The year 2020 marks what would have been the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, a composer who was as much a romantic as he was filled with rage. And, even in all that, he still managed to become one of the most legendary composers, largely shaping classical music of the last two centuries. To celebrate the occasion, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra is presenting a new series of concerts beginning this weekend, 2020: The Year of Beethoven.
The CPO will be pairing Beethoven’s five piano concertos with his first five symphonies on five concerts in the remainder of their 2020 season. Most notably, however, is that each concert will also feature a new work by a living Canadian composer, written as a “comment” on each of Beethoven’s symphonies.
“We decided we should commission five composers from Canada to write concert openers for these five shows,” says the CPO’s New Music Advisor, Vincent Ho.
“The challenge was trying to find five composers that have distinct, unique voices … We wanted to select composers from across the nation, of differing backgrounds, and at different stages of their careers, to ensure that we had a mosaic of voices that represent diversity.”
The five composers were asked to write a piece that reflected a connection to the symphony and/or concerto that their works would be programmed alongside.
Toronto-based composer Larysa Kuzmenko is the first composer on the roster, and the CPO will be premiering her Fantasy on a Theme by Beethoven Friday, Feb. 14 as part of Beethoven 1: Immortal Beloved. Commending Kuzmenko for her musical language, Vincent Ho says, “She’s been working as a composer for about 20 years, based in Toronto, and her music covers a wide range of styles and aesthetics.”
Writing seven variations on the main theme in the first movement of the first symphony, Kuzemeko, “wanted to celebrate Beethoven’s birthday, hence most variations are joyful and spirited.” She says she decided to compose three very sensual variations featuring a solo oboe depicting Beethoven’s beloved, in light of the pieces’ premiere on Valentine’s Day.
On Saturday, the CPO performs Beethoven 2: Romance, which will feature the premiere of a new work, Innenohr (Inner Ear), by acclaimed First Nations Odawa composer, Barbara Croall. With a background of a combination of Indigenous and western music traditions, Ho says, “It’s great to have her on board for this particular project. It’ll be interesting to see what she comes up with in terms of how her music will be inspired by Beethoven.”
When asked to compose a work inspired by Beethoven’s second symphony, Croall thought about the inner turmoil in Beethoven’s life during the time he was composing the symphony.
“His hearing difficulties had become impossible to ignore, with no cure. The panic and confusion must have been overwhelming. I began to wonder about the concept of memory involved in musical composition, and how Beethoven’s creative impulses were so concretely formed in his imagination.”
She continues. “I also wondered about the actual workings of the inner ear, a complex and tiny network of canals by which to perceive sound — not unlike a conch shell in some ways, and the branches of a tree in others.”
Later on this season, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s remaining piano concerti, as well as the third, fourth, and fifth symphonies, along with new works by Canadian composers Kelly-Marie Murphy, Jocelyn Morlock, and Dorothy Chang.
The CPO’s Year of Beethoven series perfectly exemplifies a marriage of “something old” and “something new.” The series of concerts celebrates the the monumentality of Beethoven’s musical masterpieces, all while providing an opportunity to showcase the next era — the modern era — of classical music.
“In the context of an orchestra,” Vincent Ho says, “it’s important to feature the works of living composers in order for musical culture to grow, to give a voice for our generation … and to provide future audiences with historical documentation of who we are in musical form.”
The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra’s Year of Beethoven series begins Friday, Feb. 14 with Beethoven 1: Immortal Beloved, and Saturday, Feb. 15 with Beethoven 2: Romance. All concerts are at 7:30 p.m. in the Jack Singer Concert Hall. For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.calgaryphil.com.
Simon MacLeod never wears hats. But, he is active in the Calgary arts community, as a sound and movement performance artist, and arts manager for a number of local nonprofit arts groups.