A famous marathon concert given by Beethoven in 1808 is being commemorated this month in a big way by the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera.
The concert was huge in its time and is remembered because of its abundance of music that has become iconic. The evening was full of world premieres, including Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Debuting alongside the “Fifth” on the concert were the composer’s Choral Fantasy and his Sixth Symphony. The composer's Piano Concerto No. 4 was also performed that evening as were selections from his Mass in C and his concert aria “Ah perfido.”
In fact, the concert holds so much significance, it’s not uncommon for it to be reproduced by today’s orchestras.
Conductor and California native Jeffrey Kahane, who is in town to steer the ship for the Sac Phil on their Beethoven Festival, says the conditions on that monumental evening in 1808 were less than optimal.
“He did all of that in one concert which lasted about four hours on a freezing cold night,” explains Kahane. “The weather was even worse than it’s been the last couple days [in Northern California], but it was a historic concert.”
Nonetheless, Kahane posits that it would have been “an extraordinary moment” to be among those who witnessed the concert on that cold December evening in Vienna.
“When an audience heard all of this music, which is so familiar to us, for the first time — just how radical and shocking it is,” he says.
In addition to his conducting duties, Kahane will perform the piano solos in both the Choral Fantasy and the Piano Concerto No. 4, a work that Kahane points out was revolutionary at the time.
“It’s the first concerto in the history of music that begins with a statement by the soloist,” he says. “It’s radical in terms of the fact that it has a second movement where only the strings play. The trumpets and timpani don’t play at all until the last movement. The way the piece is constructed, everything about it is something entirely new.”
Another unprecedented move by Beethoven was to program both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in the same evening. Kahane says that the close proximity of these two symphonies on one concert was illustrative of two vastly different sides of Beethoven’s personality.
“One of them [the Fifth] represents this side of Beethoven in this kind of titanic spiritual struggle," he explains. "The other [the Sixth] represents a kind of atmosphere of meditation and prayer and gratitude, and it’s a remarkable piece because we know that he endured incredible suffering. As one distinguished musicologist Louis Lockwood wrote, ‘this is a piece about healing.’”
The Sac Phil won't perform this mammoth concert in one night. They’ll divide it into two consecutive Saturday programs. The first one takes place January 19th.
Kahane understands the enormity of an event like this and applauds the Sacramento Philharmonic's choice to commemorate Beethoven’s famous concert over two weekends.
“I’ve actually been involved in two recreations where the entire thing was done on one program,” Kahane says. “It’s very exhausting for the performers. I think it was a wise decision on the part of the Sacramento Philharmonic to split it both for the sake of the performers and because it’s kind of a lot of music to take in in one evening.”
Thanks to the Sac Phil, one still gets to hear all of these masterworks in close proximity, taking place over two temperature-controlled evenings in Sacramento, and still have time for a nightcap.
The Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera’s Beethoven Festival takes place Jan. 19 and Jan. 26 at the Sacramento Community Center Theater. Find more information, at the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera’s website.