By Lawrence Budmen

The great 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky described Ludwig van Beethoven's "Grosse Fugue in B-flat Major," Opus 133 (1825-26) as "this absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever." (The work was originally composed for string quartet but was transcribed by Gustav Mahler for full string ensemble.) Indeed the boldly chromatic harmonies and angular rhythms of this score seem to presage much 20th and 21st century music. Moreover Beethoven uses the fugal form not as an academic exercise but as a display of musical energy and passion. Many musicologists feel that Beethoven is venting his anger in this music, but violinist-conductor-educator James Buswell does not agree. Buswell led 15 string players of the New World Symphony in a reduced version of Mahler's orchestration on December 14, 2003 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach as the centerpiece of "Beethoven the Master," part of New World's in-context festival "The Eras in Music." 

In his introductory remarks Buswell compared the music to mountain climbing, where imposing peaks also yield a view of beautiful, sunny flowers. Buswell's performance was very much in the 1990's tradition of John Eliot Gardiner and Roger Norington's performances of the Beethoven symphonies. Bright toned strings, transparent instrumental textures, and sturdy, buoyant rhythms made for a high spirited transversal of a unique score - a post modern view of one of Beethoven's most enigmatic creations. The high voltage, exhilarating playing of the New World string players enhanced a stimulating interpretation of this seminal work. 

The "Septet in E-flat Major," Opus 20 received its premiere at Beethoven's first major concert in Vienna in1800 - a program that also included his 1st Symphony (also a premiere) and 2nd Piano Concerto as well as music by Haydn and Mozart. The E-flat Septet is delightfully frothy entertainment music, but this is a divertissement by a master. The flowing lyrical melody of the Adagio cantabile presages the "Scene by a Brook" movement of Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony." The theme and variations (4th movement) is an elegantly proportioned, masterful set of thematic reinventions. The vigor and melodic richness of this music is irresistible! Buswell, one of the violin's patrician artists, played the elaborate first violin part - at times virtually a concerto. Buswell's suave, darkly burnished tone soared in the Adagio cantabile with an almost heavenly rapture. His elegant phrasing and intelligent musicianship elevated the deceptively simple melody of the Tempo di Menuetto to an incandescent level. He was brilliantly seconded by the gorgeous tone, musical precision, and stylistic Úlan of clarinetist Kazem Abdullah. The opening Allegro con brio and concluding Presto abounded in rhythmic vigor and joyous exhilaration - the perfect musical dessert for the holidays. Virtuosic horn playing by Alberto Suarez was spotlighted in the outer movements. Bassoonist Jennifer Wyatt, violist Christine Grossman, cellist Lars Kirvan, and double bass Sarah Hogan all played splendidly. Buswell and company proved that this score is more than just "light music." Under Buswell's leadership, Beethoven's music emerged as a playful, witty masterpiece. 

The concert opened with the 1794-95 "Sextet in E-flat Major," Opus 81b, a glimpse of the young Beethoven - the master as student. Lovely Mozartean melodies populate the three movements of this charming score. Some surprising violinistic turns of phrase in the Rondo: Allegro finale previews the Beethoven that was to come. The two horn parts were written for valveless horns. This challenging horn writing must have been virtually impossible to play on such early, primitive instruments. On modern horns, New World players Fritz Foss and Lisa Bergman offered brilliant playing and idiomatic musicality. (The concluding movement was a dazzling horn fiesta.) Violinists Eric Buchmann and Annemieke Milks, violist Hillary Herndon, and cellist Milena Mateeva were first rate. 

"The Eras in Music" festival has been greatly enhanced by video program notes. (Previous festival installments featured Bernard Labadie leading stylish performances of music by the Bach family and conductor Nicholas McGegan and pianist Robert Levin in an invigorating celebration of Mozart.) The Beethoven program was preceded by a video that set the composer in the context of his journey from the classicism of Haydn and Mozart to his own trailblazing, boldly original scores that heralded the birth of the Romantic era. Strong visuals and 
excellent narration by Lynn Farmer made for an engrossing presentation. 

Once again the New World Symphony has been on the cutting edge of concert presentation. These innovative productions are reinventing the musical experience. With the consummate musicianship of James Buswell, "Beethoven the Master" was a wonderful exploration of a creative giant and his musical world. 

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