Review: Harris Theater Glows and Mourns at the End of the Beethoven 250 Festival

John Eliot Gardiner conducted wonderful performances to end the Beethoven 250 Festival. Photo by Kyle Flubacker.

What’s a reviewer to do when he walks in to review a performance of his favorite symphony and the orchestra delivers a magnificent rendition? For one thing, don’t take notes—just sit back and allow the wonderful sounds to wash over. For another, one may attend many great performances, but few come along like this, so enjoy it while you can. This is exactly what I did in the second half of the Beethoven 250 concert at Harris Theater on Tuesday night. Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique completed their five-concert run of all nine Beethoven symphonies with a bang.

Overhanging this performance was the news of the death of Patricia Barretto, President and CEO of Harris Theater. At earlier concerts of this series, Gardiner acknowledged Barretto’s ongoing struggles with breast cancer and dedicated the series to her recovery. Since she could not be there, the concerts were streamed into her home. Sadly, she died a couple hours before the final concert, and Gardiner started the evening with two minutes of silence in her memory. He paid homage to Barretto by delivering outstanding performances of two classical music chestnuts: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony No. 6 in F-major, Op. 68 and Symphony No. 7 in A-major, Op. 92.

It is always a challenge for a reviewer to hear a concert of music he loves and knows inside out. Will it be any good? Will the tempi, color, and balance be as the reviewer prefers? Will there be lots of missed notes and squawking from the instruments? Gardiner and his orchestra provided an answer fairly quickly in its performance of the 6th symphony. The opening movement has shimmering melodies embedded in an aural lushness that oozes serenity and calm. Performances that are too rapid can lose this effect, but Gardiner’s perfectly nuanced approach captured all of these feelings.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner led the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique though the Beethoven symphony cycle this week. Photo courtesy of Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

The 6th Symphony, Pastorale, continues Beethoven’s innovations. It was the first symphony ever to be based on a program designed to highlight nature and country living and, to do so, he added a fifth movement, one of only a few symphonies to go beyond the traditional four movement structure. After the lyrical and bucolic opening movement, which Beethoven labeled, in German, “Awakenings of Cheerful Feelings upon Arriving in the Country,” the second movement shifts to a slower scene by a brook. The third movement is “Merry Gathering of Country Folk,” which is interrupted by a thunderstorm. Several composers have offered renditions of rain or stormy conditions, most notably Haydn in the Creation oratorio and the early Le Soir Symphony No. 8, but nobody has done it quite as dramatically as this. The Pastorale symphony ends with “Shepherd’s Song—Happy and Thankful Feelings after the Storm,” when serenity and calm returns for one lasting memory.

While not flawless, this performance was outstanding. Gardiner and his orchestra faithfully stuck to the Beethoven’s intentions, and the desired effects were fully delivered. Noteworthy was how well the muted strings sounded against the horns and woodwinds in the second movement, which ended with the solo flute, oboe, and clarinet nicely making the sounds of a nightingale, quail, and cuckoo. The trumpets and trombones, which Beethoven held in the wings in the first three movements, made their presence known during the thunderstorm without overpowering the others. Gardiner’s careful attention to the shifting dynamics was ever present here and everywhere else in the performance. The finale had the feel of a homecoming seeped in gratitude, which is what the audience displayed with applause lasting far beyond what one normally hears before intermission.

After intermission, well, brilliance started on the first beat of the 7th Symphony and never stopped until the very end. The interpretation was so tight, even a slightly slower finale worked just fine. It was a fitting end to a festival that had many other fine moments.

As I was getting ready to enjoy this concert, I recalled that this was not the first time I had ever heard this program. In 1977, I heard the Detroit Symphony Orchestra give a great performance of both symphonies. While I don’t recall the conductor, I do remember the  occasion: a festival commemorating the 150th anniversary of Beethoven’s death. This means that, if you did not get to enjoy the Beethoven 250 Festival at the Harris Theater or you cannot attend any of the concerts remaining at Symphony Center and elsewhere, you’ll have another shot in 2027, when everyone will surely be hosting the Beethoven 200 Festival commemorating the 200th anniversary of his death. Performers never need an excuse to play Beethoven. At least he’s always worth hearing.

Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.