Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 18, 2020

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, All Beethoven!

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
January 11, 2020
by Michael J. Moran
Mark Russell Smith

The fourth program of the SSO’s 76th season launched the orchestra’s yearlong celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday anniversary and welcomed back to the podium Mark Russell Smith for the first time since his tenure as their music director from 1995 to 2000.

The concert opened with the Overture to Egmont, a play by Goethe for which Beethoven was commissioned to write incidental music in 1809. Featuring the full drama of his mature style, it depicts the struggle of a noble Dutch Count against a despotic Spanish Duke, perhaps reflecting as well the composer’s personal battles against his increasing deafness and in support of human rights. Smith and the SSO gave a thrilling account of this explosive score.

Reducing the orchestra’s size by several players, Smith devoted the rest of the evening to Beethoven’s first two symphonies. Written in 1800, when the 29-year-old composer was still establishing himself in Vienna, the first symphony extended the symphonic model he had learned from his studies with Haydn, its inventor, by beginning to break its rules.

While in the standard four movements, the rhythmically ambiguous openings of its first and last movements puzzled many early listeners. And though called a Minuet, the boisterous third movement displays little of that dance’s traditional grace but rather presents the first example of the livelier Scherzo form that Beethoven himself invented.  

The second symphony, dating from 1802 and played after intermission, also retains the classical four-movement format, but its slow opening is more expansive than in its predecessor, and the playful third movement is actually labelled “Scherzo.” Smith took all the repeats in both symphonies, but his fleet tempos, even in the slow movements, drove them urgently forward. Heard after the Egmont Overture, these early works suggested not so much the fledgling composer he still was as the pathbreaking Beethoven to come.

Now holding three positions in the Minnesota-Iowa area, the busy maestro’s clear rapport with the musicians, many of whom joined the SSO after his tenure, drew playing that was consistently crisp and bracing. His warm reception from the large audience, many seeing his energetic leadership for the first time, indicated that he should revisit his Springfield home more often.