Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Beethoven: Symphony No 1 in C Major, Op. 21
Beethoven: Symphony No 8 in F Major, Op. 93
Beethoven: Symphony No 5 in C Minor, Op. 67
One of the main reasons why I was looking forward to leaving Spain (?!) and coming back to New York City was that a major treat would be waiting for me upon my return: Beethoven's nine symphonies spread over four concerts in five days at Carnegie Hall. To make things even more exciting, the musical ensemble in charge of this exhilarating challenge would be Argentine-born Israeli Daniel Barenboim's and his late friend the Palestinian scholar Edward Said's thriving creation, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Composed by young musicians coming from Israel, the Palestinian Territories and several Arab countries, this well-regarded orchestra has been playing and touring for over 10 years now, demonstrating many times over than the world would be a much better place if people started putting down their differences and listened to one another a little bit more.
When putting this week's Beethoven marathon together, somebody had obviously come up with the smart idea of featuring one of the major symphonies in each of the four performances, allegedly to make sure that the audience would keep coming back for more. Such an elaborate scheme, however, was probably not necessary since only a quick look at the packed auditorium on Wednesday night confirmed that the name Beethoven had a tremendous appeal to people of all ages, genders, sexual orientations, races, national origins and economic status.
That's when I happily took my seat in what would be my temporary corner for three more concerts, a few seats from a woman who was so ready for it that she had the scores right in front of her. My friend Linden, always the knowledgeable dilettante and smart businesswoman, had picked this performance for her one and only Beethoven date because 1) it included the mighty Fifth and 2) she would basically get three symphonies for the price of two. Who could argue with that?
The symphonies may not be performed in order, but at least the whole series logically starts with the pleasant First and closes with the all-encompassing Ninth. So after receiving a rock-star ovation, Daniel Barenboim scoped out his protégés, raised his baton, and off we were. Beethoven's first foray into the symphonic world was light and fun, with Haydn's shadow occasionally hovering over it, but not too close. That was also my first opportunity to hear the orchestra live, and there was a lot to like. The playing may not have always benefited from an impeccably polished shine, but it projected plenty of endearing spontaneity and genuine enthusiasm. The musicians were young, but they clearly knew what they were doing and quickly won the audience over.
Jumping twelve years ahead, we moved swiftly on to the Eight symphony and realized right away what a difference a decade makes. Not only did this one require a larger orchestra, but it also contained enough complex yet attractive musicality to keep musicians and audience members fully engaged. Although Daniel Barenboim from time to time took a step back, nobody was fooled for a second into thinking that he was loosening his towering command over the proceedings. His connection with the orchestra is evidently so tight and secure that he does not need to spell everything out to make it happen.
Then came the Big One of the evening, the mighty Fifth, the one that has proved once and for all that it is possible to revolutionize an art form and do it with panache too. Being famous as the symphony that even unsuspecting people are to some extent familiar with can be both a blessing and a curse. While its four-note motive is arguably the most recognized hook in all classical music, it would not be fair to reduce such a ground-breaking composition to only one component - however prominent - of it. Yet, this infectious and resilient foursome is a gift that has kept on giving for over two centuries now, throughout the ages and throughout the whole work as well. Taking the time to give the score the opportunity to breathe and resonate with all its monumental power, maestro Barenboim led his musicians into a rousing account of it. From the threatening darkness and underlying tension of the opening movement all the way to the exuberant energy of the grand finale, this Fifth was undisputable evidence that true masterpieces are in fact timeless.
Three down, six more to go.