For many he is the greatest composer who ever lived.
For Wagner he was "a Titan, wrestling with the gods." For Tchaikovsky he was a god. "Keep your eye on him," Mozart is said to have advised some friends after having heard him improvise as early as 1787. "Someday he will give the world something to talk about." When he died 40 years later in Vienna, Schubert, Czerny and Hummel were among the mourners.Certainly he changed the shape of music. Without losing his classical moorings, he ushered in the age of romanticism, from the heaven-storming of the "Eroica" Symphony and the "Tempest" Sonata through the sublimity of the late quartets. (In the Ninth Symphony they all seem to come together.)
So who better to hold a festival for than Ludwig van Beethoven? Which is exactly what the Utah Symphony is doing this week, with five days' worth of concerts beginning Wednesday, June 27, at 8 p.m. in Symphony Hall and ending Sunday, July 1, at 4 p.m. at Snowbird.
On hand besides the orchestra and music director Joseph Silverstein will be pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who will be heard in the Third and Fourth Piano Concertos as well as the "Appassionata" and "Kreutzer" Sonatas. In the last, part of a period-dress chamber concert, he will be joined by Silverstein on the violin. (The latter will also solo twice in the Violin Concerto.) There are even rumors that Beethoven himself may put in an appearance, in the person of actor Edgar Weinstock.
Silverstein tells how the idea of five straight days of Beethoven was his, as a celebratory way of launching the orchestra's summer series. The fact that Beethoven traditionally sells, he says, had nothing to do with it. But if it does go well, he hopes to do the same next year with Mozart, in honor of the 200th anniversary of that composer's death.
The focus, for the most part, will be on the kind of high-profile works cited above, along with the Seventh Symphony and the "Prometheus," "Coriolan" and "Egmont" Overtures. (Please see the appended list for a complete rundown.) But the Thursday-night chamber program will also include the Septet, and the Friday- and Saturday-night concerts are being preceded by chamber programs of their own, to be presented each evening at 6:15, including such things as the C major String Quintet and the Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola.
Indeed, it was the chamber music that Silverstein remembers igniting his love of Beethoven.
"I remember quite vividly the first time that I heard the Op. 130," he says. "I must have been 8 or 9 and I was sitting in the second row of a concert by the Budapest String Quartet. I came out of there mind-blown. I couldn't believe such a piece of music existed." Currently, he says, his favorite Beethoven includes the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Op. 131 Quartet ("perhaps the greatest single piece of music I know").
At the same time he finds the corpus as a whole "a never-ending source of fascination. I would say the divine ease of Mozart as opposed to the human struggle of Beethoven. And I would be very unhappy if I had to be deprived of either."
Not surprisingly, Ohlsson's first intensive exposure to the Bonn master was via the keyboard, specifically the so-called "Moonlight" Sonata, which he learned on his own because he was bored with the exercise books his teacher had given him. Interestingly, he also was around 8 or 9 and says it made a "pretty big impression. I remember it made my head hurt because I thought it was so tiring."
Subsequently he was to acquire additional insights into Beethoven through exposure to not only a wider range of works but also a wider range of interpretations. First, he says, it was the "high-voltage style of Heifetz, Horowitz and Toscanini," largely by way of the RCA Victor Record Club. Then came his first encounter, via his concerts in New York, with Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter.
"He was the first person who ever made me listen to a slow movement transfixed," Ohlsson says of that experience, calling it "a major turning point in my life." But, he acknowledges, Richter had a high-voltage style of his own ("to put it mildly") and it was not until he heard Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau in the "Emperor" Concerto that he found himself confronted with what he calls "a moral force, a high seriousness of purpose" as applied to Beethoven's music.
"Not that other artists don't bring that, too," Ohlsson is quick to add. "But that was the first time I really felt the shape and weight of an entire piece. Here was this tremendous sense of tension and long-range architecture lasting over vast stretches of time. And although it may sound simple, I learned that Beethoven can be beautiful and not just forceful, tempestuous and developmental. He could be all those things, but he was also very humane, with a great lyric gift."
Friends didn't always find him humane. Nor, one imagines, did the waiter at whom he once threw a plate of food because he had mixed up an order. Yet that is just one of the contradictions in a man who could charge the public for eavesdropping on a rehearsal and get into continual rows with his publishers yet whose generosity when he was moved kept those same friends coming back.
"You create such scenes!" the faithful Anton Schindler wrote following another blowup in a restaurant at which he was accused of having skimmed the receipts from the premiere of the Ninth. "I almost did not return."
We know, as they must have known, the severity of the internal struggle. The boy whose love of music was so great that even being beaten by his father when his playing did not please him could not kill it. The composer whose growing deafness - that most unbearable of curses for a musician - he would not acknowledge for years and even near the end of his life still sought a remedy for. The incurable romantic whose attachments, nearly always for women above his station, never resulted in the long-hoped-for marriage. The devoted family man whose legal wranglings for custody of his nephew managed to turn off all concerned. (On more than one occasion he was heard to refer to his sisters-in-law as "whores.")
These were all Beethoven, and out of them sprang not only the defiance of the Fifth Symphony but - as the sketchbooks show us, so agonizingly arrived at - its ultimate sense of triumph. Ditto the hymnlike serenity of the "Pastorale" and joyful celebrations of brotherhood that are the Ninth Symphony and "Fidelio."
Visually, at least as seen in the portraits, he has become something of a cliche - the glowering visage peering out from beneath the unruly mane of hair. Yet we know he smiled, even laughed, at times. Indeed the last of his string quartets, the incomparable Op. 135, fairly dances into the sunset, the stern humor of its finale not quite including us in what must have been a private joke (again, over money he felt was due him).
We also know he knew his worth, as did those around him. At his one meeting with Goethe - between them perhaps the greatest creative spirits of the age - Beethoven tells us they happened on the imperial family. According to Beethoven, Goethe dutifully took his place by the side of the road with the rest of the crowd while he resolutely forced his way to the front. "Princes and courtiers stood aside," he says. "Duke Rudolph raised his hat to me. The empress bowed to me first. The great of the earth know me and recognize me."
A lot may have changed in Beethoven performance, especially in recent years. After nearly two centuries the fortepiano is being touted as a still-viable, if not the only viable, instrument on which to perform the keyboard music. Period performances of the symphonies have made us newly conscious of the metronome markings and the changes wrought on our perception of the composer via modern instruments and a greatly expanded orchestra.
"I suspect most of us who grew up in the post-World War II era tended to look at classical music through the wrong end of the telescope," Ohlsson reflects. "I happen to love the late-19th-century romantic style Furtwaengler and his colleagues represent, but I can recognize that sometimes their Beethoven sounds more like Wagner than it sounds like Mozart. Today we're moving toward a less monumentalized view."
Silverstein agrees, adding that, although he still finds the more expansively romantic approach valid, he prefers to go the other direction - i.e., in pursuit of Beethoven the classicist. "Frankly," he says, "I feel that some of those performances are terribly overloaded and that one tends to lose some of the more delicious inner details of the score because of the thickness of sound."
What would Beethoven himself have thought, the man who authorized his publisher, if he wished, to omit movements from the "Hammerklavier" Sonata on the grounds that it was 50 years ahead of its time?
"I am patient," he wrote on his deathbed while awaiting further surgery, "and I think that all misfortune brings some blessing with it." Yet eyewitnesses tell us that, on the night he died, lightning flashed and his hand was raised in a tightly clenched fist.
The final contradiction, or perhaps the final acknowledgement of his unconquerable spirit?
"The great of the earth know me and recognize me," he said.
They still do.
Symphony plans 5 days of Beethoven concerts
Here is a complete listing of concerts on this week's Utah Symphony Beethoven Festival:
Wednesday, June 27, 8 p.m., Symphony Hall - Pianist Garrick Ohlsson will solo in the Piano Concerto No. 4; violinist Joseph Silverstein will solo in the Violin Concerto and conduct the orchestra in the "Coriolan" Overture.
Thursday, June 28, 8 p.m., Symphony Hall - "Ludwig and Friends" Chamber Concert: Silverstein and Ohlsson will perform the "Kreutzer" Sonata; Ohlsson will perform the "Appassionata" Sonata; members of the orchestra will be heard in the Septet for Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass.
Friday, June 29, 6:15 p.m., Symphony Hall - Members of the orchestra will perform the Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola and the Op. 3 String Trio.
Friday, June 29, 8 p.m., Symphony Hall - Ohlsson will solo in the Piano Concerto No. 3 and Silverstein will conduct the "Egmont" Overture and Symphony No. 7.
Saturday, June 30, 6:15 p.m., Symphony Hall - Members of the orchestra will perform the Trio for Two Oboes and English Horn, Op. 87, and the C major String Quintet.
Saturday, June 30, 8 p.m., Symphony Hall - Silverstein will conduct the Overture to "The Creatures of Prometheus" and the Symphony No. 9, with soprano Kimberly McCullough, mezzo-soprano Laura Garff, tenor Michael Best, bass Peter Van De Graaff and the Utah Symphony Chorus.
Sunday, July 1, 4 p.m., Snowbird Pavilion - Silverstein will solo in the Violin Concerto and conduct the "Prometheus" Overture and Symphony No. 7.
In addition Plazafest, featuring German food, music and dancing by the International Folk Ballet, will be on the plaza each evening before the Symphony Hall concerts.
Tickets to all events are priced from $45 to $67.50 (for reserved seating), or any two performances plus the June 28 chamber concert may be purchased for $25. Individual tickets range from $10 to $15, with the chamber concert priced at two tickets for $10 or $15. Snowbird tickets are priced from $13 to $20.
For information call 533-NOTE.