2020 is here and along with it, the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the greatest geniuses and humanists the world has ever known.

When many people hear the name Beethoven two things generally come to mind. In no particular order those will most often be that he was deaf (he became, not born that way), and that he’s the composer who wrote the famous 3 Gs and an E Flat...da da da, dum of the 5th Symphony.

What initially comes to my mind are the works I first encountered as a young student of piano. At first some easy pieces, (of course “Für Elise” among them) and the progressively more difficult sonatas that I would spend hours practicing in our living room and later performing in kiddie talent shows, school assemblies, nursing homes and anywhere I could find someone to listen to them. Later I learned his symphonies and other large works, and happily my life has included the conducting of them as a major component.

I began by citing Beethoven’s genius and would like to take a moment to contrast his genius with that of another genius of whom we often speak ... that being Mozart. Mozart’s genius was otherworldly as playwright, Peter Schaeffer pointed out in “Amadeus.”

Mozart merely wrote out his works from having conceived them in his head. It is as if a physicist or mathematician simply wrote the answers to unimaginable equations and problems down without having to work them out. To put it another way, it’s as if someone were to simply “know” on what date, from what geographical position, at what time, with what force, with what amount of fuel etc. were all necessary to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon without having to do a single computation. As I said above, positively otherworldly — to the point there is almost a sense of distance between his genius and “us.”

Beethoven, on the other hand, is the genius that is ultimately human. We know from his manuscripts, that no two notes sit next to each other in any of his pieces without having had a laborious process of trial and error to arrive. Moreover, his process wasn’t that of a clean, methodical person arriving at the “right” combination of notes ... no way! This was someone who wrote something in bad handwriting, scribbled it out, tried something else, scribbled it out again, wrote something off to the side in a margin with an arrow sometimes pointing to where it should take place on the page. Trial and error, attempt and fail and fail again and ultimately succeed in glorious ways that show the scars of the struggle to get there ... that is Beethoven and that is humanity. That in my opinion is what makes his particular brand of genius the sort that speaks to us in a unique way. That is what makes people jump out of their seats at the conclusion of one of his symphonies. I feel listeners intuit, relate to and are moved by the struggle to perfection, the lofty reaching for a goal just out of reach, and in the case of Beethoven’s works we feel it finally being attained, something we have yet to do in our own lives or in the course of humanity.

The Traverse Symphony will be devoting much time to Beethoven throughout 2020 and indeed we will start the year on Jan. 26 with the type of music through which most people knew Beethoven during his lifetime, namely his chamber music.

Chamber music for a few musicians was an extremely popular home activity during Beethoven’s time, long before cinema, radio, TV, social media and the internet.

Many members of a family would learn instruments, and play together as both entertainment, and family activity. I have put together a program which will feature a wide variety of his chamber music works, in all sorts of combinations. I am also very excited to be featuring many of the fine musicians of the TSO, including not only our first chair players, but listeners will get a rare opportunity to experience some of the incredible depth of talent and skill within the roster of our string sections ... including some players who in earlier years were also members of our youth programs.

Believe me, this will be a very, very special concert and opportunity to hear your TSO like you’ve never heard before. I will be playing piano with virtually all of the works on the program and am really looking forward to collaborating with my colleagues in this way.

I will also be pulling several of those Beethoven piano sonatas I was playing in my childhood living room out of the mothballs in order to for me personally and perhaps some of our listeners take it back to the beginning of my Beethoven association to start this “Beethoven Year.”

Jan. 26 will be the start of something big!

Kevin Rhodes is the music director of the Traverse Symphony Orchestra and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts. Learn more at Traverse Symphony.org.

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