Beethoven′s surprising and wild ′academy′ concerts brought to life anew | Music | DW | 12.02.2020
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Beethoven's surprising and wild 'academy' concerts brought to life anew

The flying fiery candles may be missing, but conductor Francois-Xavier Roth is nonetheless taking a leaf out of Beethoven's book with unpredictable and provocative performances based on the composer's own music series.

The attendees of concerts organized by Ludwig van Beethoven himself never knew what to expect. But they could count on one thing: The evening would never be boring.

The same can be said of concerts organized by French conductor Francois-Xavier Roth. In honor of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth, Roth is presenting a series of unique concerts in collaboration with Cologne's Gürzenich Orchestra, where he is the principle conductor. Entitled "Allein Freyheit" ("Alone freedom"), the concerts are his attempt to create a modern version of Beethoven's concert evenings, called "academies."

According to Roth, these concerts were very avant-garde because people often had no idea what was about to be played. "We have taken up this aspect with the 'new academy,' always in reference to Beethoven," he explained. Roth didn't announce the program ahead of a February 11 concert in Cologne's Philharmonie, leaving the audience in suspense.

Francois-Xavier Roth conducting the Gürzenich orchestra (Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Fotograf: Holger Talinski)

The program 'Allein Freyheit,' created by conductor Francois-Xavier Roth, emphasizes new music with Beethoven's as inspiration

Beethoven's academies

Starting in 1800, Beethoven regularly organized these so-called academies, which were in essence concerts that featured his own works and those of his colleagues. In contrast to the current Western classical concert tradition, those in Beethoven's time did not go to concerts to hear the works of "old masters" but rather to experience the latest and greatest new music. "Beethoven included contemporary music of his time in his 'academy' programs," Roth explained.

The most storied of Beethoven's concerts was a private benefit he held on December 22, 1808 at a Vienna theater. The roughly 4-hour concert consisted exclusively of his latest compositions. On this evening, he presented works including his Symphonies No. 5 and 6. He selected the musicians, rented the concert hall, played the piano and conducted. He is even said to have sold the tickets himself in his own living room.

The ink on the score was often still wet when the evening performances rolled around; Beethoven simply improvised. The unexpected was the order of the day for Beethoven. The candlesticks sometimes flew off the piano in the heat of the moment as he played. The audience reacted to the music directly with cheering or shouting.

Ludwig van Beethoven composing (picture-alliance / akg-images)

Beethoven's most famous concert took place in Vienna on December 22 1808. He performed many of his own works.

Opening up to new music

Roth's program is not quite as wild as Beethoven's may have been; everything is well thought out and executed with finesse. Yet audiences are nonetheless in for surprises.

For example, the conductor has combined movements from Beethoven's Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, as well as some of his pianos sonatas and concertos, with more recent pieces. These include works from the 1960s by German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, from the 1980s by Helmut Lachenmann and the world premiere of Quasi una bagatella, by the contemporary Italian composer Francesco Filidei.

 "When we play a program like this, we automatically feel and experience Beethoven's music differently," Roth told DW. "In combination with new works, you can hear how modern Beethoven's music was, why he composed these dissonances and how experimental passages in his music sound."

Roth loves to surprise listeners with sounds they don't expect. It is part of his aim to awaken the audience's interest in new music. The excerpts from Beethoven's works enter a seamless symbiosis with the new music included in the program, audibly linked through transitional passages composed by Isabel Mundry.

Musical fireworks

Audiences attending Roth's concerts are in for a rich sonic experience. The array of instruments alone is impressive. Five percussionists play a wide variety of instruments, while two grand pianos, a harp and organ fill out the orchestra.

The Gürzenich Orchester sits onstage in the Philharmonie (Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Fotograf: Holger Talinski)

The Gürzenich Orchestra filled the stage of Cologne's Philharmonie

On Tuesday, the atmospheric tones of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata enveloped the audience before shards of sound fly ferociously around the room during Helmut Lachenmann's piece Tableau. The virtousity of renowned pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard (title photo) playing Beethoven's piano concerto No. 5 gave way to the pulsing beats of the strings in Filidei's Quasi una bagatella, with the orchestra finally swelling with passion during Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and in Zimmermann's Photoptosis.

The contrast kept the audience on the edge of their seats.

Read moreCunmo Yin wins the Telekom Beethoven Competition

Honorary prize winner

Roth has just been awarded the honorary prize of the German Record Critics' Association for his willingness to take risks and for setting new standards as the general music director for the city of Cologne. The jury hailed Roth for staying true to his motto: "Music provokes. That is an experience. Music that doesn't provoke is boring."

Francois-Xavier Roth, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Gürzenich Orchestra will perform this program in February 16 in Munich, February 17 in Lyon, February 21 in London and February 24 in Hamburg.

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