"Testament (Music for 12 Violas)," the concert opener, is the one inspired by Beethoven—specifically by his famous "Heiligenstadt Testament." That is, as most classical fans will recall, a letter Beethoven wrote to his brothers Carl and Johann at the town of Heiligenstadt (now part of Vienna) in which he told of his despair over his increasing deafness and his struggles with thoughts of suicide.
As David Robertson points out in his brief but highly informative opening remarks, composer Dean takes us into Beethoven's auditory world by having the twelve violists play, at first, with rosinless bows. Without rosin to give it friction, the bow glides over the strings, producing what Mr. Dean describes as "an eerie surface noise over the strings." Watching musicians sawing away at their instruments and producing this ghostly sound, then, gives us a feel for what Beethoven might have experienced as his sonic world began to fade away.
It's an interesting conceit and it lends the piece an emotional power that's accentuated by the occasional emergence from the auditory fog of snatches of the first of the "Razumovsky" Quartets—one of many major works (including the "Eroica") that emerged from the crucible of Heiligenstadt. Beethoven's despair and defiance are both audible in "Testament," which got a remarkable performance by the orchestra's violists along with guest artists Caleb Burhans of the contemporary music group Alarm Will Sound, International Contemporary Ensemble member Wendy Richman, and Margaret Dyer and Emily Deans of the camber ensemble A Far Cry.
Mr. Dean's own "Viola Concerto" followed, and I must confess that I found it rather less compelling. Reviewing the world premiere of the concerto by the BBC Symphony in 2005, Andrew Clements of The Guardian described it as "a substantial affair, elegantly proportioned and full of colourful musical imagery." I'd agree that it's substantial, but the substance is, to my ears, all too similar to the work of many other composers of recent vintage, who seem determined to stretch a paucity of brief musical ideas out well past their modest breaking point. There is, moreover, a sameness to that colorful imagery that made it hard to sustain interest in the proceedings.
There is, in short, a great deal of sound and fury in this work, along with a rather spectacular semi-cadenza in the second movement that gave Mr. Dean an opportunity to display his considerable skill on the instrument. For the most, though, I found it all uninvolving, if not off-putting. The final section, featuring a slightly melancholy duet for the soloist and English horn (beautifully played by Cally Banham) was, for me, the best part of this work.
If Heiligenstadt marked a "dark night of the soul" for Beethoven, he clearly emerged from it artistically stronger, with his own unique compositional voice. His first two symphonies were largely in the mold of Haydn and Mozart. But with the "Eroica" Beethoven created, as Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes, "a new musical genre, the Romantic symphony." Those first two big chords are almost like a gauntlet thrown down to challenge established notions of what a symphony should be, and they take us forever out of the Classical era.
Mr. Robertson and the orchestra gave us a thoroughly admirable "Eroica" Friday night. Always an active presence on the podium, Mr. Robertson threw himself into that dynamic, propulsive first movement in a way that produced a tremendously exciting and visceral sense of drama. The funeral march of the second movement exuded tragic grandeur, the scherzo was fleet of foot (with excellent work from the horns), and the grand musical architecture of the finale was beautifully realized. It was altogether as powerful an "Eroica" as one would wish for and brought the concert to a happy conclusion.
The concert repeats Saturday night at 8 PM at Powell Hall in Grand Center. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio at 90.7 FM, HD 1, and streaming from the station web site. But, of course, it's best heard live.
Next at Powell Hall, the "Beethoven Festival" concludes with the fifth symphonies of Beethoven and Shostakovich conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, January 31 – February 2. For more information: stlsymphony.org.