Thursday, October 18, 2012

Allergic to Quarter Notes

Beethoven's inimitable parsing of duple meters into fives plus threes was the underpinning of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's dynamic reading of his Fifth last week in Carnegie Hall (See post of October 16).  It raises the question: Why do conductors lean so heavily on simplistic quarter note beats/?

If they are afraid the ensemble will otherwise fall part, they might try some more exciting alternative: perhaps the most amazing feat of the Orpheus was their refusal to be quarter-noted to death after what must be, for all the players combined, hundreds of deadly dull oversimplifications of the work.  Wouldn't it be to everyone's short and long term advantage to risk chaos in the interest of heightened energy?  The Orpheus players were empowered to lift the spirit of the whole symphony very high in defiance of musical gravity, resulting in liberated tempi and enormous joy.

I first got interested in this conductor vs. the beat question in studying the Beethoven Violin Concerto.  Listening to several recordings I found only one in which the real rhythmic grit of the piece was in evidence, and there only on the part of the soloist (Zino Francescatti!).  Eugene Ormandy stuck to his quarter-note guns while Francescatti articulated highly precise eighth notes (as in, "Beat me, Daddy, eight to the bar!" from the jitterbug era).  Perhaps the clash between their approaches made for an exciting result for some listeners.