Thursday, January 5, 2023

all Beethoven, all the time

Professor Robert Greenberg has been delivering lectures for San Francisco Performances for many years. Typically he gives a talk which occupies half of the program and illustrates the music performed live in the second half. Quite some years ago, I attended a long series of these which formed a cycle of the 15 string quartets of Shostakovich, with some of his other chamber music mixed in. It was hugely successful and led to many others - a Beethoven quartet cycle, a Dvorak one, and various mixed sets. But after all those Shostakovich concerts, Greenberg's mannered lecturing style and a cavalier way with controversial matters had worn me out. So I didn't attend any more.

Until now. I couldn't resist the topic of this series: movies about composers. The idea was to talk about movies with plenty of video clips, chortling at their historical inaccuracies while acknowledging that entertainment takes priority over accuracy in movie-making, so also judging them on how entertaining they are. Whether they were entertaining or not, Greenberg certainly was, though he did obsess over various trivialities. This week, five movies under the program title "All Beethoven, All the Time."

The oldest two (Beethoven's Great Love, 1937, and The Magnificent Rebel, 1962), he dismissed as pretty worthless, but he liked Beethoven Lives Upstairs because it's more about the fictional boy in whose house Beethoven lives as a lodger, and his relationship with Beethoven, than about Beethoven himself. However, the clips did not inspire me that this was a very good movie.

He ridiculed the plot of Immortal Beloved while saying it had some plot twists that made it worth watching, plus Gary Oldman's excellent performance. And he had similar mixed feelings about Copying Beethoven with Ed Harris, which I've seen and am similarly mixed about. Good acting, good depiction of Beethoven's character, but the scene in which the copyist crouches down in the orchestra so that the deaf Beethoven can imitate her movements while conducting the premiere of the Ninth is absurd, especially since she only worked on the finale and had just two days to do it, so when did she learn the rest of the piece?

This was a day of wild and windy storm, so the drive up to the City and back was exciting. I took the hill road to minimize risk of flooding, but did have to dodge two downed trees. Fortunately I found a street parking space right behind the Veterans Building, in a lecture room of which the program was held, so I didn't have to walk the two blocks from the parking garage in the blustery rain. Greenberg thanked the audience profusely for showing up at all ("I was afraid we'd be here by ourselves, building an ark") and he didn't even know how far I'd come.

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