With a larger-than-life bust of a glowering Ludwig van Beethoven on one side and a sorrowful crucifix on the other, Kansas City ensemble Opus 76 performed the final concert in The Kansas City Beethoven Cycle, the complete string quartets.
This series commemorates the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, occurring December 17, 2020. It was an impressive endeavor and if the performances in the final concert are any indicator, a definite success.
Opus 76 is Keith Stanfield and Zsolt Eder, on violin, Ashley Stanfield on viola and Sascha Groschang on cello. Each gave high level technical and emotive performances. For this sophisticated celebration, they wore evening dress of tuxes and gowns, accessorized with mandatory masks.
They began the series August 15, but they’ve been working toward this goal for years. The project included previous, individual performances of each quartet, recordings with Kansas Public Radio (to be released later this year) and the documentary, “In Search of Beethoven: The Opus 131 Experience.”
This concert fell on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, and while not intentional, the music served as opportunity to consider the regenerative cycles of strife and hope; death and legacy; imagination and audacity.
Around the world, the year’s Beethoven celebrations were cancelled due to the pandemic, but this ensemble devised a way to present their offering despite circumstances, with strict performer and audience safety protocols. Along with requiring masks at entry, they restricted capacity for in-person concerts at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, with about 45 people allowed to attend.
Another thoughtful aspect of the program design was how each concert gave an overview of Beethoven’s oeuvre, representing each of his stylistic periods (Early, Middle, Late) on every performance. With Beethoven considered a transformative figure in the world of classical music, witnessing (in a way) his own transformation as his writing evolved (simultaneous to his ability to hear deteriorating) was an attentive and considerate decision.
This finale concert featured Quartet in F, Opus 18, no. 1 (1799, revised in 1801), Quartet in Eb, Opus 74 (1809), and Quartet in c# minor, Opus 131 (1826).
Opus 18, no.1 was not Beethoven’s first written quartet, but it’s hurrah-like beginning, at turns bouncy, then plaintive, made it an obvious opening number, drawing the audience into these lovely tensions. The ensemble gave a sturdy, driving rendition, led by Eder’s sweet tone quality in the first violin chair pulling the ensemble forward, instead of pushing them along.
The cathedral’s acoustics lent the group a rich, ringing quality. They navigated the reverberation expertly, and the ensemble maintained clarity throughout, creating space in the phrasing that felt both natural and dynamic.
Opus 74, nicknamed “Harp” (though not by the composer) because of his extensive use of pizzicato, is quintessential Beethoven: a bit wild, unpredictable, unrelenting, and ever hopeful.
The evocative pizzicatos were, in the low voices, like droplets, nicely contrasting to the violins’ crisp delivery. Passages in the first movement are Beethoven in essence: struggle and hope. As the first violin (here, Stanfield) worked with furious tension, the other voices built an effervescent pizzicato line, through which weaved the second violin’s pensive, ever-striving melody, like a pinprick of sunlight.
It’s the group’s collective skill that transmitted the work’s volatile emotional range, from somber, hymn-like melodies, in the second movement, to the urgency of the third, and culminating in the attention-grabbing unison run as the piece concludes, all of a sudden, so soft.
Opus 131 is an exploration of interiority, Beethoven by this time totally deaf to the outside world. He was writing this and his other later period work reliant on his technical knowledge of composition and his finely-honed audiation, hearing the sounds in his head.
The group’s connection conveyed Beethoven’s expectation of the quartet, even as he expanded those expectations, with the measured opening fugue, the shifting conversations between the voices, and the sudden bursts of wild virtuosity. In the fifth movement, when the music stutters and stops, Beethoven playfully writes out confusion overcome with confident bluster, and the ensemble remained cohesive even at Beethoven’s most tempestuous.
Of course, playing his music well, as Opus 76 exemplified on Saturday night, is only one way to honor Beethoven’s legacy. Maybe even he, who held a high opinion of himself and his art, would be impressed that his music is performed and enjoyed centuries after his death in a city that didn’t even exist in his lifetime; honored that we find comfort in his music during sickness (as he did), during political turmoil (as he did), and in times of strife (as he did).
But a more long-lasting and significant tribute would be to create accessible performances for all people.
Beethoven, as we know, was deaf. He was starting to lose his hearing even before he began his first quartet, was well aware of this deterioration (which made him contemplate suicide) by the time he started writing opus 74 in 1809, and was entirely deaf in his later years, when he wrote the extraordinary opus 131.
It’s extraordinary that he was able to create this music, fueled by his imagination, his perseverance, and his audacity to challenge everything that had every happened before him: conventions, rule, history and society.
It is challenging to play and requires a level of musicianship approaching extraordinary to perform it appropriately.
But his music does not require extraordinary humans to be enjoyed. The community at large, and marginalized communities in particular, doesn’t necessarily need Beethoven’s music, but people everywhere do need to feel seen, to be in spaces where they are welcomed and valued, as souls refreshed by music.
What Opus 76 has done since its inception is create these opportunities, whether it’s having free and family friendly concerts, providing music at points of service for community programs, or raising money for charitable organizations, as they did for weeks during the city-wide lockdown.
As we contemplate Beethoven’s legacy in these musical works, which exist for no other reason except that they are beautiful, we can further meditate on the legacy of anyone considered a hero, anyone who can imagine audaciously in a chaotic world and improve upon it. And that is the gift Opus 76 has given us.
Reviewed Saturday, September 19, 2020, Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, Kansas City, MO.