BSO: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony at Strathmore

Playing what has perhaps become the four most famous chords in the western canon, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tackled Beethoven’s 5th last night at Strathmore, along with Shostakovich and Sibelius.

The composers lived 150 years and three countries apart, so what brought the works together? Conductor Christoph König, visiting from his regular gig as the principal conductor and music director of the Solistes Européens Luxembourg, opened the concert by explaining his desire to put on Sibelius’s final Symphony No. 7. It’s a haunting, difficult piece that he says is hard to program, so rather than a usual opening, he slipped it in with Beethoven because they share a key.

Marin Alsop. Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Marin Alsop. Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Marin Alsop

Both end in C Major, a rare choice in a symphony because it is the simplest key and therefore challenging to write in. Coupled with the hardest piece ever written for cello performed by one of the best cellists in the world – Alban Gerhardt – and this was a superior evening of classical music. König seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself – grinning and practically dancing at the conductor’s stand.

Jean Sibelius’s final symphony is unique single-movement piece with expressive trombone solos, an extended “battle” between woodwinds and strings that usually play together, and timpani opening and closing the piece. The BSO once again earns its reputation as one of the best orchestras in the company, and not just technically or musically. This was one of the final concerts of their season and they took the opportunity to honor four retirees who had over 150 years of service between them. Clearly people want to stick around to play with them.

Gerhardt took the stage next for Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1. Shostakovich wrote it for a friend, Mstislav Rostropovich. It centers around one simple theme based on traditional Russian folk songs, which blows way out of proportion. Gerhardt’s bow was fraying by the end of the first movement as his fingers danced the length of the cello. He traded riffs with various instruments in the orchestra and then they fell silent for an extended solo from him. It was a privilege to hear.

Finally, they tackled Beethoven for one of the most famous symphonies in the world. It’s big sound and emotion was almost simple after Shostakovich, but it was also very well suited to König’s expressive style.  Beethoven said of the opening chords, “Thus fate knocks on the door.”

It was also an apropos choice for June 6, the anniversary of D-Day.  The fifth is known as the Victory symphony after the Roman numeral V. The allies in World War II played the opening bars before every broadcast during the war. Beethoven composed it during the Napoleonic Wars as Prussia was losing, so it’s not surprising militaries the world over have adopted it as a rallying cry.

I think the true unifier in this diverse program was passion – from the aging composer – Sebelius – tortuously writing his final symphony, to Shostakovich pushing the limits of an instrument even as he battled communist censors, to Beethoven’s love song for his beleaguered country even as he went deaf. It was inspiring to see an orchestra do justice to their work they sacrificed so much to write.

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

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BSO: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony played for one night only at Strathmore on June 6, 2015 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 10701 Rockville Pike, in North Bethesda, MD. For future Strathmore events, go their performance calendar.

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