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Tall on the podium

Beethoven is everywhere this season, which raises a question: What is it like for today's composers to work in his titanic shadow? A few of them let us know.

November 06, 2005|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

UNLIKE Bach or Mozart, Beethoven has never gone out of fashion. No other composer has touched so many people, inspiring feelings of heroism, victory over suffering and hope over despair.

Leonard Bernstein, however, rejected such impressionistic, unmusical reactions, preferring to honor Beethoven for his work's structural uniqueness.

"Beethoven, more than any other composer before or after him, I think, had the ability to find exactly the right notes that had to follow his themes," Bernstein wrote in "The Joy of Music." "But even he, with this great ability, had a gigantic struggle to achieve this rightness: not only the right notes, but the right rhythms, the right climaxes, the right harmonies, the right instrumentation."

Well, yes.

But for most people, who don't know "right notes," "right rhythms" or "right climaxes" from a kazoo, it is Beethoven's moral power that sets his music above others: the vaulting triumph of the "Leonore" Overture No. 3 or the awesome call to universal brotherhood in the Ninth Symphony.

This season, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are mounting a series called "Beethoven Unbound," in which the composer's nine symphonies are juxtaposed with contemporary works. The Philadelphia Orchestra, under music director Christoph Eschenbach, is doing much the same thing. James Levine and the Boston Symphony are pairing Beethoven with Schoenberg. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony recently put a new timpani concerto by William Kraft with Beethoven's Ninth.

But look anywhere, at any series -- concert, chamber music, solo recital or even opera -- and Beethoven will not be absent.

More likely, except for opera (he wrote only one), he'll be central.

What does it mean to contemporary composers to have this titanic, idolized figure in their lives? A few major ones, such as Pierre Boulez and Steve Reich, declined to comment. Others expressed a surprising range of responses, which appear on Page 56.

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They're still keeping score

Ask modern-day composers what they think about Beethoven's unflagging legacy. From stimulating to stifling come the replies

MICHAEL GORDON

MIAMI-BORN Michael Gordon, a founder of New York's Bang on a Can Festival, has composed a symphony, "Decasia," with film by Bill Morrison, which will be performed March 28 as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Minimalist Jukebox" series. He also is rewriting Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 on commission for Germany's Bamberger Symphony. It will premiere next September.

"One of the things about Beethoven that's interesting to me -- the big leap that happened -- is that, in a certain sense, material became unimportant. The reason why people listen to Mozart is because he's got the best tunes. With Beethoven, it's no longer 'I've got the best tunes' but 'Whatever I have, I can do the best things with it. Give me some trash and I'll turn it into something great.'

"The role of the composer changed from being this person who's supposed to entertain you by how great their melodic invention is, or how great their counterpoint is, to someone who becomes an architect of big schemes and big claims. It's the architecture you admire, not the rivets or the woodwork, this huge skyscraper. It's the defining moment in classical music. Everybody's been dealing with that change of perspective for the last 200 years.

"My project is not even so much about Beethoven as it is about the idea that our palettes as composers are very wide, and they include all the music that's ever been written and all the styles that have been written. I can reference Beethoven in a way that isn't Beethoven-worshiping or Beethoven-trashing, but it's great material and we're going to use it.

"There's another thing that I always find very funny: He was kind of a bum. He wasn't upright in his business dealings. Apparently he was a glutton, an unpleasant guy. It goes on and on when you read about him. There's this juxtaposition. He's closer to the stories of heavy metal bands bringing sharks into their bedrooms and cutting them up than to the elegant people in gowns, tuxedoes and ties who go to concerts."

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WILLIAM BOLCOM

SEATTLE-BORN composer William Bolcom has written film music, popular songs, operas, chamber works and symphonies. His "Songs of Innocence and of Experience," a setting of William Blake's poems for soloists, choruses and orchestra, was premiered at the Stuttgart Opera in 1984 and locally performed by the Pacific Symphony in 2003.

"Somehow Beethoven is what's left when you pare down to the essentials. I'm reminded of a conversation with Madeleine Milhaud a few years ago (when she was only around 100), where she spontaneously said that was the only music she cared to listen to anymore -- except maybe her late husband's, and I'm not even sure of that.

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