Contrary to claims by Chuck Berry and the Beatles, Beethoven has not rolled over.
Listening to famed Canadian bassoonist George Zukerman talk about the German composer, he emerges as a fresh, revolutionary figure not yet burdened by the prevailing image of the scowling and brooding composer of emotionally sweeping symphonies, none more famous than Symphony No. 5 in C-Minor and its ominous opening.
Zukerman and a 10-musician ensemble billed as an all-star team will bring this less familiar Beethoven to the Sidney stage of the Charlie White Theatre in the Mary Winspear Theatre this Saturday (March 26) to help celebrate the extended 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth on the banks of the Rhine in Bonn, Germany in 1770, albeit two years late because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Young Beethoven offers an opportunity to pay homage to a musical giant while appreciating a different side of him.
By way of explanation, Zukerman said, “A, he is the probably the world’s greatest composer ever, and B, this repertoire, with the exception (of one piece), is very, very seldom heard.”
That piece is Beethoven’s Septet in E flat major, Opus 20, written just before his first symphony. “The septet was a remarkable piece that he wrote in about 1798 or 1799 and it was a cross, halfway between chamber music and symphony, on the threshold of greatness.”
This transitional piece mirrors the historical context, as the 18th century associated with the Enlightenment passed into the 19th with its Romantic period marked by countless revolutions.
“This was before you had the scowl,” Zukerman said. “He was very much under the influence of Haydn and Mozart, but already expressing the independence and reality of the new generation. It’s very vital.”
Beethoven started to resent the piece, he said, because its popularity at the time threatened to overshadow the composer’s other work. Little did Beethoven know at the time that his catalogue of work would enter the canon of great art and culture, on par with the literature of Shakespeare and the paintings of Rembrandt.
Saturday’s show, as suggested, will largely eschew the pieces that propelled Beethoven into this illustrious circle of artists and popular imagination in favour of far less well-known works, including part of a never-completed piece for quintet. “The quintet is a very unusual piece that I doubt many people in Victoria have heard and Victoria is a very sophisticated music centre,” Zukerman said.
“It’s written for an astonishing ensemble of clarinet, bassoon and three – count them, one two, three – French horns. It’s an astonishing piece and we are showing how it was the genesis of the symphonies that came later. Everything we show leads to the great, great Beethoven everybody knows.”
This Beethoven remains an omni-presence on concert hall bills, in popular entertainment (think of Stanley Kubrick’s use of Ode to Joy in a Clockwork Orange) and as an inspiration for past and present musicians, including the Beatles with John Lennon claiming he wrote Because, on the Abbey Road album, after listening to Beethoven.
Saturday’s show will also offer an opportunity to celebrate what has gone largely missing during the COVID-19 pandemic, interaction between audience and musicians.
“We are looking forward so much to playing,” said Zukerman, who won’t play himself but will play an important role by offering commentary along the way. That knowledge base comes from an extensive musical career that earned him an Officer of the Order of Canada honour, among others, as well as the work of his late brother Joseph Wilfred Kerman, a leading musicologist and Beethoven scholar.
“He was perhaps the world’s most notable Beethoven scholar and a little bit – not much – rubbed off on me.”
Tickets are $35, available online at tickets.marywinspear.ca or by phone at 250-656-0275 or at the centre box office.
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