In his 2012 book “The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination,” critic Matthew Guerrieri describes Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 — one of the most influential and revered compositions in history — as “a pre-eminent delivery system” for “the bombshell of Romanticism.”
The Fifth’s reverberations are still felt today, Guerrieri writes, in the way it speaks for our now-commonplace, romantic assumption that artists can and should be free to create works of personal expression.
Most likely agreeing with that assessment is David Afkham, a young German conductor of rising international stature. He makes his debut with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra March 21-23 at Benaroya Hall, on a program that includes the Fifth.
Also on the bill is French cellist Gautier Capuçon, who last performed in Seattle in a 2010 duet with pianist Gabriela Montero. Capuçon will join Afkham and the orchestra on Benjamin Britten’s Cello Symphony.
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As with Guerrieri and other scholars, Afkham doesn’t put a lot of stock in the old story that the Fifth’s famous opening notes represent the foreboding sound of fate knocking on one’s door.
“What can I say about this fantastic symphony?” says Afkham. “There are so many views on it. It’s always important to see the context for this piece, when it was written in Beethoven’s life. The subject is not just about destiny. It’s about celebration. What I’m searching for is to get away from pathos. We are looking for the light. The key is in a song Beethoven uses (Claude Joseph’s ‘Rouget de Lisle’), a song from the French Revolution. He’s quoting it, and it’s about freedom.”
In contrast to the Fifth’s transcendence is Afkham’s selection of Mozart’s Overture to “Don Giovanni.”
“I was thinking about an overture in contrast to the Beethoven piece,” says Afkham by phone from Tokyo, on tour with the London Symphony Orchestra. “I wanted to introduce a dark side. ‘Don Giovanni’ is a very dark, human work. It deals with emotions and human problems, and works well with the Britten, which is not an easy piece. It is deep and tragic.”
Afkham has never worked with Capuçon, though they met during the former’s stint as assistant conductor for the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra.
Born in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, in 1983, Afkham began his music education at 15, studying piano and violin. He later trained as a conductor, winning first prize in 2008 at the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition.
That triumph was followed by his appointment as assistant conductor for the London Symphony Orchestra, and numerous bookings to guest-conduct around the world.
“I was interested in not just music, but in art generally,” says Afkham of his decision to become a maestro. “I was also interested in language, history, many things. While I was studying music, I thought about how I could combine everything. I tried conducting and fell in love with it. It is not just technique. You work with the text and get into culture and philosophy and language, when was the music composed, what was the influence on the composer.
“The sounds, shades, colors, qualities — when you start to experience these things, you don’t want to let go of them.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org