Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: discover beethoven 5

Saturday November 7, 2009

Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

orchestration: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon; 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones; timpani; strings

Da da da DUM!

Composed in the early 19th century, this musical phrase comprises arguably the most famous sequence in the history of classical music. It is, of course, the basis for the dominant motif in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and it is played by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on November 7, 2009, at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena.

This event transforms LACO music director Jeffrey Kahane into a musical tour guide as he discusses the intricacies of the Symphony with the audience. Then, after intermission, listeners apply their newly acquired knowledge as they enjoy the Orchestra’s rendition of Beethoven’s signature composition. Because of this concert format, in which traditional program notes are provided throughout the performance, we offer additional insight into Jeffrey Kahane’s thoughts on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. In honor of the German composer’s masterpiece, Jeffrey offers his Fifth Symphony Fave Five:

1. favorite performance
Carlos Kleiber’s legendary 1995 recording of the Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic remains my favorite performance ever of the work, live or on record. There is no other performance that I’ve heard in which the work, for all its familiarity, sounds so utterly fresh and completely vital.

2. favorite humorous take on the fifth
In the hilarious but genuinely educational recording New Horizons in Music Appreciation, Peter Schickele narrates the first movement of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony as a sportscaster. It’s side-splittingly funny, but only a brilliant musician — Schickele is a fine composer of serious music in addition to his famous comic PDQ Bach persona — with a deep understanding of what is going on in the piece could pull this off. It can be found on his album, The Wurst of PDQ Bach.

3. first experience of the fifth
Arturo Toscanini’s recording with the NBC Symphony was the first recording I ever heard of the Fifth Symphony. I can still remember the thrill of pulling the LPs out of the sleeves of the boxed set of the complete Beethoven symphonies and getting to know each of the symphonies one by one. I vividly recall the photograph on the cover of the box with Toscanini’s burning black eyes. I haven’t heard it in years, and I’m not sure how I’d feel about the performance now, but growing up with it certainly ingrained in me a sense of the sheer electricity that an orchestra could generate. Few conductors have ever surpassed Toscanini for sheer visceral rhythmic intensity, which is one of the most essential elements in this piece.

4. a glimpse into a vanished world
One of the rarest and most precious recorded documents in the history of the phonograph is a little-known recording made by Hungarian conductor Arthur Nikisch in 1913 with the Berlin Philharmonic. This rendition, by a great orchestra under a great conductor, is believed to be the first recording ever made of a complete symphony. Nikisch was one of the most important and influential conductors of his or any time, and we are very lucky to have this one amazing recording of him conducting. While the sound is subpar by modern standards, it is still a breathtaking experience that provides an incredible insight into how a great conductor heard this piece, and how profoundly tastes in performance have changed over the last century. It is utterly unlike any live performance or any recording in high fidelity that you will ever hear today.

5. fifth symphony in literature
The magnificent passage that begins the fifth chapter of E.M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, opens with the following words: “It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man.” Forster goes on to describe in exquisite detail, with humor and tenderness, the widely diverse reactions of listeners at a concert in London sometime in the early 20th century, capturing the sense of magic and wonder the Fifth Symphony can evoke. If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the entire novel, see the Merchant-Ivory film with Vanessa Redgrave and Helena Bonham Carter.