During a senior year English lit seminar when I was in college, the conversation drifted toward the Romantics—and for some reason touched on German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. One of my fellow students thrust up her hand to ask a question about the reference.
“Wasn’t Beethoven really boring?” she asked.
“If Beethoven were alive today,” the professor told her in his heavy British accent, “he would be the lead singer for Sepultura.”
His reply was more than a punchy put-down of a ridiculous question. Beethoven, the celebration of whose 250th birthday happens to be this year, has long been more of a popular figure than a so-called “classical” one. His personal struggles, deafness and legendarily cantankerous attitude make him seem edgy. The opening notes of his Symphony No. 5 remain some of the most recognizable lines in music ever, and still have the power to blow back people’s hair. It’s basically heavy metal.
Of a piece with the composer’s power, rebelliousness and iconoclasm is a call from some corners to celebrate his 250th by not playing his music at all. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Smith College Assistant Professor of Music Andrea Moore has argued that not a year goes by that a Beethoven or a Haydn or a Bach doesn’t get plenty of space on your local philharmonic’s schedule. Her proposal: Musical organizations should sign on to a “cooperative, yearlong moratorium on live performances of [recognizable classical artists’] music,” filling the “Beethoven-sized hole” with reimagined genres, works by contemporary composers and rediscoveries of neglected or underrepresented artists.
“What might we hear instead?” she asked.
Philharmonics have, for the most part, not signed on to Moore’s program, but her point has been well-taken, and a lot of them have committed to diversifying their repertoires. That includes the Boise Philharmonic, which this year will celebrate Beethoven 250 on Saturday, Oct. 10, with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6: “Movement 1,” the famous “Moonlight Sonata” and the “Harp” String Quartet—then go on to answer Moore’s rhetorical question by celebrating the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States (Saturday, Nov. 7); playing the “Sounds of Idaho” on Saturday, Jan. 30; staging Latin American Dances on Saturday, Feb. 20; airing the “Voices Inspired by America” a week later; and taking us all to “The Basque Block” on Saturday, May 29.
“I’ve always looked at symphonic seasons as thriving on our great traditional works, but also works being composed today,” said Boise Philharmonic Music Director Eric Garcia. “As the Boise Philharmonic, we are simply doing our part to spread the work of these incredible composers.”
For years, classical music has been Eurocentric and closed, and its attendance expensive and tightly wrapped in decorum. But that hasn’t always been the case. In Beethoven’s time, concerts were rowdy affairs, and his own music had a heavily political bent (famously, he scratched out his dedication of his Eroica symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte after Napoleon declared himself emperor in 1804). As time went on, however, repertoires ossified, and many have argued that classical music was the purview of dead white men.
Meanwhile, people hailing from every stratum of the socio-economic, ethnic and geographic rainbows have continued to write music in the classical mode. The Suffrage centennial concert will feature works by actual living composer Stacy Garrop (“Helios”); the British-American composer and early female professional orchestral player Rebecca Clarke (“Comodo et amabile”), Black flutist and composer Valerie Coleman (“Afro Cuban Concerto”); professor and composer Jennifer Higdon (“An Exaltation of Larks”); and the first Black composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra, Florence Price (“String Quartet in G Major”). Garcia said he has a particular yen for Clarke and Price, whose works drew from their 19th-century heroes, but whose voices struck out on their own.
“When I think of these two composers, what you hear in their music is an undeniable influence of the late 19th-century Romanticism,” he said. “However, it stops there. You hear similarities, but she had her own unique voice. In some ways, that’s not very different from Beethoven.”
If there’s a line to be drawn through Boise Phil’s season, it points to Boise itself, culminating in the heart of downtown on May 29 with The Basque Block concert. That is, not literally: All of this year’s performances will be staged virtually out of necessity, and like a lot of other performing arts organizations, the Boise Phil has opted to create its own platform for doing that. It’s a measure to protect musicians and audiences, but a side effect of the switch is that it liberates listeners from the traditional behavioral expectations that come with watching live classical music.
In essence, the ability to watch it all go down from your bathtub, cheer or throw fruit at something you don’t like is within your reach, and no staff member or usher can stop you. Purposefully or no, it harkens back to Beethoven’s day, when audiences were, as Garcia put it, “unruly, much more demonstrative.” While full-on raucousness may never be fully restored to the experience of classical music, Boise Phil Executive Director Laura Reynolds said people may begin to take in classical music on the same terms that they take in other kinds of music.
“I think this digital stage can help people experience music, be who they are and be comfortable,” she said. “One day I’d love to see a mosh pit set up in front of the stage. For me, there are moments when I want to get up and scream because it’s so amazing, and now I’ll get to do it at home.”