Absolutely Beethoven

Absolutely Beethoven
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson
Opera House Concert Hall, February 14

I’ve always said I never really started listening to music until I was fifteen. It’s not as ridiculous a claim as it sounds. Simply, before then I listened to commercial radio stations, whatever was on, and didn’t really develop any kind of taste or personal predilection for any one song over another. Sure, the first CD I bought was The Cat Empire which is cool enough, permissible even, and growing up mum and dad preferred classical music to anything else, but I never really knew what music was, what it could do, what it was capable of. In 2005, I very quickly learnt what music was, when my best friend introduced me to Holst’s The Planets. In a matter of minutes – well, as soon as Marsfamous swirling strings and thundering ostinato hurtled from the speakers – I knew this was something worth listening to, was worth sitting up and taking notice of. Some years later, he leant me a boxed set of Beethoven’s symphonies, and it was like that moment with Mars all over again. I knew, of course, Beethoven’s Fifth, and the ‘Ode of Joy’ from his Ninth, but not much more than that. (It was later that year that I discovered The Beatles, but that’s another story.)
Enter, then, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and their new chief conductor, David Robertson. Renowned for his warmth and rapport with an orchestra, as well as his advocacy for music as a vital part of a healthy upbringing and education as much as for his conducting, Robertson’s Beethoven season could only be nothing short of incredible. I count the Seventh symphony among my favourite pieces of music, and I leapt at the chance to see this, his inaugural concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in his new position as Chief Conductor. I was not disappointed. I’ve seen the Seventh symphony performed once or twice before, but never before have I heard – or is that seen? I’ve never been able to work out if you go to hear or see and orchestra; do they play or perform? – never before have I heard it played like this. There was a crispness to it, a freshness and a vibrancy, a fierce and robust richness to it that confirmed why it is such an incredible piece of music.

Built around a series of rhythms, the Seventh symphony is as alive a piece of music as you could ever find. Unlike his Fifth Symphony, “where the opening rhythmic motif is developed, fragmented and expanded, the Seventh Symphony adopts a treatment of rhythm and pulse that emphasises obsessive repetition of distinctive patterns.” From the skipping motif in the first movement, to the forceful and urgent uncertainty of the second (which was, so we are told, encored immediately upon its premiere in 1813), the third’s playful juxtaposition of themes, to the interlocking and fevered rhythms of the fourth, we are shown a vision of creativity positively humming with vitality, vibrancy and movement; with Life itself.
Programmed alongside Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, and the Australian premiere of John Adams’ Absolute Jest, for string quartet and orchestra, you can see themes and motifs twist and turn from one to the other, a kind of grand dialogue from first to last. Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements harks “back to the energy of [The] Rite of Spring, harnessing its earthy passions in an elegant formal structure,” and there’s a fierceness to it, but also a kind of geometry – there are little cellular modules that are placed alongside each other, almost tessellating, in a way that recalls John Adams’ work in the minimalist aesthetic. Around the time Stravinsky wrote the Symphony (1945), he was considering revising his groundbreaking Rite of Spring from thirty years before. Ultimately abandoning that idea, we can potentially read the Symphony as fulfilling “the purpose of the revision perfectly: the need for a reprise of that sort of volcanic expression.” You only need to hear its forcefulness, see its opening movement performed by an orchestra to understand why. It is interesting then to hear (see?) the Stravinsky alongside AdamsAbsolute Jest which itself quotes Beethoven.
Absolute Jest is a vicarious beast, every bit as audacious and mindboggling as you’d expect from Adams, but it is also tender, beautiful and hypnotic, a kind of kaleidoscoping of the essence of Beethoven through Adams’ personal style, a cousin to his minimalist work. Drawing upon motifs from Beethoven’s Op. 131, Op. 135, and the Grosse Fuge, Adams creates a twenty-three minute piece which hums and spins and dances its way from its tremulous opening with harp, cowbell, and piano, with a bouncing dancing warm-up figure played on the strings, punctuated by percussion and woodwind flourishes at regular intervals, to its thrilling and sometimes chaotic Technicolored climax, only to regress back to the piano, harp and cowbells for its conclusion. It’s perhaps the work of a maverick or a madman, perhaps even a lifelong Beethoven fan, but you’re never quite sure where what you are hearing is drawn from, or whether it is outright invention.  Sometimes it’s like playing ‘spot the quotation,’ but in no way should this game diminish the grandeur, good-humour, and eversoslight cheekiness with which Adams spins his composition. Amongst it all, are glimpses of the scherzo from the F major Quartet (Op. 135) – a beautiful, hummable, danceable tune which I’ve had in my head ever since and there’s no denying the brilliance of AdamsJest. Occasionally, I’d look over at the percussionist, and he seemed to be having an absolute ball at several points, especially in the Beethoven’s Seventh; a bit like Tigger crossed with a kid in a sandpit, mallets flying everywhichway with a barely disguised glee and relish. Robertson, too, almost became part of the music itself, his jacket bouncing with a mind of its own as he conducted, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say he was dancing on more than one occasion.
Leaving the Opera House afterwards, it was hard not to hum fragments of the Seventh symphony, nor the Op. 135 scherzo, and it was the same giddy headoverheels feeling of falling in love; seeing as it was Valentine’s Day after all, it was, in a word, serendipitously wonderful. “Music is the wine which inspires us to new acts of generation, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine to make mankind spiritually drunk,” Beethoven once claimed, and in a way, I’d say he’s right. And it’s funny in a way, perhaps alarming and a little bit sad, that our idea of Beethoven is moreoftenthannot, the grumpy old German guy with crazy hair, scowling at everyone, deaf as a post, when his music is so relentlessly irrepressibly optimistic.
Douglas Adams famously said that “Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven.  Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human. Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe.” That may very well be true, but I’d like to change it slightly. “Bach might very well tell you what it’s like to be the universe, and Mozart may very well tell you what it’s like to be human. But Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be alive, to feel, and to have hope.” When the world goes to shit, and nothing goes the way its meant to, there’s nothing better to do than putting a good bit of Ludwig van on the stereo and just letting it do its thing. 

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