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Except for concerts specifically tailored for schoolchildren, the practice of presenting intelligent and, yes, even entertaining commentary during an orchestral concert is nearly a dead art. Whether it's because the so-called musical elite consider it condescending or beneath them, or because you're not getting bang for your musical buck, audiences tend to be drawn to "lecture concerts" like to a root canal. That stereotype was turned on its head as Duke Performances presented the celebrated violinist and conductor Andrew Manze along with The Helsingborg Symphony in "The Eroica Effect" — a fascinating program exploring the genesis, far-reaching influence and finally a complete performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3.
Granted, you need someone with almost a "show biz" personality (think Leonard Bernstein) to effectively pull this off, so it is far from derisively that I say that Andrew Manze is such a performer. In addition to his stunning violin playing, conducting skills and wikopediac musical knowledge, he is possibly the most energetic and enthusiastic proponent of his craft that I have certainly experienced. He began the evening with a lovely and evocative picture of Vienna in 1792 that set the scene for what immediately preceded the musical earthquake that was Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony. A spirited reading of Mozart's Overture to The Magic Flute grounded us in this wonderful but safe work. It was followed by the introduction to Haydn's great oratorio The Creation. This intro is known as "The Representation of Chaos" although it sounds quite orderly and structured.
Manze then got to the meat of "The Eroica Effect" with two stunning examples (with help from Manze as composer/arranger) of the influence of this sea change symphony. After he had the cello section demonstrate the opening theme that is the basis for much of the thematic material of the first movement, he spoke of the subtle chromaticism of this passage — even suggesting that it presaged the music of Richard Wagner. He then played the opening of the "Eroica" and weaved in the famous harmonies of the prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. While quite interesting, this seemed to be somewhat of a stretch. However, what came next was truly startling and one of those "like, oh my God" moments. There is a section in the first movement where there is an almost violent and barbaric barrage of successive down bow chords in the strings. Manze had the orchestra play that followed by a similar section in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. At least in that respect, the revolutionary Rite was merely an echo of Beethoven.
The first half was the perfect storm of a slightly eccentric but captivating account of a turning point in musical history given by a man unabashedly in love with the subject and music. With these newfound insights into "Eroica," everyone was anxious for the Helsingborg Symphony to play the entire work and put words to rest. This is a medium sized orchestra — about 60 players — but plays with the power of an ensemble with 40 more players and the chamber-like interaction of a great string quartet. Like the "location, location, location" mantra in real estate, I am more convinced that "energy, energy, energy" is what makes a musical performance memorable. This doesn't just apply to fast and loud movements. The energy in the transcendent "funeral march"second movement was the definition of subdued intensity.
The orchestra was able to emotionally turn on a dime as they emerged form the pathos of the second movement to the almost flippant silliness of the scherzo and trio. Special bravos go to the three horn players in the trio section. The finale, with its remarkable set of variations, had everyone lasered in on Beethoven's genius and the brilliant playing.
A recent recording of the "Eroica" symphony featuring Andrew Manze conducting the Helsingborg Symphony is available on the Harmonia Mundi label.