Back when irreverence still mattered, John Cage inspired a food fight among stuffy academics by proclaiming that Beethoven was wrong in his emphasis upon harmony and psychological form, and that his influence on history was lamentable. What's more, his feet were too big!
Consequently it has always seemed a matter of some amusement that Roger Norrington, perhaps the most exciting and controversial of our current crop of Beethoven conductors, likes to work without a podium, knocking Beethoven off his pedestal by mixing it up on the musicians' level. And, when he can get away with it, he likes to conduct with his shoes off.
He can't quite get away with either in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where a brooding bust of Beethoven stands next to a lobby display case filled with publicity shots of smiling local politicians, and where half the orchestra sits on mountainous risers to compensate for uninspired acoustics.
But even a Norrington on a low podium and wearing shoes can make the most famous symphony in music, Beethoven's Fifth, sound fresh, provocative and, yes, unpredictable, when he used it to close his all-Beethoven program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday night.
The British conductor, who is best known for his performances and recordings with his period- instrument ensemble, the London Classical Players, has often cited weighty historical research about the importance of dance to the Classical period in order to buoy up his predilection for tempos so fast that you can hardly believe your ears. But increasingly no one outside of music scholarship seems to care very much whether he is right or wrong, perhaps because his performances--whether working with period instruments or with a modern orchestra as he is here--sound so modern, so unlikely, so downright exhilarating.
Although his arms are always in lively motion, Norrington gets the special character of his performances by paying attention to his feet and his ear. The dance business is really special. It is worth a trip to the Music Center this weekend just to hear the double basses in the Scherzo movement of the Fifth, although this is as much acrobatics as dance.
I didn't, in fact, know that those lumbering instruments could play so fast, that it was physically possible to move that quantity of air, and I'm sure the daredevil Philharmonic players reach some kind of a natural limit in this performance. And then there was the piccolo, standing out in ways that seemed to change the whole tone of the score, as did the emphasis on beat from the timpani, whacked in a hard, tight, visceral manner that approximates the sound of the instrument in Beethoven's day.
The real value of Norrington's approach to Beethoven is, however, the drama he achieves with the music. Norrington has a background in opera that has always served him well, but he has also matured into a deep Beethovenian, one able to find the mystery and the deep emotions in the music as well as the rhythmic vitality. He knows when to dig down and when to surprise, and he made the third of Beethoven's "Leonora" overtures into an exciting mini-drama (with a surprise element that I don't want to spoil).
Also on the program was the First Piano Concerto, with Christian Zacharias as soloist, performing on a modern grand rather than on a period pianoforte, but with the lid removed to help dampen the resonance. The German pianist has a nice tone, a comfortable technique and a decent sense of phrase. Under most circumstances that would be fine. But here he sounded slightly leaden in the company of his fleet, quirky and theatrical accompanist.
But then not everyone can keep up with Norrington when he asks them to dance.
* Roger Norrington again conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the all-Beethoven program tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., $8-$60. (213) 365-3500.