From Music Director Daniel Meyer in preparation for our March 10 concert titled the Brilliance of Beethoven
Beethoven. He doesn’t even need a first or middle name. The name evokes majesty, brilliance, excellence, struggle, triumph, greatness. Alongside Mozart and Bach, Beethoven probably looms largest across the planet in sheer number of marble (and faux-marble) busts that exist of the man. His status as one of the greatest composers who ever lived on planet earth is most assuredly fixed, and it’s a wonder that re-creative artists like myself, Alec Chien, the voices of the Erie Philharmonic Chorus and the musicians of the Erie Philharmonic even dare to perform his music. History has constructed a pantheon around Beethoven, for better or for worse, and it sometimes seems like sheer folly to think that we can come close to realizing what this genius intended to revel in his notes and rests.
But among all the marble, there is something much more tangible about Beethoven’s music. Despite the brilliance and other-worldliness that certainly characterizes much of the intention behind his music, there is an earthiness and a real, imperfect human struggle imbued in the textures, phrases, rhythms, and melodies of his music. Beethoven was a man, writing for other women and men. He knew we would struggle to come to grips with what he wanted, but that was all part of the bargain. In exchange for the opportunity to peer into the mind and soul of this man, we must offer our best. Not satisfied to simply render the notes and rhythms in the right place at the right time, our quest must ever be to reach to touch the divine spark that inspires a man who suffered so much, yet offered such opportunity for joy.
Our two works this weekend wonderfully encapsulate what Beethoven was about – an earthbound genius working his hardest to deliver music that embraces the community but celebrates the individual. The Fourth Piano Concerto is one of the most beautiful examples of the wit, fancy, imagination, and technical brilliance that converges in one piece to challenge the solo pianist-hero, speaking the language of the composer-hero, making music among the auditor-participants (the orchestra) in service to the listening public. The Choral Fantasy, takes this one step further in introducing text, operatic soloists, and a full chorus to this interplay of orchestra and pianist. The words Beethoven sets are aspirational, and they serve as a torch pointing towards what he would ultimately achieve in his setting of Schiller’s Ode in the finale of his Ninth Symphony. Heady, for sure, but ultimately thoroughly captivating as a piece of music as well as a philosophical statement.
Bernstein was our own American Beethoven. Another genius of staggering proportions, Bernstein was able to immediately absorb, comprehend, and then relay the great utterances of the marble composers (what a pianist, what a conductor!), but was also bold enough to try his own hand at creative expression. From theatre masterworks like West Side Story and Candide to film scores like On the Waterfront, Bernstein strove to find a large audience, beyond the walls of the classical concert hall. Yet Bernstein also existed in those hallowed halls as a brilliant interpreter/conductor/pianist. He embraced his classical training and was rightly counted among the finest performers in that realm in the twentieth century.
The work we will perform this weekend, Chichester Psalms, perfectly represents an artist fusing popular idioms. Bernstein’s pop-style melodic gift (not unlike Gershwin’s), his own Jewish heritage, and his serious, classical bent deeply influenced by his favorite composers like Beethoven and Mahler conspired to make him stand alone atop a musical Olympus where very few should have tread. Yet like Beethoven, Bernstein embraced his imperfections and humanity in a way that endeared himself to his musicians and his public. He was a man of the people, above the people, and we are richer today for his efforts in both the creative and re-creative realms. Our concerts this weekend embrace what both Beethoven and Bernstein meant to us as inspired artists deeply concerned with shaking us, the performers and audience, to the core of our existence.