Fathoming Beethoven's genius -- a still-unfinished task

CALL it ``To be, or not to be'' . . . the Mona Lisa smile . . . the Eiffel Tower. The four-note ``da-da-da dummmm'' of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony stands as the popular landmark of classical music.

There have been 101 record releases of the Fifth (including compact discs and tapes), making it the world's most recorded symphony. Not to mention live performances by everyone from civic orchestras to the Gewandhaus of Leipzig.

And on Sunday afternoon, yet another orchestra with yet another conductor will bring the Beethoven Fifth before the public. While this may not in itself seem earthshaking, it is in the nature of this symphony and the young conductor undertaking it that this will probably be, in its own way, a first performance all over again.

Under the baton of conductor David Hoose, the Fifth -- so often overromanticized as a piece of musical heroism -- is likely to emerge much leaner, quicker, more intense, and more genuinely triumphant than usual. Mr. Hoose's preparations for the performance offered a rare opportunity for a reporter to watch, over several weeks, a careful musician assemble his thoughts about a thorny masterpiece.

Hoose's performances of classical and contemporary works in this city have been given high marks for shedding new light on their structure, meaning, purpose. Two years ago he led the American premi`ere of Peter Maxwell Davies's opera ``The Lighthouse'' in a performance that the New York Times called ``superbly realized musically.'' Last season he led the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra -- the ensemble that will perform with him this time -- in a performance of the Beethoven Third Symphony (the ``Eroica'') wh ich in many ways redefined the piece for area critics and music lovers.

Sitting at a battered upright piano in his spare apartment -- during twice-weekly, two-hour sessions over the course of several weeks -- he ``broke the thing open'' to see what was inside, talking as he went about the myriad rhythmic complexities that lie beneath the well-known surface of the piece, explaining the harmonic journey it takes the listener through, and worrying over getting the character of this or that musical phrase right or identifying the deceptively mobile musical pulse of the work.

He strenuously and persuasively argued his case for a particular rhythmic reading (often running counter to the received wisdom on these subjects). He hammered out passages, sometimes yelling out harmonies, frequently laughing at the sudden surprises the piece contains.

As he progressed, a paradoxical picture emerged of the symphony as a closed world of musical laws and principles, and of the musician as a intuitive searcher through that world.

His score bears pencil-scrawled notes puzzling over the character of a phrase or passage. Such notes are far outweighed by indications of strong and weak beats in the rhythmic pulse and the metric grid it crosses. The notes represent the groping, intuitive side of a process that may be rooted in established musical rules but still remains largely a matter of subjective judgment.

While arguments over the intended tempo and Beethoven's handling of certain technical details have never subsided, for an individual conductor the ultimate questions that emerge from making these decisions often hinge on inner hunches about what the music is supposed to be doing. As he counts out several different ways of beating a critical phrase, for instance, it becomes clear that the final choice between them is made by the ear as much as the analytical mind.

Hoose explains the abrupt way Beethoven sets up an expectation of how the music should grow, and then almost immediately compresses and amputates the process. The work begins with two sweeping repeats of the motif -- the ``da-da-da dummmm'' done twice -- followed by a series of rhythmic groupings that accelerate and become compacted, down to two short bursts culminating in an isolated, sustained note.

``And then, it bangs headlong'' into a long sustained note ``which is left in total, pathetic isolation.''

From that point on in the first movement, Beethoven shifts the expected harmonies in unsettling ways, compressing and expanding the rhythmic patterns as the symphony plummets forward. ``Everything is acceleration -- acceleration and total compression, like taking coal and turning it into diamonds.'' Even at the typical point of relief early on, ``there's always this needling'' of the cellos and basses, reminding us of what's in store.

What is in store is an encounter with ``the most simple rhythmic elements and simple harmonies . . . used in the most developed way.'' As the first movement enters its development, these ``harmonies become stranger and stranger; and at some moment we cannot quite identify, the whole rhythmic underpinning becomes dislodged.'' Everything spills forward, overreaching normal sectional boundaries and reaching for the conclusion.

This momentum, as well as the startling craftsmanship and unmistakable power of the symphony, give it ``the ability to make us forget [hearing it before] and reexperience it for the first time.''

Hoose compares this process to passing by a familiar landmark, suddenly seeing it catch the sunlight, and finding ourselves experiencing it in a totally new way.

``It's architecturally so clear, dramatically so profiled. Even in the worst performance, it's still gripping . . . . On any given day, I can say, `This is the harmonic and rhythmic structure of the piece'; and then the next day I find myself saying, `This symphony has a day-of-judgment quality to it.' ''

Hoose's own ``day of judgment'' on this work comes Sunday at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, when he puts into motion all the analysis, guesswork, intuition, meditation, and inspiration that he has marshaled in the last several weeks. Then, the world's most familiar symphony will, he hopes, emerge as something unfamiliar -- something the audience will hear as if for the first time.

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