Santa Fe Pro Musica, Lensic Performing Arts Center, Sept. 22
Beethoven shocked the audience when his revolutionary Symphony No. 3 premiered in 1805: Attendees reportedly yelled insults such as, “I’ll pay more money if this thing will only stop!” Most of the critics were no kinder, far preferring the piece with which it was coupled, a symphony by Anton Eberl. “Shrill and complicated,” a reviewer wrote of the Beethoven at the time. From others: “The endless duration ... exhausts even connoisseurs”; “bizarre”; and “long, very long, and contrived, very contrived.”
On Sunday, Sept. 22, Santa Fe Pro Musica opened its new season with Heroic Beethoven, a program kicked off by the now-beloved (and often played) Eroica Symphony (Heroic Symphony). The evening, which included pieces by Julia Adolphe and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, was led by music director Thomas O’Connor.
Beethoven originally intended to honor Napoleon Bonaparte with the piece, then recanted when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of the French. But the politician was never the symphony’s real subject. It was Beethoven himself, depicting a series of intensifying personal and professional struggles, including his increasing deafness. The composer undoubtedly intended to shock his audience with a deeply personal statement, reflected in the symphony’s length, its propulsive energy, its complex thematic development, and its surprising use of forms such as the fugue and theme and variations in places they weren’t expected.
Despite some impressive playing by Pro Musica, especially from the woodwinds and strings in unison passages, the first movement lacked the brio Beethoven called for (“Fast with energy,” he noted) and the sense of structural progression that would have made it overwhelming.
From there, though, the performance was fully convincing. O’Connor and his players successfully conveyed the sense of tragic doom in the second movement, an extended funeral march relieved only partially by two major-key passages. The violins ended the movement with appropriately harrowing playing of the movement’s main theme, here fractured into short phrases interrupted by silences.
The third movement, an energetic scherzo instead of the classical era’s statelier minuet, was taken at a zippy pace, with skittering string passages and dramatic dynamic contrasts. The prominent horn trios were nicely shaped. Beethoven’s finale wasn’t the usual short, fast, and cheerful fourth movement of his time. It’s almost as long as the first movement, in the form of a theme followed by 10 variations and a coda, some of which are surprisingly serious in tone. Two of the variations are fugues, which were gratifyingly easy to follow thanks to the orchestra’s transparent textures. Overall, O’Connor traced the thread of the complex movement admirably, building to a compelling climax in the rhythmically intense final passage.
Adolphe is a 31-year-old composer who came to national attention in 2014 for the performance of her Dark Sand, Sifting Light during the New York Philharmonic’s NY Phil Biennial. Its success led the philharmonic to commission a viola concerto. Adolphe’s work was highly praised in its 2016 premiere.
Pro Musica performed her Shiver and Bloom. According to the program note, the work “evokes the perceived divide between the mind and the body,” with the high instruments (violins, violas, flute, and clarinet) representing the mind and the low ones (cellos, bass, bassoon, and horn) representing the body in strongly contrasted music. The high instruments occupy the realm of contemporary musical mysticism, with its sense of the suspension of time and unresolved tonalities, while the low group is more grounded in traditional harmonies. Shiver and Bloom was a beguiling piece, even if there doesn’t seem to be a reconciliation between mind and body as it ends.
For the grand finale, Pro Musica offered Korngold’s Violin Concerto (1945). The young Korngold had been a wunderkind in Vienna, pronounced by Mahler to be “a musical genius” at the age of nine and acclaimed internationally for his opera The Dead City (Die Tote Stadt), a work that achieved phenomenal success, written at the age of 23. He emigrated to Los Angeles in the mid-1930s and became the first composer of great stature to write Hollywood film scores.
For Korngold, classical music and film music were one and the same. Most of his music for cinema was symphonic, as can be heard in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood. He unhesitatingly used musical material from five of his film scores in the violin concerto, most notably in the third movement, a theme and variations on a tune that was originally heard in The Prince and the Pauper. Violinist Jascha Heifetz, who premiered the concerto in 1947, asked Korngold to make the final movement even flashier, so it’s now a virtuoso showpiece for soloists.
Colin Jacobsen’s playing was fluent and sweet-toned throughout, with an impressive command of the florid sections, especially those in very high registers. He was emotionally involved without going over the top into blatant sentimentality and he executed the lyrical and elegiac passages with eloquence. His playing of the third movement was impressively assured, from the many pizzicati (plucked strings) at the beginning to the fiendishly fast double stops at the conclusion.