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FIRE AND OCEAN – Dayton Philharmonic enters 78th season with Beethoven overtures

The first week of fall is upon us, so that means football, Christmas music in stores and, best of all, the first concert series of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s 78th season. On Thursday, September 23 and Saturday, September 25 at the Schuster Center, DPO music director Neal Gittleman bookends two disparate works from the same year with two related overtures by Beethoven.

Opera does not come immediately to mind when one thinks of Beethoven. Yet he wrote one that went through several revisions. With each revision of the opera (one of those revisions was substantial, shortening the work from three acts to two), Beethoven wrote a new overture.

The opening work for this DPO concert, entitled Fire and Ocean, is the final overture to that opera, Fidelio. The story centers on a woman named Leonore, who disguises herself as a prison guard using the name Fidelio in order to infiltrate the prison holding her husband (Florestan) who was sentenced to death as a political prisoner. Beethoven wanted to title the opera Leonore, but lost the tug-of-name-war with the opera house, who wanted to emphasize the disguised character. While urban legend claims that the original name of the opera was Leonore, it was, in fact, always titled Fidelio.

For the November 1805 three-act premiere, Beethoven wrote the overture now titled Leonore Overture No. 2. Many complained that the opera was too long, so, for an 1806 production, Beethoven trimmed one act and opened the opera with a new overture, Leonore Overture No. 3. Because Leonore Overture No. 3 tended to musically overshadow the first act that followed the overture, Beethoven had to scale back that overture. So, eight years later, Beethoven again revised his opera and penned yet another overture, finally matching the name of the overture with the name of the opera.

If you’re wondering what happened to Leonore Overture No. 1, historians claim that, in 1808, Beethoven tinkered with music that became Leonore No. 2 and that revision was Leonore No. 1. Gustav Mahler resurrected the discarded Leonore Overture No. 3 and inserted it into a scene change in the second act, a practice adopted by conductors in this new century. It is with the Fidelio overture and Leonore Overture No. 3 that Gittleman opens and closes these concerts.

That these two overtures relate to the same work amazes the listener because they could not be more different. Fidelio sounds like a traditional overture, with an opening dance-like tune, followed by an anticipatory, slow build-up, until the main tune arrives two minutes into its seven-minute span. Beethoven keeps that anticipatory mood throughout, shifting gears from minor key to major key at about the four minute mark. This transition changes the mood of the piece, and this move is seamless but attention-getting. Such is the magic of Beethoven. The finale pulls out all the stops, with plenty of blazing, punctuated brass.

One can understand why Beethoven had to dial back Leonore No. 3 for the good of Fidelio. It is one of those works, like the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony that is a large-scale, free-standing musical triumph. Some even consider the opening of the Pathétique symphony and Leonore No. 3 as tone poems, worthy of those from Strauss, Sibelius and Liszt.

More than twice the length of the Fidelio overture, Leonore No. 3 begins with an exclamation followed by its own slow ramp-up, like Fidelio, but with more sweep and a decided kinship with Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. Once this overture gets under a full head of steam at about the four-minute mark, you can forget about the opera: it concludes and you’re ready to gather your belongings and head for home. No wonder Gittleman chose this work to close this concert pair.

To help the Mead Theatre cool down, the DPO will close the first half with a performance of the D-minor violin concerto of Jean Sibelius. Sibelius stood alone in combining bleakness with beauty and making us like and appreciate that odd mixture. His violin concerto is a prime example and will be performed by Vadim Gluzman. The first movement does not begin as much as it materializes, with the soloist quickly offering a mournful and yet hopeful tune that sounds as if Sibelius had spent serious time in a gypsy camp. When the orchestra retakes the stage, one identifies echoes of Sibelius symphonies. When soloist and orchestra meet up again, Sibelius merges his gypsy with far away sunsets fighting for survival on a thin horizon along endless stretches of snow. The second movement is more melancholy than bleak, with visions of Finland’s mountains in the distance. The gypsy returns for the last movement, opening with an enticing dance that, once the orchestra rejoins, becomes aggressive, culminating in a spiky finale.

After intermission, the DPO turns to the mystery of French Impressionism. In 1903, the same year Sibelius wrote his violin concerto, Debussy began La Mer, a tone poem (“three symphonic sketches,” to Debussy). The three movements are titled “From dawn to mid-day (or ‘noon’, depending on your favorite translation of “à midi”) on the sea,” “Play of the waves” and “Dialogue of the wind and the sea.”

The most intriguing of the three movements is the last. It is tempestuous and unsettled, exactly like Debussy’s life while composing La Mer. The year Debussy began the tone poem, he met the woman for whom he would leave his wife. A year later, with Debussy still penning La Mer, he did move in with his new love and his wife responded by trying unsuccessfully to kill herself. Relationships, including those in his musical world, were severed permanently. To listen to “Dialogue of the wind and the sea” is to take a ride with Debussy through a stormy period.

Reach DCP classical music critic Patrick Suarez here