Music Director’s Message for March 28, 2020

Music Director's Message for March 28, 2020

Dear friends,

For months I had been imagining how this week would have played out. On Saturday, March 21 I would have driven to O’Hare to meet Cosette for the first time as she arrived in the US, driving her to the Holiday Inn in Rockford to begin her one-week residency here.  We would talk about the schedule of events for the upcoming week; not so much the rehearsal schedules, which she certainly has committed to memory, but of the people I want her to meet, the lunches and dinners with donors and musicians, the visit to Anderson Gardens and the Nicholas Conservatory. I would tell her about our city, which is about one-third as large as her native Santiago de Cuba and one-sixth the size of her current home, Edmonton, Alberta. I would take pride in showing her the Coronado Theatre and recounting its origins in silent film and Vaudeville, up through its renovation in the 1990s and reopening in 2001. I would offer to show her Chicago on Wednesday, a day-off between rehearsals. On Thursday Mūza would arrive (it’s been nine years since I worked with her in Champaign-Urbana), and I would eagerly attend their first rehearsal together, anticipating a great bond between these two remarkable women from very different parts of the world. Friday’s “Sound Bites” would, I’m certain, be one of the most memorable and enjoyable in the history of these events, as our luncheon attendees got to know Cosette and Mūza. Finally, on Saturday, March 28, I would sit in the lower balcony with Marti, my father-in-law, and maybe my son and his girlfriend, and enjoy the RSO’s performance under Cosette’s baton.

The bubble bursts, the dream fades, the Coronado is dark and empty, the musicians are home.

Home is where I will be this Saturday, with Marti, the dogs and the cat. We will take a break from binge-watching Homeland and The West Wing, and try to recreate the concert that we will not be able to attend. I invite you to join us, from the shelter-in-place of your own homes.

If your television was purchased in the last ten years, chances are that it is a “smart tv”, with access to streaming services and the internet. On our Samsung, selecting “apps” takes us to a choice of streaming providers such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc. One of the options is YouTube—the same YouTube that is accessible on a computer or smartphone—and this is where we will start.

Without a keyboard, selecting a YouTube video is a bit cumbersome. You start with “search”, and then, letter-by-letter, enter the name of what you’re looking for. As you click away, Ouija-board-style, letter by letter on the screen, YouTube tries to guess what you’re looking for, offering suggestions on the left. Sooner or later (and when you’re looking for classical music titles, it’s usually later) the right title will pop up and you can click on it. Then a seemingly-infinite parade of possibilities shows on the bottom of the screen, and you can select one.

I invite you to “re-create” Saturday’s concert on YouTube, from the comfort of your living room/family room/den/home theater. And while none of the possibilities will include Cosette, Mūza or the RSO, you can find many excellent performances to choose from. Unlike a live concert at the Coronado, you may have to put up with an occasional commercial, but if a button appears on the screen reading “Skip Ad”, click on it.

In the section below, I’ll comment briefly about each work on the program. First, I’ll recommend search terms for clicking into your Smart TV screen. Then I’ve including a couple of links that you can click on from your computer, to help you decide if you want to view it on your television.

Opening the concert is Missie Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for orbiting spheres). This is a beautiful, hypnotic work that uses some unusual instruments and evokes some fascinating soundscapes. It lasts 10 minutes, and I’d recommend listening at least twice, even if not in the same sitting (that’s an advantage to having access to a recorded performance).

Search: mazzoli sinfonia
Michael Morgan, Stony Brook Symphony Orchestra
ASU Symphony Orchestra (also includes works by Carter Pann and Dvořák)

Next is Camille Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor. There are quite a number of performances available, ranging from students to giants like Artur Rubinstein. You’ll have to decide if you want to choose an audio-only video (I know, that’s redundant, but you get to look at an album cover or photo montage while it plays) or see a recorded performance. Another option, if you’d like, is to listen to a performance while watching the music on the screen.

Search: saint saens piano concerto 2
Neeme Järvi conductor, Grigory Sokolov, piano
(this version lets you follow a musical score as the performance unfolds)
Misha Damev, conductor, Dmitry Shishkin, piano


Stretch your legs, use the restroom, go to the kitchen for a snack or pour yourself a glass of wine! You get to choose how long!

The second half is Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major. 2020 is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, and you’re going to see (and hear) a lot of him in the next season. No. 2 is one of the so-called “even-numbered” symphonies, which for a couple of centuries have been considered “lighter” than the odd-numbered works. I’ve never subscribed to this, even though I can see how it got started. There’s no question that No. 3 (Eroica), No. 5 and No. 9 were conceived by LvB as grander artistic statements than the others. Just by their lengths, No. 3 and No. 9 are in a class of their own. But I don’t hear No. 1 as being more “serious” or “weighty” than 2, 4, 6 or 8, and No. 7 (IMO) only stands out in comparison to No. 8, which Beethoven clearly intended to be a more light-hearted work as he prepared for the colossal Ninth.

We humans like to find patterns, and once we do, we like to ascribe meaning to them. And once we think we understand the meaning, we let that perceived meaning lead us by the nose. Today, when I listen to recordings of the odd-numbered symphonies made in the early-to-mid 20th century, I am struck by how bloated and ponderous they sound. As a young man I attended performances of these works by the Chicago Symphony, thinking that it was perfectly normal that it took 95 musicians (including quadruple woodwinds and brass) to do justice to an odd-numbered Beethoven symphony. That’s about twice the number Beethoven would have wanted! With only a few exceptions, Beethoven wrote for pairs of woodwinds, trumpets and French horns, timpani and a comparably proportioned string section.

Then there is the matter of tempo. Beethoven included metronome markings for all of his symphonies, which in theory would tell us exactly what he wanted in pacing and feeling. For centuries these metronome markings were routinely ignored; in fact, some conductors performed his works at half the tempo Beethoven indicated! It was widely believed that Beethoven’s metronome was faulty (it was not: it still exists and is accurate). Over the centuries between the time that Beethoven’s symphonies were fresh, new music and the when they had been consecrated as “masterpieces”, much changed in musical styles and performance practice. In the age before sound recordings, it was impossible for a musician in the later 19th century to know how Beethoven’s music was played in his day.

The desire by many of today’s performers to more accurately recreate what Beethoven (and all great composers of the past) would have intended is often called “historically informed performance”, or H.I.P. As much as possible, players use modern replicas of the same instruments that Beethoven’s players would have used. These include natural trumpets and horns (valved instruments didn’t appear until the 1820s), smaller timpani with calfskin heads and hard sticks, wooden flutes and earlier versions of modern oboes, clarinets and bassoons. The members of the string family had reached their final stage in their evolution by Beethoven’s time, but the quest for an “authentic” sound prompts some players to use old-style gut strings, which have a softer, less metallic sound than modern metal strings. Another big difference is vibrato. Today’s string players are taught to use vibrato constantly, whereas it was used only rarely in Beethoven’s day, and for special expressive purposes. Finally, and to my mind somewhat obsessively, there is pitch. Our modern standard for tuning is A=440 (some European orchestras prefer it a little higher). In Beethoven’s time it was lower: about A=430. H.I.P. orchestras use the lower tuning, which you will notice immediately if you compare one of their recordings with that of a modern orchestra.

All of this is in preparation of my recommendation of John Eliot Gardiner’s interpretation of Beethoven’s symphonies by his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Earlier this month Gardiner and his orchestra performed all nine of the Beethoven symphonies at the Harris Theater in Chicago. I attended the last two concerts (No. 4 and No. 5, and No. 6 and No. 7), and it was one of the highlights of my concert-attending life. If only Beethoven could have heard his works played with that kind of skill and commitment! The premieres of his symphonies were without exception under-rehearsed and badly played, usually in unheated theaters in the middle of winter!

If Gardiner is not to your taste, or if you want to see and hear a full video, there are dozens of options available on YouTube. Just pick one! And after you watch it, try another orchestra.

I’ll leave you with one more thought about Beethoven’s Second. He wrote it most of it in 1802 while he was staying in Heiligenstadt, a small town that is now part of Vienna. It was during this time that he came to terms with the realization that he was becoming deaf. The heart-breaking letter he wrote to his brother that came to be known as “The Heiligenstadt Testament” is from this period. And yet, in spite of the despair he felt at losing the sense most precious to a musician, this symphony can only be heard as a joyful affirmation of life. Only once do I hear (or think that I hear) the anger and rage Beethoven could show in later works like the Fifth Symphony. That is in the coda towards the end of the finale. And again, it is strictly my own, subjective feeling. A musical composition may be, by definition, an expression of a composer’s inner self. But over and over again, we see examples when a composer in failing health and deep despair can write joyous music, and the happy composer can write music that explores the depths of human passion. Beethoven’s Second is one of my favorite symphonies.

Search: Beethoven symphony 2 gardiner
John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

Stay healthy, and I hope to see you again soon.




Steven Larsen