Bahman Saless, the conductor of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, is usually an optimistic, can-do guy. That’s how he built the BCO from scratch in the past 10 years.
But he’s not so sure about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which the orchestra is playing May 10 in Broomfield and May 11 in Boulder.
“Spiritually, it’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever had,” he says. “This is something you have to have an immense amount of respect for before you even dare to do it. And I’m not sure if I’m up for it.”
Saless says the challenge is not about the technical performance, but about something more than the sum of the notes.
“The question is, can you achieve that?” he says.
It should be noted that Saless is not the first musician to be somewhat intimidated by Beethoven’s symphonies. Brahms — whose Violin Concerto shares the program with Beethoven and the overture to The Bartered Bride by Bedrich Smetana — was so overwhelmed by Beethoven’s legacy that it took him 21 years to complete his first symphony.
In much the same way, Saless waited until the time seemed right before performing the “Fifth.”
“It is our 10-year anniversary, so [Beethoven’s ‘Fifth’] is a good cornerstone piece to do,” he says. “I purposely waited 10 years before I attempted that symphony.”
Part of the challenge is that the “Fifth Symphony” is such a well known piece of music. The opening contains probably the most famous four notes in all classical music, and it has been recorded literally hundreds of times, by orchestras great and small. Virtually everyone in the audience has heard it many times, often by the greatest interpreters of the past 75 years or more.
“You have to live up to expectations,” Saless acknowledges. “And you have to live up to it in the first minute. That can only happen if every member of the orchestra and you, when you arrive on that podium, has the same mental attitude — you know, they’ve got their Beethoven hat on.”
Of the many recordings available, Saless knows which he likes and which he doesn’t — although he won’t name those.
“You listen to Bruno Walter with the Columbia Symphony,” he says, “there is a life and a humanity in his version [that others don’t have].”
Lindsay Deutsch, the soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto, also knows she is up against past recordings.
“When you’re playing a piece that’s been recorded 100 times, people are expecting it to be played a certain way,” she says.
And while she can’t duplicate what others have done, she aims to put her own stamp on the concerto.
“We have recordings from the greats, like [Jascha] Heifitz and [David] Oistrakh. They’ve all recorded everything as well as it can possibly be played. so what am I doing out there? I’m not a Jascha Heiftz! What am I doing? And I would say that I bring my own experiences and my own soul and my own interpretation. So although I’m not a Jascha Heifitz, I’m a Lindsay Deutsch, and there’s nobody on this earth that can play something exactly the way that I do.”
Like Saless, Deutsch is willing to name her favorite recording.
“I like the Anne-Sophie Mutter performance,” she says. “It’s the one that I most identify with myself.”
But make no mistake, the Brahms Violin Concerto is a daunting piece in its own right, just like Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony.”
“For violinists, the Brahms concerto is the capital-P piece,” Deutsch says. “First of all, it’s 45 minutes, so just the sheer amount of energy that you expend is incredible. It’s just a huge monster, so I think we both have pieces on this program that really take our best efforts.”
Deutsch says that some concertos are all technique, without any melodic or lyrical content and can be approached like a technical study or a practice exercise where you just let the fingers fly.
“But the Brahms concerto is special,” she says. “It has crazy, monstrous technical passages, but every single note has meaning and importance. There’s not one note that isn’t contributing to the story of the piece.”
For Deutsch, the “story of the piece” is critical. She encourages audience members to find their own story as they listen.
“The most important thing is just to follow the story,” she says. “I feel that from beginning to end I really am telling a story. People in the audience should bring their own life experiences to the story that I’m telling, and think of their own story as I tell mine.”