Edwin's Final Beethoven
“Edwin’s Final Beethoven!” Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? For the record, I hope to conduct more Beethoven after this weekend’s concerts; in fact, lots more! Drama aside, this symphony is particularly important to me for several reasons. It was the very first Beethoven symphony I ever conducted, at age 19, when I began my tenure as music director of the Bach Society Orchestra at Harvard University. In KW, it is the only Beethoven symphony that I have not conducted. This weekend’s concerts complete the cycle of symphonies that are the most important collaborative space for any conductor and orchestra. They are almost excruciatingly familiar to us, and the range of possibility of interpretation is enormous. The orchestra and I have developed a common language of playing these symphonies over ten years, and that deep mutual understanding and connection is something I will miss after I leave here. I enjoy conducting Beethoven the most with the KW Symphony because they deeply understand what I want out of the music.
So what about Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony? It’s a Classical symphony that is bursting at the seams. By the time we reach the 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica,” the seams are broken. It’s the violent tension between proportion and content that makes this symphony special. Beethoven is pushing towards larger forms in this work, stretching his simple materials to outrageous lengths. It’s here that the humorous energy of the early works, reminiscent of Haydn, gives way to something more violent and manic. It’s here that the performer starts to need the enormous reserves of physical and emotional energy required to do justice to Beethoven's music. I especially love the second movement, with its carefully etched musical adornments, and its long-form lyricism.
Korngold was one of the most talented European composers since Mozart, writing full-blooded Romantic music in the style of Richard Strauss by the age of 14. Forced to flee Europe during World War II, he settled in California and helped create the sound of the classic Hollywood film score. His violin concerto is one of his most successful works for the concert hall. Written in an unabashedly sentimental and romantic style, it has been unjustly maligned by so-called “serious” people. “More Korn than Gold,” is a refrain I’ve heard before. I don’t understand why some think it’s not ok for Korngold to be sentimental and not totally serious. To me, this concerto is an elegant entertainment, just like the violin concertos of Saint-Saëns, Bruch, and others. If it weren’t a great piece, it wouldn’t be played anymore! So, “serious people,” rather than malign it for not being something it was never meant to be, why not figure out what makes it beloved by so many musicians? Hear it for yourself, you’ll know what I mean.
To underline the point above, I’ve paired the Korngold with another “anachronism,” the orchestral version of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Once heard constantly in the concert hall, to the delight of audiences, it is now relegated to the world of cartoons and “pops.” It shouldn’t be. When a great artist writes a work that’s smashingly entertaining, it should be celebrated, not sneered at. I have a feeling that you’ll leave this weekend’s performances with a smile on your face, despite the dark overtones of “Edwin’s Final Beethoven!"
- Edwin Outwater
Rachmaninoff & Tchaikovsky
Sept 2016: I was in Sydney for the premiere of Mason Bates’ Mothership with the YouTube Symphony. This piece is the definition of High Concept. It's an orchestral piece with opportunities for guest improvisers, combined with an electronic dance track. What more could you ask for? The great thing about Mothership is how well and elegantly it all works: orchestra and electronics interweave seamlessly, and the right soloists make the improvisations seem totally natural and integrated as well. For our performances, we’ve invited a tabla and electric violin duo, Gurpreet Chana and Robert Mason, as well as one of the world’s greatest pedal-steel guitar players, Kitchener’s own Bob Egan.
Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is undoubtedly one of the most fiendishly difficult pieces for piano and orchestra ever written, if not THE MOST difficult. But it is also a sublime, rhapsodic, harmonically fascinating, wild, expressive, and over-the-top masterpiece. We are joined this week by Natasha Paremski, making her third appearance with the KWS. She owns this piece and is pushing us all to the limit as she scales the Mount Everest of piano works.
We end this concert with a work I’ve been attached to for many years, the Fourth Symphony of Tchaikovsky. It’s his own version of Beethoven’s Fifth, a battle with Fate. You hear the fate motif at the very opening of the work, intoned with frightening intensity by the horns, then taken over by the rest of the brass who lead the melody down into a frightening abyss. The bulk of the movement is a kind of dramatic waltz, a dance with fate that resolves in a grandly tragic manner.
The rest of the symphony is more personal: a simple, sad song passed among the sections of the orchestra; a playful, balletic scherzo featured plucked strings and toy-like woodwinds and brass; a finale that is full of bravura and cheer until it is interrupted by the fate motif once again.
Tchaikovsky’s answer to this final interruption is not to destroy fate or triumph over it. Instead, the music just goes on as it had before. It’s a very pragmatic, Russian answer to the question of fate: we may as well keep going and have fun while we can, because fate is coming for us. One day, who knows when, there will be no escaping it.
- Edwin Outwater