Undercooking Beethoven 9

It probably won’t surprise too many readers to learn that on the relatively rare occasion I get to sit down and veg out with the television, I’m as likely to watch cooking shows as anything.

Given that, I should start today by saying a sincere “rest in peace” to cooking show legend, Keith Floyd, who died today. I loved his humor, his unapologetic attitude to his many vices and thought his food always looked great.

My favorite current show is Masterchef. The current season is focusing not on talented amateurs or celebrities but on aspiring professional chefs. The culmination of each round is a challenge to cook not a personal favorite, but a classic recipe. Today’s was fillet of beef in béarnaise sauce. I’ve been working on this dish ever since I encountered Merlin’s Tournados of Beef Henri IV at Foley Station in La Grande, Oregon, USA. It’s a dish worth flying to America and driving across the desert for.

Anyway, I think this is a good test of professionalism- the ability to not only execute one’s party pieces but any acknowledged classic.

We know that this standard applies to orchestral musicians- you can’t get a job unless you can play excerpts by Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Shostakovich and who knows what else with technical polish and a fundamental understanding of musical style.

Does the same apply to conductors?

I wondered this the other day while listening to a truly atrocious performance of Beethoven 9 on the radio. Beethoven 9 is a bit like fillet of beef in béarnaise sauce- a bit over the top for every day consumption, but something every serious chef should be able to execute to perfection (note the pun of the word “chef,”). I’d say that I’ve heard more disastrously bad performances of Beethoven 9 than of any other standard repertoire piece. Sometimes it’s just to much for the singers, but most often, it’s too much for the conductor, who seems to be trying out a bunch of ideas  lifted from recordings (if they’ve even gotten that deeply into the piece) rather than really having made a deep analysis of the whole work. I can’t tell you how many awful Beethoven 9’s I’ve heard in recent years.

These days, it seems that Beethoven symphonies are no longer the works that launch a career. If you look at the elite levels of the business, there aren’t many folks whose names you associate immediately with great Beethoven.  Mahler, Stravinsky and Bernstein is the music that makes careers now.

I suppose making a big impression with a splashy piece is all well and good, but a splashy piece with an overpowering orchestral sound can carry a conductor a long way beyond what she or he might be able to achieve in more understated and more well-traveled repertoire.

Shouldn’t we all have to be up to the classics if we’re going to be their caretakers and their advocates?

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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