`Eroica' offers ASO chance to demonstrate its strength

Beethoven's difficult 3rd Symphony daunted musicians of his time

November 18, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When the musicians of the Annapolis Symphony take the stage this weekend at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts to play the 3rd Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, they're sure to take the experience in stride.

After all, Beethoven's "Eroica" (Heroic) Symphony has been part of the standard repertory since its first performance at Vienna's Theater an der Wien on April 7, 1805.

But how jaws must have dropped when those Viennese musicians got their first look at the master's monumental score!

From the beginning, "Eroica" was a work of unprecedented ambition. No symphony of Haydn's or Mozart's takes much more than half an hour to play. This one lasts nearly twice that long. Indeed, "Eroica's" expansive first movement alone runs for some 700 measures, affording Beethoven the opportunity to carry out thematic development on the grandest possible scale.

He also cut out the introductory niceties so de rigueur in the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. With characteristic brusqueness, Beethoven introduces the work with nothing more than a pair of clattering E-flat major chords.

In unprecedented fashion, a funeral march became the center of an entire symphonic movement. His "procession" passes by somberly at first, but tension builds inexorably toward the churning fugue at the movement's core.

Emotions turn on a dime as noble sadness yields to the bracing third movement "Vivace," whose hunt calls have endeared Beethoven to generations of horn players, and the remarkable set of concluding variations that turn his effervescent little melody every which way but loose.

None of this could have been achieved without sustained solo writing that pushed early 19th century players to the brink of their technical limits. Beethoven, true to form, couldn't have cared less.

"When I composed that," he told a mutinous violinist, "I was conscious of being inspired by God Almighty. Do you think I can consider your puny little fiddle when He speaks to me?"

"Eroica" will be complemented by a pair of sparklers at this weekend's concerts.

Russian pianist Yuliya Gorenman, a recent winner of Belgium's prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition, will play the zippy 1st Piano Concerto of Dmitri Shostakovich. Here a listener gets two concertos for the price of one, as the composer saved some of his jauntiest moments for a solo trumpet obbligato, which will be performed tomorrow and Saturday by ASO principal Tage Larsen.

Maestro Leslie Dunner will begin the program with the feisty, seldom-played Symphony No. 1 of Franz Joseph Haydn, the first of the great Austrian's 104 essays in the symphonic genre.

What goes around comes around, for the style Haydn unleashed would be given impetus and life in a new century by Beethoven's mighty "Eroica."

Tickets: 410-263-0907.

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