The Question of Interpretation: Ideal Vs. Reality

On the question of forming an interpretation:  Let’s agree that one achieves this from an in-depth study of the score, but also from a broader understanding of a composer’s total opus, in this case Beethoven’s eight other symphonies as well as his sonatas. (I am grateful that I was forced to learn his final sonata Opus 111 when I was 16, otherwise I would not have the experience to draw upon as I now approach the gargantuan Adagio…!) Additionally, an examination of a composer’s life through letters and biographies is crucial. We forget that these giants among men were in fact mortal, each with their own set of complexities.

Then there are performance practices and ‘traditions,’ which cannot be ignored and should be examined closely for merit (or lack thereof) in the form of recordings and live performances. Too much ‘interpretation,’ certainly without intellectual and emotional context, can be misconstrued as interpolation. The art is the balance.

What has struck me more than ever during this period of  my own study of what  ultimately will be my interpretation is the question of ability. OCYSO is comprised of talented adolescents who do not have both the benefit (and the burden) of a long history with this work. How is a young player to navigate 70 plus minutes of music? The infamous 4th horn part has given enough ‘professional’ horn players centuries of panic. How is a young player to handle its pressures? How can a string section, as sensitive as they are but young nonetheless, effortlessly spin out the seemingly endless lines of the slow movement while maintaining both beauty and tension? Will I be forced to move faster (or slower) through certain passages due to inherent challenges, read ability?  If so, is it truly then my ‘interpretation’ or one borne of necessity, reality? The great George Hurst used to say that out of challenge comes great art. That being said, just how different is my not achieving my ‘ideal’ any different from any other conductor with a professional orchestra at his/her disposal?

To take a stab at these questions; I suppose that one can count on a certain level of proficiency and ability with more mature orchestras, which then makes one’s choices more possible. Yet, as I witnessed with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic back in October, his own ideal of the piece was very different from the ‘institutionalized’ memory of what the New York Philharmonic (who incidentally gave the United States premiere of the work) have in their collective conscience. (For the record, I found Maestro Gilbert’s interpretation interesting.) This, at least, is something that I don’t have to ‘fight’ for with OCYSO; they are a clean slate.

For now, the process for me is about exploration and frankly trial and error. OCYSO informs my idea of the piece just as my study, intuition and experience guides them. In that respect, I will be just as curious come May 15 as you all to see what comes of it all.

Happy 243, Ludwig (and fellow Sag)!

The two existing Beethoven 9 copyist scores, side-by-side for the first time in almost 200 years.

The two existing Beethoven 9 copyist scores, side-by-side for the first time in almost 200 years.

From time to time, I will embed videos that show the Ninth’s cultural relevancy in our society, albeit dubiously at times…!


What a museum did to attract people…The Rijksmuseum Holland had an idea:
Let’s bring the art to the people and then, hopefully, they will come to see more – at  the museum. They took one Rembrandt painting from 1642 , Guards of the Night, brought to life the characters in it, placed them in a busy mall  to the tune of Beethoven’s Ninth – and the rest you can see for yourself!

I. Back to the source

Back in the summer of 2002 at the Tanglewood Music Center, one of my mentors made an off-hand remark that a conductor’s first Ninth “will not go well.” (I am using gentler language, but you get the point.) This not terribly reassuring comment stuck with me, knowing that the inventible day would come. I suppose that part of the reason that this resonated at the time was my own fear of the Ninth, one that I didn’t understand and certainly didn’t appreciate. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what seemed like a rambling third movement. (I wasn’t alone; the first critics panned it.) It wasn’t until I heard a revelatory performance (which to this day remains my definitive interpretation) by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and the Vienna Philharmonic that it made sense to me. Isserstedt’s ability to convey the structure of the work is as clear as the outlines of the Parthenon itself and the sheer beauty of the playing and singing is breathtaking. The first live performance I ever heard was Sir Georg Solti in Zurich back in 1991, but in full disclosure I don’t remember much; I had just lost a piano competition and while Beethoven himself could have been conducting I would have still been sulking…!

My next encounter was at the library of The Curtis Institute of Music where I uncovered a gorgeous, hardbound leather edition (Breitkopf & Hartel) of the symphony from the 1920’s. I simply had to have it and made a mental note that when the day came, this was the score that I would use.  A few years later, I purchased a smaller Peters Edition for the Canford School of Conducting for a summer course with the legendary George Hurst. However, I found the print too small and later bought the Barenreiter authoritative full score, which is the edition that I am now using as my reference.

In early October, I will have the rare opportunity to view two original copyist scores of the Ninth, brought together for the first time since 1824 as part of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s (RPS) bicentennial celebrations in New York. I will also attend a performance by the New York Philharmonic. (OCYSO were the privileged  guests of the RPS in August, attending the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’s stunning performance at the BBC Proms. That performance may have in fact shattered the old speed record. Check it out for yourself on BBC 3.)

Next: Gathering the Troops and Assembling the Gear for our ascent up this colossus.