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SFO “Summer and the Symphony” – The Beethoven Revolution

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from out West.

On Friday, August 1st, the San Francisco Symphony’s “Summer and the Symphony” series concluded at Davies Symphony Hall with The Beethoven Revolution, featuring the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, the Triple Concerto, and Symphony No. 5.

This was my first visit to the series and I had not realized the informality of the occasion. I think I was the only one in the packed concert hall with a tie on. The San Francisco Symphony is obviously trying to engage new, younger audiences, and it seems to be working. In the foyer before the concert began, The Martini Brothers provided dance music and a number of patrons took to the floor. But the evening was to be educational as well as entertaining. Conductor Edwin Outwater began with a standup routine explaining that the first part of the concert would be “conventional” Beethoven on his best behavior, and the second—the Fifth Symphony—the bad boy “revolutionary” part.

Be that as it may, Outwater is an energetic young man who appears to be tightly coiled. He gestures with his hand splayed and his fingers extended as if there were an electric current running through them. From his body language, I began to worry that he might rush through the music and not stop to smell the roses. A decidedly false impression as it turned out.

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Symphony No.7 et al.,
SFSO Media

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Triple Concerto et al.,
N.Harnoncourt / P-L.Aimard, T.Zehetmair, C.Hagen

I was already aware that the San Francisco Symphony knew its Beethoven, as I had been particularly impressed by Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of the Seventh Symphony in his complete traversal of the Nine. I don’t mean to be taking any credit from Outwater by saying this—in fact, I mean it to give a great deal of credit—but in a blind listening session, I might’ve suspected that it was Thomas conducting the program.

The Prometheus Overture was finely articulated, rhythmically animated, and slightly mellow. The introduction in the Triple Concerto positively glowed with a kind of seamless warmth. In this piano trio cum concerto, there are obviously a lot of chamber music textures, and Outwater kept things beautifully scaled in light of them. The Gryphon Trio (violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon, cellist Roman Borys, and pianist Jamie Parker) played as among friends, with intimacy and eloquence. It doesn’t seem that Beethoven gave Archduke Rudolph, for whom he wrote piano part, quite as much to do as the others; so the Triple Concerto sometimes seems more of a duo concertante for violin and cello, than a concerto for piano trio. In any case, there was a great deal of joy in the Trio’s music making. In particular, that Roman Borys sang his heart out on the cello. It’s not a work I listen to very often, but I heard more to like in it in this performance than I have before. I will revisit it.

Before being plunged into the revolutionary Beethoven, Matthew Guerrieri, author of The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination, addressed the audience in a very casual manner about the historical context of the Fifth. He prepared us for the novelty of seeing displayed on screens at either side of the stage projections of the numbers of times Beethoven repeats the famous four-note motif as the Symphony is played. I am not sure if it was a distraction or an enhancement. You certainly listen differently when you see the numbers flashing before you. In the first movement alone, there were 271 repetitions, and 530 altogether. (Which begged the (equally novel) question: Was Beethoven a proto-Minimalist?)

The Fifth contains an enormous amount of energy, but Outwater was not willing to stampede the music for the sake of it. Yes, he released its power, but there was also some highly expressive playing (particularly in the winds), some delightful pizzicato playing in the strings in the third movement, and a good deal of nuance all around. In other words, Outwater did not strain things to show us how revolutionary the music is. He let it speak for itself, and by doing so displayed its novelty and its exhilarating majesty in a convincing way.

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