Saturday 29 February 2020

His message still resonates with us today: artistic director Marios Papadopoulos discusses the Oxford Philharmonic's year-long Beethoven Festival

Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philharmonic at the Sheldonian Theatre
Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philharmonic at the Sheldonian Theatre
The Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, artistic director Marios Papadopoulos, has just started its Beethoven Festival, a year long exploration of Beethoven's music (symphonies, concertos, chamber music, piano sonatas and more) in and around the orchestra's home-base, the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. I recently met up with Marios to chat about the festival and find out more.

The festival celebrates not just the 250 years since Beethoven's birth but also that Oxford is twinned with Bonn, Beethoven's birthplace. Marios feels that the concerts offer the rather special experience of being able to hear Beethoven's symphonic music and opera in the unique acoustic of the Sheldonian Theatre. Seating around 700, the hall offers intimacy with some members of the audience almost able to touch the players. And Marios points out that many performances of Beethoven's music during his lifetime took place in similar venues.

Marios Papadopoulos
Marios Papadopoulos
As well as conducting the orchestral concerts and Fidelio, Marios is the soloist in the piano concertos. This is music that he has performed and conducted for nearly 16 years and it is dear to his heart. And performing in the Sheldonian Theatre, knowing the music with such long experience, changes what he brings to it.

The concerts are starting to sell out, so there is clearly a demand, and 200 of the seats in the Sheldonian Theatre's upper gallery are offered to students for £5. A far higher percentage of subsidised cheap seats than most orchestra concert series.

Those attending many of the concerts will be able to experience the whole gamut of Beethoven's output from his first symphony and early piano sonatas to the late quartets. These are strong musical statements in a tremendous variety of musical styles. Marios also feels the series will demonstrate Beethoven's devotion to humanity, his message still resonates with us today.

The festival includes all the symphonies and piano concertos, the violin concerto and the triple concerto, all the piano sonatas with ten different pianists, all the violin sonatas and all the cello sonatas played by principals from the orchestra. The Takacs Quartet performs String Quartets No. 6 in B flat major, No. 16 in F major and No 9 in C major 'Razumovsky', the Juilliard Quartet performs String Quartet  No. 14 in C sharp minor, and Jeremy Irons will be reading T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets followed by String Quartet No. 15 in A minor. Marios adds that the string quartet is a very particular ensemble, and they have chosen to use established quartets rather than players from the orchestra.

There are rarities too, the Triple Concerto, the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives and the piano duet version of the Grosse Fuge. Conspicuously absent is the Missa Solemnis (the Mass in C is included); though Marios and the orchestra have performed the Missa Solemnis in the Sheldonian Theatre before, logistics at getting the right choirs prevented including it in the festival. They will also be doing the Choral Fantasy, a work Marios describes as strange and fascinating, and it will be interesting to hear it in the same concert as the Symphony No. 9. This concert features a contribution from Oxford's twin town of Bonn as the chorus is the Philharmonischer Chor der Stadt Bonn.

In the chamber music concerts, music by Beethoven's contemporaries is being included; Mozart, Haydn and Schubert, of course, but also lesser known composers, Diabelli, Spohr, Viotti, Ries, Kreutzer (to whom the Kreutzer Sonata was dedicated), Romberg, Hummel, Wofl, and Rolla. Jessica Duchen will be reading from her book Immortal Beloved alongside Beethoven's songs and chamber music. The Juilliard Quartet will also be performing the UK premiere of Jörg Widmann's String Quartet No. 9.

So there is as much variety as could be squeezed into the musical environment.

There is an academic element too, earlier this month there was a symposium and a study day. The symposium featured Professor William Kinderman, from the University of California, Los Angeles, one of the leading authorities on Beethoven, plus academics from Vienna, Bonn, Connecticut, Colombia, Manchester, Oxford and Cambridge. Both symposium and the study day received tremendous feedback. One of the things covered in the study day was ways of playing Beethoven. There isn't a single way of playing his music and for some works the festival offers the possibility of hearing the same piece performed by three different pianists, which Marios feels will be very illuminating.

For Marios, one highlight to come is the semi-staged performance of Beethoven's opera Fidelio with Emma Bell as Leonore, Andrew Staples as Florestan and the Garsington Opera Chorus. He points out that most performances put the orchestra in the pit, but here it will be out in the hall (with the singers somewhat raised).

For Marios, the orchestra is an important component of operas by Mozart and Beethoven, equal to the singers. So much is suggested by the orchestra, that he feels dramatically little needs doing on stage. For him, in many stagings the action interferes with the music. So the festival will be offering costumed singers with just stylised entrances and exits. They will be using some of the dialogue to give context for the music.

When it comes to his own performances as soloist in the piano concertos, though he has played them many times before and directed from the keyboard since his twenties, it doesn't get any easier. This is because he continues to be demanding on himself, especially after doing so much conducting, he doesn't let himself get away with things.

When it comes to directing from the keyboard, he quotes Daniel Barenboim saying that to do so you need to be an experienced conductor, particularly in the later concertos. It helps that in the Oxford Philharmonic, he feels he has a fine group of musicians who listen and react; they don't rely on someone to bring them in. In the end, it is all chamber music.

Playing and directing means that there is a unity to the performance, especially as the players listen to him and respond. He tries to integrate his sound to the orchestra, blending colours. He admits that they don't always get it right, but by and large he feels that it pays off.

Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican
Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican
The Oxford Philharmonic's regular season of concerts continues in tandem with the festival with Sibelius's Violin Concerto with Anna-Liisa Bezrodny (12/3/2020), the St John Passion (9/4/2020) and Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 with Maxim Vengerov alongside the world premiere of Grace-Evangeline Mason's To Breathe now (30/4/2020).

The Beethoven Festival continues tonight with a piano recital by John Lill, and from 6-8 March 2020 there are the first three chamber music recitals at Holywell Music Room with Beethoven's Cello Sonatas and Violin Sonatas.

Full details from the Oxford Philharmonic's website.

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