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When La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest returns for another August filled with great music, a highlight will be a series of three programs featuring music by Beethoven.
So what? For one thing, Beethoven is still in the middle of a global musical winning streak, nearly 200 years after his death. Composer, performer and educator Russell Steinberg will tell us why we still listen in pre-concert talks at the Beethoven programs.
Steinberg’s music has been performed in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Australia, and Israel. His awards include MacDowell and Aspen Fellowships, and the New World String Quartet competition. Steinberg’s first symphony, CityStrains, was jointly commissioned by the Westchester Symphony in New York and the Hopkins Symphony in Baltimore. Most recently, the Daniel Pearl Foundation commissioned a tribute for violin, piano, and reader titled “Stories From My Favorite Planet.” It premiered in October 2003, and because the CD has sold out of print, it will be re-recorded this year.
Steinberg lectures at UCLA and provides some pre-concert talks for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Steinberg is also the conductor of the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. He was trained at UCLA, the New England Conservatory and Harvard.
You’ve taught a class titled “Classical vs. Rock Music” for high school students and their parents and UCLA students. Some teenagers first hear Beethoven through Alex, the anti-hero of Anthony Burgess’ novel “A Clockwork Orange” and Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation. The Ninth Symphony punctuates Alex’s depraved life of sex, drugs and violence. Does this use Beethoven bother you?
The most disturbing thing about the use of Beethoven in that movie was not Alex’s depraved life but that the music becomes a tool for him to justify evil. The Ninth was intended was as an ode to the brotherhood of all man; it was turned into the music for the greatest evil. It was a brilliant use by Kubrick, and the symphony was done in a synthetic, electronic version. It points out how even today Beethoven is relevant to our lives. I will start the series of pre-concert lectures with the question, “Why are we here listening to music written so long ago?”
Do the three Beethoven programs have a theme or are they just a collection of works the musicians happen to like with catchy titles tacked on for marketing?
I haven’t spoken with the musicians, but looking at the programs, I can say there is nothing casual about the concerts. They’re a little like those Beethoven gave himself. He would do the premiere of the Fifth Symphony with some vocal duets or piano variations —a weighty piece and then salon pieces. The other thing is that the concerts are using chamber music to convey Beethoven’s evolution. There really is a beautiful progression from the Piano Trio to the Archduke Trio. We listen to concerts in isolation and draw conclusions that are either grandiose or not in context with the composer’s entire works. When you hear all the works, you see the connections of ideas.
Beethoven wrote the Piano Trio in E-flat when he was about 23. Who is this guy? What do we hear here that we hear later?
This is a guy who clearly knows and adores Haydn and Mozart. That comes out quickly—the gestures and ease of phrasing, the same grammar of their music. It’s not just imitation; he’s really doing it. What Haydn and Mozart didn’t have, though, are coarseness and syncopation, things stabbing you on the offbeat. Beethoven is reveling in it. You see all the things that will enter his later music. There’s also strong, blocky chordal work and motor rhythms; he gets hold of something and keeps going.
In his early 30s, Beethoven turned to an already well-established form and wrote six string quartets. What did he do differently from Haydn and Mozart, who seemingly perfected the form?
In these early quartets, we see someone who’s dialoguing. You’re going along happily and then things change. The last movement of the early quartet in B-flat that we’ll hear this summer begins with slow chords, then harmonies going off into left field. You sense that Beethoven is trying to get to something deeper than the notes. That’s different from Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven is trying to make a specific statement beyond musical language.
The sonatas for cello and piano were also early works. This combination was experimental. No one had yet written sonatas for cello. Beethoven also had to deal with the technology. The cello’s sound outweighed the somewhat lightweight 18th-century piano he had, so balance was an issue.
So much of Beethoven is about the struggle with the piano, getting sounds we don’t have. We realize that he was aware of the capabilities of the instrument he had and tried to go beyond to get to a sound that just wasn’t possible, even though the notes he wrote were trying to get that sound.
Beethoven was 41 when he wrote the “Archduke” Trio. He was losing his hearing, and his output was slowing down. This trio starts with an incredible melody full of longing that keeps going, through many variations.
What I love is that again everything is going along happily like Mozart and by the fourth measure he does something that sticks out. It’s his way of saying “Pay attention. ” That’s one of Beethoven’s thumbprints; he’s always saying “Pay attention.” You can’t put this on for dinner music, because it reaches out and grabs you by the lapels. He says this is the most important thing in the universe.
He wrote the B-flat quartet in the years before his death at age 57. This is not nice music. Beethoven makes us squirm. He gives us extra movements, changes tempo constantly, shifts harmonies. What do musicians and composers get from this quartet?
This is the kind of transcendent work we listen to over and over to learn what our art is about. It’s constantly revealing in different layers. The B-flat quartet is also a failed piece. We’ll hear it with the original last movement, the “Grosse Fuge.” When it was performed, the publishers told Beethoven that the last movement wasn’t working, so he wrote a much lighter ending and published the “Grosse Fuge” separately. We’ll hear it as it was originally composed and intended. Before that we’ll hear a four-hand transcription for piano. To hear it on piano first will be an extraordinary way to hear the structure. You’ll then be able to hear how Beethoven was straining the string instruments. So much with Beethoven is the sense of the sublime, the sense that he’s trying to take something beyond its capabilities.
What makes the late music so compelling for us today?
This music is eternally modern. It sounds as avant garde today as it did during Beethoven’s time; it continually challenges us as we get absorbed in it. How does it end up getting to these points as the most beautiful ever written?
Beethoven is challenging time itself. He was obsessed with time, with arresting time. Here he’s writing music that goes beyond the conventional western sense of time, ripping the fabric. That’s for listeners. For musicians, we work structurally so deeply that we’re always looking for how something works. The late quartets are the only major pieces Beethoven wrote without commissions; he didn’t care what people thought. He was writing something for himself, trying to find a new synthesis.
You’ve said that while we can sit through a movie that lasts a couple of hours, we start to fidget after ten minutes of a piece of music. That’s because we’ve lost the skills needed to listen to music. What has caused that loss of skills?
I was that person who went to concerts and was bored to death after a few minutes; I became that person who now listens with rapt attention for the whole piece. Much has to do with stimulus, when there’s a change three times a second in a commercial. It leads us to be merely reactive. Active listening is about being proactive, connecting and expecting. When we watch a movie, we’re always expecting. We’ve lost that ability to do this for listening to abstract music.
How do we get it back?
Education is a way to do it. Within three or four classes, UCLA students tell me they’re listening to the music in a different way. It’s almost like rediscovering what you know inside you.
You want to help people listen again through your audio maps, in which you give listeners physical maps of a work like a Beethoven symphony. Give us a couple of those tools for listening but without the maps.
The maps try to get people to listen to music as an unfolding of ideas rather than notes. If you listen to the first five seconds, hold that idea, and follow the entire piece in relation to that idea, you’ll be able to follow the narrative of a whole piece.
Writers have Shakespeare, composers have Beethoven sitting on their shoulders. As a composer what do you whisper to Beethoven on your shoulder?
The danger is what Beethoven whispers to me. Composition is almost a bipolar experience. You have incredible highs and euphoria, and then you hit a place where you can’t put two strings together to save your life. Then you have Beethoven whispering that it’s just not working.
Cathy Robbins is a writer and the author of “All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos)”, to be published by the University of Nebraska Press.
La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest, with 70 artists and 16 programs of music — world, jazz, new and traditional art music — and dance, runs Aug. 3-26 at Sherwood Auditorium, Museum of Contemporary Art/La Jolla and the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre. Individual tickets $15-$75. The three Beethoven programs are on Aug. 7, 14 and 21, at 7: 30 p..m., all at Sherwood. Steinberg’s talks begin at 6:30 p.m. For more program and ticket information, http://www.ljms.org/.