John Frayne: Beloved Beethoven

John Frayne: Beloved Beethoven

The title of the Oct. 17 concert by the Sinfonia da Camera was "The Immortal Beethoven." The major works by Ludwig van Beethoven performed were his "First Symphony" (1800) and his ballet, "The Creatures of Prometheus" (1800-01). But the "immortal" of the concert's title had a subtler meaning than the enduring fame of Beethoven's music.

The novelty of the evening was the world premiere of Robert Chumbley's composition, "The Letter." This is a setting, for baritone solo and chamber orchestra, of Beethoven's famous letter to "The Immortal Beloved." A manuscript of this letter, discovered among Beethoven's effects after his death in 1827, is thought to have been written in 1812, and although the identity of the "Immortal Beloved" has long been the subject of intense controversy, the candidate most favored is Josephine Brunsvik.

Chumbley's setting offers the baritone soloist the opportunity for much vivid, and at times impassioned, singing in the work's 23 minutes. Riccardo Herrera, who teaches singing at the University of Illinois School of Music and is well known to local audiences, gave a very forceful performance of the text, and he was especially effective in the passages that express the intensity of Beethoven's love for this mysterious woman.

Chumbley's orchestra accompaniment has many attractive and inventive passages, showing the composer's wide experience in the field of opera. The orchestra bells were quite prominent, along with other percussion effects.

The stage lighting was unusual. Baritone Herrera was spotlighted, the orchestra was in darkness (with lights on music stands) and the audience area had minimal lighting.

Beethoven's letter is as one might expect from a passionate man undergoing an emotional crisis. It is not carefully organized, and it matches declarations of everlasting love with descriptions of arduous traveling and details of the postal service. Chumbley's decision to set all of this text results in something of a marathon for composer and singer. It might have been better to eliminate the prosier sections and concentrate on the more emotional moments. This listener wishes the more emotional passages had been given more extended development.

At the end of "The Letter," composer Chumbley joined soloist Herrera and conductor Ian Hobson on stage to acknowledge the applause of the audience.

Of the other works on the program, Beethoven's First Symphony is relatively well known, and it received a dynamic reading from the Sinfonia, forcefully led by Hobson. The last and longest work on the program was the overture and 10 segments (out of 16 in the complete score) from the ballet "The Creatures of Prometheus," written for the dancer Salvatore Vigano, and first performed in March 1801.

Hobson used a microphone to introduce the work and to describe the ballet action which the music illustrated. There were passages, such as music depicting the clumsy motions of Prometheus' "creatures," where Hobson offered essential enlightenment as to what was going on. The ballet opens with one of Beethoven's best and shortest overtures, and Hobson and the Sinfonia generated much excitement with it.

This piece offers a piquant look at a very unusual Beethoven, as ballet composer. The work ends effectively with an extended treatment of Beethoven's favorite tune, one that migrated from a contradance, through this ballet music and a set of piano variations (1802) and on to the theme of the finale of Beethoven's mighty Symphony No. 3, "Eroica" (1803).

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.

Topics (1):Music
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