I played one of the most satisfying concerts of my life today. Actually, I played a very satisfying concert yesterday as well, but today's concert was even better. Perhaps it was because the hall was packed with somewhere around 1,500 elementary-school-age children, and perhaps it was because they listened and watched the concert with total attention. What could have held 1,500 kids' total attention? It was Beethoven.
The format of the program was a total surprise to the orchestra and was a total surprise to all of the teachers. Everybody kept the proceedings a secret. All the orchestra members knew was that we had segments from Beethoven's Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Symphonies to play, as well as the beginning of the Emperor Concerto. We knew that the concert would be conducted by Jack Ranney, who conducts all of our children's concerts. It is always a pleasure to work with Jack, and it is always a pleasure to play Beethoven.
[I'm trying to add an element of mystery here, and give a nod to the holiday at the same time.]
We began Beethoven's Sixth, and after about a hundred measures our usual conductor, Steve Larson, walked onto the stage dressed as Beethoven. He gave a few suggestions to Jack Ranney, and introduced himself to the audience as Beethoven's ghost. He had a terrific costume, a terrific wig, and truly looked like Beethoven. He spoke to the audience with great passion and great sincerity about the music we played (there were also a couple of piano pieces: the beginning of the "Tempest" Sonata, and the "Rage for a Lost Penny"), and made a great case for music that glorifies brotherhood rather than music that glorifies war. He discussed his deafness in a way that children of all ages could understand, yet he never "talked down" to the audience. There was none of the traditional "hello boys and girls" stuff. Beethoven would have addressed the audience as a group of intelligent people who were eager to experience something wonderful, so that's what Steve did.
Steve, who is a conductor and not an actor, truly enjoyed his chance to "channel" Beethoven, and he made Beethoven present for everyone in the hall, including the members of the orchestra and the conductor. It was indulgent and extravagant, but because of Steve's sincerity it was "schtick" free. Steve loves Beethoven deeply, and his unschooled and passionate impression made Beethoven all the more human--and all the more believable.
Everyone in the viola section had the same reaction after we finished: this was probably the most important, satisfying, and relevant concert we have ever played. I know that those 1,500 kids, their teachers, and the ushers from the orchestra guild (not to mention the 2,000 that came to yesterday's concerts) will never forget the 45 minutes they spent with Beethoven.