Rolling Over for Beethoven

By Steven Libowitz   |   November 26, 2020
The Santa Barbara Symphony’s “Beethoven @ 250” marks the composer’s 250th birthday with a chamber music performance featuring a cross-section of his chamber works

One of the perks of the Santa Barbara Symphony’s decision to dive into digital rather than completely forgo its 2020-21 season is the opportunity to celebrate an important milestone for Beethoven, perhaps the most important composer in the classical music canon. The symphony is marking his 250th birthday with “Beethoven @ 250,” a chamber music performance featuring a cross-section of his chamber works including some newly created arrangements.

The intimate performance at the Music Academy of the West is the second installment in the symphony’s ambitious attempt to chase the coronavirus blues away with an “up close and personal” experience with the symphony musicians and other local luminaries, including six-year veteran concertmaster Jessica Guideri, principal violist Erik Rynearson, principal cellist Trevor Handy, and several horn, wind, and other players. They’ll be joined by guest pianist Robert Koenig, the chair of the UCSB Department of Music, and soprano Julia Metzler, who is an alumna of the Music Academy of the West and was an Opera Santa Barbara Chrisman Studio Artist for the 2019-20 season.

Among the more intriguing selections are an arrangement of Beethoven’s Sonatina in F Major, Ahn. 5 (Allegro Assai, Rondo) for marimba, played by Eduardo Meneses, and Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor, “Für Elise,” arranged for harp played by Michelle Temple.

The program was recorded live on stage with state-of-the-art audio recording and multi-camera work last week and will be streamed at 7 pm on Saturday, November 21, and 3 pm on Sunday, November 22, and then be available on-demand for 30 days for ticket holders.

The concert represents something of a reunion for Guideri, as the concertmaster attended Juilliard while pianist Koenig was on the piano staff, when he would serve as an accompanist for her lessons. We talked with her over the phone last weekend. 

Q. You performed on two of the pieces in the program, and just a movement from each one. What led you to choose these selections, and what do they represent for you?

A. I chose “Spring” sonata (Violin Sonata No. 5, Op. 24) because the opening theme is just so beautiful and sunny – which is why it got its nickname but also because it becomes really dramatic really quickly. There’s a great dynamic range where it gets suddenly loud and suddenly quiet, which is kind of Beethoven’s staple, but right after this gorgeous melody makes a really lovely juxtaposition. With the Opus 18 (String Quartet No. 4 in C minor), I’ve always loved that quartet. I don’t know why. Maybe because it is also very dramatic you can really sink your teeth into it. 

The special “Beethoven @ 250” concert brings special focus to the composer. I’m not sure if you consider yourself a Beethoven authority, but what’s your take on the importance of Beethoven, at least to you personally?

Oh, it’s been a huge, huge influence. The depth of his writing and the breadth of it from the early pieces to the late Beethoven quartets – it just becomes more and more spiritual. When he was suffering with the loss of his hearing, you can really hear the pain. One of the movements in a late quartet is essentially a prayer to God, which reaches way into the soul, and encapsulates his music. 

Can I turn to the logistics? How does sitting at least six feet apart and wearing masks affect your music making, in terms of connection to the other musicians without as much non-verbal communication?

The mask definitely affects individual playing. I had to practice at home with it on because it’s quite an adjustment. Violinists want to look down at your bow every once in a while. Looking over our noses is tricky, but you learn how to do that over the years. But then also having to look over a mask, you feel like you’re going cross-eyed. (As far as the social distancing), that was also a challenge. But we also rehearsed that way so we got used to it. But there was definitely an issue of hearing even just being a few feet further apart. I had to ask some people to play a little bit louder. And you are right about facial expressions being a big thing, but it felt like we were trying to show it through our eyes to stay connected. 

I’m imagining that because you’ve done a lot of studio work, you’re familiar with playing with no live audience, and classical music is much less interactive than, say, a rock concert. Still, I’m curious how having nobody in the seats affects you?

There might not be as much back and forth as in a rock concert but we definitely feel the energy and are inspired by it and react to what comes off of the audience. I was actually trying to imagine that there was an audience, and because the auditorium was dark that made it easier to stay in performance mode. But it’s definitely a different vibe.

On the other hand, one of the things that makes these livestreaming shows different is the opportunity to see the performers up close and from different angles, and also having the interview segments to watch. That doesn’t normally happen. I’m wondering if having a chance to talk a little bit about the music and more is enjoyable for you?

Absolutely. It’s a lot of fun for me and when I watched the recording of the first concert I felt like the interviews were actually a really nice addition to the concert itself. That should be part of the concertgoing experience from here on. I think it would be really cool for the audience and the performers to get to know each other better. That would be really great. 

Have you been feeling fully safe doing these performance recordings in person?

I do feel safe. People are really taking as much precaution as they possibly can and we’re making sure that we’re socially distant constantly with the mask on and sanitizing. But it has to. Because otherwise life is kind of over. So I felt pretty safe about it. 

What has it meant to you to be able to play even these limited concerts live with these other musicians in the same room?

Oh, it’s been so satisfying… I was really impressed that the Symphony decided to put on the season at all, which I think speaks volumes about how they feel about their community and how they feel about their musicians… My heart was so full driving home from Santa Barbara after the recording on Thursday night. I was on cloud nine. My eyes are welling up right now thinking about it. It’s not only being around these really lovely people who I can call my friends who I haven’t seen in many, many months, but also rehearsing with them and then being like putting ourselves in a really focused situation with a very clear goal of making a good recording. It felt like it was an unspoken meeting of the minds and emotions and even of the soul. Not to be cheesy or anything, but that’s how it felt after all that’s been going on.

Classical Corner

UCSB Arts & Lectures’ House Calls virtual event series still has another couple of months to go, but they’re offering an early form of Thanksgiving via a special free “Gratitude Concert” featuring the brother-and-sister duo Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason at 5 pm on Sunday, November 22. Just 21 years old, Sheku is already one of the world’s most sought-after cellists, especially after his performance for more than 35 million people worldwide at the wedding of (now Montecito residents) Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. His 24-year-old sister Isata, the eldest of the family’s seven musical siblings, released her first solo piano CD last year, which promptly soared to No. 1 on the U.K. classical charts. The siblings will serenade us in a special recital from their home in Nottingham, England, followed by a conversation with the Santa Barbara Independent’s Charles Donelan. Details at 


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