Milestone anniversaries are supposed to be predictable events.

And since no figure in the classical music firmament looms as large as Ludwig van Beethoven, the classical music world was counting on the composer’s 250th birthday this year as a major selling point. But coronavirus started wreaking its havoc, and countless Beethoven-related events had to be scuttled — or adapted on the fly to constraints no one could have predicted.

Or … re-imagined in a way that makes the pandemic context itself an integral part of the story. That’s the approach taken by 17 arts organizations across the Seattle area to create This is Beethoven, a digital, cross-disciplinary festival that will be premiered as streams over four days starting Dec. 16, when Beethoven’s birthday is traditionally celebrated.

An undated sketch of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born in December 1770. (The Associated Press)
An undated sketch of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born in December 1770. (The Associated Press)

A radically altered focus

The idea for the festival was spearheaded by Kristin Lee and Andrew Goldstein, co-founders of Emerald City Music. A startup that presents chamber music events in nonformal settings, ECM had planned to host the Miró Quartet in a complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets. But after being compelled to reinvent the season, “we asked ourselves: how can we use music at a time like this so it can be more meaningful, rather than merely try to replicate a live concert on a virtual platform?,” Lee said in a recent Zoom call with Goldstein.

ECM decided to push ahead with its Beethoven theme, but with a radically altered sense of focus and purpose. Inviting a wide spectrum of artists to collaborate became a guiding point. The 17 partner organizations range dramatically in size and constituency, embracing musical genres outside the classical sphere and spanning the realms of dance, theater and film. All of the festival performances were recently recorded live for presentation as streams; five pieces are brand new.

Some of the concerts contain major compositions by Beethoven. For example, there will be accounts of the Fifth Symphony (the Amazon Symphony Orchestra) and the less-often-heard, head-spinningly inventive Eighth (Northwest Sinfonietta), as well as Liszt’s piano transcription of the First Symphony (in a recital by Slava Gryaznov presented by Vashon Center for the Arts).

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Spirit of cooperation

The offerings extend to new artworks and performances only tangentially related to the composer but inspired by his example. “This festival is also about celebrating the breadth of community and art that happens in Seattle,” said Joseph Seamons, co-founder of the Hillman City-based Rhapsody Project, which fosters cultural equity through a focus on American roots music.

The Rhapsody Project takes an interest in the social and historical dimensions of music and in the perspectives of Black and LGBTQ youth. Seamons recalls being intrigued by the challenge of bridging this focus with a kind of music many dismiss as out of touch with the world of the “ordinary” listener.

“Beethoven was profoundly influenced by the folk music of his time. So we had our songsters (ages 11-18) imagine what kind of folk melodies Beethoven would adapt if he were living in America. They’ll perform traditional blues songs that show how there’s an originality in taking something else and making it your own.”

The spirit of cooperation is a signature of This is Beethoven. “This initiative shows local performing arts organizations banding together in an unprecedented way to face this existential threat,” says Allison Halstead Reid, executive director of Vashon Center for the Arts (VCA), which will serve as the virtual host. Initially, VCA planned to make its resources available so that nearly half of the partners could film their performances there.

But Gov. Jay Inslee issued new restrictions in mid-November, before most of the filming had begun, forcing the coalition of partners to readjust yet again. Reid links that resilience to the realization of how important new relationships among arts groups have become. From her perspective on Vashon Island, “we are very interested in creating these relationships and the possibilities for other festivals down the road.”

One example of the festival’s boundary-crossing impulse is the contribution from three artists based at the University of Washington. Actor Jeffrey Fracé, who teaches at the School of Drama, crafted a script from his readings of Beethoven’s letters, which he is developing into a multilayered performance piece together with pianist and UW artist-in-residence Cristina Valdés and dancer Rachael Lincoln, assistant professor in the Department of Dance.

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“It’s not so much a dramatization as a piece that uses these texts as a jumping-off point to explore what it means to make art in the face of so many obstacles — which is the story of our moment,” Fracé said in a Zoom call with his fellow artists while their project, tentatively titled “A Distant, Guiding Sun,” was still in rehearsal.

The new restrictions had just been issued before the trio had even had a chance to join together to rehearse as initially planned on Vashon Island. They had to resort to putting the piece together via Zoom sessions.

A relatable Beethoven

Before the pandemic struck — and even since then — the proliferation of Beethoven programming had been criticized as a continuation of a kind of hero worship that is harmful because it reinforces the ideology of a canon dominated by white male Europeans. But Beethoven as a vulnerable human being caught up in struggle is another key theme of the festival.

The film “ordinary grief / the people to come” from zoe | juniper will premiere at the This Is Beethoven festival. (Juniper Shuey)
The film “ordinary grief / the people to come” from zoe | juniper will premiere at the This Is Beethoven festival. (Juniper Shuey)

The film “ordinary grief / the people to come” is a contribution from zoe | juniper, a pioneering company whose mission of exploring artistic intersections is very much in keeping with the vision behind This Is Beethoven. Choreographer Zoe Scofield partnered with co-director Juniper Shuey to create the company’s first dance film, while Northwest Film Forum is serving as a promotional partner. Shot at a friend’s barn near Hood Canal with a cast of eight dancers, the piece was initially rehearsed via Zoom and uses a dreamily stretched-out version of the slow movement from the Op. 132 String Quartet.

“I’m interested in how our histories and the people who come before us shape who we are now, and how who we are now shapes who comes next,” Scofield explained in a Zoom call with dancer David Rue. “Beethoven was deaf when he wrote these late works and was working from innate physical memory, in a way that feels close to dance. Dancers cannot be separated from their bodies. So it became a conversation across time between Beethoven and me and the dancers — a synthesis of parallel experiences.”

“This is a Beethoven experience, but told in a different way,” said Rue. “I knew Beethoven could be told in a different narrative, with a connection to who we are as artists today. It gives us hope of something beyond where we are now.”

This is Beethoven

Streaming Dec. 16-19: streams begin at 8 p.m. on Dec. 16, 17 and 18; Dec. 19 is a marathon starting at 2 p.m.; free (donations accepted) at thisisbeethoven.org. Afterward, a selection of festival offerings will remain available on the website until Jan. 4, 2021, accessible to donors.