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Polishing Beethoven's Force

A modern presentation of composer's symphonies in Costa Mesa illustrates a connection between Lucas, Van Gogh and Ludwig.


After breathless anticipation and massive buildup, the cycle, at last, begins.

No, it is not "Star Wars," but the nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, which the Philharmonic Society is presenting this week in five concerts at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. John Eliot Gardiner is the conductor. The musicians are called the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique.

Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, written at the start of the 18th century, began the series Monday night with a curiously mixed sense of occasion. In the lobby, complimentary champagne flowed; in the theater, we assumed an air of devotion. Beethoven's genius was on display, and like crowds filling every nook and cranny of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art at all hours of the night last weekend for a last-chance peek at a Van Gogh, this seemed a similar attempt to get up close to a great man.

The similarities between "Star Wars" and Van Gogh phenomena don't stop there. Beethoven's symphonies are a Force in classical music. A friend who studies the concert habits of earlier ages tells me that it was common practice in the late 18th century for orchestras, especially in Germany, to play all the Beethoven symphonies every season. And he notes that well into this century, audiences rejected modern composers, such as Richard Strauss, feeling that Beethoven had said all there was to say when it came to orchestral music. Times have changed, but it still doesn't take much effort to hear a live performance of a Beethoven symphony these days.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 20, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 51 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong century--Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 and No. 2 were written at the turn of the 19th century rather than the 18th century, as indicated in a review in Wednesday's Calendar.

We also have a Beethovenian situation similar to that of the Dutch painter whose prints hang everywhere. The symphonies have been recorded to death. Turn on a classical music radio station and you won't have to wait long to hear one. And some recordings of the symphonies are now actually cheaper than even a typical Van Gogh reproduction (or a "Star Wars" ticket, for that matter). Everyone can have them.

Yet it is just such ubiquitousness that Gardiner's cycle hopes to counter. He has many aims with his ORR. The pompous French name for the British band of period instruments alludes to the Romantic Age and its revolutionary spirit, but Gardiner also wants us to place the symphonies historically, to make us aware that they have not overthrown fully the Classical procedures of Mozart and Haydn.

And the sense I got from his performance of the two early symphonies Monday night was one of classical balance more than radical experimentation or eccentricity. To some extent that comes from the meticulous preparation of the musicians and their considered, virtuosic performances.

Beethoven's orchestrations can sound almost crude with modern instruments, particularly in the dramatic contrasts between winds and strings and brass. These players, who are mostly young and play their period instruments with seeming ease, blended smoothly. Everything flowed. These early instruments make a relatively small impact in a modern hall compared with a modern orchestra, but the kinetic energy is greater.

Gardiner has his surprises. He conducts a very long line. He makes it easy to hear long-range connections through Beethoven's famous harmonic, rhythmic and instrumental disruptions. The rapid-fire scherzo movements, played with confident speed, proved especially thrilling with their metric jolts like dips on a roller coaster. There was beautiful playing from the winds and strings in the slow movements. The brass in the "Leonore" Overture No. 2, which was added between the symphonies, were astoundingly dramatic.

But as far as these early Beethoven works were concerned, Gardiner's performances were also an entirely late 20th century affair, as much a part of our time as blockbuster Van Gogh exhibitions or George Lucas movies. OCPAC's Segerstrom Hall looks like the inside of a spaceship and has the dry, exacting acoustic of a digital sound system, and in it we do not visually travel into the past. Gardiner's is a Beethoven with more an elegant modern polish than anything radically new, but it is musical and vital nonetheless.


* Gardiner's Beethoven cycle continues at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, tonight (Fifth Symphony and Gardiner's presentation of "The Age of Revolution and Romance"), Friday (Six and Seventh symphonies) and Saturday (Eighth and Ninth), all 8 p.m. $20-$60. (949) 553-2422.

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