NACO: Beethoven festival aims to plumb the depths of a genius

If you were a music director wanting to test drive a new performance space, what music would you use?

Well, if you are the NAC Orchestra’s Alexander Shelley, you choose Beethoven. 

That, he says is one reason why NACO will be playing all nine Beethoven symphonies starting on Sept. 13 in the orchestra’s annual festival of music.

“The main driver was actually the renovation of Southam Hall,” Shelley said in an interview. “We are getting a new (acoustic) shell and it will sound different” inside the hall. “I was thinking how we could best explore, experiment and delight in this new acoustic.”

He also wanted the audience and the musicians to be able to compare the difference in sound.

“What repertoire would highlight this difference? What does our audience know well and have heard many times over the years in old acoustic? I think it will be a striking difference.”

Beethoven provides a frame of reference, he said. 

But that is not the only reason. Since Shelley assumed his post with NACO, the annual festival has alternated between lesser known and better known music. Last year, it was Ideas of North featuring music from Finland and Canada prominently. This year it’s Beethoven’s nine symphonies.

Alexander Shelley. Photo: Fred Cattroll

“This is a cycle that is fundamental to everything we do.  The Beethoven symphonies are at the core of any orchestral repertoire. He demands everything of the musician. As an orchestra, you have to be at top of your game to get everything out of this cycle.”

Finally, it’s just the work of a genius. That makes it relevant, he said.

“There are a few things in the world, such as the Shakespeare plays, that people associate with someone. If you talk about symphonies, people will talk about Beethoven. People grow up feeling Beethoven’s symphonies are important. But I really want to, in the context of a festival, get into the why.”

Everybody knows the opening of the Fifth Symphony, Shelley said. It’s one of the most famous four notes ever written.

“Why should that be so important. We take it as writ that it is important, but why? In the festival and in the surround I want to explore Beethoven.  He was complex, difficult, cantankerous, deeply moral, deeply caring, passionately committed to the idea of a civil and fair society.

“He found ways for the first time in the history of music,” Shelley said, “of expressing that through music. And I want to talk to audience about how he did that.”

What makes Beethoven … well … Beethoven?

He combined strength, power and sound, Shelley said.

“He was a pianist first. He came from Bonn and went to Vienna where the first thing he did was forge a career as a pianist. His father overtly wanted him to be the next Mozart and pushed Beethoven.” (Mozart was still alive when Beethoven arrived in Vienna but we don’t know if they met. We do know that Beethoven met and studied with Franz Joseph Haydn, the other great composer of the day.) 

“When people talked about Beethoven as a pianist they talked about this desire for power and the extremes of his playing. When he played a piano, frequently the strings would break and everything out of tune by the end.”

In many ways, thanks to Beethoven, the piano evolved.

“Any time he would visit a new town that had a piano maker he would go to him and ask questions and make demands. He wanted it to be bigger, more powerful, stronger, hold intonation better. He wanted to get as many colours out of it as possible,” Shelley said.

“He wanted power, but what I would add and what makes him extraordinary, is that he had raw emotion. His personality was such that he could be yelling at one moment and loving the next.”

He was also always honing his craft and reducing music to the essence.

“So when it came to symphonies, you are confronted with a work that looks, at first glance, like there is a lot of going on. If you look at it more closely as I have to do, you see patterns repeated. It’s like when you look at a leaf close up and you see the same shape repeated. It’s all fractal.

“You notice Beethoven connects everything.”

In Shelley’s opinion, the only other composer that could do this was Bach.

“Beethoven marries the two sides of our personalities. All of us love the idea of passion and the idea of being free and expressive but we also realize that a life led on a whim doesn’t really work. We also strive to have integrity and control. In his music, you find these two extremes knitted so tightly together.” 

Beethoven symphonies are often played in an orchestra season. Shelley has condcuted the Ninth Symphony twice already in his short tenure with NACO. But he’s not apologizing. 

“If we were to only ever play Beethoven or Mozart and Haydn, I would get it. But since I have been here, we have premiered more than 20 new pieces in three years. We have very broad repertoire.

“People who are the greatest of the greats, their creative output has so much depth, it has so much to say to every generation and so much they can teach. These symphonies never become mundane. They never become straightforward. They never become easy. For my work as a music director, in moulding this orchestra … this cycle is a wonderful vehicle for that.

“I imagine our audience will have heard many of Beethoven’s symphonies performed stunningly beautifully. I know my approach is different. One isn’t better that the other. It’s simply that these works take so many viewpoints. You can hear them in different hands and they can be radically different.”

Shelley’s approach to the symphonies sticks closely to the original Beethoven.

“The tempi are quite brisk, very close to what Beethoven asked for himself. He wrote down metronome marks for all his symphonies in 1817. I stick very closely to these. In order to do that,” he said, “you have to jettison some of the very romantic way of playing that accumulated in the mid-20th century.”

That gives a luxurious, even syrupy sound, Shelley said. “I’m not doing that. I’m careful here. I think for me the bite, the drive and the energy … there is something fundamental that he was trying to achieve, I really try to bring this out. He was a young man. He was in his early 30s when he started writing the symphonies.”

Speaking of those, it’s not unnoticed that Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies are better known.

There is a joke,” Shelley said. “Someone asks a student: how many symphonies did Beethoven write? The student thinks of the Third, the Fifth, the Seventh and the Ninth and answers: Four.”

One famous critic said that if Beethoven had only written the Fourth Symphony, that would be considered his masterpiece. Still it and the other even numbered pieces are somewhat overshadowed in the public mind.

For Shelley, that’s because he broke the mould with:

• The Third, in which he massively expanded the proportions of the symphony. Before a symphony was 25 minutes long. Eroica was 50 minutes;
• In the Fifth Symphony, he reduced everything to basic principles like no one had before.
• In the Ninth he introduced a chorus, soloists and a text to the symphony.

These concerts will be memorable for Shelley, who has been doing some innovating himself. He is celebrating, with his partner Zoe Shelley, the arrival of their son Sasha Felix the couple’s first child.

Beethoven Festival
National Arts Centre Orchestra with Alexander Shelley conducting
When: Sept.13 to Sept. 22
Tickets and more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.