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Beethoven Rules at the BPO

Two weekends of music by the Master

Buffalo Philharmonic music director JoAnn Falletta will be on the podium for the next two weekends to lead her orchestra in two pairs of concerts devoted entirely to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, featuring some of the composer’s best known works as well as the BPO premiere of an innovative new production of a neglected masterpiece.

The “Ninth”

The Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, has had such a huge presence in Western culture from its premiere up until the present day that it is “the Ninth.” For the BPO programs on Saturday March 21 at 8pm and Sunday March 22 at 2:30pm, Falletta was creatively inspired to program Beethoven’s ninth along with the composer’s Symphony No.1 in C major, Opus 21. “This is the first time that I’ve performed Beethoven’s first and last symphonies on the same program” says Falletta, “since I wanted to show Beethoven as the giant that he was, straddling the Classical and Romantic eras in European musical history. While displaying early signs of his later creative genius, Beethoven’s first symphony, composed in 1800, is very much still in the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart.”

Beethoven first visited Vienna at the age of sixteen, and he played the piano for Mozart, who remarked “Keep an eye on him, he’ll make a big noise in the world someday,” prophetic words indeed, from one musical genius about another. Beethoven’s connection with Haydn was both deeper, but more fraught. When Beethoven permanently moved to Vienna in 1792, Haydn accepted the very talented young man as a pupil, but Ludwig soon managed to alienate the older composer with his left wing political views, his easy going religious beliefs and his uncouth rough manners. While their formal educational relationship ended quickly, Beethoven continued to learn important lessons from his close study of the older composer’s scores that squarely set him on the path to his own groundbreaking compositions.

Beethoven read the work of the great German poet and dramatist Friedrich von Schiller as a boy, and planned for over thirty years to set Schiller’s ode “An die Freude” (To Joy) to music. While earlier sketches exist, it was only in early 1823 that the first movement of the ninth symphony was completed with the entire work being finished in February 1824. The vocal integration of Schiller’s ode into the structure of a symphony gave the composer the most trouble. Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s pupil and first biographer, writes that in November 1823 the composer “entered the room exclaiming ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it!’ and showed me the sketchbook with the words, ‘Let us sing the song of the immortal Schiller—Freude,’ whereupon a solo voice immediately begins the hymn to joy.” The ode’s celebration of the universal brotherhood of man has continued to resonate for the last 200 years. “Whenever I study the ninth symphony prior to a performance it always seems somehow new and even startling,” says Falletta. “It is so complex, and a little bit of an emotional coaster ride that is not over until the final note is played.”

Egmont vs. the “Emperor”

So, how do you follow the Ninth Symphony without seeming anticlimactic? Falletta neatly solved that problem by programming the mighty Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat major, “Emperor” along with the complete incidental music to Goethe’s drama Egmont, for the next pair of concerts on Friday, March 27 at 10:30am and Saturday March 28 at 8pm. The “Emperor” concerto—a name given to it only in English speaking countries, by the way, and as the great British musicologist D.F. Tovey so memorably put it, to Beethoven’s “profound if posthumous disgust”—he first admired then despised Napoleon—was composed in 1809 during the siege and subsequent French occupation of Vienna. “The concerto was composed near the end of what I like to think of as Beethoven’s prolific golden period,” says Falletta, “when his musical language was fully mature and his musical gifts were at full strength.” Norman Krieger, a Buffalo audience favorite who performed Beethoven’s third piano concerto under Falletta’s baton some years back, is the soloist. The performance will be recorded for a future CD release on the orchestra’s Beau Fleuve label.

Beethoven composed the Emperor Concerto in the same year he composed the incidental music for a revival of “Egmont,” Goethe’s 1788 play celebrating the heroic struggle and death of the Dutch patriot Count Egmont against the tyranny of the Spanish, who controlled Holland during the 16th century. While Goethe’s play is rarely performed anymore, even in German speaking countries, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture is a concert hall favorite. A concert stage version, with a narration based on a text by Austria’s greatest poet Franz Grillparzer and featuring the incidental music of Beethoven, is much more rarely performed, with the only previous performance by the BPO dating back to 1970.

“Egmont is the quintessential kind of character that Beethoven admired,” says Falletta, “a tragic hero who gives up his life for the ideal of liberty.” This performance is presented in collaboration with Road Less Traveled Productions, Scott Behrend, artistic director. Matthew Witten will narrate the text for this performance, which is in English. The incidental music includes two songs, and they will be sung in the original German by the talented young soprano Emily Helenbrook, a student at Eastman who is already a favorite of Western New York audiences. “Matthew Tworek was a highly regarded violinist with the BPO for many decades,” says Falletta, “and we are very happy to have his granddaughter Emily, who has sung in several of our past Christmas concerts, join us for what should be a memorable production of ‘Egmont’.”

Information: 885-5000 or

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