Solzhenitsyn returns with the Chamber Orchestra

Eroica without the hero worship

Solzhenitsyn: Music as a spiritual experience.
Solzhenitsyn: Music as a spiritual experience.

In his program notes for this week's Chamber Orchestra concert, Bernard Jacobson provided a definitive answer to a question that musical commentators have pondered ever since Beethoven's Third Symphony entered the standard repertoire.

As all dedicated readers of program notes know, Beethoven originally dedicated the Eroica to Napoleon Bonaparte, who had seemed like a leader in the struggle to liberate mankind when he first led the armies of the French Revolution. But Beethoven subsequently tore up that dedication when Napoleon crowned himself emperor and proved he was just another power-hungry despot.

So how, in that case, should we think of the Eroica if not as a monument to the world's first modern dictator?

Many writers have argued that we should just think of it as a general statement about heroism. Others feel the true hero is the composer himself.

Jacobson suggests that the Eroica should be heard as "a paean to human greatness.... a grand and inspiring essay on humanity at its noblest."

That's a variation on the "general statement about heroism" attitude. But I've never seen it expressed so precisely. What's more, Jacobson's thesis shifts the emphasis. Viewed his way, the Eroica becomes a statement about humanity's potential as a species, rather than a celebration of individual heroism.

As we humans face the realities of our new century, with all its possibilities for both progress and catastrophe, a performance of the Eroica can provide a stirring reminder that we've met horrendous challenges, generation after generation, and proved we can rise to the demands they impose on us.

Spiritual musician

As a leading exponent of the Russian and German tradition that music is supposed to be a spiritual experience, Ignat Solzhenitsyn is the ideal conductor to lead such a performance. You could hear that commitment in every movement of the Eroica that he conducted on Sunday.

In this performance, Solzhenitsyn once again also demonstrated that a chamber orchestra performance of a major symphony, staged in a hall of suitable size, can bring out values that often become blurred when the symphony is played by a larger orchestra in a vast hall.

As Solzhenitsyn noted in his remarks after Sunday's performance, the Eroica was originally performed in a hall smaller than the Perelman Theater, with an orchestra that was probably half the size of the 33-piece orchestra he had just conducted.

A standard modern orchestra, with some 60 instruments, is four times the size of the Eroica's original orchestra. That discrepancy creates problems that can distort important moments.

In a number of passages in the Eroica, for example, a big interlude for the whole orchestra is followed by a brief solo on one of the woodwinds. When the big passage is delivered by a large orchestra, you mostly notice the drop in volume when the lone woodwind enters. In a chamber orchestra performance, the contrast in volume is less striking, so your mind focuses on the change in instrumentation, as Beethoven undoubtedly intended.

Soloist vs. orchestra

Sunday's concert opened with Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, with Solzhenitsyn doubling as conductor and soloist. The Fourth is generally considered a reflective, contemplative piece, but in Solzhenitsyn's hands it seemed almost as heroic as the symphony.

Karl Middleman's Classical Symphony once preceded the Fourth Piano Concerto with a lecture that linked it with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Beethoven had attempted a ballet on that subject, and the concerto recycles music that he created for the ballet. As the lecturer described it, you could follow the myth through the three movements of the concerto.

Jacobson touched on this idea in Sunday's program notes. The entire second movement, he noted, can be seen as a struggle between the soloist (representing Orpheus and his lyre) and the orchestra (representing the demons of Hades). The pianist confronts the rage of the orchestra with soft, soothing music, then gradually calms his adversaries and takes command.

Split personality

Solzhenitsyn managed to capture the drama inherent in the movement even though he had to assume a split personality, subduing the monsters in his role as pianist and leading them in his role as conductor.

The connection between the concerto and the sad story of the myth breaks down as soon as the soloist and the orchestra launch into the concerto's buoyantly cheerful final movement. Beethoven was writing a concerto, not a ballet, and concertos normally end with the kind of exuberance that conductor Solzhenitsyn drew from the orchestra and pianist Solzhenitsyn drew from the keyboard.

This was Solzhenitsyn's second visit to the Chamber Orchestra since he ended his tenure as its music director in 2010. When I reviewed his first return visit last year, I said his appearances added "depth and soul" to the Chamber Orchestra's offerings, and hoped he would retain the connection. (Click here.) The Chamber Orchestra has just announced that he'll be back again on April 7, 2013, to conduct Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Verizon Hall, in a special program entitled "The Fall of the Berlin Wall." Mark your calendar.♦

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