Orchestral Music Review Print

Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven 5 Practicum

March 1, 2008 - Hendersonville, NC:

The benefits of a Music Director whose day job is being a Professor of Music at Furman University was evident when the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra presented “Inside the Score: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” an evening devoted to studying and hearing a single work in the Hendersonville High School Auditorium.

On the first half of the program, Thomas Joiner adopted his “Professor” persona and delivered a well-organized half-hour lecture regarding the history and music theory behind Beethoven’s famous C minor Symphony. The orchestra illustrated the lecture with snippets of the music. After intermission, Joiner adopted his “Maestro” persona and conducted the entire four movement work in a normal concert manner. An audience question-and-answer session completed the evening.

The lecture managed to explicate the structure of all four movements of the symphony, including the sonata allegro form that is the basis of both the first and fourth movements. The two themes of the exposition were sampled, examples played showing the alteration of thematic material in the development section, and further examples from each recapitulation and coda. This theory lesson was intertwined with a music history lesson when places in the score were discussed where Beethoven had altered the classical forms of Haydn and Mozart as his blossoming romantic sense led him to do. The radical nature of the fourth movement was emphasized. Changes from tradition occurred here in instrumentation (the appearance of piccolo, contrabassoon and bass trombones), structure (the coda can also be considered to be a second development section) and even tonality (a C minor symphony whose final movement is in C major).

The only possible quibble with the lecture was that it made no mention of Beethoven’s spiritual crisis and the ensuing Heiligestadt Testament resolving his crisis with a reaffirmation of life in spite of travail. But probably adding this topic would have required an additional and unacceptable ten minutes of lecturing.

The performance itself of the Symphony No. 5 was acceptable if not remarkable. No, it was more than acceptable; it was very good. These musicians do not make egregious errors in standard repertoire. A few musicians straggled off notes with a resulting incomplete effect during what the composer intended to be a sudden dramatic silence. There was a noticeably imprecise entrance where the different sections had different ideas of when to attack. But overall it was very good. I liked Joiner’s tempo; fast but not breakneck. The sense of urgency arises from the rhythm and the harmony; the tempo does not need to be super fast.

But the most interesting part of the evening was the postscript: a Q-and-A session where audience members asked questions about the work, the composer, the orchestra or any other germane topic. The questions were far-ranging. Maestro Joiner fielded some, and passed others on to orchestra members.

Q. How did the musicians manage to start and stop on a dime when they played illustrative passages during the first half lecture? A. With difficulty, especially stopping. One whole rehearsal, we were told, was spent practicing those first half excerpts.

Q. How do musicians watch the music and the conductor simultaneously? A. (from concert master Ralph Congdon): A musician has to deal with two spaces. The first is your own space containing yourself, your instrument and your music. You must attend to this. The second is the space of the entire ensemble. You must use peripheral vision and your ears to couple your personal space to that ensemble space.

Other questions included “What, exactly, is music theory?” and “What distinguishes classical music from baroque music?” One questioner wanted to see the three trombones that the HSO used for the work: one each alto, tenor and bass trombone. In all, the questions showed an audience with a range of formal musical education but all of whom were intelligent and loved music.

When Joiner suggested that the concert format might be repeated next year with the Dvorak New World Symphony, he was met with applause.

The final question was from an orchestra member for the audience. Lucie Fink, principal viola, remarked that she lived in Greenville, SC and had been driving the hour to Hendersonville for fifteen years to play with the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra. She praised the quality of the HSO and marveled at it existing in such a small town. Her question was, why does Hendersonville not provide a performance hall of matching quality?* The audience in the dry, quirky high school auditorium applauded, but had no reply.

* Hendersonville’s four year effort to develop a new performing arts facility using a former textile mill property in the downtown area is now in a state of arrest. For the public, the location has been a hard sell; the City has recently withdrawn spiritual and financial support for the project, and the price had grown from $22M to $35M. Ed.