Itasca Symphony celebrates 250 years of Beethoven

One of the first known portraits of Beethoven, painted when he was 13 and had just completed his first piano composition

Feb. 15 concert honors the composer’s 250th birthday and his commanding influence on music thereafter

Depending on your perspective, 250 years can be a huge amount of time or a blink of an eye.

In 1770, the United States was a British colony years away from declaring independence. King Louis was wed to Marie Antoinette (only 14 years old) and Captain Cook first sighted Australia. Dinosaurs had died out 66 million years previous, give or take 250 years.

Oh yeah, and this guy named Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770 too.

To celebrate the birth of one of the most (deservedly) famous composers of all time, the Itasca Symphony is opening their Valentine’s Weekend concert on Saturday, Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Reif Center with one of his most (again, deservedly) famous overtures: The Coriolan.

Additionally, Grand Rapids’ newest wine bar, UnWined Up North, is joining in the celebration. Not only will UnWined host a celebration after the concert with a chance to win Fondue for Two with a wine tasting, but they have created two new orchestral specials in Beethoven’s honor: a Prosecco-based champagne cocktail with frozen berries called the Winter Sonata and a warm brie covered with cranberries, honey and walnuts called the Caped Composer.

While most of us take Beethoven for one of the ‘stalwarts’ of classical music, the composer was quite a disruptor; a catalyst for the change between what historians deem the ‘Classical’ period to the ‘Romantic.’

Many folks refer to almost all orchestral music as ‘Classical,’ but that official period sits somewhat uneasily between the Baroque composers such as Bach, Handel and Vivaldi and Romantic composers such as Chopin, Brahms and Wagner.

What Beethoven so brilliantly achieves in his best works bridges the satisfying form, structure and resolution of Baroque and early Classical music with the passion, humanity and social commentary of the Romantic era.

Ludwig was a man of passion, thrust into music by his father who wished to create another Mozart-like child prodigy. He wrote his first composition at the age of 13, studying with the best musicians in Bonn, Germany.

He headed to Vienna a month before he would turn 22 years old; that’s when he really began to mature as a composer, though his original goal was to be a performer. He studied violin and became renowned as a piano virtuoso. He published his first works for piano in 1795; these and subsequent works would finally bring Beethoven financial security.

In 1807 Beethoven premiered his 4th Symphony along with the Coriolan Overture, a piece inspired by a popular tragedy in the Viennese theatre. It is based on the Roman general Coriolan, who abandons his country to fight for the enemy Volscians. The play focuses on both the character’s inner turmoil and the pleading from his wife and daughter not to turn his back against the motherland.

You can hear this turmoil in the explosive chords, pregnant pauses and quietly strident ascending and descending arpeggios. It’s almost as if you can hear Coriolan ruminating back and forth between two violently opposed destinies.

In the play, the general finally decides to kill himself, and after the final outburst from the orchestra, you can almost imagine the slow mournful cellos acting as a final goodbye.

This overture set the stage for some of the most beloved and performed orchestral pieces of all time from composers like Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Wagner and Schumann. Instead of composing an entire symphony, these Romantic composers could now paint a dramatic picture based on a location, a poem or a legend with a shorter piece of music that could engage and delight the rapidly growing middle-class audience for orchestral music.

After the frenzy of Beethoven’s overture, the Itasca Symphony will feature two of its finest performers showcasing pieces for the violin and clarinet.

In the ‘Meditation’ from the opera Thaïs, written by French composer Jules Massenet, we hear violinist Kristine Arntson play the voice of the sumptuous Egyptian courtesan named Thaïs. In this meditation from Act 2, this priestess of Venus contemplates her nihilistic life of sin as her former lover, a hermit living in the desert, pleads with her to change her lustful ways.

After this soulful meditation, she renounces her life and follows him to the desert where she joins a convent. Yet her former lover turned monk can no longer control the desire he feels for her. He renounces his vows and rushes to the convent only to find Thaïs on her deathbed, where he collapses in despair. Written in 1894, it is about as emblematic of Romantic-era opera as you can get and absolutely beautiful.

Mozart arrives to pick up the pieces from Massenet’s French fiasco with his inimitable Clarinet Quartet. Principal clarinet Jan McKinney performs this woodwind masterpiece, one of the very first ever written for the clarinet.

In the mid-late 1700’s, pieces like this would typically feature a violin or flute. Mozart soon after moving to Vienna heard clarinet player Anton Stadler and exclaimed, “Never should I have thought that a clarinet could be capable of imitating the human voice as it was by you.”

The brilliance of this piece comes not from the technical virtuosity, the difficult notes or the tricky rhythms but the restraint; Mozart refuses to let the voice of the clarinet be rushed or overshadowed. To truly take in this piece, the audience should attempt to breathe with the clarinet – take in a breath and let out the soulful beauty.

Finishing off the first half of the concert is Haydn’s ‘Hornsignal’ composed in 1765, five years before Beethoven’s birth. Written for four horns this piece takes advantage of the Symphony’s commanding horn section. They shine brightly, set against the seemingly simple, almost baroque rhythms Haydn creates. Just as with Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, sometimes what might seem the most simple of pieces is truly the most challenging.

Make sure to read the next edition of the Herald Review, where we’ll discuss the second half of the concert: Bizet’s Carmen Suite #1, Jurassic Park John Williams and an incredibly fun and rowdy version of 76 Trombones from the Music Man. There’s something for everyone at the February 15th Itasca Symphony Orchestra concert.

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