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[whitespace] Beethoven's Truth

A note-perfect soloist hides the meaning behind the notes at the SJ Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

IN THE PERFORMANCE of Beethoven's music, its "truth" is validated not by the composer but rather by the interpreter. Featured with the San Jose Symphony last Friday at the Center for the Performing Arts, violinist Akiko Suwanai honored the notes of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D with rich tone and a gorgeous touch. However, while she played the violin all the time, she rarely made music.

Performances like this leave most concert audiences with a dilemma. If such an attractive young musician, highly accomplished by hard-won reputation, plays a great work with near perfection, then what's not to like? After all, she followed all the rules. If anything's missing, it must not be her fault.

But it is never enough to play only the notes the composer has set down. What Suwanai failed to do was disclose what this great work means to her, to communicate her reaction to the composer's ideas--love, hate, delight, annoyance, wonder, despair--to reveal the meaning behind the notes according to her own personal insights. (While such overt expression may not correspond to her Japanese cultural sensibilities, it remains a key ingredient in the ongoing life of Western classical composers--including the dead ones--and their music.)

Absent such a transcendence, this multi-award-winning musician's career may already have peaked. The recent history of the violin wunderkind is cluttered with prodigies whose careers fizzled out by the time they were 30. Most of these ambitious youngsters, including Suwanai, come up with big bucks to list legendary pedagogue Dorothy DeLay on their student résumés. Even so, most of DeLay's pupils wind up as roadkill on the intensely competitive highway to stardom.

IN THE MEANTIME, guest conductor Günter Einhaus' podium technique kept the orchestra guessing until, at last, uncertainty disappeared in Beethoven's Symphony no. 8 in F. Einhaus, a veteran meister of Bavarian symphony orchestras, took a generally straightforward approach to the work without fussing unduly over fine points of dynamics and tempo.

But most of the time he held his baton motionless against his body. Instead, he used his left arm to choreograph phrasing and momentum. The result was a largely personal technique that would predictably make more sense to an orchestra well familiar with his style.

Lacking that familiarity, this orchestra bore a reticence that held down sonority, especially in the strings, during the opening Fidelio overture and the ensuing violin concerto. This lack of ensemble confidence was still in evidence at the start of the symphony but quickly dissipated as the first movement unfolded.

At last, the development section flexed powerful muscles and the room warmed up quickly. Now, sonorities flowered, dynamics gained contrast and Einhaus' peculiar technique took on its rightful leadership function.

In the two decades that opened the 19th century, only eight new symphonies appeared that have stood the test of time. All of them were composed by Beethoven. Any one of them, by itself, would have secured this composer's reputation as the colossus of his age.

One will search in vain for another symphony of stature from that era. Have you heard Cherubini's one-off? Vorisek created a worthy singularity. Weber and Reicha each wrote a pair. Clementi composed several.

From 1800 until his death, Beethoven would not encounter a serious pretender to his throne. (Hindsight has shown us that Schubert's Fifth Symphony of 1816 held portents of greatness, but the composer's symphonic masterpieces would not see the light of day until after both composers were in the grave.)

Einhaus and the San Jose Symphony reaffirmed Beethoven's magnitude with this ultimately authoritative reading of one of those eight unassailable masterpieces.

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From the March 9-15, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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