Ron Drummond, thou shouldst have been here at this hour

San Francisco Symphony Beethoven Festival, May 2004, reviewed by David Bratman

Ron Drummond is a Seattleite who, as all his friends know very well, is devoted to the music of Antoine (aka Anton, aka Antonín) Reicha, a Czech/Viennese/Parisian composer of the time of Beethoven. Opportunities to hear Reicha's music live are few, but had Ron been down here for the last two weeks, he could have heard Reicha have his 15 minutes, for that was about the combined length of the two Reicha works that showed up at the San Francisco Symphony's "Beethoven's Vienna" festival. I had told him about this, but he wasn't able to make it. Understandable, but it would have been worth it.

Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra's music director, has for some years organized an annual spring festival of 2-3 weeks focusing on some musical topic of interest to him. One year it was Stravinsky, another year German modernism. In 2000 the "American Mavericks" festival generated some publicity, due to arguments around the music community (which MTT bashfully addressed in his talks) as to who qualifies as a "maverick", and to programming highlighted by the first-ever professional performance of the original version of George Antheil's infamous 1925 Ballet Méchanique. (Antheil's score had included 24 player pianos, a plan stymied because you couldn't synchronize player pianos. Well, now with Disklaviers and MIDI you can. The stage looked like a Yamaha store, and emitted an amazing din that none of us attending will forget.)

So this year it's "Beethoven's Vienna," the idea being to put Beethoven's unique genius in the context in which it worked, a form of critical inquiry I'm always up for. The opening "symposium" last Thursday was basically an illustrated lecture by MTT, the illustrations consisting of short works both orchestral and chamber. The piano music was the highlight of this concert. Jon Nakamatsu played sonatas by Clementi and the unjustly forgotten Joseph Wölfl, and part of a concerto by Daniel Steibelt (the piano virtuoso who invented tremolos, here used to depict a storm). MTT himself played one of Reicha's 36 Fugues, pieces he'd discovered as a student, and one of Steibelt's Bacchanals for piano and tambourine, possibly the first music ever written with percussion solos. Steibelt would perform these pieces accompanied by his glamorous wife, a tambourine virtuoso (!) whom the audience would come to see more than to hear the music, or so MTT said. She was channeled here by Lisa Vroman, who gamely played the instrument with elbow and knee as well as hand. It was entertaining musically too.

Beethoven and Steibelt were fierce rivals as virtuosi. MTT told the story of how, at an aristocratic house concert in 1800, Beethoven had presented a clarinet trio with variations on a popular song of the day. (This piece was performed for us.) He'd hoped the popular song would increase the trio's sales, so he was rather dampened when, after it was played, Steibelt immediately sat at the piano and performed his own variations on the same song.

So at the next house concert, there was a chamber work by Steibelt. When it finished, Beethoven grabbed the cello part, dropped it on the piano stand upside down, plonked out the first few notes as they now read, and brilliantly improvised on that for an hour. That showed him. MTT said that it was soon after this that Steibelt quietly left town and took a job working for Catherine the Great. She'd actually been dead for several years, but it's still a good story.

But the real point is MTT's theory that this "found tune" from Steibelt was the germ for Beethoven's Eroica Theme. This is a melody, with a bass line playable separately, that Beethoven used in several dance works and variation sets in the next few years, culminating as the theme for the finale of the Eroica Symphony. Beethoven never otherwise re-used a theme like that, and MTT thinks he was glorying in his victory over Steibelt. So our Thursday concert concluded with the Eroica finale, for the original small orchestra (it too premiered at a house concert). The revolutionary change of scale to this monumental symphony from the smaller works we'd heard earlier was quite evident.

On Friday we heard the whole Eroica for a full modern orchestra, but still played in the lean-and-hungry post-Norrington "authentic" style. This is one work whose dimensions this approach can't shrink. We also had the Piano Concerto No. 3, with Nakamatsu as soloist, a smooth but rather stolid performance. And the concert had begun with the Anacréon Overture by Cherubini, notable for its effective crescendos that increase in both dynamics and instrumentation as they go on.

The next Thursday, "A Beethoven Journey," a tour through his obscurer works: chamber, orchestral, and vocal. Three marches used for horse shows, one of them rather catchy. A rondo for mandolin and piano. Variations on Mozart's "La ci darem" for the improbable ensemble of two oboes and an English horn - a real goodie for those of us who delight in the sour tone of these instruments. A couple of British folk songs with the piano accompaniments Beethoven was commissioned to write - he churned out dozens of these. (One of them, though using a text titled "The Soldier", turned out to be the Irish song "The Minstrel Boy".) Some solo piano pieces. A set of flute-and-piano variations. Short choral works, one accompanied by strings, one by winds, and one by full orchestra. And the overture and choral incidental music for Kotzebue's play King Stephen. (Does anyone else get a chill from a chorus singing "Heil, heil," even if it dates from 1811?)

That brings us to yesterday's symphony concert, a rare treat. First, a Reicha Overture in D - a witty and enjoyable piece, perfectly ordinary for its day except for one thing - it's in 5/8, a time signature virtually unknown then. The combination of aspects that are ordinary and expected with one that's completely unprecedented made a wonderful effect, like - I dunno - the inauguration of a woman President would. Next, a piano concerto by J.L. Dussek, the piano virtuoso who invented sitting with your handsome profile towards the audience. Written while poised on the century's edge, it combines a restrained classical 18th-century orchestra with an elaborate florid 19th-century solo part, elegantly whirled out by Jean-Yves Thibaudet (who didn't disdain to use a score). This also came out an odd combination, but think Mendelssohn or Chopin.

Lastly, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, one of my favorites. This turned out to be one of those special occasions - last experienced by me in a Mahler First a couple years ago - when MTT puts on his Aspect, raises his Attribute, places the orchestra in the palm of his hand and makes them do amazing things. Unlike the Eroica, the Seventh can appear to shrink - the piece felt like it was over in twenty minutes, though I'm sure it wasn't. Yet it had all the heft and magnitude of a slow grand 45-minute version. In the outer movements, it wasn't that they were so fast, though they were - I've heard them this fast before. It was the skill and assurance with which they were played, especially the finale. But the real revelation was the second movement. Its speed was unprecedented in my experience (but it is marked Allegretto, after all), but the lyric elegance was unimpaired. Suddenly I saw it as the ancestor to all those fine Brahms allegrettos. And of course the playing throughout put not a step wrong, neither note nor nuance. This was a performance for those who like their ginger snaps strong and their soup condensed.

The hall was not quite sold out, so it might be possible to sneak in for tonight's repeat. I hope those who already have tickets are as fortunate as we were yesterday. Next week there are three performances of a semi-staged concert Fidelio and a piano recital by the amazing Garrick Ohlsson, but other commitments interfere, so I won't be at those.

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