A last minute substitution and a Beethovenian milestone revisited

I had hoped to avoid any unwanted drama surrounding my Lancashire Chamber Orchestra concert on Saturdayday by avoiding any travel that morning. . ‘Twas not to be.

A couple of hours before our dress rehearsal, I had a call from Georgina, the orchestra’s chair and manager.  It  turned out that Anne, our usually indefatigable and nearly indestructible leader, had fallen ill that morning while teaching and had to be taken home. She was heartbroken that she couldn’t play and I know that she was devastated by the thought of letting anyone down, when all that really mattered to us was for her to get well soon (which she is).

So, we needed to find someone to lead the concert. Normally, the deputy leader would move over, but in the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony op 118a we were playing, both the leader and deputy have extensive, demanding solos. Having our deputy move over would have meant two people on the front desk sightreading nasty stuff. Better to find a substitute leader and let everyone else do that which they were expecting to do when they woke up that morning.

Georgina started making calls, and within 20 minutes, the problem was soloved. Andrew Orton, recently retired as deputy leader of the BBC Philharmonic, was reached in his garden, up to his elbows in spring mud. He very graciously agreed to drop everything, clean up  and come straight to our rehearsal.

Fortunately, someone like Andrew, with decades of experience, knows most of the repertoire backwards, and would be more than ready for the Beethoven First Symphony and First Piano Concerto. Unfortunately, this was a Ken concert, so the rarely played Shostakovich (the arrangement of his 8th Quartet, op 110a, is played all the time, but this arrangement of the 10th quartet is a real rarity) was completely new to him. When I arrived at the hall, he was flipping through the fiddle part silently pitching it in his head and looking for problem spots. We then talked through which solos were completely alone and which were accompanied.

The LCO were my first regular UK gig, so we’ve done a lot of projects over the years, and the orchestra has changed a lot. In all that time, Anne had led every concert I had done with them. It really is amazing how much the playing of the concertmaster shapes the sound of the entire orchestra, whether it is a chamber orchestra or a full symphony.  It’s not a gradual process- change the leader, and the sound of the whole orchestra changes almost immediately.

So it was- we started with the formidable Shostakovich, and it was striking how different the band sounded and felt from the first note we played. Andrew’s slightly different rhythmic feel meant that everything settled just a little differently to the way it had at the last rehearsal. It’s really amazing just how fast and intuitive the process of adjustment is, as it is with a new conductor. By the time we moved on to the Beethoven 1st Symphony, it felt like Andrew had been leading for months, not minutes. Likewise, all those nasty solos were dispatched without problem

As it happens, Beethoven’s First Symphony and the final version of the First Piano Concerto were premiered on the same concert in 1800. Imagine being there for that concert! I wonder if anyone in the audience had any idea of what they had witnessed, or were they just heard muttering the usual complaints of “well, it was okay, but as a symphonist, he’s no Stamitz!”

Heard side-by-side, one can really see that the two works are made of the same stuff. The codas of the two Finale’s are almost interchangeable (but for the presence of the solo piano in one work!), and Beethoven recycles a number of motives between the two pieces.  In both cases, you can see Beethoven’s muscularity and ambition asserting itself. While the shadow of Haydn looms over every page, Beethoven does find space to develop and declare his own sense of humor- where Haydn is multilayered, sophisticated and deceptive as a humorist, Beethoven is more the master of the musical fart joke.

For me, it is in the slow movement of the Piano Concerto where you really see everything Beethoven already is and is going to be more of- the deep, deep spirituality. Somehow, just the sound  of that perfectly realized A-flat major chord after all the C major triumphalism and formality of the first movement is a miracle, and a doorway to a new world.  Likewise, when Daniel Browell, our expert soloist, launched attacca into the Finale, C major sounded forever changed and elevated from what came before it.

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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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