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Beethoven Celebration

Laurie Niles

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Published: December 12, 2013 at 10:59 PM [UTC]

Last week I found myself listening to some very young string quartets playing very old and established music, the Beethoven String Quartets.

BeethovenThe concert was a "Beethoven Quartet Celebration," the culmination of a semester-long examination of these works, led by cellist Paul Katz, who spent this past semester as a guest professor at University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, which is where the concert took place. Katz is a Professor of Cello at New England Conservatory and was cellist of the Cleveland Quartet for 26 years. He also founded the fantastic cello online community, Cellobello.com.

Katz and other chamber faculty from USC -- Karen Dreyfus, Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu and Che-Yen Chen -- coached three quartets of USC students, as well as six high school quartets from the Los Angeles area. The high school quartets had one coaching and two masterclasses; the college students, more.

The concert began with the high school groups each playing one movement from a Beethoven quartet, then progressed to the three USC quartets, which each played a full quartet, one each from Beethoven's Early, Middle and Late Periods (Op. 18 No. 6; Op. 135; and Op. 59 No. 3).

It was interesting to see what went right and what went wrong for the high school chamber groups. Most had trouble justifying their intonation with each other, resulting in a distracting lack of agreement on pitch. The better the quartet, the more "in-tune" they seemed with each other, both musically and inter-personally. I noticed a better ease in the quartets that could breathe together, or that could raise their heads from their music and look at one another. One of the high school quartets had been together for some time, and it really showed. What was it, besides better intonation? More ease in physical movement, a better sense of collective effort and, then, end result: joy and fire. It seems to me that quartet-playing takes a certain capacity to yield to the group, and yield to the music. My pitch isn't right if our pitch isn't right, my rhythm isn't right if our rhythm isn't right. The logical step the dedicated quartet takes is: We do a lot of work to get it right!

Che-Yen Chen and KJ McDonald
USC Professor Che-Yen Chen and violinist KJ McDonald

I'm glad all those high school groups could sit in the audience to see their older colleagues in the USC quartets, which were fantastic, playing with a high level of technique and musical sophistication. Katz admitted afterwards, he pushed them hard!

That seems about right for Beethoven, whose music, life and personality would be fairly well summed-up in the word "intense." This music is rhythmically complex and intricate; bombastic in one moment; breathtaking in another.

Katz wrote in the program notes that Beethoven was just finishing his Opus 18 string quartets when the reality of his hearing loss became apparent; by the Late Quartets, he was deaf. Katz quoted Beethoven: "…I might easily have put an end to my life. Only one thing, Art, held me back. Oh, it seemed impossible to me to leave this world before I had produced all that I felt capable of producing, and so I prolonged this wretched existence." Beethoven's triumph over self-destruction is apparent in his Middle- and Late-Period music, in its general strength and optimism. (Remember, it's an "Ode to Joy" in that last Symphony.)

I sensed that so much Beethoven would have to have an effect on these students, and it seemed most pronounced in the group that played the Late-Period quartet. Cellist Yoshi Masuda stood up to say a few words to the audience, before he joined his colleagues, violinists Gahyun Cho and EuEun Kim and violist Erkman Karagul, in playing Op. 135 in F major, which was Beethoven's last work, written four months before his death.

Quartet 2
Erkman Karagul, Yoshi Masuda, Paul Katz, GaHyaun Cho and YuEun Kim

Writing this quartet, Masuda said, Beethoven was completely deaf and facing much adversity, including the attempted suicide of his beloved nephew Karl. The last movement is entitled "The Difficult Decision," and in the manuscript Beethoven actually wrote "Must it be?" over the introductory chords, then "It must be!" in the Allegro that follows.

As they played the quartet, I thought about the miracle of live music; that this group of musicians could play the last work that Beethoven wrote, in this very moment, in the very room where I sat. "Must it be?" No, it's not inevitable; young people will not necessarily take up Beethoven -- we have to make it happen. But when we invite young people to bring the music alive -- then it can live on.

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