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ripped to shreds by thracian maenads: an awesome beethoven discovery

March 12, 2013

I have to admit that on Saturday February 23rd I was nervous. I was nervous because I was about to attend LACO’s Discover Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Why be nervous about a concerto you ask? I thought Discover sounded suspiciously like a cool way to disguise a lecture. I was having flashbacks to Finite Mathematics and my incredibly finite attention span for the lectures in that course. Since I understand the composition of music even less than basic college math I felt resigned to being a bored dummy once again.

Not only was I living in fear of Discover-ing a dreaded lecture I was also venturing into previously forbidden territory. The concert was to be held in the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena. I had seen the auditorium every day this past summer when I worked on the Ambassador campus for the television show King of the Nerds (plug: airing now on TBS!). While working I was able to roam around the Ambassador campus but was expressly forbidden from going inside the mysterious Auditorium, which looks like a cross between a Greek temple and a 1960s era science fiction space ship. What were the Ambassadors hiding in this auditorium? Bad pun alert: thanks to LACO I would “discover” what was inside.

The auditorium was quite incredible, complete with grand balconies and strange colorful carpets with geometric patterns. Were these patterns foreshadowing of a lecture about how calculus factored into Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4? As Jeffrey Kahane took the stage and I mentally prepared for the equations he would be referring to. Where would he be putting the chalkboard? To my relief Mr. Kahane didn’t begin with equations or even talking but rather the first few notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, music that was familiar to even me, the math dummy. He explained that these iconic notes were genetically similar to the Concerto No. 4 and throughout much of Beethoven’s work. The notes were even used in World War II as Morse code for victory. These interesting antidotes eased the grip of my lecture paranoia. In fact I found it incredibly easy to listen to Mr. Kahane’s lively and passionate discussion of Beethoven. I have to admit that some of the music vernacular went well over my head but I never felt bored or alienated by it. Mr. Kahane and the Orchestra also referenced a few choice bits of music by playing parts of Mozart and Bach compositions which was fun.

My very favorite part of Kahane’s address was about the second movement of the Concerto, aka Andante con moto. Kahane admitted that no one could authoritatively say what Beethoven was trying to say with the Concerto but presented one excellent theory from a music professor named Owen Jander. He theorized that this movement was a musical retelling of Orpheus’ decent into hell to rescue his recently deceased wife. Mr. Kahane broke down each part of the music and how it corresponded to the story. I had always liked Greek mythology so I was totally on board with this theory. However Kahane broke with Jander’s ideas when it came to the third movement, Rondo-Vivace. Apparently Jander believed that it was about the less celebrated story of Orpheus’ death when he was literally ripped to shreds by Thracian Maenads (aka raving women with talons) for not honoring his previous patronage to their god. Needless to say I could not wait to hear this part of the concerto.

After an intermission Mr. Kahane and the Orchestra played the entire concerto, allowing us to listen to the music with the new perspective he had given us earlier. For me, it was very satisfying to have more context about the music while hearing it. The first movement, Allegro moderato, flowed between quiet and graceful piano playing and at times turned into a more sorrowful sounding piece.

During the second movement, Andante con moto, I obviously had Orpheus on the brain. The part of the music I thought Mr. Kahane most deftly illustrated reflected a back and fourth with the guards of hell, the Furies. Orpheus, represented by the piano, was pitted against the Furies, represented by a harsh string section. Just like the story, the piano slowly wears down the strings through a back and fourth and eventually wins them over to his side. With the underworld defeated, Orpheus is allowed to take his wife out of the underworld on the condition that he doesn’t look back at her until she is out. The joyful and suddenly louder orchestra chimes in with Orpheus the piano to mirror his excitement. Of course right before Orpheus and his wife make it to the surface he looks back at her and she’s gone forever.

Now for the part we had all been waiting for: Orpheus the piano’s musical death scene in the third movement (aka Rondo-Vivace)! How will Beethoven recreate the ritualistic shredding of Orpheus by mad women with his notes? Like Mr. Kahane, I unfortunately found no signs of an insane death scene in the third movement. Rather than making me want to yell “watch out piano Orpheus, the crazy women are behind you! Oh no, they are literally tearing you to shreds!”, the movement came across as plucky and joyful. This was no musical expression of the murder of an iconic Greek legend. I thought it was just Beethoven showing off. I’m no expert but this third movement felt like the most complex due to it’s quick pace and robust participation of the orchestra and piano. The finale included the most impressive part of the performance as Mr. Kahane played a flurry of piano keys with seemingly inhuman speed and accuracy.

Despite my slight disappointment with the murder-less third movement I thought this Discover concert was excellent overall. I was delighted that Mr. Kahane’s lecture ended up being eclectic and fascinating rather than boring and mathematical. It really added to my enjoyment of the concerto and makes me wonder if the upcoming Mostly Baroque concert will actually about Odysseus poking out the eye of a Cyclops. My fingers are crossed.

1 comment

First Cousin Once Removed here. Who knew there was so much drama in Beethoven's 4th Concerto? Glad to hear that your appetite for classical music continues to evolve with all these new 'discoveries'! My only disappointment - and it has nothing to do with your astute musical insights - is just that I was kind of hoping, similar to the Beethoven 5th St Bernard dog movie image, you would have found some sort of visual to put me in the mood for the "Orpheus’ death when he was literally ripped to shreds by Thracian Maenads". Surely there must be lots of film promo shots of raving women with talons.... No big deal, it's really all about the music. So, on that note (heh heh) thanks again for your fresh take!
FCOR in Vancouver.

  • —FCOR, March 12, 2013 09:53 pm

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