Campus Honors Beethoven in Singularly Oberlin Fashion

February 14, 2020

Erich Burnett

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ambitious, year-long schedule of performances showcases student and faculty performers.

The 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth has inspired individuals and organizations worldwide to join in the celebration throughout 2020.

Oberlin is taking part in ways few others would dare imagine: From February through December, dozens of concerts dedicated to the music of Beethoven (1770-1827) will take place on campus—every one of them drawing on the artistry of the conservatory’s student musicians and astounding faculty, as well as the Arts and Sciences Orchestra, made up of standout musicians from the College of Arts and Sciences.

LvB 250

"As we embark on a celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven's 250th anniversary, we can rightly ask: ‘What can explain his enduring popularity and relevance?’” says Peter Takács, a longtime professor of piano at Oberlin and a worldwide icon in the interpretation of Beethoven’s piano works.

“Of course, there are the well-known aspects of his life, such as the compelling personal story of overcoming advancing deafness, personal struggles, and physical ailments. And there are the immediately recognizable works, such as the fifth and ninth symphonies, and the ‘Pathétique,’ ‘Moonlight,’ and ‘Appassionata’ sonatas.

“Beyond these claims to global fame, however, there are aspects of his life and work that continue to inspire us even today: his gift for responding to adversity through art, constantly striving for artistic evolution, a nobility of spirit, a gruff and sometimes impish sense of humor, and above all, a search for transcendence and the sublime in music. There is no other artist in Western history who combines so many essential human qualities in which we can recognize ourselves."

Oberlin’s “LvB 250” celebration begins with performances of Beethoven’s complete lieder, which will be presented in four concerts in Kulas Recital Hall: Tuesday, February 18; Wednesday, February 19; Tuesday, February 25; and Wednesday, February 26.

Each performance begins at 7:30 p.m.

“Beethoven isn’t primarily known for his lieder,” says Thomas Bandy, associate professor of vocal accompanying, who prepared student singers for their lieder performances. “Famously, he even said, ‘Ich schreibe ungern Lieder’ (‘I don’t like writing songs’). But they have a great variety of moods and show him finding his way in a new genre with very few models to go by.”

The celebration continues on Saturday, February 29, with a performance by the Oberlin Orchestra, under the direction of Raphael Jiménez, dedicated entirely to works by the master. The program opens, fittingly enough, with Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, which was unusual for its time in part for its frequent shifting of tonal centers and its abundant use of wind instruments. Beethoven’s first symphony also features obvious nods to the music of his teacher, Joseph Haydn.

It will be followed by Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36, in which the composer reveals numerous “musical jokes,” particularly in the symphony’s second half. The evening concludes with Wellington's Victory, Op. 91, sometimes called “The Battle Symphony,” which was penned in the months after Britain defeated Spain at the Battle of Vitoria in the summer of 1813.

Jiménez’s orchestras will complete a survey of all of Beethoven’s nine symphonies by the time the calendar year closes. The heroic Ninth Symphony is slated for December 11, 2020, and will be performed in collaboration with the Oberlin College Choir and Oberlin Musical Union.

“This is a very big, very difficult project for an undergraduate institution to take on over the course of just two semesters," says Jiménez. "It will be a remarkable experience for our students.” The Oberlin Orchestra and Oberlin Chamber Orchestra will share the task. During spring 2020, the Oberlin Orchestra will also perform the most recognizable work in all of classical music, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (April 4). The Chamber Orchestra will perform the Eighth Symphony (April 11) and Seventh Symphony (May 5).

In March, 20 student quartets are taking on the herculean feat of performing all 16 of Beethoven’s string quartets and the Grosse Fuge in five concerts spanning three days. Oberlin is the only institution in America presenting the complete Beethoven string quartets—performed by students—in the tidy span of a single weekend. Each concert takes place in Kulas Recital Hall beginning Friday, March 6 (4:30 p.m.); continuing Saturday, March 7 (1:30 and 7:30 p.m.); and concluding Sunday, March 8 (1:30 and 7:30 p.m.).

“This is a very special and amazingly exciting project,” says Sibbi Bernhardsson, Oberlin professor of violin and a coach of the chamber ensembles that will perform the quartets. “Some schools hire professional groups to perform the cycle. We are showcasing our students and giving them a great educational and musical opportunity they will all be very proud to be part of.”

Also scheduled this spring:

• On Wednesday, March 4, the Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra performs Egmont Complete Incidental Music, conducted by Tiffany Chang and featuring faculty soprano Kendra Colton, with musicology professor Steven Plank as narrator. The 7:30 concert will be preceded by a brief talk by musicology professor Charles McGuire.

"The Egmont overture is extremely popular, but the complete work in its entirety has never been performed on Oberlin's campus,” says Chang. “Beethoven's vivid, deeply thoughtful musical representation of Goethe's drama highlights his personal beliefs in triumph over oppression and female transcendence."

• On Thursday, March 19, faculty baritone Timothy LeFebvre joins forces with Takács for a performance of An die ferne Geliebte (“To the Distant Beloved”), regarded as one of the world’s first song cycles.

• On Friday, April 10, Oberlin Sinfonietta, under the direction of Timothy Weiss, performs the Quintet for Piano and Winds at 7:30 p.m. in Warner Concert Hall.

Additional programming will be added throughout the fall 2020 semester.

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