Wonderful musicmaking at UMD

Sometimes exasperated commenters say they can’t believe I love classical music. This post — about some fine student musicmaking and the delights of Beethoven — should be an antidote. 

My last post was about terrific things at the University of Maryland, creative hard work done to attract a younger, livelier audience to concerts by the student orchestra.

It’s worth repeating what they did. The strategy, as I’d summarize it — find the places where orchestral players most naturally meet other students. In their dorms (fraternities and sororities, too?), and in classes, especially music classes. And then make sure to talk to students at those places, launch a campaign to interest people in going to the concerts.

Which seems to have worked! The same strategy could, in principle, be adopted anywhere.

But the concert I went to last Friday — where I saw the larger audience — was fabulous, and I want to say more about that. Here’s the program:

  • Beethoven, Pastoral Symphony


  • Leon Kirchner, The Forbidden
  • Bartok, Miraculous Mandarin suite

Not an easy program. The Kirchner piece, in an atonal idiom the students mostly wouldn’t be familiar with, is also very nervous, jumping from idea to idea, with each idea shaped unpredictably. But the players handled all that quite well. You’d know it was a student orchestra, but clearly a very fine one.

One thing that made Kirchner easier was its orchestration — fairly routine, for the most part, with strings foremost at almost every moment, and all the instruments used (to my ear) quite conventionally. Which I’d think gave the students one less obstacle.

But then that made a magical transition to the Bartok, a piece that just about rejoices in unexpected sounds and textures. And here the students soared. From the first moment of the piece, they seemed both to know exactly what to do, and to be having loads of fun.

So the performance was — no exaggeration — sheer delight. I don’t know (if I’d been dropped into the concert hall, not knowing where I was) if I’d have guessed this was a student orchestra. They soared.

But there was an extra element here, part of the “New Lights” initiative in Maryland, set in motion by James Ross, who’s in charge of the conducting program, and led this concert. New Lights is about making concerts more engaging, and (now) enlarging the audience.

So here there was “production design” for the Bartok, as the program credits stated, by Tim McLoraine. Though the credit, in those words, was far too modest, because what Tim did was create a piece of flowing animation, a piece of visual art that went along with the music, telling a version of its story, but also creating shapes and motion that evolved along with the music.

And the result was — again, no exaggeration — wonderful. Jim, in a discussion after the concert, said the role of the visuals was to enhance the music, but I thought something bigger happened, which was that music and visuals together created something new and independent, something made up of both components, but with a life all its own. Which means that Tim did strong, impressive work.

The Pastoral Symphony was the highlight of the programAll that said, though, the musical highlight for me was the Beethoven, which often, in a student performance, might be the weakest link. That’s because we know the piece so well, and because its challenges are subtler than the ones in Kirchner or in Bartok.

Jim, of course, gets great credit for everything good about the performance, but here — and of course with the students’ collaboration — he especially shone. There was no doubt this was a student orchestra, but every note (right from the opening entrance of the violins) had a tone of voice, and a direction, an assured direction, but also quite relaxed.

I was struck by Jim’s tempo in the scherzo, slower than we usually hear, but picking up speed as each section took flight, as if the country people picked up speed as they danced, as well they might have. This is a kind of musicmaking somewhat frowned on now — we’re supposed to keep a steady tempo — but common (and much loved) in past generations. If, for instance, anyone knows the 1936 recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Joseph Szigeti as soloist, and Bruno Walter conducting, you know that the number of varied tempi in the orchestral introduction alone are just about uncountable. It made me smile to hear Jim doing his own version of this.

But what I loved most was the finale. I would have said, before this concert, that I liked the finale least of all the movements of the symphony, that it gets a little boring, a little repetitive. And I’ve learned I’m not alone in thinking this. The problem might be, first, that rejoicing simply because a storm is over seems a little overdone. That, of course, is because we’re not frightened of storms the way people were in Beethoven’s time. (There’s a striking passage in Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther in which educated people at a party — the women, at least — are terrified when a storm breaks.)

But it’s also because the main melody of the finale is so very simple. So an over-simple melody, enlisted in a doubtful cause — that’s more or less (uncharitably, maybe) how I thought about this movement.

But at this concert, I heard some other things. First, the many ways that Beethoven — in the varied ways he accompanies the tune — animates it rhythmically. That’s just brilliant, a lesson to composers everywhere. I found myself drawn into that, listening with happy concentration.

And then — something I hadn’t noticed so forcefully before — there are moments when the theme drops out entirely. One of them is vivid in my memory. I was sitting halfway back in the orchestra seats, and on my left I heard the violins playing sixteenth note figurations, while on the right I heard the bass notes, and in the center — well, a kind of emptiness.

Winds and horns sustained the harmonies that normally would play behind the theme, but the melody was nowhere to be heard. So I found myself supplying it myself, singing it in the quiet of my mind.

At which point I realized that Beethoven was smarter than I am, and smarter than I’d given him credit for being. He himself — if I may try to read his mind — may have known that too many repetitions of his theme just wouldn’t fly, and so created an environment in which we’d supply the tune ourselves.

So brilliant! Another lesson for composers. And such a joy.

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  1. says

    Greg, I’m probably one of those “exasperated commenters”! I apologize for the exasperation part. Yes, this is exactly what we should be doing and your review is a masterpiece of intelligent commentary. I have been to so many classical concerts where it just doesn’t come together: standard repertoire indifferently played, or professionally played but without the magic or fire or musical wonderment that you heard in this concert. I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on Beethoven. I too find his rhythmic ideas to be a constant model for composers–and something we don’t talk about enough. Incidentally, I did a couple of series of posts on Beethoven on my blog. The most recent one starts here:


    and ends here:


  2. Herbert Pauls says

    It is good to hear that musicians are playing around a little bit more with tempo changes within classical era movements. It actually takes a good deal of interpretive planning and experimentation in rehearsal to do it effectively. Eyewitnesses have related how Nikisch approached it. He would first go way overboard, and then quasi-normalize his exaggerations by the time the concert came around. Somehow we lost that (perhaps a legacy of the urtext mentality taken to its illogical end).

    The Szigeti is a fine example. Some even more exaggerated examples come from the previous decade: Mark Hambourg’s recording of the Beethoven Third Concerto or the Richard Strauss recording of Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies immediately come to mind. There are a great many classical symphonies from the acoustic era which are even wilder.

    In the Schnabel edition of the Beethoven Sonatas, there is a lot of playing around with the metronome markings within some movements. We were always taught that things like these were too “romantic” (always an effective warning to use for keeping performances of classical-era works in line) textual corruptions, without at the same time being informed that they may have actually had deep historical roots. But today, at least some musicians may be ready to experiment in this way again. It is another way to inject new life into classical music in general. Schindler described how Beethoven himself would range between Andante and Allegro in a fast sonata movement. Unfortunately he completely discredited himself by altering the conversation books so nobody took him seriously in anything else. That may be a mistake, because he surely did know a lot about Beethoven.