As those of you have who have been subject to my charms for more than 30 seconds know, I consider Beethoven to be the second coming. I do not wish this particular edition of my blog to be a dissertation on my theory of Beethoven’s importance to musical history, so suffice it to say that I believe he took music from the 18th century to the present, and that musical history has yet to move past him. Although given to hyperbole and lying, I do not consider this an exaggeration. The only proof I need offer is the Grosse Fuga, opus 133.
Once my friend and art teacher George Goebel put forth the absurd notion that Debussy was the father of modern music. Now George and I had the habit of discussing topics all high and falutin, we both having good intellect, and he being liberal, and me being the opposite, we often diverged in our opinions, and had fun doing it. But when I heard this I could not let it rest, or kindly ignore it, as I usually do opinions that differ from mine, which is to say that are ridiculous or absurd. As I believe it to be a crime to give a Frenchman a pencil and staff paper at the same time, I said “no, brother George, it was not Debussy, but rather Beethoven who was the father of modern music.” At this George did guffaw, but I felt it my duty to enlighten him on this topic, lest he finish his life with this notion still in his brain, or lest he spread this idea to the more pliable minds in his school of art. So I lent him a copy of the Grosse Fuga. The following week he brought it back and said “you are right.”
This illustrates the fervor with which I regard Beethoven, a fact well known to my beloved wife, Karen. Consequently, for my most recent birthday, she purchased tickets to a series of concerts featuring Beethoven symphonies, all to take place at the La Fenice theater in Venice.
La Fenice theater, which was gutted by fire in 1996, has been rebuilt to its former glory, and is quite beautiful. It is really an opera house in the grand style of the age, full of painted and gilded walls and ceiling, and many carvings of a most decorative and ornate style.
The first concert was Beethoven’s second and third symphonies conducted by Eliahu Inbal. Our seats were located at the upper most echelon in a box seat, from which I could see nothing. Now, there is really nothing to see, other than the gestures and histrionics of the conductor, but this arrangement would never fly in the U.S. Why does it fly here in Italy? My theory, based on no historical or scientific data, is that the place was originally designed for operas, and people came to the opera as a social event to listen to the music, and to have a sort of party, so that it was not necessary to see from every seat. Similar to a sky box at a football stadium. One may be in the back having a shrimp cocktail rather than watching the game.
When the concert started, however, I was extremely impressed with the quality of the sound. I am used to being at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore where the acoustics are so bad that there are all sorts of things hanging from the ceiling, and plexiglass panels here and there, to try to improve it. The sound at La Fenice, however, even in seats where I could not see, and where I could nearly reach out and touch the ceiling, was astounding. It was a different and pleasant experience listening to such good sound and not being distracted by the conductor. I enjoyed it thoroughly. The performance was very good, though not ground breaking, making for a very pleasant evening of Beethoven.
The second concert was conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, who was the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) for the past few years, but no longer. I went to very few concerts during his tenure because he played mostly horrible Russian music, rather than Beethoven. On the other hand, while David Zinman was the conductor of the BSO, I went many times and spent lots of money on good seats because he had the wisdom to play lots of Beethoven, and had very interesting interpretations of his works. Our seats were not much better at this concert, and we could not see, either. The performance and the sound were just as good, though again the interpretation was not Earth shaking; basic textbook and safe. I did not expect more from Temirkanov. The evening was again quite pleasant and enjoyable, except that Karen was very ill. In spite of being essentially bedridden for the prior few days, she troopered through, but it was clear as the concert wore on that her condition was deteriorating. I suggested we leave and get her home, but she would have none of it, and I have learned over the years not to argue.
Tonight I heard the 4th and the 7th symphonies, and the concert was different in every respect. Firstly, Karen could not make it to the concert because she is in San Pietro Terme to get her citizenship, on which the continuation of this little fantasy of ours depends. It would have taken a Herculean effort and a lot of money to get here for a two hour concert. So I sat through it by myself.
The other thing that made the night different, and made it the more painful for Karen to be absent, was that instead of bad seats we had seats in a box in which there were only 4 chairs. This is how I like to roll. And the seats were one level above the orchestra level, and I could see everything. It was wonderful.
On top of that, the performance was the best yet. It was again directed by Eliahu Inbal, who this time put on a much more energetic performance. I thought that the first two performances, including the one by Temirkanov, were technically satisfactory, but ordinary interpretations not played with much real energy or enthusiasm by the orchestra. Tonight’s performance, however, was vastly better, particularly the 7th, which actually showed some creativity in interpretation, and was played with energy, as though the orchestra really wanted to play it.
Let me add one thing about Mr. Inbal. During the first concert I could not see the conductor, but I was sure I could hear someone singing with the orchestra. Either there was a kooky member of the audience singing along, or it was the conductor. I asked the man in front of me whether he heard it, and he acted like I was crazy. I did not hear it during the concert conducted by Temirkanov. But tonight I could see the conductor and I again heard the singing. And I saw him do it, particularly, it seemed, when he was trying to get something from the orchestra that they were not delivering. I found it a bit distracting, and it could account for why he is not known in the U.S. – we don’t allow our conductors to sing during a concert.
If you are coming to Venice, you should look at the La Fenice schedule and see if there is a concert you could make. It would be very much worth your while.
And finally, I would like to thank my lovely wife, who is the brains of this operation, for probably the most wonderful birthday gift I have ever had, with the possible exception of when she took me to beer camp. (Yeah, you heard me, beer camp).
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