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Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, January 22

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is currently in the middle of a big Beethoven retrospective. On this season’s schedule are all of the symphonies and piano concerti, all of the string quartets and violin sonatas, a bunch of the overtures and piano sonatas, and for a finale, an ambitious concert performance of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. We’ve passed the halfway point in this project now, and friends of mine are offering up their verdict: the whole thing is a waste of time. They say they’re sick to death of Beethoven and can’t believe so much of the CSO’s energy is being consumed by such hatefully overfamiliar work. Instead of a season-long retrospective, they’re saying, we need a decades-long moratorium–no performances whatever of Beethoven until deep into the next century.

Well, I’m not sick of Beethoven. If this CSO season has demonstrated anything to me, it’s that I never am going to get sick of him–any more than I’m going to get sick of Shakespeare or Rembrandt. Beethoven is unbudgeably secure in the classical repertoire. In fact, he is the repertoire: classical music is what it is because of him, and just about every composer since has had to fight off or be seduced by his omnipresent, undiminished influence. If people are still listening to classical music a couple of centuries from now, they’re going to be listening to Beethoven–and my no-account friends had better learn to live with that.

I realized all this the other night when I heard the latest installment of the retrospective at Orchestra Hall. On the podium was William Eddins– an assistant CSO conductor pinch-hitting for Daniel Barenboim, who’d had to cancel because of the death of his father–and the soloist was Itzhak Perlman. The program featured two Beethoven works, the Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto, and it began with Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto for chamber orchestra. It didn’t take long for Beethoven to obliterate his competition. The Second Symphony, as it happens, is a trivial work; the Violin Concerto isn’t remotely trivial, but the performance was only fair. Yet even in such company the Stravinsky piece was thoroughly outclassed.

It’s a shame, really. Dumbarton Oaks deserved better. Stravinsky was one of the composers who most strongly resisted Beethoven’s dominance; he spent most of his career seeking out and exploiting musical idioms that hadn’t been swallowed up by the Beethoven tradition, from baroque and ancient music to ragtime and jazz. Bach was the model for Dumbarton Oaks, a kind of mutant Brandenburg Concerto in which Bach’s lovely contrapuntal architecture is invaded by a mysterious Stravinskian darkness. It’s a little unnerving at first, because odd dissonances keep disrupting the serene surface, as though the musicians are getting flustered and making mistakes; only gradually do you notice that the jarring errors are being smoothly woven back into the intricately unfolding development. The cumulative result is lovely and strange: the baroque and modernist strains are effortlessly fused into something new, like an ancient tapestry of a cubist rose.

It’s a difficult piece to pull off, so it was probably not a good last-minute addition to the program. (The work originally scheduled, the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Exody, was postponed until February 5–probably because, if it’s a typical Birtwistle piece, it’s even more complicated and bizarre.) The musicians sounded underrehearsed; some of the mistakes, particularly in the tempo giusto movement, were for real. And Eddins didn’t bring anything new out of the work; he was content to get everybody through it without a calamity. This was too bad, because a conductor in full command of the score can find a few soft spots in Stravinsky’s exoskeleton (few composers are as emotionally unforthcoming–it’s probably one reason he disliked Beethoven so much). There are places, particularly in the allegretto, where Stravinsky relaxes his guard a little and reveals a half-supressed taste for dreamy lyricism. Eddins gave us a rather halting performance that suggested the music was nothing more than chilly and weird.

But then, that did have its own kind of interest. In fact, I’ve never heard another performance of it that made me think as much about just how weird a piece it is. It’s like something from a science fiction story–this interpenetration of the baroque and the modernist is what music would have sounded like if the Romantic movement had never happened. Or if Beethoven had never existed.

That made it a perfect curtain-raiser for the Second Symphony–the work in which Beethoven began to exist. A late bloomer, he wrote it in 1802, when he was 32. (By that age Stravinsky had already written The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring–that is, just about every work on which his reputation currently rests.) It’s a smoothly accomplished exercise, but with only fitful stirrings of what was to come. If Beethoven had died right after its premiere he would be remembered as nothing more than a minor follower of Haydn and Mozart–interestingly eccentric, maybe, but no artistic revolutionary. Nobody hearing its first performances could have believed that within a year Beethoven would be composing a star burst of innovation like the Eroica.

Of course audiences now do know how the story came out, which raises an interesting question. The Second Symphony hovers uncertainly between two stylistic universes: the one Beethoven grew up in, and the one he was shortly to create. So in which direction should a conductor push it?

I think the symphony is more charming and surprising done as a period piece–if only because you don’t normally think of Beethoven as an exemplar of Viennese elegance. And yet here he is sounding just like Mozart on an off day: swift, delicate, witty, and brainless. In a performance that reflects this world, the familiar Beethoven comes through only in incidental moments: in a few passages of grating stridency in the allegros, in the way the larghetto overextends itself, shifting from delicately dreamy to oppressively somnolent. Such odd, irreconcilable flashes of unpleasantness let you sense how impatient Beethoven was becoming, how he was beginning to shove irritably against the whole foundation of musical culture.

Eddins went down the other path, making the Second sound as much as possible like later Beethoven. This was a big, theatrical performance, heavy on the rhythmical turbulence and crowded with surging crescendos. Eddins intensified the effect by his exuberant manner on the podium–he kept twisting into knots as though coaxing extra nuances out of musicians who were perhaps balking at giving their all. I have to admit it was great fun. I particularly liked his bravado in conducting such a rarely performed piece without a score in front of him, which added to the sense that here (unlike in the Stravinsky) he’d fully mastered the music and knew exactly what he wanted the orchestra to do. But I still wasn’t convinced it was the best approach. The piece was as empty-headed as ever, except that instead of being delicate it was almost lurid.

None of those words could possibly apply to the showpiece of this concert, the Violin Concerto. It dates from four years after the Second Symphony. By then Beethoven was in the first great flowering of his genius; he’d composed the Eroica and a draft of Fidelio and would soon start on the Fifth Symphony. Every work illuminated another fresh expanse of his vast interior world. Yet the Violin Concerto stands a little apart from the other works from those years. Most of the big breakthrough pieces were wild and dark, and they created the popular image of Beethoven as a kind of musical storm front. But the Violin Concerto is genial, even playful. The soloist and orchestra are sometimes in sync, sometimes apparently indifferent to each other, but never in opposition. In the allegro the solo line swirls around the massed forces of the orchestra with the picturesque loveliness of a bird darting among the roofs of an old cathedral town. The larghetto deepens into a sense of hushed stillness; the orchestra moves with grave reserve, while the violin draws delicately figured ornaments. And the concluding rondo is a high-spirited dance. The mood throughout is sunny and accepting; it passes from confident joy to melancholy sweetness and back again.

It’s such a sturdy piece that even an indifferent or unfocused performance can work splendidly with an audience. That was the situation at Orchestra Hall: Itzhak Perlman didn’t have one of his best nights, but he still got a standing ovation. He played masterfully, as always; his fingering had all his old meltingly beautiful grace. But his bowing was weak and characterless. The violin part is mostly sweet and melodic, but it’s scattered with moments of harshness, as though some notes are being gouged out of granite; Perlman didn’t do any gouging, and sometimes seemed barely willing to move the bow at all. Even so, his exquisite technique carried him through the complex solo cadenzas (the dazzling ones devised at the beginning of this century by the great virtuoso Fritz Kreisler)–though they were so thoroughly honeyed they came off as wheedling. The bowing was more of a problem in the allegro, where the solo line has to do its witty and curious dances around the stolid movement of the orchestra, mocking, taunting, urging it on. Perlman’s playing was so unassertive he seemed like he was just along for the ride.

Eddins, meanwhile, was obviously conducting with his eyes on Perlman. His reading was clear and elegant but conceived wholly as orchestral support for the solo violin. This ran the performance aground during the larghetto, when the soloist and orchestra were so passive they sounded like that old vaudeville routine with Alphonse and Gaston endlessly deferring to each other about who goes through a door first. It’s hard to imagine an approach more wrong for Beethoven. He can be inward and elusive, but he’s never passive and he never defers. A more aggressive style from Eddins (even if he’d seized the lead and risked pissing off Perlman) would have caught better that ceaseless Beethovenian fire.

But enough of the fire came through in the end, when Perlman roused himself for a vigorous take on the rondo. And anyway it isn’t really wrong to play Beethoven for his flowing melodies–that’s as much a part of his world as his storm-crowned mountain ranges–and nobody has ever caught those melodies the way Perlman has.

Eddins too came off very well, though I was more impressed by his Second. It would be nice if he got another chance to conduct the CSO under happier circumstances. The only real disappointment was the poor performance of the Stravinsky. It’s not often programmed, and I don’t know when I’ll get another chance to hear it live. But that’s probably Stravinsky’s own fault, for trying to wish Beethoven out of existence. He couldn’t have chosen a better way to consign his own music to the margins.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): William Eddins photo uncredited.