For novices and aficionados alike, the name Beethoven is synonymous with classical music. As Adrian Spence, music director of Camerata Pacifica, pointed out, the composer’s most famous tunes — the opening of the Fifth Symphony, the finale of the Ninth — are the stuff of ringtones.
To this day, Beethoven embodies the archetype of an artist: someone who works through, and ultimately transcends, his personal torment through creativity. As we listen to his music, his struggles become our struggles; his triumphs, our triumphs. This connection is so powerful that it influences the way we hear all music, which, Spence argued, may limit our appreciation of compositions that fail to follow his format.
Between now and 2020 (the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth), Camerata Pacifica will join forces with the Calder Quartet for the two-season-long project “Why Beethoven?” It will feature 20 different concerts and a dozen panel discussions.
It opens this coming week with a program pairing the composer’s first published piece — his Piano Trio, Op. 1, No. 1 — with a sonata by his teacher (Haydn) and another by a composer who labored to emerge from his shadow (Brahms). Later programs will pair Beethoven’s astonishingly innovative late works with great pieces by 20th-century masters, including Charles Ives and Steve Reich.
Spence discussed the project in an email exchange as he traveled through Europe.
How is it that Beethoven speaks to us so directly and powerfully after two centuries? Beethoven’s music of his heroic period has become associated with freedom and equality — brotherhood. [It depicts humans’] endless struggle, within and without, to realize personal freedom spiritually, philosophically, intellectually. It is a constant, transcending any one person or moment in time. This is the Romantics’ notion of the human condition, and it’s fascinating that in 2018, how we perceive ourselves and how we receive this music has barely changed since the early 19th century.
The influence of his music is so great upon us today that we have trouble hearing music that doesn’t follow his expressive and subjective model, in linear narrative form, [which makes it] tough if I want you to listen to [contemporary composers such as Toru] Takemitsu! Although Mozart and Haydn follow the linear form, their music is not subjectively expressive. But our Beethoven-influenced ears have us listen to their music through that aural lens.
Why did you decide to partner with a string quartet for the first time? Did you feel you couldn’t fully explore Beethoven’s creative journey without playing the quartets? The last quartets provide an excellent chamber music platform for performance and discussion of Beethoven’s late period. While I think these quartets are perhaps over-revered as opposed to just listened to, they are complex works that require a lot of rehearsal time. At the Camerata, an abundance of rehearsal time is a signature, but this is the domain of string quartets. Hence the invitation to the excellent Calder Quartet, whose violist, Jonathan Moerschel, occasionally performs with the Camerata.
You have said you hope to re-create the “radical impact” Beethoven’s music had before he was beatified into the Greatest Composer Ever. How? Many people will simply drop in and enjoy our performances, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, the Camerata audience is noted for its open-minded curiosity, and many of our core audience will embrace our whole project, which, importantly, includes the panel discussions. For those who do, their perception of his music will change.
If you join us for the whole journey, you’ll become familiar with the tumultuous social, political, philosophical, and personal circumstances in which this man created his art; your perception of his music will change, and your degree of astonishment and amazement will increase.
Camerata Pacifica will perform its season-opening concerts Sunday, September 9, 3 p.m., at the Museum of Ventura County (100 E. Main St., Ventura) and Friday, September 14, 7:30 p.m., at the Music Academy of the West (1070 Fairway Rd.). Single tickets are $58; subscriptions begin at $219. Call 884-8410 or see cameratapacifica.org.