What It's Like to Play (and hear) Beethoven's Fifth
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What It’s Like to Play (and hear) Beethoven’s Fifth

With the TSO set to play the iconic masterwork this weekend, we spoke with conductor Peter Oundjian about what the experience feels like for professional musicians.

Oundjian conducts TSO (Malcolm Cook photo)

Hamlet: “To be or not to be…”
Mike: “The literary equivalent of, ‘Da-da-da-dunnn!’”
– Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode 10.09: “Hamlet”

Somewhere on the shelf marked “Most Famous Things in the World,” between the Bible and the Mona Lisa and Darth Vader, you’ll find those four notes. You can hear their influence on the likes of Brahms, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky. You can hear them when Charles Grodin gives Beethoven (the dog) his name. You can hear them in the intro to Judge Judy, the “A Fifth of Beethoven” track of the Saturday Night Fever album, and Electric Light Orchestra’s cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” to cite just three bullet points on the Wikipedia page. When your humble correspondent was six years old, preparing to shoot his first movie with his parents’ video camera–a superhero film titled Superwillie–he chose the piece of soundtrack music that he felt came closest to Danny Elfman’s Batman score: Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5.”

Given all this baggage: how tired of this most iconic of symphonies do you get if you play classical music professionally? Is it the sort of worn-out warhorse that orchestras grudgingly tolerate? Is it possible to offer a new interpretation to the “Fifth?”

We posed these questions to Peter Oundjian, conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which is kicking off its 2015-16 season with Beethoven’s “Fifth” this weekend. “I’ve now estimated that I’ve played a piece of Beethoven about 2,000 times, whether it’s been a sonata or a symphony or a concerto,” he said. “The most incredible thing about it is that it always feels like it’s happening for the first time. One doesn’t consciously say, ‘Oh, I’m going to do a different ‘Beethoven 5’ from anybody else, or from anything I’ve done before,’ but you just play it.

“We have to remember what it’s like if you act in the West End or Broadway, and you do, god forbid, eight Hamlets a week. How on earth do you keep doing that and making it convincing? It’s very similar for us, though. If you think of it the right way, then you can actually bring fresh energy to every performance. Obviously, I have very, very strong feelings about the characters and tempos, and the pacing and the magical moments and the silences and all that stuff. But in the end, it’s kind of a spontaneous interaction.”

What does he attribute this to? Is it something inherent in the greatness of the music? “Well, yes, sure, it’s a lot easier to do it with great music that you absolutely love and are inspired by,” he said. “The high drama of the opening motif, and the way it simply drops down a tone for the second theme. And then an incredible amount of dramatic contrast and dynamic contrast throughout the piece, and a lot of stops and starts, which is very unusual when you really think about it of music of that period. It just develops so naturally–you cannot imagine that he could ever have written any other note than the one you’re hearing next. That is true of a lot of Beethoven, but it is particularly true of the ‘Fifth Symphony.’

“But it’s also part of our DNA as performers to not give the feeling that we’re recreating something we’ve practised. It’s all about how performers must be, in my view. … I’ve grown up with the tradition– a lot of actors around me–and I’m fascinated by the whole capacity for people to recreate completely believable scenarios as actors. I think that’s essentially not very different from what we try to do as musicians.”

This weekend’s performances will feature the symphony alongside Brahms’ “Double Concerto” and Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s “Toccata” and “Fugue in D Minor”. “I haven’t done the ‘Fifth Symphony’ with the orchestra for many years,” said Oundjian. “For those of us who go to concerts a lot, we think that everybody listens to the ‘Fifth Symphony’ all the time. In truth, I would imagine that a very decent percentage of the audience that comes Friday, Saturday or Sunday might never have heard the ‘Fifth Symphony’ live. It’s quite possible. They know the beginning, and they think they know it, but it’s not actually played all that often when you get down to it.”

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” at Roy Thomson Hall tonight at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 8 p.m., and on Sunday at the George Weston Recital Hall at 3 p.m.

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