Historic Composition

The Coyote Consort's 'Young Beethoven' Stages The Legendary Composer's Life As Well As First Master Works.

OFF A LONG hallway behind Crowder Hall in the UA School of Music Building, Dorothy Dell's spacious office has an industrial-sized ironing board. Dell and pianist Tannis Gibson lean their elbows on the gargantuan table, a rumpled pile of ivory silk and lace brocade between them. Gibson looks pleased with the spoils they've unearthed from the UA drama department's reserves for her ensemble's unusual Young Beethoven program, the second in the UApresents season-long "Beethoven Quartet Cycle," a series featuring the complete string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven performed by an international array of chamber musicians.

The series had an auspicious start in November with two concerts by the Emerson String Quartet, and continues through April with visiting performances by The Petersen Quartet, a young, Berlin-based chamber ensemble performing mid-February; and by the nationally renowned Colorado Quartet in April. (For more on the series, see Margaret Regan's "String Sensation," Tucson Weekly, November 4.)

Gibson looks relaxed. "It isn't every day I get to pick out an 18th-century shirt," the Canadian-born musician says with a smile that fills the room. The costume she's chosen is for actor Edgar Shrock, who will narrate Friday evening's concert with dramatic readings about the life of Beethoven. Gibson's original script draws from her extensive reading on the composer's life as part of her own classical music education, but it sticks primarily to the language of letters written by the young composer, and first accounts by his contemporaries. The goal, she says, is for audiences to "leave saturated with who he was during this period...in his own words."

Each of the concerts in the series presents music spanning the long trajectory of Beethoven's work. Gibson and husband Mark Rush, artistic directors for the relatively new Coyote Consort group, were asked to do what they do best: to create a program that would bring a unique local component to the series, something that would both elevate the music and surprise the audience. Now in their third season, the accomplished Consort, which includes a stellar core of UA faculty musicians and professional guests, has continued its mission to present traditional music with a non-traditional twist.

Previous concerts have employed lighting and staging to laudable effect, and this time they're experimenting with spoken word. "We call it 'young' rather than 'early' to highlight who he was at that time, and what he was wrestling with," Gibson says. Their hope is for audiences to become aware of Beethoven as a personality.

"The story of a composer's life informs the way you play the music. Not for all musicians, but for me," she says. "I find that coming together interesting." So Gibson and her fellow musicians will take their audience back to Vienna to another turn of the century -- from the 1790s to 1801. At that time, Franz Josef Haydn was still the undisputed patriarch of contemporary composition; a beloved Mozart was dying; and a young, German-born Beethoven, who had studied under each of those masters, had returned to Vienna for good and was gaining a reputation as a great, improvisational piano player. He was 25 years old when he wrote the concert's opening piece in 1795, Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 1, No. 3.

"The pieces we picked come from that specific era, so they're heavily influenced by Haydn and Mozart (in a way his later works weren't). As a composer he really changed, so that the beginning Beethoven and the ending Beethoven are really two different voices," Gibson explains.

Though well-established concert music, these early works don't have the drama even casual listeners associate with the brooding composer. "You don't get the great adventure that belongs in the later music," Gibson allows. "But in the Opus 1, the piano trio we're going to play, there are times where these explosions happen, these abrupt fortissimos...suddenly this sort of polite veneer of that period in music gets removed. In these early works, you can feel he's going back and forth. He has to stay in this framework that Haydn and Mozart established, but already he has his own take."

The other great transformation during this early period is the onset of hearing loss, just at the time when he's beginning his work as a serious composer. A free, pre-concert discussion further deviates from the usual program by bringing in Dr. Ryan Huxtable, a UA professor of pharmacology who will describe the symptoms and maddening progression of Beethoven's undiagnosed tinnitus and inner-ear infection from a medical standpoint; both what we know now, and how little doctors knew then.

The first two pieces, the piano trio and the Piano Quintet in E Flat Major, Op. 16 (1796) begin with no hearing loss, followed by Beethoven's stoic denial of his condition. But when we return from intermission for the final piece, 1801's Septet in E Flat Major, Op. 20, the composer has despondently accepted his progressive disease, which has no likely cure. Here is where the connection between character and composition takes a dramatic turn.

"This is really where it all began (from 1792 to 1802)," Gibson says. "By the time he got to the septet, which is the last piece we'll be playing, he's well aware that there's some hearing loss. So it's an important period to understand."

Asked if the Consort's challenge was to make the music adventurous, she answers in the negative: "This is primarily a full-length chamber music concert. I don't want to be misleading. The words are there only to illuminate the music...But I think the young man is interesting. I think the character himself is interesting, what he's facing."

Though nearly a year in the making, it's only in the final days before this Friday's performance that all the pieces for Young Beethoven are coming together for the first time. Gibson and violinist Mark Rush, established performers, educators and the Consort's artistic directors, are putting the final touches on the program notes as guest musicians begin arriving from New York. Actor/narrator Shrock has yet to join the musicians in rehearsal. Their first rehearsal together will come just three days before Friday's performance.

We asked her what the hardest part has been. "As classical musicians, for so long we get into this traditional mold of what we do, and how we do it. You practice your (piece), and you go out and play your (piece), and you do it this way, and take your bow, and you sit down...you have these rituals that you follow that are very important. Then to do this requires you to abandon that."

To abandon all of it?

"Well, abandon it and then use it again. You have to rethink it. Of course we're playing music, so that hasn't changed. But when you incorporate something else like words, and drama, the timing of the words to music, the relationship of the actor to the musicians on stage. How will the actor, how will Beethoven, grow through your concert? What will happen to him through your concert? These things are not ways we normally think, so that has been a tremendous challenge."

There is a delicate balance between innovation and tradition in classical circles -- it's a controversy that's raged for 200 years, even in Beethoven's day. Was he winning an audience, or was he a rebel still learning how to completely do away with the conventions of the day? How was he received in his time?

"There were many who admired him," Gibson says. Although he was an outsider (compared to Austrian-born Haydn and Mozart), although arrogant and unrefined by some Viennese standards, he was undeniably during this period a great player. "With his music itself, there was a great division," Gibson continues. "People loved it, especially the nobility. They were his greatest supporters. Oddly enough, or maybe it isn't odd, it was the musicians, the composers of the day, who couldn't believe anyone would write music like that. The heaviest criticism came from his fellow composers. Maybe intertwined in that was a certain amount of awe."

Gibson is a compelling and eloquent speaker on the subject, and one can't help but ask if bucking tradition is what it takes these days to build an audience. Is the Coyote Consort staging its own version of the abrupt fortissimo, challenging our contemporary chamber's polite veneer?

Rush and Gibson, longtime duo partners, divined Coyote Consort in 1997 as a unique ensemble of invited players. Their performance this week features cellist Nancy Green, double-bass virtuoso Patrick Neher, Debra Morée on viola, and four members of the nationally acclaimed Dorian Wind Quintet: Gerard Reuter (oboe), Jane Taylor (bassoon), Nancy Billman (horn) and UA Music Professor Jerry Kirkbride (clarinet). Tucson actor Schrock has frequented local stages since the late '70s. His recent credits include the Old Pueblo Playwrights new play festival (as Daniel in Musical Chairs), and Tucson Community Theatre's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Gibson, nonetheless, remains humble in her opinion: "My only hope is for people to come away knowing something of Beethoven. Whatever opens doors is, in my mind, a good thing. Maybe a chamber music lover sitting in the concert, who knows this music already and loves it, will say, 'I'd really like to know more about Beethoven.' Or maybe the person who doesn't know much about Beethoven's music says, 'These words have taken me inside the music. I will go listen to a recording, or attend a Beethoven symphony.'

"I use this as a catalyst, and I just can't get away from it. For my own children, watching a video about Beethoven and his temperament, seeing the personality onstage, and the visual drama of who Beethoven was...it was so startling for my daughter in particular (then age 5), she said, 'I want to hear this symphony.' The door was wide open, and we could just go with it.

"Sometimes it's just the music that opens the door; sometimes, it's something else."

The Coyote Consort presents Young Beethoven at 8 p.m. Friday, January 28, in UA Crowder Hall, located on campus in the Fine Arts Complex, southeast corner of Speedway Boulevard and Park Avenue. Tickets are $20, with discounts for children, students, seniors and UA employees. All seating is reserved, with tickets available in advance at the Centennial Hall box office (621-3341).

Dr. Ryan Huxtable, UA Dept. of Pharmacology, will present The Deafness of Beethoven, a slide lecture at 7 p.m. in Room 162 of the UA School of Music, on Second Street just east of Park Avenue. Lecture is free and open to all. An informal reception will follow the performance.