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Beethoven’s belated birthday

The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia presents Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony

In
3 minute read
A color rendering of the French Revolution in 1789. A fortress burns and homes collapse behind a mass of armed people
Beethoven’s most consequential symphony (or one of them, anyway) was inspired by the French Revolution. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The pandemic interrupted many celebrations, public and private. In the classical music world, no one suffered in this manner quite like Beethoven, whose 250th anniversary came and went without the proper planned feting. The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, like many ensembles, seems intent on making up for lost time; the opening program of its return season played like a belated birthday present.

The October 10 concert had a festive air for many reasons. It was the Chamber Orchestra’s first public performance since February 2020, and the first performance given at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater since the campus reopened last month. There is an undeniable thrill in hearing Beethoven’s towering music in such an intimate space, and the musicians offered an ambitious program centered on the composer’s towering Third Symphony—best known by its subtitle, Eroica (Heroic).

(One of) the most important

In pre-concert remarks, music director Dirk Brossé referred to the Eroica as “the most important composition that changed the history of music.” But Yannick Nézet-Séguin—leader of the Kimmel Center’s other resident orchestra—recently said much the same thing about the Fifth before a performance just across the plaza. I guess everyone has their own opinion about which Beethoven symphony irrevocably altered the world. For his justification, Brossé emphasized its composition in the wake of the French Revolution, which ushered in the first true freedom of speech and thought to modern Europe. He also highlighted its reputation as “the first Romantic symphony.”

Despite this thoughtful exposition, Brossé and the Chamber Orchestra did not offer an overly intellectualized reading of the Third. Those familiar with the score would not come away hearing anything with fresh ears, and although the musicians played at an unfailingly professional level, the performance itself lacked a sense of specialness. This was blood-and-guts Beethoven, with fast tempos, luxurious vibrato, and little sense of the period authenticity that has become a fad in recent years, despite an orchestra scaled to the size that would have been heard in the composer’s own time.

Brossé held things together admirably and mostly got what he wanted from the orchestra, though there were signs throughout that additional rehearsal time might have been warranted. These came in the form of tentative entrances, slight tuning issues, and variances in dynamics that needed to be controlled from the podium. Typically, these are issues that would be worked through behind the scenes, although there was something undeniably compelling in seeing the players find their rhythm again, warts and all, before a live audience.

Ah! perfido and Blame not the Plane

Ah! perfido, Op. 65, Beethoven’s sole concert aria, preceded the Eroica. Curtis Institute soprano Sophia Hunt communicated the wild emotional journey of the aria’s subject with subtlety and grace, shifting effortlessly between fury, resignation, and resolve as she processes her lover’s betrayal. Her voice has a slightly metallic timbre that is not traditionally beautiful, but she compensates by moving evenly through registers and up to cleanly produced ringing high notes. Brossé’s accompaniment was somewhat ragged, with a rushed middle section and an unhurried conclusion that zapped the finale’s dramatic tension.

The afternoon began with Blame not the Planes, a new composition by Nathan Bales, who is also a student at Curtis. The 10-minute work fits with the current trend of writing programmatic music in conversation with Beethoven, and echoes of Eroica could be heard in the shifts between thundering tuttis and elegant solo writing for individual strings and woodwinds. As with Eroica too, it contains more than a few false endings. I won’t edit Beethoven, but Bales could stand to lose several minutes without diminishing the overall effect of his piece. He’s a composer with a solid style, who showed no trepidation in putting himself in conversation with one of the greats. I hope to hear more from him in the future.

What, When, Where

The Eroica Symphony. Bales; Blame not the Planes. Beethoven; Ah! perfido, Op. 65, and Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica.” Conducted by Dirk Brossé. Sophia Hunt, soprano. Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. $40-$140. October 10 through 11, 2021, at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or chamberorchestra.org.

All audience members aged 12 years or older must show proof of full vaccination to enter the Kimmel Center. Children younger than 12 years must provide a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of a scheduled event. Masks must be worn at all times. Seating is not socially distanced.

Accessibility

The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.

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