The magnetic pull of live music once again drew me back to Wolf Trap National Park on another beautiful summer evening (second concert in three nights). It was back to the pleasantly wooded shed to bathe in the oh-so-clear and floating sounds of the National Symphony, playing effortlessly the lyrical Tchaikovsky‘s Violin Concerto, and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – – both chestnuts of the world of classical music. In a pre-concert dialogue with NPR’s Rich Kleinfelt, I learned that both pieces, while so widely accepted now, were very poorly received in their first performances and caused serious emotional setbacks to their sensitive composers.
Tchaikovsky‘s Violin Concerto was considered unplayable at its completion (because of its many double stops, trills, leaps, and bounds into somewhat dissonant notes for its time), and was very poorly received at its debut in Vienna in 1881. Tchaikovsky apparently never forgot that chilly reception and could recite by heart the full review of one severe critic who commented that the work “gave out a bad smell.” By contrast, on this night at Wolf Trap, the piece was eminently playable, and effortlessly mastered by the orchestra (its musical director, Gianandrea Noseda, in his first Wolf Trap performance) and the soloist, violin virtuoso Ning Feng, playing a 1721 Stradivari violin.
Beethoven’s Fifth premiered in a poorly organized and somewhat under-rehearsed and overlong concert of Beethoven’s pieces, played in a cold and uncomfortable hall in Vienna in 1808, with Beethoven conducting the orchestra himself. The reaction and the reviews were very negative that night, at a time when Beethoven was fighting growing deafness, and the reception that night was a setback for the emotional Beethoven. Beethoven’s Fifth starts quickly with those memorable four notes (three short and a longer one, a kind of “knocking at fate’s door”), which are repeated throughout the piece in various ways. Those four notes became associated with British resistance in World War II and symbolized “V” for Victory. Later, the notes ironically influenced the beginning of John Fogerty’s rock classic “Proud Mary.”
On this night, I remembered my deep connection to those four notes, because, in my childhood, I wanted to explore the world by becoming a radio amateur operator (a pre-Internet way to interact with people throughout the world). To be a radio amateur, I needed to master the seemingly impenetrable Morse Code. The four key notes of the Fifth, which are “V” in Morse Code, were relatively easy to master, and gave me the confidence that I could learn the rest of the letters. This forgotten connection to Beethoven and learning, filled the night air with a sense of joy that Beethoven, unfortunately, could not experience at the debut. I was also joyful at the large (full-house) crowd filling Wolf Trap for the National Symphony, at a time some symphony orchestras are sadly struggling.