Lawrence Toppman

Cox Conquers Knight Theater in Scaled-Down Symphony Program

By Lawrence Toppman

Twelve years ago, Christopher Warren-Green auditioned for the job of music director with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, guest-conducting a concert capped by a vivid rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” The wheel comes round again this year, as six guest conductors get a chance to show what they can do with the CSO before Warren-Green leaves in 2022.

Georgia-born, Berlin-based Roderick Cox began that process Friday night in Knight Theater with his hands partially tied by COVID-19: He led Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 and Brahms’ Serenade No. 2.

None of these pieces exploits the full tonal range of a classical orchestra or plumbs many emotional depths. Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 would have done both, but management replaced it with the serenade to accommodate a reduced orchestra and allow additional spacing for wind and brass players, who can’t be masked. (The concert repeats Saturday; you’ll find information here.)

Yet despite the confines of the programming, Cox conducted with intelligence, sensitivity, precision and energy. He has set the bar high for the five young guest conductors who’ll follow.

Youth ruled the evening. Neither Cox nor solo violinist Benjamin Beilman has reached 35; Brahms finished the serenade at 26; Mozart composed this last authenticated violin concerto at 19. Wagner was 57 when he wrote the idyll as a birthday present for his second wife, but he was probably feeling his oats: He’d married Cosima just a few months earlier, legitimizing their two children.

The “Siegfried Idyll” can easily seem overlong, not music to wake up to – as Wagner meant it to be for Cosima – but a lazy lullaby that floats repetitiously along. Cox gave it no chance to sag, conducting at an unhurried but steady flow and emphasizing the dramatic links to the “Ring” cycle. (Wagner was polishing the third act of the opera “Siegfried” at the time.)

Beilman, who played the Beethoven concerto here in 2017, paired smoothly with Cox in Mozart. Together, they attacked the vigorous parts with swift sureness, especially in the mock-militant “Turkish” section of the finale. When left alone in the solos, Beilman often produced a sweetly intimate tone that anticipated the sentiments of the Romantic era. His 19th-century-style cadenza underlined that forward-looking feeling; I’m guessing it came from Joseph Joachim, Brahms’ favorite violinist.

Cox finally got a chance to imbue a score with a bit of mystery in the serenade. Brahms originally wrote that piece for a full orchestra, then re-scored it 16 years later for a chamber orchestra. He omitted violins in the revision, so the string lineup – eight violas, five cellos, three double-basses – creates a darker sound even in joyful moments.

Only the centerpiece of the five sections, an adagio non troppo Clara Schumann admired, can take much weight; there the musicians played with gravity tempered by a smile. They bounced genially through the other four movements, and Cox capped the piece with a bounding allegro that suggested hunters tally-hoing across spring fields. One can only guess what he could do with a broader musical palette, but I’d like to find out.

Pictured: Roderick Cox; photo by Susie Knoll.

Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Concert Looks Mostly to the Future

By Lawrence Toppman

Except for the inevitable Christmas “Nutcracker,” the Charlotte Ballet season-opener at Belk Theater represents Hope Muir’s farewell as artistic director. (She’ll take over the larger, better-connected National Ballet of Canada on January 1.)

She could have dwelt entirely in the past for the 50th anniversary celebration, which runs through Oct. 9 and comes a year late because of the pandemic: Robert Lindgren founded N.C. Dance Theatre, the company’s initial version, in 1970 at N.C. School of the Arts. Instead, Muir picked one classic from 1993 – Salvatore Aiello’s “The Rite of Spring,” as explosive now as it was then – and three pieces new to the company that show where it might go.

The fireworks opened with a squib Thursday night, with Christopher Stuart’s vaguely amiable “Then, Now, Forever.” Stuart, who’ll be interim artistic director once Muir leaves, set repetitive swirls and lifts to Philip Glass’ music. The presence of Charlotte Symphony Orchestra members in the pit, usually a rare boon for the ballet, backfired: The rusty, hesitant musicians started out of tune and achieved the proper rhythmic vitality only near the end. Then you noticed the disconnection between Glass’ pulsating score and the slower movements of the dancers.

Crystal Pite’s “A Picture of You Falling” raised the temperature immediately afterward. It’s written for two dancers (Amelia Sturt-Dilley and Andrès Trezevant, both razor-sharp on opening night), who spend the piece alternating solos and finally come together for a pas de deux. Muir has long wanted to get a piece by Pite, and you could see why: The innovative presentation, dramatic movements and ambiguous but thought-provoking psychology struck home.

My companion thought it might be about an unhealthy relationship marred by domestic abuse. I wondered if Pite explored gender identity: The man and woman dress identically in black and white, and the narrator’s voice suggests they may be the same person. The lighting, sometimes pitilessly revealing and sometimes encircling the participants like stanchions in a bullring, added menace.

Meanings became a little clearer with “Ibsen’s House.” Choreographer Val Caniparoli bit off more than anyone could possibly chew by depicting male-female behavior in five of Henrik Ibsen’s plays in about half an hour. The Belle Epoque costumes and darkened ballroom created by Sandra Woodall set the right tone, but the characters ran together in these brief snippets.

You might rightly have inferred that her obtuse husband didn’t satisfy Hedda Gabler, or that Nora Helmer rebelled against a stifling spouse in “A Doll’s House.” But the behavior in “Ghosts” and “Lady from the Sea” can’t be encapsulated that way, and nobody could have guessed that Rebecca dominates Rosmer in “Rosmersholm.” What prompted Caniparoli to set such brooding people in motion to Dvorak’s mostly buoyant Second Piano Quintet I can’t guess, but five Charlotte Symphony members played it with skillful brio.

Aiello’s “Spring” rocked the room, as it always does. I attended the world premiere 28 years ago and remembered the most lurid moments: the final sacrifice of an exhausted virgin, the cannibalistic devouring of a fallen warrior, the dashing and stomping brutes who look like prehistoric cave paintings come to life. I had forgotten the moments of whimsy – look at those waggling, elevated toes on prone bodies – and even some lyrical repose in the second half.

James Kopecky, often the company’s go-to guy for anguish, tore into the Young Warrior’s writhing solo and exulted in the defeat of the old chieftain (Ben Ingel). Nadine Barton’s dignified Earth Mother and Sarah Lapointe’s frenzied Chosen One bookended the action nicely, Lapointe, who’s usually used for elegance and poise, must have found it liberating to leap and twist about in rage and ecstasy, then douse herself in white body paint before flailing to her death. That final tableau still takes away your breath.

Pictured: NC Dance Theater performs The Rite of Spring – Afternoon of a Faun. Photo credit: © Charles & Mary Love.

Looking for love in all the wrong places

By Lawrence Toppman

Remember the 1994 movie “Immortal Beloved”? Its poster showed an improbably dashing Beethoven sitting in a chair, with the arms of an otherwise unseen female wrapped affectionately around him.

That fanciful biography took its title from a letter Beethoven wrote in July 1812 to a woman who has never been identified. The letter began “My angel, my all, my self” and ended “The gods must send what must and what should be for us – Your faithful Ludwig.”

The two likeliest candidates seem to be Antonie Brentano, an affectionate married woman to whom he was drawn, or Bettina Brentano, her sister-in-law by marriage and a younger muse to many men, including Goethe. (She introduced Beethoven to him at the composer’s request; he’d hoped to coax the old man into writing an opera libretto, but that came to nothing.)

Because Beethoven had a profound respect for wedlock, and because Bettina soon became a wife after he met her, he probably didn’t sleep with either. His lifelong bad fortune consistently drew him to women who were married, too young, too flighty, uninterested in him physically or too highly placed socially to accept him as a suitor.

In fact, lasting love of all kinds eluded him after the death of his mother when he was 16. His father beat, humiliated and exploited him. His brothers, neither of whom had any interest in his work except when hawking it to music publishers, went their own ways. He considered one sister-in-law no better than a prostitute and fought her in the courts for custody of her son, Karl. That four-year struggle ended with him gaining guardianship over the 14-year-old in 1820.

As his father had done with him, Beethoven attempted to squeeze music out of his nephew. Karl, uninspired as both a pianist and a composer, reasonably tried to fight free of his uncle’s grasp. He set his mother and uncle against each other, led an unambitious academic life, unsuccessfully attempted suicide in 1826, entered military service the following year and never saw his uncle again.

As this would-be-paternal relationship fell apart, Beethoven stopped seeking loving connections with family members and the opposite sex. Instead, he poured his feelings into music.

When the Missa Solemnis premiered in 1824, he dedicated it to Archduke Rudolf of Austria, his main patron as well as a former pupil and friend. He inscribed Rudolf’s copy “Von Herzen—Möge es wieder—Zu Herzen gehn!” That is, “From the heart – may it return to the heart!” If no individuals loved him deeply, he could still reach out to the heart of the entire world.

The greatest composer? Perhaps. The unhealthiest? Indisputably.

By Lawrence Toppman

Plenty of noteworthy classical composers died young: Juan Arriaga at 19, Lili Boulanger at 24, Pergolesi at 26, Schubert at 31 (the year after he escorted Beethoven’s coffin to the cemetery), Mozart at 35, Purcell at 36, Mendelssohn at 38, Chopin at 39.

But of all those who lived a reasonably full span for their eras, none suffered like Beethoven. Even if you set aside his hearing loss, an extraordinary handicap for a musician, his life seems like a nearly uninterrupted arc of physical misery.

Stomach pains and diarrhea racked him from his teens, possibly because lead leached out of cooking utensils or cheap wines. (Lead had been added to wine to thicken it since Roman times.) For the next 40 years, until he died at 56, these agonies never left him for long.

Friends who knew Beethoven best tolerated his emotional attacks and outbursts – often followed by apologies and repentance – because they knew his melancholy and depression sprang at least partly from pain. Others merely wrote him off wrongly as a misanthrope.

He ultimately endured colic, pancreatitis, what seems to have been an inflammatory bowel disorder, respiratory problems, joint pain, eye inflammation, chronic headaches, tinnitus and cirrhosis of the liver, aggravated by alcohol abuse. Meanwhile, useless treatments for his deafness included the application of leeches and the tourniquet-like fastening of bark from the Daphne mezereum plant to his forearms, which caused them to blister and burn.

Beethoven remained bedridden for months before his death in March 1827, which has been attributed by various sources to liver and kidney failure, peritonitis (inflammation of the fluid lining the abdomen) and encephalopathy, which would explain his disordered mental state.

Only a year earlier, he had composed the serene String Quartet in F, his 16th and last in that form. In his final months, though, he merely jotted notes for a piano piece that never took shape because he lacked the stamina to finish it.

Miraculously, like Mozart writing “The Magic Flute” in ill health months before his death, Beethoven produced some of his happiest music during his unhappiest times. His liver problems intensified as he finished the Ninth Symphony in 1824, yet the final “Ode to Joy” remains the most thrilling 15 minutes he composed. He separated physical agonies from the uplifting beauty he left to the world.

Audio: The Life and Times of Beethoven

Learn what shaped Beethoven’s music through a series of short audio anecdotes from Lawrence Toppman’s collection of posts marking 250 years since Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth. Topics include how he composed some of his greatest works as his hearing declined, why his greatest opera Fidelio had no memorable tunes, how he bombarded audiences with his genius to prove a point, and more.

What the Deaf Man Heard
Most think Beethoven went deaf relatively early, but new evidence suggests Beethoven might have retained partial hearing up to a year before his death.

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The Grim Beethoven?
After studying 46 images online of Beethoven, every painting, sculpture and drawing has one thing in common: He’s never smiling.

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A Disastrous Outpouring of Genius
“One can easily have too much of a good thing – and still more of a loud.”

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The Greatest Opera with No Tunes
How can the most brilliant of Beethoven’s operas not have more memorable tunes?

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The Journey that Saved Beethoven’s Life
Beethoven poured his thoughts into a document that starts with a plea for understanding and ends in his commitment to art

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Ten underrated pieces you should know

By Lawrence Toppman

I compiled a similar list last year for Mozart and enjoyed that journey of rediscovery so much that I’m revisiting the concept. It’s harder for Beethoven: No symphonies or concertos have been overlooked (he wrote too few), and he composed only one opera and one great church work, the Missa Solemnis. Still, treasures remain hidden to the casual fan. Check these out:

Piano trio No. 3 – How many pieces did Beethoven write before Op. 1? This sounds like a trick question, but the answer is dozens. He decided to call his first set of three piano trios Op. 1, because they represented the achievement of a composer ready to make his mark on the world. All are worth knowing, but this one in C minor has the most weight and drive.

“Ah, Perfido!” – For his first major attempt at dramatic vocal music, Beethoven wrote a concert aria of the type favored by Haydn and Mozart. Of course, he made this plaint of an abandoned yet still faithful lover nearly twice as long as theirs at 14 minutes. You hear glimmers of the nobly powerful emotions he would put into Leonore and Florestan’s outpourings in “Fidelio.”

Cello sonata No. 3 – The first piece by Beethoven I studied seriously 50 years ago sticks in my mind as one of his most beautiful, alternately serene and tumultuous. He never wrote a cello concerto, but this sonata – the middle one of five – shows he understood the instrument’s capacities. It’s also his first “with piano” sonata that gives an equal role to the keyboard.

Choral Fantasy – This odd hybrid has never found an audience, but I like it both as a kind of dry run for the Ninth Symphony and on its own wild merits. The long, virtuosic piano introduction leads into a vivid orchestral section and then an uplifting finale for a chorus, which sings about beauty, peace, divine grace and “life’s harmonies,” themes he revisited in his “Ode to Joy.”

Piano Sonata No. 7 – You’ve probably heard the named sonatas – “Moonlight,” “Pathetique,” “Appassionata,” etc. – so I picked this one, though all 32 reward a hearing. Here Beethoven broke away from earlier models, writing four movements instead of three and experimenting with unusual key changes. The second section (largo) hints at tragic slow movements to come.

String quartet No. 10 (“Harp”) – Like the piano sonatas, all the string quartets command attention. I chose this one because it balances Beethoven’s romantic and classical sides so well: The heroic opening movement leads us to expect something other than the traditionally constructed theme and variations of the finale. You can’t pin Beethoven down by style or era.

“The Ruins of Athens” – Beethoven wrote more incidental music for plays and ballets than people realize, and this set – best heard in the revised version with the “Consecration of the House” overture — contains not only his famous Turkish March but a Chorus of Dervishes that’s astonishingly forward-looking. It would be at home in a Rimsky-Korsakov opera of the 1890s.

Serenade for strong trio, Op. 8 – He also wrote many pieces of occasional music to be played at social gatherings, which earned him lots of money (notably his early Septet) and which he later downplayed. This may be the best: elegant, dancelike (both a minuet and a polonaise), starting and ending with sweet-tempered marches. No masterwork, just polished craftsmanship.

“Rage Over a Lost Penny” – Beethoven’s rough, crude sense of humor in person occasionally popped up in his writing, frequently transformed into something more sophisticated: You can hear musical witticisms throughout the Diabelli Variations. “Rage” catches him at his most puckish, as the pianist merrily vents his frustration at being unable to locate a dropped coin.

Concerto for violin, cello and piano – OK, I picked a concerto, because this seldom gets played. It seems at first like a stunt – look how cleverly I weave three soloists into a pattern! – but it’s lively, charming, fun. No other 19th-century composer attempted one, but about 30 composers have taken a shot over the last 100 years. That’s Beethoven: perennially fresh and inspirational.

Beethoven’s Napoleonic complex

By Lawrence Toppman

Four years ago, conductors surveyed by BBC Music Magazine named Beethoven’s Third Symphony the greatest of all time. Yet the “Eroica” started life with a different title: “Bonaparte,” applied while Beethoven saw Napoleon as a symbol of democracy who would sweep away royal houses and assure the rights of the common man.

He tore up his dedication to Napoleon in 1804, when the puppet French Senate named him emperor. “Now he also will trample all human rights underfoot, and only pander to his own ambition!” Beethoven told composer Ferdinand Ries, his student. “He will place himself above everyone else and become a tyrant!”

Beethoven changed the title to indicate to listeners that his ambitious new work – the longest symphony by a major composer to that point – still represented a hero’s journey. But his fascination with Napoleon lasted much of his life.

That shouldn’t surprise us. Both were short, homely, often dislikable men of relatively modest beginnings who elevated themselves to the tops of their professions through unrelenting hard work, single-mindedness and undeniable genius.

Beethoven’s interest in the Frenchman began unofficially in 1796, when he wrote 12 variations for cello and piano on “See, the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s “Judas Maccabeus.” Napoleon had already begun his campaign to break apart the Habsburg Empire and establish “sister republics” to France, and he’s almost certainly the “conqu’ring hero” lauded here.

Despite his subsequent rage at Napoleon’s self-aggrandizement, Beethoven respected him, and the imperial family returned that respect. Napoleon’s brother, Jerome Bonaparte, became King of Westphalia and offered the composer the job of kapellmeister at his court. (Beethoven said no but used that offer as a bargaining chip to solidify his position in Vienna.)

During the French occupation of Vienna in 1809, diplomat Louis-Philippe-Joseph Girod de Vienney visited the composer and reported that Beethoven not only peppered him with questions about Napoleon but expressed grudging respect for his achievements.

In 1813, Beethoven needled the emperor in “Wellington’s Victory,” hackwork which made its composer plenty of money. He wrote this “battle symphony” to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, that year in Spain.

He created the 15-minute potboiler for a mechanical contraption called the panharmonicon, then revised it for orchestra. “Victory” alternates themes associated with the two countries, mainly “God Save the King” for England and “Marlborough has left for the war” for the French. (We know it as the tune for “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.”) Whatever Beethoven may finally have thought about Napoleon, the French get the better music!

The Unholy Grail

By Lawrence Toppman

Nearly 40 years ago, I started buying CD sets of symphonies to take to a tiny apartment in old age, where I’d have room for one box per composer. (That’s how OCD people think.) I did so satisfactorily for Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. Dvořák, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, even the 104 symphonies of Haydn.

Only Beethoven defeated me. After 12 complete cycles, I have given up the quest.

Sooner or later, Leonard Bernstein became too impetuous, George Szell too rigid, Michael Tilson Thomas too lightweight, Herbert von Karajan too ponderous, John Eliot Gardiner too shallow, Simon Rattle too bland, David Zinman too mechanical. Andre Cluytens comes closest to my ideal in his stereo cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic, but even there the Fifth could blaze more, and the Seventh could be nimbler.

Why should this be? Because Beethoven, more than anyone else, never repeated himself in a symphony. Unlike Mahler or Mozart, who explored a wide range of ideas and feelings but remained fundamentally themselves, Beethoven changed personalities every time.

The elegant First Symphony pays quasi-traditional homage to his teacher, Haydn, whose last symphony had appeared five years earlier. The Second, where Beethoven replaced the minuet movement with a scherzo, shows his sense of wry and sometimes raucous humor. The Third changed the course of composition with its daring length, key changes and other innovations. The Fourth abandons high drama for mellow warmth.

The Fifth sets him battling with a cruel Fate, the Sixth ambling blissfully through a pastoral scene, the Seventh indulging his love of dance rhythms. In the brief Eighth, he revisits his early days as a composer with a light heart but an old man’s irony. The Ninth rockets us to the stars.

What conductor could express all these personalities with equal insight? Even within one symphony – say, the Eroica – nobody finds everything that’s there. The reduced forces of Tilson Thomas’ English Chamber Orchestra lack power but reveal details I have heard nowhere else. Bernstein has tremendous zest in some spots and languishes in others. Gardiner plays parts of it with the right intensity but tramples others to death like a rogue elephant.

Four decades of study have frustrated my space-saving self but revealed an astonishment of riches found in no other symphonic collection. I once figured I’d encounter the “correct” interpretations of Beethoven to take to my deathbed. How glad I am now that they don’t exist!