Sunday, January 18, 2009

Beethoven in Practice

Beethoven has been the subject of musical fascination among musicians, scholars, and audiences alike for years because of his out sized personality, internal conflicts, and of course the extraordinary quality of his work. There has been a staggering amount of research done into his life (I love Maynard Solomon's psychological biography and Scott Burnham's Beethoven Hero) as well as analyses of his music (Lewis Lockwood's Inside Beethoven Quartets, etc...)

While there are many ways to approach his music, I believe that the best is perhaps to apply an intuitive aesthetic around the sound I will hear in rehearsal and performance. In other words, the live music paradigm is singular in its ability to impart musical insight and it is in this arena that common sense leads to beauty when applied with affection. This is not to say that preparation doesn't play a role - it absolutely does both in terms of analysis and musicological research. But all of this is a foundation for what will happen in the presence of sound, when decisions are made and when my imagination finally intersects with reality. This is when I see what Beethoven really did, because no matter how acute my imagination is, it never seems to compare with the beauty of sound heard in the present tense, and this is something also that can not be replicated by a recording.

Right now I'm looking at his 4th Piano Concerto, which simply put is a miracle. So far in this foundational period I’m finding the piece to be as multifaceted a statement as Beethoven ever made. It seems like the piano represents the person Beethoven wants to be. The solo part is virtuosic, deeply lyrical, rhythmically driving, rhythmically flexible, romantic, playful, humorous, cajoling, intellectually secure, sad, profound, joyful, free, contained, respectful, rambunctious, angry, loving, etc…It represents someone who tastes life fully. It is human to the core. The orchestra is compassionate, thoughtful, responsive, divisive, insistent, malleable, lush, frugal, egalitarian, hopeful, frustrated, hyper, calm, mysterious, open, rhapsodic, static, evolving, loving, etc… It is a community that cares.

While this is all interesting to me, what I find so compelling in this work is its authentic take on the journey of life. It’s as if Beethoven was touched by the finger of God in an effort to find the essence of our collective humanity - heavy stuff! It touches on so many emotional states with a rare sense of knowledge, but not one that is knowing, but rather feeling. One can dissect the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, textural, and formal construction endlessly, but the piece lives in another world that is perfect and perfectly human on an intuitive level. This is the conundrum of Beethoven: he is an imperfect person by every account with wild insecurity, arrogance, talent, complete empathy for humanity and yet lacking in tolerance for the majority of those around him – a person endowed with tremendous positive and negative qualities and at the same time one who is made perfect in musical sound, the language of angels. He is a composer who can make an audience (and me for that matter) feel our best by showing us both our best and worst. This is what I feel in his music.

It will be fun to see how my initial ideas of the piece take shape with my colleague Ruth Rendleman and the students of the MSU Symphony - I can’t wait to get the music out of my head and into the real world. What I do know is that when music is experienced firsthand at the point of creation, especially through a work as wonderful as this concerto, I find myself in the middle of a magical time in which I am afforded an opportunity to see the truth of genius in a way that study alone does not allow. I think hearing it live will give you a similar experience, especially if you take a little time in advance of a performance to look a little more deeply at this masterpiece.

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