32 Thoughts about Beethoven (and his 250th Birthday)

“Ludwig van Beethoven is the most frequently performed of all classical composers. He was also a radical artist who constantly reinvented himself, expanded the boundaries of music and posed questions to society. Even today he inspires people all over the world.” So proclaims the homepage of BTHVN 2020, an organization that joins in this year with hundreds of others worldwide to celebrate the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most famous, beloved, and—indeed—frequently performed composers in the Western canon.

The birthday boy. Source

The festivities will be wide-ranging and immense. Beethoven’s symphonies, overtures, concertos, piano sonatas, and string quartets will appear on programs the world over, and, in many cases, entire cycles of these works will be presented. New recordings of time-tested favorites will be made, and classic recordings will be remastered. (Case in point: a recently-released, 123-disc box set claims to offer “the most complete Beethoven anthology ever produced.”) Symposiums, lectures, essays, articles, and books will seek to reveal new insights about the composer. In all, Beethoven will receive a truly comprehensive celebration that he could have only imagined during his lifetime.

Yet, amidst all this merriment, there’s something about this whole celebration that’s a bit overwhelming, redundant, and even fatiguing. And there are some things that I feel need to be said about this. Below, I have compiled a list of 32 miscellaneous thoughts about Beethoven, his music, and his 250th birthday celebration. (Why 32? It’s mostly inspired by the film Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, but Beethoven also composed 32 piano sonatas. Come to think of it, those two things are probably connected…) These musings are wide-ranging and in no particular order. I would also like to emphasize that many of these express my opinions. Some you may agree with, others you may disagree with. And that’s 100% fine! At the end of it all, though, it’s clear that there’s still much left to be said about Beethoven. Anyway, here we goooooo…

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Krumping with Rameau

As I stated in my November 2018 post “Debussy + Trampoline (shameless self-plug!), in the art world, there are times when the combination of two or more dissimilar elements can lead to something truly astonishing and transporting.

Another case in point: this incredible production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1735 opera Les Indes galantes. Rameau’s work is technically an opéra-ballet, which unites both sung and danced elements to create a dramatic whole. In this particular staging, though (from the Paris Opera in fall 2019), Baroque music and period instruments lives in harmony with… krumping? Yup. For their updated reimagining, film director Clément Cogitore and choreographer Bintou Dembélé chose to use modern dance styles throughout the opera instead of historically-accurate ballet.

The original opera is, quite frankly, a bit of a Eurocentric (i.e., racist) mess when considered from a modern standpoint. The plot follows various love stories set in “exotic” locations (the Ottoman Empire, Peru, Persia, North America) and ends with a peaceful coming-together of Europeans and Native Americans courtesy of a “savage” dance. Yikes and double yikes. However, this modern staging somehow appears to transcend all of that, more bluntly addressing issues of prejudice, otherness, and what it truly means to be a global community.

At the very least, though, it’s a mesmerizing production to watch. Check out the two clips below and see for yourself…

Favorite Albums of 2019

I love end-of-year lists. They condense the significant happenings of the past eleven months into an accessible, easy-to-follow format. They can also celebrate the best of humanity, or remind us of the uncertainty of the times and how far we have to go in achieving a peaceful world. (Though “Baby Yoda” was one of the year’s most Googled terms worldwide, so there is hope for us!) 

In the artistic realm, I especially love reading critics’ picks for the most noteworthy classical music events and audio releases of the past year. The sheer amount of musical achievement and ingenuity is usually staggering, and this year was no exception.

With that said, here are ten of my favorite albums from 2019, along with a handful of honorable mentions. (I much prefer a “favorite” rather than “best of” approach, which acknowledges the inherently subjective nature of this exercise and puts my personal preferences on full display!) If you like what you hear, I encourage you to support the artists and purchase their work instead of just streaming it. In no particular order…

Attacca Quartet – Caroline Shaw: Orange (New Amsterdam Records/Nonesuch Records)

Ever since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, Caroline Shaw has quickly become one of today’s most talked-about young composers, and this past year saw the first album devoted entirely to her music. Featuring five works for string quartet (and one for string duo), this release showcases Shaw’s wondrous composition style, which delights in bright textures, sonorous harmonies, and quirky turns of phrase that occasionally collapse into chaos. Plus, nods to the works of Bach, Ravel, Mozart, Haydn, and even Shaw herself are never far off. The Attacca Quartet‘s dynamic and sensitive performances only increase the impact of this release.

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