A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Gustavo Dudamel is in the midst of a herculean undertaking: conducting multiple concerts of all nine Beethoven symphonies, and several other smaller works, with two orchestras—the LA Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela—over a period of two weeks, and often with two full-length concerts in one day. The project, Immortal Beethoven, began with the opening night gala on Sept. 29 and extends until Oct. 13.

The cycle is meant to show the evolution of Beethoven’s orchestral compositions from his first symphony in 1800 to his last in 1824. He didn’t write a symphony until he was 30 years old, but once he did he was off and running and wrote his first eight symphonies in 12 years. The immortal ninth took a little more time and was written 12 years after the eighth.

Some musicologists like to divide Beethoven’s symphonies into the even and odd numbered ones largely because the odd numbered ones are so, well, immortal. With the possible exception of the first symphony, the other odd-numbered symphonies are among the most well-known and beloved symphonies of all time by any composer. Starting with the revolutionary third symphony—Eroica—which set the stage for the modern symphony, both musically and structurally, and moving on to the fifth, arguably the most famous symphony by anyone ever, and then the popular seventh, and finally the monumental ninth, with it’s choral “Ode to Joy,” composed and conducted at the premiere by a completely deaf Beethoven. There is, however, one exception to this even-odd analysis: the sixth symphony, the so-called “Pastoral.”

On Oct. 3, Dudamel led the LA Phil in a performance of Beethoven’s fifth and sixth symphonies. One cannot find two more contrasting Beethoven symphonies. The fifth is dramatic from start to finish, full of Sturm und Drang and blazing with timpani in all four movements, with two movements (the first and third) in the key of C minor. The sixth, by contrast, is serene, as one would expect from a pastorally inspired work, played mostly with strings and winds, and in the pastoral key of F major. The timpani is only used in the fourth movement (Gewitter; Sturm), and, except for the horns, the brass is only used in the latter three movements. The even-numbered sixth ranks with the odd-numbered symphonies as one of Beethoven’s most beloved. Other than the exquisite structure, orchestration and melodies, part of the appeal must be that it appears to be so un-Beethoven like. Such a conclusion, however, would be a mistake, because anyone familiar with some of his piano sonatas and slow movements of his piano and violin concertos knows that Beethoven wrote some of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful music of all time.

Considering the dramatic contrast between the fifth and sixth symphonies, and their respective moods, some might find it inconceivable that Beethoven actually composed them simultaneously, but he did — the mark of a great artist. Not only that, but they were both premiered on the same concert. So, too, on Saturday afternoon Dudamel and the LA Phil performed both symphonies on the same program.

Speaking of great artists, Dudamel offered up a thrilling performance of the fifth. First off, the tempos for each movement were spot on, and although there were a few times where he slowed down the tempo for effect, it wasn’t an idiosyncratic performance. As always, Dudamel made sure certain players weren’t drowned out by the orchestra, the only exception was Principal Timpanist Joseph Pereira who is always given free rein. Dudamel even took full advantage of the section of the third movement where the strings play pizzicato with the bassoon, making it sound almost eerie.

One might have made an argument for concluding the concert with the fifth because of its rousing ending which always brings the audience to their feet, as it did on Saturday. But, consistent with the overall theme of Immortal Beethoven, Dudamel played the two symphonies in chronological order. And performing the sixth following the fifth gives the audience, and perhaps the orchestra too, a chance to exhale and allow the parasympathetic nervous system to take over from the sympathetic arousal evoked by the fifth.

Dudamel and the orchestra gave a luscious performance of the sixth that realized Beethoven’s intentions, whether conscious or not, of rolling brooks, singing birds and storms, all in a pastoral setting in the countryside miles away from the emotionally wrenching fifth. It must be said that the musicians of the LA Phil played exceptionally, with special call out to the woodwinds and horns.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

Immortal Beethoven continues with symphonies, chamber music, free community concerts and more through Oct. 13. For more information, visit https://www.laphil.com/immortalbeethoven.