoven.
Conductor Alsop briefly reviewed Beethoven’s life, with some new highlights and emphasis. It is amazing how bad Beethoven’s childhood was with his alcoholic father. As for Beethoven’s deafness, Alsop enlisted the help of medical experts to demonstrate how the composer’s may have faced this debilitating affliction. The orchestra played a brief excerpt from the opening of the Pastoral Symphony, and then that was electronically altered to show how the music may have sounded to Beethoven as his deafness increased, until only the highest sounding notes could be discernible as muffled sounds.
Then Alsop turned to the major work in question. It is so rich a work that the conductor was only able to hit a few salient points. She noted how compact the opening movement is – everything growing out of the opening notes and very few additional themes. How the scherzo ends with a hushed and suspenseful passage that suddenly breaks out into that victorious C Major finale.
Little oddities were pointed out along the way – that weird little oboe cadenza that pops up out of nowhere in the opening movement, and how several important themes seemed modeled on melodies from late Mozart symphonies (Stravinsky once said “good composers borrow, great composers steal”) . But there was so much left unsaid – most strikingly how the furious scherzo returns as a mere ghost of itself, and even at the height of the finale, that ghost comes back in very telling fashion.
But you can only do so much in a concert, especially for a work that has generated so much discussion over the past two centuries. All of this was preliminary to the main event – the complete performance of the Fifth Symphony.