Beethoven and the War of February 24

Night at the an der Vilar
Review of Colorado Symphony performing Beethoven’s 5th and 6th Symphonies

Beaver Creek, CO

By S.E. Barcus (and Vladimir Putin)

February 24, 2022

The Colorado Symphony (CS) perform Beethoven’s 6th and 5th Symphonies for the (mostly) wealthy skiers of Beaver Creek and Vail, February 24-27, 2022, at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek, CO.  I had a chance to see the opening night, and am SO glad I did (if for no other reason than it was a brief reprieve from Putin’s homicidal start to Europe’s greatest tragedy in over 70 years).  Not knowing what to expect, I was thoroughly impressed with this Rocky Mountain state’s symphony by the end of the evening.  (Looking through their season seemed worrying; kinda cheesy.  In between classics from the usual repertoire, they will be performing ‘works by Queen’, a collaboration with Ben Folds (ugh), among other things.…  This is not surprising, though.  When Vaclav Havel took over the Czech Republic after the Soviet block disintegrated, and they went full-on freedom and democracy, people didn’t entirely jump to the highbrow arts.  Did they flock to Kafkaesque theater?  Heck no!  They demanded sit-coms!  And so, too, America.  If you want to sell the season tickets for classical music, you might need to throw in the music from the video game Final Fantasy VII….)

The introduction to our concert pointed out that it was the most musicians (~60) on that stage at one time ever in the history of the Vilar, and that they’d always strived to host symphonic works.  The usual pretty panels of the ceiling were removed in an attempt for better acoustics.  Overall, hats off to Vilar, as well as the CS, this weekend, for pulling it off.

Theater an der Wien.

But why 6th before 5th?  Perhaps because it is the longer piece before the intermission?  Perhaps – as Beethoven did when he turned the tables on many of his sonatas and symphonies — to end, rather than begin, with the bang?  Or, perhaps because this is how they were originally performed, together, at their world premier at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on that famous night of December 22, 1808?  (Only, without the other world premieres of that same evening, including:  Ah! perfido; the Mass in C Minor;  the Piano Concerto No. 4;  an extemporized fantasia for solo piano; and finally (what he hoped would be the ‘end-with-a-bang’) — the famed precursor to the 9th Symphony — the Choral Fantasy.  I could argue this almost gives near-certainty to a diagnosis of mania.  So, the world premiere of these two beloved symphonies came with all the rest of that music – four hours in total – with an under-rehearsed, shoddy, community orchestra, in a cold, unheated theater, with Beethoven ranting and raving around like a lunatic all day and night. … In short, it must … have … been … AWESOME!  If anyone wants to produce my screenplay of the happening, “Night at the an der Wien”, please email me!)

6th Symphony in F Major, Op. 68, “Pastoral”

The 6th should be considered a special challenge, and should terrify anyone having anything to do with performing it.  More ‘holy’, perhaps, than even Beethoven’s epic late-period Missa Solemnis.  While everyone always raves about the odd-numbered 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th Symphonies (as if Beethoven’s symphonies were like the San Antonio Spurs’ Championships), the even-numbered 6th in many other ways stands alone.  (It’s like that one year Timmy Duncan got his even-numbered ring in 2014 … his “Pastoral Championship”?).  Remember that Beethoven was not a very religious person.  If he was anything, it seems he was more ‘spiritual’, and the forest canopy was his cathedral.  Beethoven: “My miserable hearing does not trouble me here. In the country it is as if every tree said to me: ‘Holy! Holy!’ Who can give complete expression to the ecstasy of the woods! Oh, the sweet stillness of the woods!”  … So, you’re performing the most revered-composer-of-all-time’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, the greatest work he ever made that was dedicated to Nature? … Um, ok, good luck with that.

Markus Stenz.

First Violinist and Concertmaster, Yumi Hwang-Williams, who herself was excellent through the evening, brought out the maestro.  Markus Stenz was our Guest Conductor tonight.  A German fellow — so the Beethoven spirit he summoned might have been in the bones? — he trained with Leonard Bernstein, among others.  

The opening movement of the 6th, “Joyful Feelings Upon Arriving in the Country”, is ‘literally’ magical.  It is awe-inspiring, how – within just the first 20-30 seconds of strings – Beethoven so instantly transports one to a casual stroll through a quiet woods.  You can listen to it a hundred times and it never, ever, fails.  And on this night — after hearing probably dozens of various orchestras play this — the Colorado Symphony with Stenz captured that feeling with an even gentler walk than I have ever heard.  Not sure if it was just a little more pianissimo, or if Ms. Hwang-Williams and her ‘team’ just played it more warmheartedly than others have, but it was beautiful.  (Another contribution might have been – despite Vilar’s applaudable efforts – the acoustics, as later on, whenever fortissimo was needed, it just never quite got there.  But hey – we can’t all have an ear-shaped auditorium like the Walt Disney Concert Hall….)

This conductor is FUN to watch.  If you don’t know much about the music you’re experiencing, it’s a good idea to watch the conductor.  If they’re good, like Stenz, they’ll lead you just as well as they’re leading the symphony players.  Stenz bounced up and down through the night, trotting like a horse as the rest of the symphony entered in with the galloping theme, baton-less, bopping his fists rhythmically whenever things danced on the off-beats here, waving his fingers around like an enchanting magician there.

And then again with the opening of the second movement – “By the Brook”– such exceptional tenderness produced by this Colorado Symphony’s strings to begin the movement!  I’m kinda sappy, but the openings of these first two movements tonight brought tears to the eyes, the music was just so gentle.  I wish they made a recording out of this night.  Sweet flute sounds, like Pan in the woods (Disney got the mythological spirit right in its Fantasia-Bacchus-filled rendering of this symphony), signify the approaching end to both the first two movements, played here and throughout the night by the excellent Principal Flutist (I assume Ms. Brook Ferguson).  

“Peasant Merrymaking”, the third movement, has a hint of the 7th Symphony, with its bouncy dancing rhythms, perhaps George Thomson’s Scottish dance tunes were sticking in Ludwig’s head by that point?  (Oh!  Look out!  There goes Stenz trotting again, actually needing to hold that bar behind him at times, so he wouldn’t fall off the podium!)  The French horns were on ONE note a little squeaky, but they quickly found their legs (lips?), and were excellent for the rest of the night.  Actually – this might have been the single moment there was any detectable faux pas, for the whole night.  (Sorry to stick that on you, French horns!)  So given that, in a live performance, this Symphony gave us a night of excellent execution.  

The 4th movement brings the “The Thunderstorm”, of course.  Ah!  Our poor timpani player, William Hill (I presume), finally gets to do something!  Pounding thunder, then rolling away, then pounding again, then rolling away, until rumble … rumble … and gone….  But then Mr. Hill had to sit down in the corner for the rest of the symphony, once again, solemn and alone – shooed off like a Black Bart cowboy villain at the end of that storm/conflict.  Near the end of the movement, there is one of those color-adding piccolo parts that reaches so high it makes you hold onto your seat like a roller-coaster that might fly off the rails because it seems so difficult.  Yet each note was hit precisely by that expert of the tiny flute, Julie Duncan Thornton (as she did again in the 5th, as well!).

Then, as Beethoven himself said about the C Major ending to his C Minor 5th Symphony, “Joy follows sorrow, sunshine – rain!”  The last movement, “The Shepherd’s Song After the Storm”, is like pure sunshine made out of sound.  Near the end, Beethoven brings the strings to such a rising fortissimo that they fill your lungs with air to the point you cannot exhale until they stop.  It literally takes your breath away, a spiritual sylvan moment, presaging that powerful ability of the strings that Samuel Barber would later exploit with his Adagio for Strings

So, you’re performing the most revered-composer-of-all-time’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, the greatest work he ever made that was dedicated to Nature? … Yes, Colorado Symphony did do that, and did it superbly.

5th Symphony in C Minor, Op.67

S.E.:  And now, folks, I reluctantly turn the 5th’s review over to President Putin of Russia, given he has a gun to my head….

Putin:  Ah!  Spasibo.  I do love ski!  And up here in Vail, I both ski and catch up with fellow world oligarchs; strategize with them on how we might soon have to adjust our methods of criminal laundering (thanks to nuisances like Alexei Navalny and those damned Panama-and-Pandora-Papers, or the studies from the likes of Thomas Piketty proving just how ridiculous-much I have pilfered from my idiot Russian serfs!  But I am confident, overall, no need worry, since to really attack criminal off-shore accounts, would mean West needs to attack its own corruption-laden white-collar crime, which I know they would never do.  Too weak, and their own people too stupid, as well!)  

Beaver Creek – you are not for me splendid like Sochi (where is beautiful, and I can kill anyone with impunity — not even needing to use poison there, if not want!), but is still nice, nonetheless….

And behold!  While here — Beethoven!  I think I as Russian psychopath, in particular, have had soft spot for Beethoven ever since Kubrick film – one with all Russian slang…?  And to mark this day, the 24th — when I have militarily invaded the peaceful democracy of Ukraine for no good reasons other than my petty revanchist desires or my childlike insecure hurt feelings that the old Warsaw block for some strange reason would rather be with EU over ME!?  Thank goodness they did not perform that damnable 9th Symphony!  All ‘brotherhood of man’ nonsense – ya ya ya!  (I do see that they do that one May 27-29 with their newly-named Principal Conductor, Peter Oundjian.)

No!  We got Beethoven’s Fifth!  Thank goodness!  I do love that symphony!  As you know, First movement is full of ‘Fate knocking on door’, from most famous motif in all classical music, those first four notes, those first five bars, and most beautiful development onward.  Stenz went with the quick, crisp opening, not the drawn out melodrama.  I like this! And Principal Oboist Peter Cooper (I presume) really stood out in this movement, I thought.  Just enchanting to hear him play.

S.E.:  Yes, I agree, I think he and Ms. Ferguson next to him both stood out.  They were quite a team together through both symphonies.

Putin:  Da.  Now shut up, or I pull trigger.  …  Where I was?  … Ah!  And so ended first movement of ‘Fate’ beating down on poor Ludwig — with deafness, with illness, with unrequited love, with financial struggles…. And yet, as we know, by end of symphony, he rose up to create one of greatest symphonies in human history, representing strength and resilience of human spirit!  The 5th is also “V” for “Victory” symphony after World War II, again something I, as Russian, appreciate.  (The Eroica would’ve been nice, too, as everyone knows I am “great man”….)  The audience loved this movement so much they applauded it by itself, as if wanting encore right then, like 2nd movement of 7th Symphony world premiere.  And who can blame them?  This Colorado Symphony perform most excellent.

Second movement, Andante con moto, with variations and rousing horns remind me that I would have military orders to go back and give when this all done.  Allegro was wonderful, especially that little fugue – oh, how I loved how Principal Cellist Seoyoen Min would bop her head, dancing to the rhythms and intertwined themes.

Last movement, another Allegro, just magnificent!  (I swear there is section there, with French horns playing a brief martial C Major into G Major theme before strings take over — John Williams blatantly ripped off for a Star War theme, da?! Or perhaps was Superman?)  And C minor symphony ends how?  With C major chords — 29 straight bars of them right up to end!  (I am surprised Schoenberg thought anything else could be written in C Major.)  As old KGB man who saw lands lost but now takes back, to bring back into my sphere of cronyism, repression, corruption, and murder?!  This ending warms my heart.  Little Russia, you know, did not fall in love with U.S, or ‘the West’, or NATO, or the E.U.  Let us be clear.  What Ukraine fell in love with were ideals of Enlightenment.  With idea that people should be “free”, and choose their leaders in a “free and open election”, that there should be a “rule of law” that is filled with principles of “Justice” and ”fairness”.  …  I – and my good friend Xi – are against these values to the fullest and stand together against such biased Western hegemony.  These values make people behave very badly, as you can plainly see.  They make them do unspeakable things like … like … speak truth, or stand up for so-called “rights” and “freedoms”.   Very bad ideals.  Do nothing but get people hurt.

Without inspiring music like the 5th, I myself might not have had the strength to overcome my own adversity.  But I have done so!  Ukraine will return to flock!  The world will become filled with C Major for Putin!  As all was not lost in 1989! 

S.E.:  But what about the innocent civilians being killed in Ukraine?  Or the drafted young Russians who you throw into battle, who don’t even want to fight, but who will die in large numbers killing their brothers? 

Putin:  Alas, if only your past leader, that useful idiot, had disbanded NATO like I told him to, none of this would have happened.  (What a ‘loser’.  Ha!)  But as for needless suffering and death of thousands and thousands of Ukrainians and Russians?  Eh.  I am psychopath, I not really have ‘feelings’, so is of no concern for me, personally. 

S.E.: Oh Vlad?

Putin: Da?

S.E.: Given Beethoven created the 9th Symphony, I think we can honestly say that the 5th is not meant for people like you.

Putin:  What?!  How dare you!

S.E.:  And also, did you not see that you were currently surrounded by many Russians who came here to ski and hear the performance tonight?

Putin:  Oh!  No, I did not, hello there, brothers!

S.E. And that they heard every word you just said.

Putin:  Oh.  So?  What do I care — Hey!  Wha –  !  Stop that!  … No!!!!

(Putin is picked up and run out of town like Black Bart….)

S.E.:  Thank you, good Russian people from the glorious land of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, of Rimsky and Prokofiev and Stravinsky and on and on and on and on….  

Good people of Russia, we love you and wish you well in your own struggle against your tyrant.  Please take him down asap. Good people of Ukraine, we hope and/or pray for you in every conceivable way.  Good people of the West, try and summon the strength and courage yourselves, to crack down on oligarchs and white collar criminals everywhere — including here.  And make sure your own idiot leaders don’t make the same mistakes that they made at the end of WWI and the Cold War, but instead the correct policy of love-bombing any perceived ‘enemies’ at the end of wars, like we did after WWII with the Marshall Plan.  Germany in the ‘30s and Russia now sure evolved differently than Germany and Japan did after WWII…. Thanks a lot, Bush Sr. and Jim Baker.

The world is just such a horrible place.  February 24 shows us that once again — and (hopefully!) near the final end of this 2-years-long damned plague, no less!  Thank goodness there are immortal works of art like Beethoven’s 5th and 6th that we can turn to, when we need to, when things just get too incomprehensibly depressing.

OK, sorry, CS – no more politics.  In sum, Colorado has proven to me that it needs to add one more S to all of its famed “S’s” (Steers, Skiing, South Park, Stoners…).  Colorado is also home, it turns out, to a very decent Symphony, one that I will look out for any and every time I hit the state.  They could not have expressed these two masterworks any better.  Kudos.

Copyright S.E. Barcus, 2-24-2022.

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Beethoven and the War of February 24