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Fest’s ‘revised’ Beethoven may hit sour note with fans

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WASHINGTON — Some music lovers may think it's sacrilege — like drawing a beard on the "Mona Lisa." But the National Symphony Orchestra is determined to perform a retooled version of Beethoven's revered "Ninth Symphony."

The Kennedy Center calls it "Beethoven by Mahler by Slatkin."

"For those who know this music well, you'll have fun spotting the differences," director Leonard Slatkin said in announcing a 10-day Beethoven festival. "And for those who are just coming to hear Beethoven, it's still Beethoven."

The revisions come from composer Gustav Mahler, who wrote nine symphonies of his own a century after the master. His versions of Beethoven — Mahler put his mark on six of Beethoven's nine symphonies — will be the nub of programs Sept. 7-16 at the Kennedy Center. Slatkin says it's the first time such a festival has focused on the reworkings.

Mahler did not change rhythms, solos or melodies. So don't expect to hear a rhumba rhythm in the "Ninth Symphony's" great "Ode to Joy." But at the start of the movement, he did add a tuba — an instrument that did not exist in Beethoven's time.

Mahler aimed to improve the sound of passages in which groups of instruments play together and need strengthening, said David Pickett, a former conductor of the Bloomington (Ind.) Symphony Orchestra who is advising Slatkin on the festival.

Beethoven had to deal with much smaller halls and far fewer musicians than today's 100 or more instrumentalists at symphony concerts, Pickett explained in an interview. So Mahler felt the weaker sounds of strings and woodwinds had to be reinforced to balance the stronger brass instruments like French horns.

Mahler's editing of Beethoven generally pleased performers. But he made his changes in red ink on the printed music, and critics studied them skeptically.

"They saw a lot of red ink and they raised the roof," Pickett said. "Mahler got someone to write a one-page defense in rather flowery language and handed it out at a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic on Feb. 2, 1900."

Mahler also took out some repetitions, including at least one that may have been cut only for a New York audience.

"The Viennese love their composers," Pickett said, "and if one repeats the same melody 25 times they want to hear it 25 times. Americans aren't so patient."

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote some music with no indication of what instruments should play it, leaving the impression that it could be performed with whatever was at hand. But in Beethoven's time, orchestras were more solidly established, and he made it clear just where the horns should blast in and what passages should be carried by clarinets or violins.

"He was deaf, but he knew the musical colors he wanted," said Pickett.

Composers have been tinkering with Beethoven's work as far back as Richard Wagner. Pickett said Mahler did a more thorough job using natural sound to get the effects that today's engineers try to create with microphones and loudspeakers.

"It's not like painting a beard on the 'Mona Lisa' and not being able to get it off," Pickett said. "You can always go back to Beethoven's original score."