Results tagged “Beethoven” from ARTicles

The difference between going to a concert given by a great string quartet, like the Pacifica Quartet, and even a very good one, like the Belceas, is that in the presence of great musicians, you forget about everything but the music itself.  I'm not saying you don't notice the players' lovely individual characters, or the way they beautifully interact with each other, or even the fact that they are all terrific musicians; these are factors, inevitably, in the way you take in the music at a live concert. But when the musicians are as dedicated, as talented, and as cohesive as the Pacificas are, what finally comes through is the pure expression of the composer's gift. All intermediary considerations drop away:  you do not ask yourself how well this interpretation works, or which of the four musicians plays with the most originality, or even whether this performance accords with your preconceived idea of the piece.  For the duration of the concert, the performance is the piece, pure and unadulterated by any considerations of individual ego or pyrotechnic display.

Or so I felt on Saturday night at the Peoples' Symphony Concert in Chelsea, when the Pacificas performed three of my favorite pieces of quartet music:  Haydn's Op. 76, No. 4, Shostakovich's Second Quartet, and Beethoven's Op. 132.  All critical sensibility dropped away, and I simply relaxed into the pleasure of hearing these gems played perfectly, one after the other.  The Haydn is something I listen to all the time on my iPod; it is part of the background music of my life.  The Shostakovich is dear to my heart: though it was only the composer's second venture into the form, I think it's in some ways the most stirring of his fifteen quartets (and the Pacificas, in my opinion, play it better than anyone else, living or dead). The Beethoven, though undeniably one of his late great quartets, somehow gets shamefully neglected in my internal list of music I care about; it always takes hearing it again, especially in a beautiful performance, to remind me that it is indeed one of the best.

I was thinking approximately these thoughts as we were approaching the end of the powerfully wrenching Heiliger Dankgesang movement in the Beethoven, when suddenly the stage lights went out.  They didn't go out with the abrupt shock of a power failure:  they faded, as if on a predetermined schedule, and at first the audience evidently thought the Pacificas had decided to use lighting effects to echo the music's somber, contemplative mood.  But I know the Pacifica Quartet too well to think they would ever stoop to such flashy tricks, and soon everyone realized that this "trick" had gone on too long.  The Pacificas bravely continued playing in the dark to the end of the movement. Then they paused, and a member of the Peoples' Symphony Concerts staff--the only member of the staff, if I can judge by the fact that he collected tickets, arranged the stage backdrop, and informed us where the bathrooms were--came to the stage and announced that since he couldn't figure out how to turn the stage lights back on, the concert was over.

I consider myself a socialist at heart, and I like the idea of a concert series that charges $13 per ticket and holds its events in high-school auditoriums.  But incidents like this repeatedly prove to me that if something is called the Peoples' This or That, disorganization and incompetence are likely to ensue.  I hate to say that we must have administrative dictatorship and wealthy patronage to make arts presentation possible.  Surely there is some other alternative--some way the People can sponsor the best in musical performances without allowing the lights to go out.
November 11, 2012 6:34 AM |

They lost me on the Grosse Fuge. 

Last Wednesday, as I noted a couple of posts ago, the Belcea Quartet performed excellently if eccentrically in Beethoven's Op. 127 and 130.  But now, in the final concert of their scheduled Beethoven series, those eccentricities moved to the forefront and began to consume their host. Modernism does not need to be exposed or discovered in the Grosse Fuge: the piece has enough discord, enough wildness, enough rhythmic disunity of its own, and when the Belceas' tendencies in that direction were super-added to it, the result was almost a caricature, a fiendish exaggeration.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that Grosse Fuge I heard at Zankel Hall on Friday night was not, to my ear, Beethoven's.

But then they won me back with Opus 131. It was a fine, sensitive performance, with a few mild oddities of timing here and there, and an extra-harsh bowstroke or two (or three), but manifesting none of the destructive willfulness the Belceas had displayed before the intermission. The four string players were attuned to every subtle passage of this remarkable piece, and they gave full and complicated attention to the numerous transitions from intensity to softness to near-silence, from melancholy to resurgence and back again. Their playing throughout was filled with delicacy and emotion, and one felt at the end (as one should always feel with Op. 131, if it is done right) that one had been through something important.

And then they capped the evening with a lovely encore, the Ländler movement from Op. 135.  As the violist said in his brief introduction, they were performing this as the encore for two reasons:  "One, because we didn't get to do it the other night, when the concert was canceled.  And two, because Beethoven at one point thought of ending his Opus 131 with this movement, so it seemed a fitting way to end the evening."  The cellist then leaned over and whispered in his ear, and the violist added:  "And also because we love this movement."  It showed, in their moving and rigorously restrained performance.
November 10, 2012 5:02 AM |
Mother Nature appears to love President Obama. She sent him a tropical storm to ruin the Republican convention.  When that didn't prove sufficient, she provided a hurricane to win him the support of Governor Christie and Michael Bloomberg (not to mention all the needy citizens who were helped with surprising rapidity after the storm). Finally, she delayed the cold, wet, snowy weather by a single day to allow east-coast Democratic voters, who are notoriously less weather-resistant than Republicans, to make it to the polls on Election Day. 

She has not manifested the same fondness for the Belcea Quartet.  The first of their three Beethoven concerts at Carnegie's Zankel Hall was canceled last Saturday in the aftermath of Sandy.  Their second concert, which took place last night, required audience members to trek through a horrific Nor'easter (I know, it sounds quaint, but it is really just a massive dose of snow, wind, and rain, all mixed foully together) to get to the concert hall, with the result that Zankel was only half full.

This is a shame, since the Belceas are one of the most interesting young quartets to come out of Britain (or, for that matter, Europe as a whole) in recent decades.  They are vigorous and at the same delicate in their approach. They have a strong feeling about the music they are playing, and they translate that feeling into practice.  In last night's program--consisting of two remarkable late Beethoven quartets, Op. 127 and Op. 130--they manifested skill at every level. The quiet parts of Op. 127, in particular, were so entrancing that the audience seemed to be holding its collective breath; you could have heard a pin drop in the silences. 

If Mother Nature has an excuse in her unfair prejudice against them, it would be because there is something, well--I hate to use this word, for fear it will be misunderstood, but-- "unnatural" in their approach. I don't mean this as a criticism, exactly, for the strangeness, the eeriness, is partly what gives their playing its strength.  They are eccentric almost to the point of willfulness in their interpretations.  The results are never outlandish--both 127 and 130 were recognizably themselves on Wednesday night, with all their usual delights--but the Belceas do something with timing and particularly with dynamics that makes the quartets sound like nothing you've ever heard in anyone else's recordings.  In places these four players are the very opposite of cohesive: your ear finds itself picking up the underlying cello or second violin line almost as a separate theme you've never noticed.  This is Beethoven's wild inventiveness pushed to its furthest extreme, the quartet as break-out music.  Yet the result is not always violent: the Belceas' dynamic range is such that their quiet portions are surely the softest passages I've ever heard in these string quartets. At times you feel yourself leaning forward to catch the slightest puff of sound, and it almost disappears before you've heard it.  The method is intriguing, even captivating, and it is certainly Beethoven; it's just not at all what anyone was expecting. That may be all to the good, but I will have to wait for Friday's performance of the tremendous Op. 131 to be sure.

(I realize, by the way, that in the course of these daily blogs I have become as much weather reporter as arts critic.  I apologize, but it seemed unavoidable:  the environment was just too overwhelming.  Here's hoping that, in the final dozen or so days of my postings, the arts will fight back at full strength.)
November 8, 2012 5:54 AM |

PrometheusPHOTO.jpgMaybe it's true of all botched vacations: There can be a silver lining. To paraphrase Dorothy, sometimes when you're looking for your heart's desire, you may not have to go any further than your own backyard. Which is a good thing because that's how far I got when I had to abandon plans to spend spring break in Chile visiting my brother and reporting on the arts. I ended up staying in the Boston area where the arts chops are pretty sharp these days. And yeah, it's true: I didn't have to go more than four T stops to find my heart's desire.

1. Prometheus Bound directed by Diane Paulus at American Repertory Theater's Club Oberon in Cambridge.

Do you like your revolutions Greek style? Diane Paulus does. Her decision to focus American Repertory Theater's season on classics - as in Aeschylus and Sophocles (add her touring Broadway revival of Hair which, coincidentally, stops in Boston this month) - has turned out to be prescient given the headlines in Africa and the Middle East. Prometheus is another example of Paulus' gift for musical spectacle with gender-social-political-choreographic (did I leave anything out?) commentary glinting from a disco ball. For a show in which the protagonist is chained to a rock for most of the story, there's a lot going on here. There's no escaping the action whether you're with the groundlings - the throngs of fist-pumping youths on the center floor - or seated off to the side in a banquette where a trio of hauntingly pale chorus angels in combat boots might nudge you aside to use your table for a scene. Paulus had a dream team in script and lyrics writer Steven Sater (Spring Awakening) and composer Serj Tankian (System of a Down). The storyline may feel Greek to our ears because of the volume, but the production is rousing - and features the usual lineup of hyper talented performers who seem to give their souls to Paulus' vision of Outsiders Are Powerful. Thank you, Prometheus, for the bright ideas. We have some people in Wisconsin who would have found you very inspiring.

2. The Sun Also Rises by Elevator Repair Service at Arts Emerson's Paramount Theater.

After last year's Gatz, which ranks in the Top Ten Performances I've seen in three decades of theater going, I hoped Elevator Repair Service wasn't going to be a one-trick pony. It isn't. Select14_sm.jpgDirector John Collins has three important talents: He understands pacing - and isn't afraid to take it slow. He understands humor - and isn't afraid to combine the nuance of the aforementioned pacing with the nonsense of stagecraft. And he loves literature enough to know that a book is one thing and a stage play is quite another and that the two are related but not pathologically. If anything, Collins is a master of the remix. Purists may have walked away saying, "This isn't Hemingway!" Fine. That is fine. But I walked away wondering if I got the cultural wink in the Ferrante & Teicher poster on the wall - and not caring much for the answer because, well, it seemed very Hemingway not to overwork a symbol. In the end - and Collins crafts one of the

March 23, 2011 12:31 PM |


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