A picture of Beethoven with his life dates (1770-1827) filled a big screen over the stage in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night, announcing the second in the National Symphony Orchestra's annual series of composer portraits.
The series began with a profile of Tchaikovsky and will continue next year with Brahms. Last night, the program announced was "The Life of Beethoven in Words and Music."
Before intermission, the words were supplied by narrator Martin Goldsmith, who gave an elegant and quite thorough account of the composer and his work, with frequent musical illustrations (averaging a minute or two in length) provided by Leonard Slatkin, the NSO and two orchestra members, concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef and pianist Lambert Orkis, featured as soloists in concerto and sonata excerpts. The musical treatment was calculated to leave an audience wanting more. The most obviously missing items were Beethoven's vocal works, but the survey was otherwise well rounded.
A third member of the orchestra, cellist Yvonne Caruthers, was the "image editor," in charge of the pictures shown on the screen of Beethoven, his parents and friends, his scores and scenes from his Vienna. The multimedia mix was supplemented by Richard Freed's perceptive and well-written treatment of Beethoven's life and works in the program book.
There was one small disharmony: Freed and Goldsmith disagreed on whether Beethoven said of the first four notes of his Fifth Symphony, "Thus Fate knocks on the door."
The same notes were cited by Slatkin, who took over the narration after intermission before conducting a complete performance of the symphony (the evening's only complete performance). "Are there four more famous notes?" he asked, before launching into a discussion of what makes them so famous, including their repetition "more than 350 times" and frequent echoes and allusions.
The performance, after all this preparation, was precisely paced and phrased, rich and balanced in tone, powerful in rhythm and dynamics. It was a reminder of how good is this music, too often taken for granted.