The SSO concludes a two-year Beethoven cycle with the defining work of the orchestral repertory, the Fifth Symphony, presented with Martinu’s “Memorial to Lidice.” Bertrand Chamayou also makes his SSO debut in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
Three shorts and a long.
It’s the musical equivalent of E = mc2 : on the surface, a deceptively simple formula that yields previously unimaginable results — including many Ludwig van Beethoven himself couldn’t have possibly foreseen. In World War II, the Allies equated the Fifth Symphony’s famous motto with the dot-dot-dot-dash denoting “V” in Morse code. The BBC regularly included this “V for Victory” message of hope in broadcasts to Nazi-occupied Europe.
“The really powerful element in Beethoven’s Fifth is this connection to strong emotions,” Ludovic Morlot said just before beginning rehearsals for his March engagements with Seattle Symphony. “No matter how famous it is, you have to re-create that sense of the music as a response to something that has immediately affected you.”
Seattle Symphony: Beethoven’s Fifth
With Ludovic Morlot, conducting, and pianist Bertrand Chamayou (Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2), 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23, and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25, tickets from $22; 7 p.m. Friday, March 24, is Beethoven Untuxed, tickets from $13, Benaroya Hall, Seattle; (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
For his concerts with the SSO this week, the conductor will preface the Fifth with another work that is shockingly immediate: “Memorial to Lidice” by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, of whom Morlot is an eloquent champion. A brief but devastating symphonic poem from 1943, “Memorial” is Martinu’s musical protest and lament commemorating the destruction of the Czech village of Lidice by the Nazis the year before. Morlot says Martinu’s response to the atrocity “still has fresh blood on the page.”
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Martinu even makes explicit reference to Beethoven’s Fifth and the “V for Victory” message by inserting a defiant quotation at the climax of “Memorial.”
“Martinu’s piece almost creates an extra movement for the Fifth,” Morlot says. Acclaimed for the thought-provoking juxtapositions in his programming, the conductor realized that because of this connection the Martinu could also serve as a powerful “prelude” to the Fifth.
Everyone knows how Beethoven’s symphony begins — that’s the only music many people know from the Fifth — but it should still convey a shattering impact. So Morlot’s idea was to have the orchestra launch into the Beethoven right after “Memorial to Lidice,” without a pause. “It doesn’t feel like a start but like something we live through after experiencing that climax in Martinu’s music.”
Another connection Morlot points to is “the duality between major and minor modes in Martinu. He leaves you confused about what mode you are in. In Beethoven’s journey from C minor to major, there’s also an ambiguity until the last movement. The finale is the trickiest part to conduct, in fact. Beethoven’s buildup of tension and suspense is so well written, but once you are into the last movement, you need to sustain the energy of C major.”
Also on the program is the Piano Concerto No. 2, one of the most technically formidable but also rewarding of Belá Bartók’s compositions. Morlot invited the young French pianist Bertrand Chamayou, with whom he has collaborated in several concerts in Europe, to make his SSO debut as the soloist. “Not so many people play this concerto because of the difficulties. He has the incredible rhythmic poise and big technique that you need for the piece.”
Bartók was a performing composer celebrated for his artistry at the keyboard — much like Beethoven in his earlier years. In fact, it was on the gargantuan program introducing his Fifth Symphony in December 1808 that Beethoven also premiered his Fourth Piano Concerto — the last of his concertos he was able to perform in public before deafness made that impossible.
Morlot is thrilled that the Fifth will be the work to round out his two-year-long cycle of the complete Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos with the SSO. “My connection with it started in one of my first conducting lessons. The Fifth was also one of the very first pieces I did with the SSO, when I was visiting as a guest conductor in 2010.”
He says the key to unleashing the full impact of this music is “to question every aspect: the size of the orchestra, the tempo, the articulation. Your understanding of all these things evolves as the years pass. And it’s important not to over-rehearse. There must still be an element of danger.”