Ever obstinate nearly two centuries after his death, Beethoven still won’t roll over. Despite the occasional efforts to knock him off his pedestal, Beethoven remains more present than ever, influencing leading composers and keeping the classical music establishment in business.
John Adams has been late-Beethoven-besotted in recent years, and Thomas Adès conducts Beethoven at the Hollywood Bowl this summer. But now comes Patricia Kopatchinskaja, this year’s irrepressible Ojai Music Festival music director.
For her opening festival evening Thursday, the Moldovan violinist began an elaborate process — adoring and adorable one minute, downright disturbing the next — of waving bye-bye to Beethoven in Libbey Park.
She surrounded herself with tombstones or wrecked pedestals with the names Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and Brahms, as if an antsy anarchist had bombed a Vienna cemetery, ready to start World War III.
Yet it was also a happy site, next to a picnic area and a playground with squealing children riding swings — a perfect place to enjoy an Ojai signature “pink moment,” as the sun set.
Into all this, amid stations of music stands and surround-sound loudspeaker installations, wandered an impishly oracular Kopatchinskaja. It was an evening that began with a utopian vision of a future meant to feel both distant and nostalgic, an otherworldly late piece by the 20th-century Italian avant-gardist Luigi Nono.
Three hours later in Libbey Bowl, a glorious, life-affirming performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto by Kopatchinskaja and the superb Mahler Chamber Orchestra came to its shocking end. Just before it was over, one by one, the orchestra members threw their music stands violently to the floor and stormed offstage. Kopatchinskaja soldiered on, best she could, but it was all too much. She ended up alone, supine and lifeless as the backdrop was dismantled revealing those fragmented composer monuments from the park.
Meanwhile a recording of a turntablist had taken over, scratching away at Beethoven’s Ninth and whatnot. Beethoven rolled over.
Would he have wanted it that way? Who’s to say? But Ojai, where new growth is beginning to appear after the devastating fires late last year, and where musical questing is a tradition, is a very good place to ponder the meaning of renewal.
Like nature, Kopatchinskaja takes no prisoners, and she tread an astonishing path from Nono to no no, Beethoven. The piece in the park, a free community event of the festival, was Nono’s 1989 “La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura” (Nostalgic Distant Utopian Future), for solo violin and eight-channel electronic soundscape. The violinist wanders from music stand to music stand, pausing at the dummy ones. The electronics, controlled by Scott Worthington, included recordings of improvisations by Gidon Kremer heard straight and electronically altered along with background studio noises.
Played outdoors, there were other ambient sounds and we all became wanderers following the soloist from station to station. Nono toyed with every violin effect under the sun, and Kopatchinskaja toyed with her listeners, stopping to make a scratchy or an eerie sound, and to give a bemused look to someone in the crowd.
At the end, Kopatchinskaja wandered into Libbey Bowl playing a high-pitched G drone and then went off into the distance. That G hung in the air for 45 minutes as the audience took its seats, driving some to distraction (pleas to turn it off were refused), but creating a mysteriously tingling sensation of expectation, leading directly to Ives’ “Unanswered Question.”
Thus begun Kopatchinskaja’s “Bye Bye Beethoven,” her scandalous concert program she created with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and stage director Maria Ursprung. There have been three previous performances of it in Europe. Most presenters won’t touch it. Even proudly adventurous Ojai patrons said in a talk-back with the violinist and Mahler members after the performance that they were taken aback by such Beethovenian antics.
Ives’ never-answered question was followed by the last movement of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony played backward. Then came a movement for vocal quartet (chanted and whistled by Kopatchinskaja and three orchestra musicians) from John Cage’s “Living Room Music,” with a text by Gertrude Stein (“Once upon a time the world was round and you could go around it”). Then Bach’s “Es ist Genug” (It is enough). Then György Kurtag’s “The Answered Unanswered Question,” music on the edge of obliquity that answers nothing.
Leading up to the Beethoven concerto, a large swatch of gauzy fabric was brought onstage, and Kopatchinskaja was ritualistically wrapped in it. Dressed now like an abbess, she then conducted the Mahlerians without conducting. Rather she persuasively leaned her head into the music and made expressions that indicated exactly how she felt each ever-changing minute. It was exactly the look a sitarist might give his tabla player in a raga.
This was a performance like no other, fabulously virtuosic with soloist and orchestra uncannily on the same wavelength. Kopatchinskaja played passages at the edge of audibility (which Beethoven actually asks for but never gets) and she threw herself into bravura instances like a folk musician with a political cause that can’t wait. Tenderness and ferocity came out of nowhere.
The first movement cadenza, which Kopatchinsakaja patterned after one Beethoven wrote for a piano transcription of the concerto, had her in riotous dialogue with the timpanist and other members of the ensemble.
The last movement was the most joyous I’d ever heard it, which made the vandalism of the ending all the most stunning.
It had to be Beethoven, greatest of them all and her idol, the violinist said in the talk-back. He was a revolutionary who has become commercialized and no longer shocks. He once moved music into the future and now stands in the way of it moving into the future.
But ironically, in all the bye-byes, Beethoven almost seemed to be in the room, his every wish in the concerto magnified and made to sound utterly alive. And, that of course, is what gave the train wreck the power to shock.