Re-Play: Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Jeff Spurgeon: In New York City, there are lots of ways to get to Carnegie Hall, a subway, a taxi, a walk down 57th Street, you've just found another way to get to America's most famous home for classical music. Welcome to Carnegie Hall Live, the broadcast series that gives you a front-row seat to concerts by some of the greatest artists in the world, and you hear the performances exactly as they happen. You are part of the audience sharing the experience of music-making at Carnegie Hall. I'm Jeff Spurgeon.
John Schaefer: I'm John Schaefer. You've joined us for a concert that will travel over some pretty well-covered ground. Two Beethoven symphonies, his last to the 8th and the 9th, but you might find yourself thinking that you're hearing this musical landscape as if for the first time because we're making the journey with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, the Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra.
Sir John Eliot started this orchestra 30 years ago, inspired by two composers who today we consider to be the foundation of romanticism in music, but who in their own time, were revolutionaries.
Sir John Eliot: The twin inspirations for the creation of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique for me were Beethoven and Berlioz. Berlioz with his incredible sense of orchestral color, and Beethoven who terrified the bejesus out of so many of the later composers of the 19th century because of the immensity of his imagination and the extraordinary ability, unique ability to write for an orchestra that he couldn't hear.
John: Now, John Eliot Gardiner and his musicians believe there's something essential in the great orchestral works of Beethoven and Berlioz and their contemporaries that you can find only by playing their music in the style and on the instruments of their time. Jeff, the violins have got strings, notoriously difficult to keep in tune in the humidity and things like that. The brass instruments have fewer valves, the horns have none, the woodwinds have fewer keys.
It's just that they're cruder instruments, they're less stable, they're harder to play in tune, and yet, these are the instruments that Beethoven and Berlioz and the other romantics and the other revolutionaries knew of and wrote for.
Jeff: In their search for the authentic sounds at the time using instruments of the period when the music was written, Gardiner's orchestra has managed to bring real excitement to very familiar works. Carnegie Hall Live is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts on the web at arts.gov. Additional support is provided in part by the Howard Gilman Foundation and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the New York City Council.
This concept completes the cycle of all nine Beethoven symphonies from John Eliot Gardiner's orchestra here at Carnegie Hall. We'll talk about the 9th Symphony in intermission before it's performed, but what we're going to hear in just a couple of minutes is the 8th Symphony, Sir John Eliot introduces it for us.
Sir John Eliot: The 8th Symphony has so much [unintelligible 00:03:31] and joy in music-making. It's in some ways, very old-fashioned, but it's also progressive, and I'll tell you why. I think it's the opening of it. It doesn't have a slow introduction that then leads into [unintelligible 00:03:42]. It starts off absolutely [unintelligible 00:03:44] [vocalization]. You've just knocked on the door of a party, you open the door, and there's a tremendous [unintelligible 00:03:52] going on in the party.
God knows what isn't going on in the party, and you're admitted to this great festivity, and it's pure joy. That is so refreshing. It's heavenly about the 8th Symphony. The other thing that stands out, it's the last moment that is so amazing because that is so skillfully put together, and it's so fleet-footed, it's so mercurial. There's repeated notes [vocalization] especially if you do the proper tempo, Beethoven's marks.
That's where [unintelligible 00:04:24] come right into their foreground and their advantage because they can articulate those ricochet bowings with so much definition if they're up to the job if they're doing the job correctly. I love it. I think it's a wonderful symphony. It's underrated.
Jeff: Coming on stage at Carnegie Hall now are the members of Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. You hear the applause for Sir John Eliot Gardiner now. He brings the orchestra to its feet, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. It's their 30th anniversary season, and they're about to bring you the Symphony No. 8 from Carnegie Hall Live.
Jeff: The 8th Symphony of Beethoven. Coming to you from Carnegie Hall Live, a performance by Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
Jeff: A bright and a brilliant and a dramatic piece full of lots of twists and turns and surprising changes.
John: Absolutely. It's a very jovial, genial sounding piece, but under that surface is plenty of stuff to sink your teeth into with the symphony.
Jeff: So much conversation among the instruments and you have to be on it every time, every player to make those connections work and keep the life in the performance.
John: Well, and that, of course, is part of the genius of Beethoven in composing it that way and also our conductor, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, to actually play this piece in a way that it probably wasn't played during Beethoven's own lifetime.
Jeff: It was a challenge for the musicians, and the structure of the symphony is a great surprise. This is one of the things that Beethoven did all the time is he took conventional forms and tweaked them just to the nth degree, just remaking them constantly, so that they began in a place where you knew, and then as you just said they went into unexpected directions all the time.
John: This Symphony, the 8th Symphony is a particularly good showpiece for the ORR, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique because we were talking about playing on the instruments of Beethoven's own time and the gut strings and that ricochet bowing effect that gives it the fleet-footed sound that you could hear.
John: You may have noticed also the brass not sounding quite as brassy and blatty as we're used to in orchestral pieces. The sound is a little more mellow perhaps, and yet, it has this mercurial in the sense of being fast and able to change on a dime.
Jeff: The instruments because of what they are, especially the brass instruments, they have all these different timbres in them. It's not one unified sound, especially because of the valveless horns, they're having to make all these little hand motions, especially for the horn players. We'll talk about that a little bit more later on, but we should really turn to the string players now because one of them is in front of us.
As intermission begins in this concert, we are happy to welcome Robin Michael, principal cellist of the ORR to the Carnegie Hall Live microphones. Thank you for being with us.
Robin Michael: Pleasure.
Jeff: You have many wonderful moments in this symphony, but that wonderful little audition piece, tell us about that.
Robin: In the trio-
Jeff: Yes, it's a frequent solo piece for you.
Robin: It's an extraordinary moment because in fact, as we know, Beethoven, he often was dismissive of instrumental difficulties, but he had earlier on in his life worked with John Lee DuPont, great French cellist. I'm absolutely sure that that relation actually was already planted in Beethoven what he could do in a technical level with the cello. It's such a wonderful mosaic, you have the horn and the clarinet solo, and then this tapestry behind it was knitting harmony together.
Whilst it's quite difficult to play, there's such a joy and freedom in it as well.
Jeff: How did you get turned on to the baroque cello?
Robin: Well, this isn't a baroque cello.
Jeff: Sorry. Yes, that's right, not quite.
Robin: No, I mean playing on [unintelligible 00:09:02] instruments. I always when I was younger suspected that being told to vibrate on every note and sustain, there was just something that didn't quite ring true to me about a lot of the playing styles that certainly I grew up with in the '80s and early '90s. Then, of course, I got listening to different recordings, actually [unintelligible 00:09:22] earlier recordings and started to find a way that actually you could apply language much more to how we use, for instance, the [unintelligible 00:09:30].
It's a much more speaking tool than say a Bel Canto 19th century approach, which is very much this way in the mid 20th century. Then once you've got the bug for that, there's no way of going back.
John: Robin, you've played in "normal orchestras."
John: How different is your experience as a player playing in the ORR, playing Beethoven in the ORR as opposed to playing in a conventional orchestra.
Robin: I think one of the big things is not only the insight that John Eliot brings but what he demands not only from himself but what he demands of us, what the music demands for us, and it's a absolutely no-holds-barred approach. If you've got anything left at the end of it you're [crosstalk]--
John: It should have been left out on the playing field is what you are saying.
Robin: Yes, absolutely. I think it's worth saying also that there are, of course, many different ways to interpret a Beethoven symphony but I feel with this orchestra there a shared integrity to what we're trying to bring to this music.
Jeff: Would you play this cello with any other orchestra?
Robin: If I'm paid enough-
Robin: being Scottish. Absolutely, there are other period orchestras but this orchestra has such a strong identity. I've been in the orchestra now for 15 years but there are people who go back even further to the beginning. I think also, the interesting thing for us is that we've gone through the repertoire, if you like, we started with Beethoven and Berlioz but then this orchestra's also tried to rediscover Weber, Verdi, and then Debussy's Stravinsky. It has a collective upbringing if you like.
Jeff: You have been here in Carnegie Hall for five or six nights now. You've done these Beethoven cycles in a couple of places. How do you feel at this point in it, because you've got to be near the end but you need a great deal left for the work that is ahead?
Robin: Absolutely. I should say with regard to Carnegie Hall, I'm from Fife in Scotland where Andrew Carnegie was originally from. I actually have played in the original Carnegie Hall when I was 15 so I always had to have that on my CV, but I think bringing them here was always to me, the focal point. We're doing the cycle five times. There's something very special, not only about this acoustic, but I've always felt with the audience here that you can tell they're listening in such a perceptive way.
That gives us actually more freedom as well and it's a thrilling experience.
John: That's interesting because during the performance of the eighth, it's so heightenedesque, at least on the surface,-
John: -and I was thinking what would Beethoven have made of a hall of this size. You are playing period instruments in a non-period space.
Robin: That is another thing which we have to adapt to with the instruments because of course, these setups weren't designed for halls of this size but actually, it is possible. Plus, if you came to hear a period orchestra for the first time with regard to having heard modern orchestra, the first thing you would probably think is, "Oh, it's not quite as alive." Once you get past that, actually, the effect of it, it penetrates much more because of the detail and the burnished quality to the sounds.
Jeff: Robin Michael, principal cellist of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Thanks for spending a few minutes with us. Thanks for the wonderful music you're making tonight.
Robin: A pleasure. I hope you enjoy the second half.
Jeff: Oh, I'm sure that we will.
Robin: Thank you.
Jeff: Robin Michael. It's intermission at Carnegie Hall Live backstage, I'm Jeff Spurgeon along with John Schaefer.
John: I'm John Schaefer along with Jeff Spurgeon. We are backstage with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique at Carnegie Hall where the glorious ninth of Ludvig Van will make up the second half of the broadcast. By that, I refer, of course, to that staple of the concert repertoire Beethoven's final symphony the Symphony No. 9, which was in fact, the first to incorporate vocal soloists and a chorus.
Jeff: Joining the 65 members of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique on the Carnegie Hall stage will be the Monteverdi Choir. There are 36 singers, and there are four soloists in the Beethoven Symphony No. 9 as well. Soprano, Lucy Crowe, Contralto, Jess Dandy, Tenor, Ed Lyon, and bass, Matthew Rose. As to why this music written 200 years ago still resonates with an audience today, well, Sir John Eliot had some thoughts for you as a listener on that too.
Sir John Elliot: Think of the current political situation and think how the music relates to it. Think of what bravery in defense of freedom of liberty, of the rights of man, of democracy, in a composer born 250 years ago can say, pertinently, relevantly to us today in the predicaments we're facing in different parts of the world seems to me, absolutely crucial and I think will enrich any listener's sense of applying that bravery, that courage that's required of all of us to survive and to make a contribution in the political climate that we find ourselves in.
Jeff: Sir John Eliot Gardiner discussing Beethoven's ninth Symphony, and of course, that famous Ode to Joy that serves as the finale of the symphony in which, Jeff, has taken on a life of its own and in the political context, it's become a de facto anthem for the European Union. Think of Bernstein's famous performance of it when the Berlin Wall fell.
John: It's appeared on other continents in other societies. That anthem to the idea of joy and the idea of freedom continues to resonate with people all over the world. It really is an amazing piece of music.
Jeff: The great irony, really, is that for over 100 years it was considered to be that if Symphony No. 9 was like a sculpture, a monument, it was a sculpture with an outsized head.
John: The Ode to Joy was thought of as something that was too big, too weird, didn't fit. This was Beethoven doing what Beethoven does which is to explode the forms that he was given-
John: That's exactly right.
Jeff: -but it took, as I say, over 100 years for people to come around to the idea that the Ode to Joy wasn't just a great piece but that it was also woven into the fabric of this symphony and not simply appended to it because Beethoven had nothing better to do after three movements. It is strikingly universal music for something that was very much of its place and time in Vienna in the 1820s.
John: It was a time of revolution. The revolution was happening in France. There was unrest everywhere. Vienna was under attack and Beethoven lived through that dealing not only with the trauma of the attacks themselves but also with concern over loss of hearing. There was personal strife and political strife and that is the atmosphere in which this music was created.
Jeff: Coming out on the stage now are the 36 members of the Monteverde Choir.
John: Again, the soloists, soprano, Lucy Crowe, the contralto, Jess Dandy, Tenor, Ed Lyon, and Matthew Rose is the bass, and the Monteverde Choir, the ORR all on stage to perform this Symphony No. 9 which will conclude the orchestra's cycle of Beethoven symphonies here at Carnegie Hall with the instrumental timbresand textures that Beethoven heard, not in his ear, but in his head.
Jeff: One of the reasons why this orchestra was created was to realize what Beethoven could not have known himself.
John: Of course, Beethoven's audience would not have heard this music in anything resembling the kind of performance that you are about to hear on stage here at Carnegie Hall.
Jeff: That's right.
John: Properly rehearsed, properly tuned.
Jeff: Driven by a real concept and as you hear, a real love that reaches the audience. Those were the cheers for Sir John Eliot Gardiner as he walked on stage to lead the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique on its feet now and the Monteverde Choir behind. We are about to take the great journey in the greatest of all of Beethoven's symphonies the Symphony No. 9. A performance culminating several days of performances here and one that you are about to enjoy now from Carnegie Hall Live.
Jeff: From Carnegie Hall Live, you are hearing the sound of Beethoven. Not just the music, but what he does to people. A soldout audience at Carnegie Hall listening to the Symphony No. 9 performed by Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and soloists.
John: Four soloists, in fact, soprano Lucy Crowe, Contralto, Jess Dandy, Tenor, Ed Lyon, and bass Matthew Rose along with the choir, they are silent until that final movement, the famous setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy which never fails to move people and, Jeff, to hear it played on period instruments which have a human scale to them as opposed to the big larger than life symphony orchestras that we're used to these days is a really special experience.
Jeff: You've just had it in this Carnegie Hall Live broadcast. The inclusion of a symphony, a Beethoven symphony cycle performed over a series of four or five nights here at Carnegie Hall presenting the Beethoven symphonies in chronological order in this 250th anniversary year. Leading up to that anniversary in December since Beethoven first appeared on the planet and turned the musical world pretty much upsidedown
John: Actually, this piece is a great example of that, as we mentioned earlier, very controversial for over a century for its use of choral and vocal soloists in a symphony.
Jeff: Who does Beethoven think he is breaking the form like that? The answer is that he was a singular force, and one of the greatest miracles of all is that he never heard this symphony except inside his head.
John: Roars from the Carnegie Hall audience here for Sir John Eliot Gardiner, motioning to the members of the ORR, the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, and to the members of the Monteverdi Choir, both of them organizations that he founded so that he could do exactly what we've heard, to perform this music in as authentic a way to the time and the place of its creation as possible.
Jeff: Which somehow makes it more alive for us in this time.
John: Well, and also, it's worth saying that you may not get a note-perfect performance. There might be a note or record that's a little more pungent than you expected and that is a reminder of just how dangerous this music was. We think of Beethoven and classical music as a received tradition, it comes to us with the dust of centuries on it, but this was living, vibrant, treacherous music when it was written in 1824.
Jeff: Beethoven was pushing the instruments to their limits at that time and pushing the players at that time to their limits and the orchestra members here experienced that again, because they're playing those less refined, less fully developed instruments that have more individual qualities, a greater variety of timbre just in making the notes of the scale, for instance, in the brass instruments, especially.
The challenges are enormous for the players and you're exactly right, John, it's a tight wire, it's a high-wire act this orchestra every single performance.
John: These are not the well-behaved modern instruments that you would hear from say, The London Symphony Orchestra, The New York Philharmonic, especially the woodwind and brass players are really wrestling at times with their instruments but to great effect and you can hear that the audience here at Carnegie Hall is in no hurry to let Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the choir and the orchestra leave the stage just yet.
Right now, we're all basking in the afterglow of this performance of the 9th. This is the conclusion not only of this particular concert but also of this cycle of Beethoven symphonies. Many of which are happening around the world in this 250th anniversary year of Beethoven.
Jeff: It is a realization for John Eliot Gardiner of his desire to approach this music in a way that would have been understood by the audiences of Beethoven's time, but in fact, something that they never heard, for as John Eliot Gardiner told us in describing the reasons for creating this orchestra, it isn't a recreation of something that was, this orchestra is a realization of an ideal that never actually happened.
John Eliot: What I wanted to do was the impossible, which is to create an orchestra that didn't exist in Beethoven's day. It existed in his mind but it didn't exist in his reality and it wasn't until 1828, the year after he'd died that his symphonies were played with real devotion and care. That was in Paris, not in Vienna, or in Berlin, [unintelligible 00:24:08] in the German-speaking world, and it was done by the [unintelligible 00:24:11] which is a freshly put together orchestra under the direction of [unintelligible 00:24:18] to perform the Beethoven symphonies.
It was some [unintelligible 00:24:22] professors who got together and they took trouble over things like [unintelligible 00:24:26] and articulations and phrasings. I thought, "Hey, wouldn't it be great to try and recreate the sounds of that orchestra?" The French had pretty much sneered at Beethoven up to that point. They performed [unintelligible 00:24:38] in 1815, they performed the first and second symphonies before and everybody just laughed.
[unintelligible 00:24:44] who wasn't the greatest conductor but he was devoted to Beethoven and he was very serious about it.
Jeff: That is Sir John Eliot Gardiner, by the way, it was those [unintelligible 00:24:56] performances that made people first realize just how powerful Beethoven’s music was and how much it had to say back in the 1820s and '30s and takes musicians like John Eliot Gardiner to remind us of just how powerful and eloquent that music still is almost 200 some odd years later. It was again the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth.
His birthday is December, 16th. A date stuck in my head because I missed being born on December 16th by three minutes, three minutes, Jeff. As a kid that always bothered me.
John: I could have shared a birthday with Beethoven, missed it by three minutes.
Jeff: Well, with a great big flourish, a wave of his hand to the crowd, Sir John Eliot Gardiner announced to the audience at Carnegie Hall that the applause and the evening and the experience has ended for this time. Now, the musicians are coming offstage slowly because their conductor is standing before them with congratulations-
John: Greeting them all.
Jeff: -being passed back and forth by soloists, and singers, and string players, instrumentalists everywhere. Clearly, there's a lot of love in this organization.
John: There's a lot of very strange looking brass tubing going by us. [chuckles] Some of these early horns, they do not look like the French horns that we are used to.
Jeff: Well, they only play in one key at a time unless you unplug one section of it and plug in another as if you were putting a game cartridge into a console, you won't get the sounds you want and that's how those horns work. In the hands of these amazing players, we have an extraordinary concert experience on our hands and we're hoping to get a couple of minutes with Sir John Eliot here at the conclusion of his evening.
Jeff: Jeff Spurgeon, John Schaefer with you backstage at Carnegie Hall and Sir John Eliot Gardiner joining us as well. Congratulations on this concert and the cycle. What has it meant to bring this orchestra and these symphonies to Carnegie Hall?
John Eliot: Huge celebration but not necessarily just because it's the anniversary of Beethoven, but because his symphonies are full of messages, full of philosophical truths, full of political views, full of life-affirming tenants of belief that he shared with us in his music and we can never get enough of it. In our troubled times, we need a bit more and more.
John: Well, especially the Ode to Joy is just so tied to the European project at this point. I find it hard to hear that without thinking of the solidarity of people of different nations coming together-
John Eliot: Of course, that's what it's all about.
John: -even though that's not explicitly in the text, is it?
John Eliot: No, it's not in the text but certainly through Beethoven's setting of Schiller, that was a statement of universality and of brotherhood.
John: Is that why you have the tenor soloist move from the four solo--
John Eliot: Well, he is a kind of leader of the group at that moment and, to me, he's Mercury bringing the good news of the new dispensation to Earth, which is why it's so breathless and so fast which we were doing Beethoven’s [unintelligible 00:28:27] mark, it makes sense of that curious Turkish March.
John: During that Turkish March, the tenor soloist moves from his usual spot to stand in with the men of the [crosstalk].
John Eliot: I've never done it before but it seemed to work today.
John: It was beautiful.
Jeff: When did you begin to ask the string players, the violinists to stand?
John Eliot: Back 30 years ago.
Jeff: You've been doing it all along [crosstalk]?
John Eliot: Well, not in a doctrinaire fashion but on an empirical case by case situation where they feel freer to express themselves if they're standing, and they can stand closer together, they play more [unintelligible 00:29:04]. They find it less exhausting, in some ways, doing that than sitting down but it's not a doctrinaire thing. It's something that, of course, all chamber music musicians in the 18th century would have done it and some orchestras in the 19th century did it.
Certainly, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra did it under Mendelssohn and it makes a change and I think it gives a new energy.
Jeff: Certainly that. Certainly, the new energy we feel.
John: If you were performing this with the London Symphony Orchestra, how different would your--
John Eliot: Which I've done many times.
John: Right, how different is your experience as a conductor the way you approach the piece?
John Eliot: Well, it's different. They're a very, very fine orchestra and they're very flexible and I’ve enjoyed doing Beethoven a lot with them. The clarity, the transparency, the individuality of the woodwind instruments, the beauty of the gut strings, those are all things that are particularly valuable I find in the ORR, and given a kind of more vivid, more articulate, more colorful rendition than with the modern orchestras.
There's lots of other advantages with a modern orchestra. I'm not doctrinaire about it. I would never say no to that, but I love this band. They're just so great. They're so committed and we're a family.
Jeff: Well, Beethoven's orchestras would have played at a slightly lower tuning than modern orchestras, so, what is your A? Normally--
John Eliot: 430, 430.
John Eliot: Yes
John: As opposed to our modern 440.
John Eliot: Between 430 and 435, yes.
John: Where does this cycle go next? Where do you and your orchestra go next?
John Eliot: Oh, we're off to Chicago. It's been so beautiful here in New York. We came from Barcelona last week.
John: A gentle transition, but tough on the stringed instruments. They're drier here.
John Eliot: Terribly tough on it because it's so dry here in Carnegie Hall and the double bass has been cracking all through and it's really very troubling. We're going to be looking for a stringed bass repairist when we get to Chicago.
Jeff: Might have a good steam room for the entire group of instruments.
John Eliot: Yes, that's right.
John: Well, we were talking before about the danger of Beethoven, that this was dangerous music at the time.
John Eliot: It is dangerous.
John: It's nice to have a little reminder of that.
John Eliot: It is.
John: You provide that [crosstalk].
John Eliot: It's dangerous music.
John: Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the founder and conductor of the ORR, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Thank you so much for the evening.
John Eliot: You're very welcome.
Jeff: Great pleasure and a thrilling concert as we expected and anticipated, and that's exactly what came through tonight in this performance of the Beethoven Symphonies 8 and 9 by the ORR and Sir John Eliot for a sold-out crowd tonight at Carnegie Hall.
John: Carnegie Hall Live is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts on the web at arts.gov. Additional support is provided in part by the Howard Gilman Foundation and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the New York City Council.
Jeff: Thanks to all of the people who helped with this concert, Clive Gillinson and the staff of Carnegie Hall. WQXR's recording crew, George Wellington, Bill Siegmund, Noriko Okabe, and Edward Haber. Our stage manager tonight is Max Spine and we had production help from Luka Vasic.
John: WQXR's production team includes Christine Herskovits, Matt Abramovitz, Joe Young, and Eileen Delahunty. I'm John Schaefer.
Jeff: And I'm Jeff Spurgeon. We thank you for listening. Carnegie Hall Live is a production of WQXR in New York.
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