Ludwig and feasting with wild animals

With Beethoven Fest, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra will celebrate the “David Bowie of his time”.

With Beethoven Fest, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra will celebrate the “David Bowie of his time”. The popular image of Beethoven might be that of a boorish peasant who knocked over Europe’s musical establishment with a kind of clumsy, arrogant genius. Even his acolyte and piano student Ferdinand Ries said as much: “Beethoven was most awkward and bungling in his behaviour… No piece of furniture was safe from him.” But Beethoven the klutz is not an image Nicholas McGegan, the British conductor and early music authority, agrees with. Rather, he regards the German composer as a radical progressive who took music in new directions that broke all the rules. “Beethoven was a David Bowie of his time. His music went to places people didn’t know,” says McGegan, who leads the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming two-week Beethoven Fest. “He was constantly bashing pianos and trying to extend their range, and his concerts often went on for six hours. He had no idea of how long his pieces would go, and performances were unrehearsed. He gave every reason why he shouldn’t have succeeded. He was an enfant terrible of his day, but people could see that his music was fantastic.” Beethoven’s concerts tended to be wild events compared with what we are used to today, says McGegan. He cites one Viennese concert in 1808 in which Beethoven premiered no less than two symphonies (the Fifth and Sixth), the Choral Fantasia, the Fourth Piano Concerto, plus several movements from a new mass. “Audiences never knew what was going to happen next,” he says. “The Fourth was the last concerto that Beethoven played himself; it’s the one that begins with a piano solo instead of the usual orchestral introduction. When he’d finished the solo and was bringing the orchestra in, he leapt up and knocked over a candle a boy was holding. His concerts were hazardous, rough and tumble events. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘It’s like feasting with wild animals’.” The fifth of the ASO’s composer festivals since its Brahms Cycle in 2000, September’s Beethoven Fest will be different in a number of ways. There won’t be a marathon of all his symphonies; instead it’s a case of expect the unexpected. Two of his least performed symphonies, Nos 1 and 8, are paired with his first and last piano concertos, Nos 1 and 5 (‘Emperor’). There’s a concert of Beethoven’s chamber music in the State Library and a screening of the forensic documentary Beethoven’s Hair (2005) that investigates how he may have succumbed to lead poisoning. Most attention-grabbing will be ‘Conduct Your Own Orchestra’ in which members of the public can wield the baton in front of the ASO when it plays in the Adelaide Railway Station Concourse – McGegan, as the ASO’s new Artist-in-Association, will deftly step aside for that one. Then there’s ‘Open Haus’ in which participants can play amongst the ASO in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the Town Hall – although this first requires registration. If all that sounds a bit circus-like, the appearance of two of today’s leading pianists in Beethoven Fest – Stephen Hough and Robert Levin – promises to restore decorum. Or maybe it won’t. Both are highly regarded risk-takers when it comes to Beethoven. Levin, renowned for his creative flair, explains what he will do in Piano Concerto No. 1: “I play along with the orchestra in the tutti section, I improvise embellishments (especially in the 2nd and 3rd movements) and I improvise my cadenzas.” This is exactly the kind of thing Beethoven did. Says McGegan: “It wows an audience. It’s like being a trapeze artist without the net.” To make matters more interesting, they will be using a new edition for this concerto. Says Levin: “Jonathan Del Mar has been preparing exemplary new editions of Beethoven’s works for Bärenreiter – exhaustively researched, with detailed and informative commentary. The results of his efforts include significant changes in the musical text and details of articulation and dynamics.” McGegan will also be using the new Bärenreiter edition of the First Symphony. It eliminates many errors that have crept in since Beethoven published it in 1801 – there’s no surviving autograph to rely upon. “Beethoven wasn’t a good proof reader and people have discovered a lot of mistakes,” says McGegan. “I’m also keen on preserving Beethoven’s metronome markings. The slow movement of quaver equals 120 is actually quite fast. In the old Klemperer days they played it more stodgily, and we’ll do it differently. But the big mistake with Beethoven is to not realise that his tempo markings only apply at the start the reality is that speed changes through the movement.” People usually have their favourite Beethoven symphony, but McGegan says he’s never been able to pick one. “I’m afraid I love them all,” he says. It’s their novelty and perverse humour that particularly appeals to him. “Number One is great. It’s in Haydn’s world, but it’s still a remarkable piece of music. The Eighth is about the same scale but a completely different world – he has moved on, although in its humour it is still like Haydn. It has an antique minuet and no big slow movement. The big difference is that Eight has no slow introduction. Haydn almost always has one. But Beethoven’s Eighth rushes in like a frisky pet cat knocking everything over.” Beethoven Fest is about adding a dash of the unpredictable. Says McGegan: “We want to be flexible. Scholarship is fine, but the bottom line is we’re giving a performance to people of our time. We want to be moved, not given a pedantic lesson.” ASO Beethoven Fest Friday, September 12 to Saturday, September 20

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