The Boston Symphony Orchestra and Beethoven’s Nine…Symphonies, That Is!

November 21, 2009

Beethoven_Boston_Symphony In October, the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented all nine Beethoven Symphonies, a cycle not performed by the BSO since Serge Koussevitzky programmed it in 1927 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Beethoven’s death.

This year, Maestro James Levine presented his first complete Beethoven cycle at Boston’s Symphony Hall.  Unfortunately, due to recuperation from surgery Levine was unable to conduct the Boston Symphony performances.  It was a disappointment for many, but his absence gave symphony patrons the opportunity to see three different conductors take the podium to present these great symphonic works.

Beethoven and the BSO have a long history.  I’d always noticed Beethoven’s name presented high above the stage, but never knew the story of ‘why Beethoven?’.

Boston Symphony Hall was built with a proscenium arch (the ornate border of the top and sides of the walls at the front of the stage) that had blank areas where the names of composers would be placed on ‘medallions’, or plaques, upon this archway.  The first name and plaque that was placed on the proscenium was Beethoven.  It was agreed upon by all that, at the time, Beethoven was the most respected and influential composer and deserved the most prominent placement on the arch.

Beethoven Boston Symphony Hall

When additional names were discussed for the other medallions, no one could agree upon any other composers deserving a place on the proscenium.  In the end, it was decided that the medallion areas would remain blank and Beethoven would be the only composer whose name would be displayed on the proscenium arch at Symphony Hall.

It’s a very interesting story and history, but I wonder if other composers could today be honored on the medallions at Symphony Hall. (Visit the Boston Symphony Timeline for a history of the BSO and Symphony Hall!)

The BSO’s Beethoven cycle of nine symphonies were performed over a period of approximately two weeks.  The first program presented Symphonies 1, 2 and 5, the second program presented Symphonies 3 and 4, the third program presented Symphonies 6 and 7, and the fourth and final program presented Symphonies 8 and 9.  I attended the first three programs, Symphonies 1-7.

I knew that the BSO’s presentation of the Beethoven Symphonies would be a great undertaking for the orchestra in such a short period of time, and I also knew that it was an incredible opportunity to learn about one of the world’s most famous composers and his works.  It’s one thing to be familiar with a couple of key themes a composer is most identified by, but it’s another thing altogether to dive in to the bulk of his symphonies all at once! I was really excited, but I knew my brain would probably have a difficult time comprehending it all!

Nine Days. Seven Beethoven Symphonies.  Three conductors. What did I to get myself into?

I had three main objectives throughout the cycle:  Observe each conductor’s style, listen to the symphony as a body of music for pleasure, and try to be conscious of the actual composition and what I might glean from a music education perspective.  When I attend a concert, I challenge myself to learn something ‘musical’, but my primary goal is to appreciate the artistry within the works performed and to convey the spirit of my experience.  As a non musician, my experience is about discovery.

Rafael_Fruhbeck_de_BurgosProgram one, Symphonies 1, 2 and 5, were conducted by Maestro Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos.  No stranger to the Boston Symphony, de Burgos, 76,  is a world famous, highly-acclaimed conductor.  He has more than 100 major-label recordings, and over the past 47 years he has worked for and made guest appearances with the world’s most famous orchestras.  I was excited to see such a renown conductor!

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 is an enjoyable work.  As I was listening to it I thought, ‘this is nice…good to listen to while I go about my day’.  I didn’t feel that the piece was well developed, but I did enjoy it.

I rarely say anything critical about a piece of work.  A composition, large or small, is art.  It is the composer’s vision and it is not for me to be negative or offer criticism.  I didn’t write the piece and I could never write one!  So even if I don’t enjoy the work, or am uninspired by it as a whole, I am still going to concentrate on the positives and remember that for the most part, it took years for a piece to be written.  The amount of effort, the heart and the pride of the composer all must be considered and respected.  I will always appreciate the beauty of its artistry, even if the piece doesn’t ‘wow’ me.

Listening to Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony, I felt it was better developed and I enjoyed it much more than the 1st Symphony.  The 2nd seemed to have more energy and I think Beethoven took more chances with the piece.  It was good to hear 1 and 2 in succession, because it showed what I perceived to be the growth of Beethoven’s compositions.

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony has one of the most recognizable themes of any piece of classical music.  But its famous melody is not the whole symphony.  Most people could probably hum about 30 seconds of the 5th, but the entire Symphony lasts about 40 minutes.  To the common listener, like me, the beauty of the 5th is in its repetition.  It’s easy to relate to the piece because it keeps coming back to its common theme.  It resonates with the listener and the listener feels a little more classically in tune when he leaves the concert.  I loved hearing the BSO perform this piece and I DID feel a little smarter when I left!

It’s funny to say, but the most inspiration I felt throughout the concert came from Maestro De Burgos. From the moment he took the podium, he had such energy surrounding him!  I was most impressed that he conducted the three symphonies without using the score; that was something I hadn’t seen before.  De Burgos conducts with power and beauty and the music came to life through him. He was amazing, and my eyes were fixated on him as much as they were on the orchestra.


Maestro Julian Kuerti conducted Beethoven’s Symphonies 3 and 4.  Kuerti, 33, is the BSO’s Assistant Conductor and is in his first year with the orchestra.

I found Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 to be lyrical overall.  It was beautiful and poetic and it just seemed ‘pretty’.  It was moving in a heartwarming way, and  it was easy to imagine serene landscapes and life enjoyed.  I liked it a lot.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 was a stark contrast to No. 4.  It was bold and filled with energy.  As I listened, it was easy for me to envision a battlefield, and competing forces. My ears and eyes were definitely stimulated!

I hadn’t read the program notes prior to these two symphonies.  I wanted to be surprised and not have any preconceptions about each work.  I was surprised to later read that I felt what Beethoven was conveying through his works. It’s amazing to be able to paint a picture with music!

The final two works I heard were Symphonies 6 and 7, which were conducted by Maestro Lorin Maazel. I wasn’t familiar with the Maestro, but when a friend found out who was conducting these performances, he said, “Wow! You’re so fortunate!”

I put on my excited hat for this one! Having been blown away by Maestro de Burgos a week earlier, I wondered what Maestro Maazel would have in store for me. I was once again excited to have the opportunity to attend a performance with such a respected and famous conductor and composer at the podium.

Lorin_Maazel_Bill_BernsteinA few people told me I would definitely know Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 once the orchestra played it.  I kept waiting to hear some recurring recognizable theme, but I just didn’t know the piece. It was wonderful and the orchestra was amazing.  And like with Maestro de Burgos, I was completely blown away by Maestro Maazel!

One thing I didn’t expect was that I would be very familiar with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.  Who knew?! I think that sometimes we are familiar with something but have no frame of reference as to why we know it or  where we previously became acquainted with it.  But I did know it and I do love it!  It has a number of recurring themes and the piece is, again, spirited and lyrical.  I could see lots of dancing and joie de vivre, and I think there might even be a can-can in there somewhere! As the piece built up to its ending, I was completely absorbed by the music, the performers and Maazel.  I was overcome with energy and excitement and I didn’t want it to end!

Maestro Maazel has a resume longer than Santa’s wish list.  He is a composer and award-winning conductor with hundreds of recordings.  He has worked with more than 150 orchestras in more than 5,000 opera and concert performances, and at 79 has the energy of a 30-year old!  As I watched Maestro Maazel lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Symphonies 6 and 7, I truly regretted that I was unable to attend Symphonies 8 and 9.  Maazel is simply amazing!

Over the past few years I have had the great fortune to see and listen to some of the world’s most amazing musicians.  I have been inspired by music and performers, and to my surprise am starting to recognize the importance and effect of a good conductor.  I once interviewed a conductor and asked how important a conductor was to an orchestra and he told me that while it may seem that an orchestra can play on its own, it needs a captain, someone to steer it along its voyage and through to its destination.  I heard those words, but I am only now beginning to see the effect of their meaning.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is an amazing organization.  It brings musical talent from around the world to perform for Boston audiences.  The talent that stands on the stage, sits in the chairs or stands at the podium is truly the world’s best! I wish Maestro Levine a healthy recovery and am thankful for having the opportunity to be a part of the realization of his vision.

More information about Beethoven: BSO Beethoven Classical Companion

BSO conductor photos courtesy of Boston Symphony Orchestra

6 Responses to The Boston Symphony Orchestra and Beethoven’s Nine…Symphonies, That Is!
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