Beethoven saves yet another concert season...

It's that time of year again when orchestras pull out the big guns for their finale concerts. The Omaha Symphony went pretty safe and programmed an all Beethoven concert -- always a crowd-pleasing event. John Pitcher, of the Omaha World-Herald, has the review.

Review: Beethoven finale marks triumphant end for season

Is there anything Beethoven can't do?

The Omaha Symphony's recent Masterworks programs have seemed a lot like advanced-placement music classes.

You were asked to identify all the non-chord tones, augmented 6th chords, and explain the use of enharmonic reinterpretation as a tool of modulation?

I hate when that happens.

Over the past couple of months, music director Thomas Wilkins has challenged the audience with a daunting 21st-century flute concerto and a thorny 20th-century symphony.

Okay, so it's this sentence that caught my attention in this article. I decided to see what daunting and thorny works the poor patrons of the Omaha Symphony were subjected to.

The flute concerto was a world premiere performance of Trail of Tears for flute and orchestra by Michael Daugherty.

Now, I've never heard this piece, it very well may be quite the ardent modernist piece, but let me remind everyone that this is the same composer who wrote a symphony about Superman, and pieces about Elvis, Barbie, Desi Arnaz, and UFOs.

Daunting might be overstating it just ever so slightly. But I'll let it pass.

But how about this "thorny" 20th century symphony? Well, they played a few 20th century works including the ghastly atonal, melody-less Four Sea Interludes by Benjamin Britten, and the integral serialist Fountains of Rome by Respighi. But neither of those are symphonies. The only 20th century symphony on the Masterworks season calender was...

wait for it...

Copland's Symphony No. 3. And yes, that's the one with "Fanfare for the Common Man".

Yes, that "Fanfare for the Common Man". Copland's symphony, written at the height of his populist period, with one pretty, hum-able tune after another.

Listeners who didn't study their program notes were in trouble.

Well, program notes can be helpful when we hear new and unfamiliar works. But let me help out the uninformed out there. The Daugherty concerto...it's about the Trail of Tears. You know that tragic part of American history in which Native Americans were forced off their lands.

Now, I wasn't even at the concert, and have never heard this piece, but you know what tipped me off? The title. Oh, and a fifth grade education.

And the Copland? Well, it's the one with "Fanfare for the Common Man" in it.

But in any case, what was your point again?

This weekend's program is more like the class a nice professor holds outside on a beautiful spring day.

So not with thorny modernists like Copland?

Wilkins is devoting his final Masterworks program to the most familiar and appealing works of Beethoven. These pieces –– Prometheus Overture, Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony –– received bracing renditions Friday at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

"Bracing renditions"? An unusual adjective choice, but I'll allow it. The renditions could have invigorated you.

Prometheus, of course, was the mythological figure whose liver was eaten every day by a giant eagle.

Of course.

Beethoven's overture to his ballet “The Creatures of Prometheus,” however, is more concerned with Prometheus' wily intelligence than his vital organs.

figure prometheus: The amazing adventures of Prometheus.

The music is witty, charming and full of fast, ethereal passages. Wilkins and the orchestra gave this music a buoyant reading.

Buoyant? We are enjoying our adjectives today. I can't wait to see what else you have in store for us.

Beethoven's “Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61,” is widely and correctly perceived as the greatest work of its kind in the repertoire.

Of course.

Wait? What?

It's widely regarded as the greatest violin concerto? Really?

And what do you mean "of it's kind"? It's the greatest concerto of all? The greatest piece in D major?

The piece is a perfect integration of solo instrument and symphony, with the violin's seamless lines woven beautifully into the fabric of the orchestra.

I can see that you don't suffer from hyperbole in your writing.

Stefan Jackiw (jack-EEV), the soloist in this concerto, delivered a memorable performance.

"Memorable"...I expected better from you Mr. Pitcher. Might I suggest...inexpungible?

But this find the adjectives game is fun...and you know how much I like to play along at home.

Throughout the performance, the 25-year-old Jackiw played with a _____ sound, _____ tone, ______ intonation and ______ technique.


Hmmm....this is hard.

Flawless sound? Flawless tone? Flawless intonation? Flawless technique?

They all just sound so perfect.

Alright pencils down...if you guessed...

...the 25-year-old Jackiw played with a robust sound, lyrical tone, flawless intonation and effortless technique.

Well done! And really, having read it correctly, I realize it couldn't have been any other way.

Moving on.

His interpretation of the opening allegro was remarkable for its soaring lyricism. He played the larghetto as a kind of gentle reverie and the finale as a spirited exaltation.

As opposed to how Beethoven composed it?

Wilkins was the steadiest of partners, eliciting playing from the orchestra that was often majestic and always nuanced –– the delicate playing at the end of the first-movement cadenza was polished to perfection.

I am beginning to think this was the greatest concert in the history of the universe.

The highlight of this weekend's program is Beethoven's “Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67.”

I don't know. There was that thorny symphony earlier in the season called Symphony No. 3, and this is a No. 5?! A number higher than 3! How do I know I'm going to like it?

This remarkable piece, composed in 1808,...

Whew...say no more.

...contains what can be called the most famous four notes in all of music –– the three G's and E-flat that open the first movement.

To be technical, that's actually only two notes. Perhaps it's the rhythm in tandem with the sequence of notes? Perhaps?

The work's titanic struggle between dark C minor and bright C major has become a timeless metaphor for transcendence.

Well said, Mr. Pitcher. Although a popular point, it's actually quite fundamental to understanding the composition of this oft-performed symphony.

Anyone who has overcome some kind of adversity -- ...

I know. For years now, I just couldn't get stop those stupid weeds from growing in my front lawn...but then I bought a new brand of weed n' feed. Changed everything. Now, I can't listen to this symphony the same way anymore -- not without thinking about my beautiful, weed-free lawn.

... Beethoven had to overcome deafness ...

Pssh. The way I hear it, he died deaf. Sounds like a quitter to me.

... -- can readily identify with this work.

figure overcoming adversity: Yep, my lawn and I totally identify.

Wilkins' interpretation puts the emphasis where it belongs –– at the end of the symphony. He avoids the sonic violence...

Sonic violence?

figure pun: Sonic violence with a sword.

...often heard in the opening allegro con brio, opting instead for a reading that is elegant and intelligently paced.

Elegant and intelligently paced music is for sissies.

Nope, nothing but sonic violence for me.

He called for color and lyricism in the slow movement before beginning a relentless build-up of dark tension in the third-movement scherzo.

Another brilliant decision from the conductor, instead of falling into the trap of Beethoven's intentions like so many other orchestras.

The finale seemingly exploded in a blaze of C major,...

I hate it when that happens.

...bringing the symphony –– and the season –– to triumphal conclusion.

Triumphal? Really? I would have liked to have seen "splendiferous" here...a personal favorite hyperbolic adjective of mine.


Empiricus said...

"...recent Masterworks programs have seemed a lot like advanced-placement music classes."

Read: I always hated those AP kids anyway, being all smart and stuff.

Sator Arepo said...

"To be technical, that's actually only two notes"

I think you mean "pitch-classes", sucker.

Sator Arepo said...

Also, too, I love the idea of Copland the Thorny Modernist as Exemplified by His Third Symphony.

Forks are the knives of spoons!

Rockhopper said...


"The only word for this is transplendent... it's transplendent!" - a bimbo in Annie Hall

Anonymous said...

It's a disservice to Beethoven to characterize his music as somehow easier or less "thorny" than music by composers of today...in his own time, his music was plenty thorny and as "difficult" for his audiences to understand as some of our contemporary composers are for some listeners in today's audiences. I try to listen to Beethoven as if I were living in his time...WOW! All of a sudden it's new, bold, innovative, revolutionary, edgy, even thorny!

Gustav said...

@ anon: Exactly. Try listening to the Grosse Fugue and not saying, "Bartok, right?"

But obviously, it's not the actually thorniness of the music that's in question, just that music written in the 20th c. is excessively thorny by virtue of being written in the 20th c., even if it's Copland.