Saturday, March 24, 2012

Inside the Score: Beethoven's Eroica

When I was in middle school, my dad took me to the symphony for my birthday, just me and him. While I don't recall the music selection that evening (something Halloween-related, I believe) or even which venue it was in (was the Colorado Symphony playing at Boettcher Hall back then?), I do remember feeling incredibly grown-up and incredibly excited to do something like that with my dad.

Although I have been to several classical concerts since that evening, I don't go to the symphony nearly as often as I attend the other performing arts. A part of my lack of attendance is a lack of knowledge. While I certainly enjoy well-played music, I do not have the formal education to fully appreciate a symphonic performance. I have some knowledge of classical music; but the inner workings of an orchestra, the nuances of a fine performance, even the real role of the conductor are all outside my ken. And, oddly, when I am unable to critique, I find I do not enjoy my evening as much.

When I heard about the Colorado Symphony's "Inside the Score" series, though, it seemed right up my alley. So yesterday evening I curled my newly-red hair, donned my theater blacks, treated myself to dinner at the Bombay Bowl, then took myself to the symphony.

As the audience took their seats and the orchestra warmed up, a series of facts about the Eroica symphony and Beethoven were projected on the large screen that was set up behind the players. I had bought the cheapest seat possible, but the venue was hardly crowded and the usher directed me to a place closer to center because "you'll be able to see the screen better from there, honey."

The lights dimmed, the usual formalities took place, the conductor lifted his baton, and the symphony began to play. Then, not 2 minutes into their performance, the musicians stopped and the conductor turned to the audience. "That is not the beginning of Beethoven's Eroica," he said. "But it is where we are going to start tonight."

He then began a lecture on the music, on Beethoven, on Napoleon, and on art. With the use of well-planned and simply-executed slides on the screen behind him, the conductor, Scott O'Neil, explained the musical theme of this work. He crossed to the grand piano set up downstage and played that theme, E-D-F-E, pointing out how it turns around a central point. As he walked us through the variations and twists Beethoven created with the turning, he would play them for us on the piano. Then he would pick up the baton and have the full orchestra play that section of music while the musical notations for that section appeared on the screen behind them, coaxing us to pick out for ourselves what he had just taught us to listen for.

He spent the most time explaining the first movement, picking apart the theme, the variations, and using that movement to teach about musical structure - the exposition, the development, the recapitulation, and the coda. He told us how much Beethoven loved the coda - while the coda for Mozart's Symphony #40 has 11 measures, the coda for this movement has 135! Once we had a working (if basic) understanding of what Beethoven was doing technically with the piece, Mr. O'Neil then had the orchestra play the entire movement.

The second movement, the funeral march, was used to explain the Napoleonic connection to this piece. Again, the orchestra played snippets of the music to illustrate Mr. O'Neil's points. He also spoke more to the role of different instruments. They played the opening of the movement, and I was struck by how effectively the solemn and militaristic tone was set by the snare drums. Then Mr. O'Neill turned to the audience, "Those of you more familiar with the piece are aware that the snare drums are not used in this movement. Instead, Beethoven has the basses play the role of the snare drums with low, low growls." They replayed the opening, and there was the drumming of the military parade done without drums.

We learned about the influence of the Prometheus myth, of Beethoven's empathy with the fallen Titan who brought art to mankind and who suffered great belly pain. We learned about Clementi's Piano Sonata, which inspired the idea of turning musically around a central point. We learned about the Heiligenstadt Testament, about Beethoven's yearned for just "one day of pure joy." And, like any formally-trained teacher, Mr. O'Neil addressed the motivation for this lecture. He discussed the critical reception of the symphony when it was first performed, and pointed out its significance to music since then. "But why study a piece in such depth?" he asked. "Can't we just listen to a piece of music and be intrinsically moved by it?" Yes, he said. You can do that. "But context matters. Isn't it possible we can both feel with our minds and think with our hearts?"

And I wholeheartedly agree. I had more fun at this concert than I have had at the symphony in years. Mr. O'Neil is a good lecturer, and the slideshow was a very effective learning tool. It was fascinating to listen to a concert while reading the sheet music on the big screen. It was also quite fun when the slideshow took on characteristics of "The Word" from The Colbert Report, simultaneously making additional points and making fun of Mr. O'Neil. Because of the educational framework I had more fun more than I ever would have had I just listened to Eroica, and I left with two thoughts ringing in my head: 1) How very, very much my parents would have enjoyed this event as well and 2) How I am going to keep a close eye on the Colorado Symphony's "Inside the Score" series, and I am certainly looking forward to going to the symphony again.

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