If you like the Beatles, you might consider giving Beethoven a chance.
The Portland Symphony Orchestra begins a three-season, nine-concert focus on classical music’s ground-breaking genius, beginning with concerts Sunday and Tuesday at Merrill Auditorium that will feature Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, also known as “Pastorale.” The orchestra will play two more Beethoven symphonies this season – No. 3 in February and No. 7 in April – and three in each of the following two concert seasons.
The three-season cycle gives audiences the chance to learn about Beethoven and become familiar with his influential music, which regularly shows up in pop culture in movies, soundtracks and on TV.
“Beethoven is the key figure in many ways when it comes to being the catalyst for changing the musical world from one era to the next,” PSO artistic director and conductor Robert Moody said. “He did to shape his music what the Beatles did to shape rock ‘n’ roll. To think of how the Beatles’s started with ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ to what they finished with, I think the Beethoven comparison is apt.”
Beethoven – who lived just 56 years, from 1770 to 1827 – changed the course of music, ushering it from the classical to the romantic periods.
Over three concert seasons, audiences will experience all phases of Beethoven’s symphonic expression. He also wrote sonatas, quartets and in other musical forms, but it’s his nine symphonies that have made his name synonymous with classical music.
Each of Beethoven’s symphonies stands as a masterpiece in itself and each is different, representing a stage in Beethoven’s musical development, Moody said.
A few stand out.
The Fifth Symphony, with its distinctive opening four-note motif — da-da-da-dum — is among the most performed pieces in music history. But Beethoven’s Ninth, which will close the concert cycle with a program all its own in spring 2017, is widely considered the highest achievement of any composer in any period of time.
“Pastorale,” which begins the cycle on Sunday and Tuesday, represents the German composer’s love of nature, hence its nickname. He wrote his sixth symphony in the early 1800s, and referred to it as “more an expression of feelings than a painting.” It is cheerful and serene, and consistent with feelings he associated with being in the country, among nature.
Robert Lehmann, a conductor and violinist who teaches music at USM, advised people to listen to Beethoven with “19th century ears.” What he means: Don’t impose your modern understanding of music on Beethoven. Instead, imagine hearing his work for the first time. “He wanted you to feel something when you listened to his music,” Lehmann said. “Let it wash over you.”
In Beethoven’s era, audiences were well versed in their music. They prided themselves in their sophisticated understanding of both its form and execution. Beethoven surprised them with his harmonic shifts and unexpected turns that broke with tradition and made him a maverick. That’s why he is still known today – he was recognized in his time as someone who didn’t follow norms, and the nearly two centuries that have passed since his death have done nothing to diminish his reputation.
Beethoven’s music remains standard repertoire for most classical musicians. Lehmann, who subs with the PSO, guessed that nearly every musician in the orchestra has played each of the Beethoven symphonies a dozen times and some as many as 30 times.
That said, not many musicians get to play the entire cycle in a concentrated period.
“Some of the big boys can pull it off, like New York or Boston or San Francisco,” Lehmann said, noting that larger orchestras occasionally perform the entire Beethoven symphony cycle in a single concert season.
For a small orchestra like Portland to attempt it over three years is unusual, he said.
For the orchestra, the Beethoven symphony cycle enables it leave its sound on a body of work against which many orchestras measure themselves. “It’s one orchestra in one concert hall taking on this monumental body of work,” Moody said. “This gives us the opportunity to define the sound we have right now. It’s a great opportunity and a great challenge.”
Lisa Dixon, the symphony’s executive director, said the series has proven popular with ticket buyers. The orchestra encourages fans to buy flex passes, enabling them to tailor their ticket purchases around the Beethoven concerts. In addition, the orchestra is featuring Beethoven in its KinderKonzerts, a musical education program for families.
Moody said “there is no great mastermind” behind the sequencing of the symphonies. In the early planning stages, he considered scheduling all nine in a single season. When those plans changed, it was mostly a matter of figuring out which symphonies held up as a group.
This first year, with Nos. 6, 3 and 7 on the schedule, audiences will get a heavy dose of the Romantic period Beethoven, Moody said. With these, we see him break from the hard-and-fast rules perfected by Haydn and Mozart and “begin to blaze new trails harmonically.”
WHEN: Begins at 2:30 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “Pastorale.”
WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland
HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $25 to $75 through PortTix; 842-0800 or porttix.com
PACKAGE DEAL: The orchestra will perform three Beethoven symphonies in each of the next three seasons. Compose-Your-Own ticket packages allow people to bundle tickets to specific concerts for a discounted price.
NEXT SEASON: Maestro Robert Moody will announce the 2015-16 concert season at noon Tuesday at Holiday Inn by the Bay
If we try to understand his early symphonies we must do that by first studying Haydn’s and Mozart’s works, as Beethoven’s first and second symphonies are the continuation of the Viennese symphony tradition, characterized by maximum rigor in creating themes, choosing means of expression and most of all in establishing musical architecture.
His third symphony, the “Eroica,” marks a new period in Beethoven’s musical creation. This work, with its strong programmatic background, prefigures the apparition of the romantic symphony. The march, as a musical genre, is introduced for the first time ever in a symphony, in the second part. The classical symphony begins to fade away.
The next symphonies build on his previous work innovating and surprising at the same time. His fifth symphony is unique through its sonata like form of the first part. His sixth, “The Pastorale”, can be considered a series of symphonic poems connected by related melodic motifs.
In his seventh and eighth symphonies, Beethoven brings new elements in the aesthetic expression of musical content while his ninth and final work represents the apogee of the Beethoven symphony. The “Choral”, as it is known, represents the synthesis of all the musical means of expression utilized by Beethoven until that point, and builds even further by introducing the choir in the fourth part.
Beethoven himself said, “Symphonies are the best representation of my true self. I always seem to hear within me the sounds of a great orchestra.”