San Francisco Symphony showing why Beethoven is always in style 

click to enlarge John Mangum - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • John Mangum

Why Beethoven?

Why are two dozen of his works in the current San Francisco Symphony schedule? Why a nine-day festival beginning Thursday called the Beethoven Project, in a year that is not even a round-number anniversary of his birth (1770) or death (1827)?

Most other composers get their due on centennials; Beethoven rules the roost every year, everywhere.

John Mangum, the orchestra’s director of artistic planning who assists music director Michael Tilson Thomas with programming, says the reason is obvious: "Ludwig van Beethoven is the composer who speaks most directly to the largest number of audiences, is best-known, most universally recognized, a revolutionary creator and forerunner to many 20th-century greats. Without Beethoven, Mahler, for example, couldn’t have become who he was."

For Mangum, the relationship is also personal. As with most music lovers, he too had an early experience with Beethoven’s works.

Born and raised in Danville before starting his career with the New York Philharmonic, Mangum’s introduction to music was in San Francisco, at Davies Symphony Hall, with Roger Norrington conducting Beethoven’s Eighth and Ninth symphonies.

The San Francisco Symphony festival is part of a multiseason exploration of Beethoven’s music, including acclaimed recordings of several symphonies. In this week’s concerts, some of his early works will be emphasized.

The festival, MTT says, "is an opportunity, in the context of major masterpieces, to hear works that were precursors to them. These are unusual pieces that many people have not had a chance to hear in live performance."

MTT and Mangum call attention to a special three-hour matinee event on Saturday combining performance and discussion exploring Beethoven’s music and impact.

Participants include John Adams, whose Beethoven tribute "Absolute Jest" will be excerpted at the symposium, along with St. Lawrence String Quartet performances of movements from Beethoven quartets that influenced Adams.

Festival-opening concerts in Program 1 include the "Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II," written by a 19-year-old Beethoven; the Symphony Chorus performance of the song "Adelaide"; and the Second Symphony.

Adams’ "Absolute Jest" will be performed in Program 2, along with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, tenor Michael Fabiano performing the Beethoven song cycle "To the Distant Beloved" and the symphony premiere of the "Three Equali for Four Trombones."

Program 3 features Beethoven’s late masterpiece "Missa Solemnis" — with Fabiano, soprano Laura Claycomb, mezzo Sasha Cooke and bass Shenyang — and excerpts from Palestrina’s 1562 "Mass for Pope Marcellus II."

Beethoven Project


Presented by the San Francisco Symphony


Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and May 9-11, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $15 to $150

Contact: (415) 864-6000,

Note: The symposium "Beethoven Before and After" begins at 1 p.m. Saturday


The schedule

Program 1: "Exploring Early Beethoven," Thursday-Friday

Program 2: "Beethoven and Adams," Saturday and May 9

Program 3: "Missa Solemnis," May 10-11

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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