Of all the nine symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven, the seventh has always occupied a special place in my heart. It was one of the works that first motivated my interest in classical music, and its propulsive rhythms and subtle tonality make it a good entry point for anyone initiated in the pleasures of the classical repertoire. It is interesting to discover that the few critics of the piece (it was enthusiastically received by the public when it premiered on December 8, 1813) were convinced that the composer was either mad or drunk when he composed it.
Before the main event, conductor Jorge Mester launched the program with a lively selection from his Juilliard classmate, American composer Peter Schickele. Perhaps better known as a musical parodist under the sobriquet, P.D.Q. Bach (originating from comical concerts initiated at Juilliard with Mr. Mester), Mr. Schickele’s Concerto for Chamber Orchestra samples a serious and prolific composer with work characterized by an interplay of European structure and distinctly American motifs. There were lyrical moments worthy of Aaron Copland and a particularly lovely passage highlighting a cello and oboe exchange (Interim Principal Cellist Michael DeBruyn and Interim Principal Oboe Jennifer Potochnic). At the finish, a clearly delighted conductor beckoned the composer, who was in residence, to take a bow to a warm and appreciative audience who were already beginning to stand for their ovation.
Composer Peter Schickele
The next prelude was Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major by Franz Liszt, performed by Christopher Taylor. Here we were served another composition that featured fascinating conversations between instruments. Liszt provides many grandiloquent passages and romantic flourishes for the full orchestra to be sure, and the Maestro and his players did them full justice. But the delicate interplay between the First Violin of Michael Davis and Mr. Taylor’s piano that we find in the Quasi adagio was handled with great care and built a thread between the two pieces featured in the first half of the program. Mr. Taylor left a strong enough impression as to wish another piano piece had been included and his presence onstage extended.
Yet there was still the Beethoven symphony to tackle. For me the 7th has always seemed something of a precursor to the magnificent 9th with its chorale final movement, and perhaps Mr. Mester presents it in this program to prepare us for the April 2014 performance of that final Beethoven masterpiece. Whatever the reason, it is a piece worth revisiting again and again. It is a symphony that is famous for its rhythms and in the first movement, Poco sostenuto – Vivace, we get a taste for exactly what has made this composer so popular for 200 years. The dramatic shifts in modulations immediately engage the listener; there is little preamble.
The second movement, the Allegretto, is famous in its own right, singled out and sometimes performed alone even before it was featured in the Academy Award-winning film The King’s Speech. That it was utilized in that film to underscore the delivery of a speech painfully built upon rhythmic exercises illustrates the complex but forceful structures that characterize the entire symphony.
The pace quickens in the third movement, a scherzo, and the final movement, Allegro con brio, provides an exciting finish, a whirling dervish of strings that moves with a propulsive energy to the climactic rise of the horns and timpani and the full release of the full orchestra in a magnificent capstone to a rewarding concert. When Beethoven conducted the premiere, his histrionic techniques were much commented upon. Mr. Mester may not be as outlandish, but there were moments when he appeared to be leading the orchestra with every part of his body, pulling the players ever further into the powerful performance.
Classics: Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
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