Thierry Fischer reflects on the Beethoven Cycle
Symphonic cycles play a vital role in the concert seasons of the Utah Symphony, and in this 75th anniversary season, the great symphonic masterpieces of Beethoven are most fitting. I first conducted Beethoven’s Symphony cycle with the Ulster Orchestra over ten years ago, and the last time I conducted the cycle with the Utah Symphony they were performed over an entire season, presenting the symphonies in reverse order.
This time, however, the presentation was completely different. In September of this year we performed eight symphonies in ten days, and will finish the cycle with Symphony No 9 in December. Beethoven’s symphonies were all composed in a relatively short period of time, and when presenting them all as we have done in quick succession, it’s captivating to experience their differences in character, their extremes in nature and the breadth of Beethoven’s sound world. Beethoven was a true revolutionary figure and his radical approach, strength and beauty of ideas, notion of victory and spiritual way of reconciling with nature gives you the inspiration to take risks and push yourself to the limit.
Paradoxically, performing these symphonies in such a short period of time with less preparation with the orchestra actually made me feel more ready to react to the unexpected inherent in performance. I found myself able to act without limits and react with control. One develops an obsessive nature with the music when performed in this way, and I was completely consumed by it, day in and day out. Even when I wasn’t in the concert hall, Beethoven was still on my mind – I caught myself brushing my teeth and climbing the stairs in time with the music. After each performance I felt physically shaken, but also a real sense of urgency and excitement to continue – so much so that I felt I could have readily repeated the cycle back to back.
I experienced extremes of emotions during this period, feeling more and more intrepid and at the same time somewhat disturbed and a real sense of loneliness. However, I truly believe this is necessary and inevitable to feel these emotions as an artist, as it forces you to go much further with your thinking. Projects like this give rise to periods of absolute concentration, which opens the door to creativity in interpretation.
Beethoven himself was a fighter and a rebel, always transgressing the rules in music. This rebellious spirit is apparent in the genius of his symphonies, and in my preparation and experience in conducting these works I can feel this sense of wanting to break away from tradition and gradually closer to his enlightened mind.
When I think back to how I felt when I first conducted Beethoven’s Symphony cycle, compared to how I do now, I can see that it is now a much more enjoyable experience overall. When I conducted the cycle first, I had the all the historical knowledge of the repertoire necessary and presented an intellectual approach, but now that I have much more experience to draw on I can present a more philosophical approach where I feel I am closer to embodying Beethoven’s spirit. Technically speaking, over the years I have added my own phrasing and bowing to the score, but overall I have now a more organic approach, and feel freer without limits.
Thierry Fischer, Music Director, Utah Symphony