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Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011

Beethoven Concert Something to Talk About

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's season opener

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In the spring of 1787, an awkward teenager from Bonn arrived in Vienna on a mission: to meet and impress the era's greatest composer, Wolfgang Mozart. Their meeting was brief, but Mozart heard enough to advise his guests to “keep an eye on him; someday he'll give the world something to talk about.” An astute observation, indeed, for that youthful visitor was none other than Ludwig van Beethoven. In its season debut concert, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra gives the city something to talk about with an all-Beethoven program.

After moving to Vienna, Beethoven embarked on composing the most elevated type of orchestral music, the symphony. His forerunning works, including piano sonatas, trios and concertos, aided him as he felt his way through such distinctly symphonic elements as intense development, four-movement structure and grand gestures. From its very first chord, his Symphony No. 1 in C Major (1800) displayed portents of the composer's impending radicalism. English musicologist Donald Tovey dubbed the work “a comedy of manners,” and that it is: a skit in the classical style that fully lives up to the standards set by Mozart and Haydn.

1800 was also the year Beethoven first detected signs of hearing loss, which was all but complete by his 40th birthday. In his own words, he was driven “almost to despair; a little more of it and I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back.” His struggle is perhaps best chronicled in the mighty Symphony No. 5 in C Minor (1808). The allegro con brio first movement opens with the famous four-note motif that runs relentlessly through the movement (Beethoven referred to these blows as “fate knocking at the door”). By the final, it's clear that despair had turned to triumphant joy.

Late in life, Beethoven composed music the public found almost unfathomable—music meant for a later age, as he explained, but alas, also music he could no longer hear. From this late stage emerged the tremendous Grosse Fuge in B-Flat Major, which originated as the conclusion to Beethoven's 13th string quartet. But the outsized work is no mere finale. It stands as a complete entity in its own right, comprising a defiant-sounding overture, three fugal sections and an efficacious coda. The Grosse Fuge lends itself rather well to orchestration—it's the transcription for string orchestra that the MSO will perform.

Beethoven lamented that his public was perplexed by the work, but now it is widely accepted as one of his greatest achievements. Stravinsky once proclaimed it “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.”

Maestro Edo de Waart conducts performances of these works Sept. 23-25 in Uihlein Hall.