Spoleto Festival Orchestra takes on Beethoven 

Fresh takes on the old master's music

You just can't beat Ludwig van Beethoven. Even after two centuries, for many his music is the ultimate embodiment of classical greatness, all that's immortal about serious musical art. The vast majority of modern composers simply can't get around bowing before him, however radically different their styles and approaches to music may be. So what's a contemporary tunesmith to do in the face of his looming shadow? How about "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em?"

After a fashion, that's exactly what two of tonight's featured contemporary composers did with quite a few of Ludwig's finest creations. Thanks to Maestro John Kennedy and the ever-astonishing Spoleto Festival Orchestra, we got to hear their works performed to perfection at Tuesday evening's festival concert at the Sottile Theatre. To boot, after intermission, they blessed their near-capacity crowd with the misanthropic master's glorious seventh symphony, what some have called his "most perfect" orchestral work.

The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven, a fairly early work (1970) by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, came at a time when he was in defiant rebellion against the classical music establishment of his time (as Beethoven was). And it seems only natural that he should pick on poor Ludwig, the most iconic "god" of establishment composers. After all, his nine symphonies still stand as sacrosanct benchmarks of orchestral art, by which the work of all subsequent symphonists has been judged. It was indeed a "bow" of sorts, as Andriessen genuinely admired Beethoven, and wrote the piece to be used in celebratory concerts on the occasion of Beethoven's bicentennial year.

It turned out to be quite a treat, and mostly a funny one, at that. The better you knew the original nine symphonies, the sweeter the treat — and the sharper the irreverent musical satire. In no particular order, we heard direct quotes — mostly just short snippets — of this symphony or that, pretty much as Beethoven wrote them. But invariably, elements absolutely foreign to the music's original design quickly began to creep (or stomp) in. We heard odd syncopations and other rhythmic distortions, sudden instrumental bleats and yawps, as well as fractured phrases and some sudden shifts in both key and melodic flow.

As if that weren't enough, Andriessen further threw in musical nods to many of our more popular genres. I heard bits of the blues and rock elements (there was even an electric guitar), plus echoes of jazz and honky tonk piano. We also heard fragments from other ubiquitous Beethoven pieces like "Für Elise" and the "Moonlight Sonata." Our accomplished players — many with smiling faces — hammed things up here and there, like when the musicians whose mouths weren't already busy blowing their brasses or woodwinds burst into song with the ninth symphony's famous "Ode to Joy" choral tune. It was all quite entertaining and drew quite a bit of audience laughter once folks realized what the composer was trying to do. In sum, it was a true delight for those of us with more adventurous ears, though it may well have been a dreadful nightmare for stuffy old Beethoven purists. But if there were any of those lurking among the listeners, they were surely outnumbered by those of us who loved it, judging from the clamorous applause afterwards.

Next up was Rewriting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, by New York-based composer Michael Gordon. He took an entirely different approach from Andriessen's, crafting mostly quasi-minimalist textures based on prominent musical elements drawn from each of the original work's four movements. Gordon worked with the brusque opening chords from the first movement and the busy background materials from the third; he played with the main melodic themes from the second and fourth movements. Again, if you knew the original symphony well, it wasn't hard to tell exactly where you were in his takeoff — at least most of the time.

Otherwise, Gordon's music came across as rather avant-garde, at least compared to the previous piece. On top of distorted rhythms, there were lots of sliding, glissando-like tones from assorted instruments, some rising while others descended. This created many interesting, but often discordant harmonic intersections that momentarily grated on the ear, often leading into passages of amorphous tonal chaos. Said intersections also created edgy effects that are best described as the buzzing of various insects (Bees? Mosquitoes?) or interweaving multiple police-cruiser sirens heard from afar.

Admittedly, it wasn't quite as accessible as the previous piece, and, though it was generally well received, perhaps it violated some listeners' notions as to what "proper" music should sound like. A friend of mine seated in a different part of the theater told me afterwards that, towards the end of the work, one older lady abruptly got up and walked out, with finger-plugged ears and a pained expression on her face.

After intermission, Kennedy and company returned to the stage to deliver the real McCoy: The entire seventh symphony as Beethoven left it to us, without modern meddling. This is the symphony that Richard Wagner called "the apotheosis of the dance," no doubt due to its rhythmic vitality, even though it's not particularly suitable for dancing (despite several lame attempts to choreograph it). Being one of my favorites among Beethoven's nine contributions to the genre, I resolved not to listen to it critically; I simply closed my notebook, sat back, and proceeded to wallow joyfully in one of the most gloriously stirring symphonic works ever penned. I never get tired of it. I won't even get all analytical on you here; if you're reading this, there's a good chance you know and love this music as much as I do.

Suffice it to say that our "orchestra of virtuosos" gave us an absolutely thrilling performance of it, tearing into the music with tremendous gusto, plus youthful vitality and verve. I won't discuss the orchestra's illustrious origins and manifold musical virtues further. Under Kennedy's deft and assured baton, they performed with unerring skill and spectacular sound. While it was the first time I've ever heard Kennedy conduct anything predating the 20th Century, I was hardly surprised that he was just as comfortable leading this time-honored classic as he is with the much more modern fare that he specializes in. His reading had it all: carefully controlled dynamics, subtle interpretive nuance, a perfect sense of musical line, and a sure knack for unleashing the raw energy and power of his marvelous players where called for.

Even if the evening's first two pieces may well have had Beethoven doing back flips in his grave, the evening made for a fascinating modern perspective on his immortal art.

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