For music lovers, one of the regrettable casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic was the Beethoven Year. Many planned celebrations marking the composer’s 250th birthday went by the wayside – which makes San Francisco Performances’ upcoming virtual festival especially welcome.
The “Beethoven All-Day Marathon” features the Alexander String Quartet in performances of three of the composer’s great chamber works. Originally scheduled for in-person concerts, the series is scheduled to stream in three episodes this month.
San Francisco Performances’ resident music historian Robert Greenberg launches the festival on Dec. 17 with a deep-dive talk exploring Beethoven’s genius. The Alexander Quartet’s performances, recorded on Dec. 12 in Herbst Theatre, begin streaming on Dec. 24 with Beethoven’s “Duet in C Major” for Violin and Viola, and the Op. 95 Quartetto in F minor, “Serioso.” The final episode becomes available on Dec. 31, featuring the composer’s monumental Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131.
All three episodes will be available for streaming into the new year, so audiences can watch them separately, or binge-watch all three in one sitting.
Greenberg, a composer and music scholar who has been SF Performances’ resident lecturer since 1993, calls Beethoven “an extraordinary humanist genius, one whose work went so far beyond the envelope that he’s basically a genre unto himself.”
In a recent phone call, he said that the composer’s late-life works are stunning evidence of his musical brilliance and enduring humanity.
“By the time Beethoven gets to the end of his life, he spent the last 2-1/2 years writing his final six string quartets,” Greenberg noted. “He’s been clinically deaf for seven years, but he started losing his hearing as early as 1796. He’s in a whole different place — an entirely new place, hearing music the likes of which no one has conceived of before.
“Op. 131 is so different, so revolutionary, so radical, that it fits into no pre-existing rubric. It’s seven nonstop movements, at a time when string quartets had to be four movements. It plumbs this extraordinary range of expression and mood, and does so in a revolutionary way in terms of his musical materials, with the kind of organizing principle that was beyond what his audience could expect to understand – as beyond as expecting his audience to be able to operate my computer.”
Greenberg’s Dec. 17 talk will give an overview of Beethoven’s life and work – “always with the attempt to humanize him, by rendering him a flawed human being.
“Everything I do is meant to remove the sense of idolatry with which we’ve elevated these primarily dead hero men – and to strip away the years: because, frankly, in terms of human history, Beethoven’s death, which was not quite 200 years ago, was yesterday. He believed and felt pretty much the same things we’ve believed and felt, only he didn’t have iPhones or antibiotics.”
The “Beethoven All-Day Marathon” performances by the Alexander Quartet feature Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz (violins), David Samuel (viola), and Sandy Wilson (cello), with special guests Yuri Cho (violin) and the quartet’s founding member, Paul Yarbrough (viola.)
San Francisco Performances’ Ensemble in Residence since 1989, the Alexander Quartet was formed in New York City in 1981. The foursome recorded the complete Beethoven string quartets in 2009, and Greenberg, who has worked with the group for more than three decades, says their depth of understanding in Beethoven’s music is extraordinary.
“I first met them in 1986,” he said. “We’ve traveled Europe and the U.S. together. It’s the single closest relationship I’ve had with any other performers.
“They’re superb. They’ve recorded all the Beethoven twice, and performed it everywhere. You know, there’s some music that kids just shouldn’t play – Mahler symphonies, and Beethoven late quartets. You haven’t lived enough life to get it. Well, they’ve lived enough life, musically and humanly. I think that’s so important. They’re not just playing the notes at this point. They’ve played this music so much, they’ve all had their own life experiences. They get it.”
Ticketholders for the originally scheduled in-person marathon can apply the ticket value to subscriptions or gift certificates, donate to San Francisco Performances, or request a refund. Email [email protected] or phone (415) 677-0325 during business hours.
TO LISTEN AND WATCH
Beethoven All-Day Marathon
Presented by San Francisco Performances
When: Streaming starting Dec. 17