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heroic effort: Leon Botstein conducts the american symphony orchestra performance of Beethoven's Eroicaby Peter Aaron

Written at the dawn of the 19th century, when the composer was coming to grips with his newfound deafness, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major (Op. 55)—also known as the Eroica symphony (Italian for “heroic”)—is perhaps the archetypal sweepingly epic symphonic work. Across four grand movements the piece evokes life, death, hope, anger, sadness, elation, and the rise and fall of a civilization, and was originally composed in honor of Napoleon—a dedication Beethoven angrily recanted upon learning that the military leader had declared himself emperor and abandoned the French Revolution’s egalitarian stance (legend even says the furious composer excised Bonaparte’s name from the title page by scratching a hole through it with a knife). A pivotal composition, the Eroica is commonly cited as marking the end of the Classical period and the beginning of the Romantic era, and is further seen as illustrative of Beethoven’s love/hate relationship with the aristocracy.

“By turning away from Napoleon, Beethoven took the side of creative genius over that of aristocratic dictatorship, and asserted that he wasn’t like Napoleon,” says Bard College President Leon Botstein. “But at the same time he had a nobility complex. He wasn’t born a nobleman, but it seems that deep down he still wanted to be seen as one himself. So while he had contempt for the idea of aristocracy, he was also in love with this idea of the ‘new man’; of being able to conquer the world without actually being an aristocrat.” In Botstein’s other role, as principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, he will lead the venerated organization through two performances of the Eroica at Bard’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on February 5 and 6. The concerts are part of an ongoing chronological cycle presenting Beethoven’s first five symphonies.

Somewhat of a bootstrapping iconoclast himself, the Swiss-born Botstein, who graduated high school at age 16 and earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, became the youngest college president in U.S. history at age 23 when he assumed leadership of Franconia College; he became Bard’s president in 1975. As the ASO’s musical director and a strong proponent of thematic programming, he has famously led the orchestra through other series that were similarly organized to this season’s Beethoven sequence, including several that have tied together music with common themes in literature, history, and art, or focused on the music of lesser-known composers or unheralded works by major ones. Botstein also oversees the revered annual Bard Music Festival and SummerScape events, and serves as the principal conductor and music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

“The Eroica is the first real 19th-century symphony on a grand scale, with an implied storyline,” says Botstein. “It’s very theatrical, very dramatic.” Easily the work’s most melodramatic section is its second movement, the funeral march; Strauss seized upon the segment as the basis for his Metamorphosen and the instantly recognizable interlude is frequently performed on its own for memorial occasions. “It’s a very powerful movement,” agrees Botstein. “I’ve performed it with the Jerusalem Symphony in Israel on Holocaust Remembrance Day. It really resonates.”

The February concerts will also feature performances of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 in D Minor, which is also known as his “Wagner Symphony,” since it was written for his friend and fellow composer, Richard Wagner. “Since the Eroica is a stand-alone composition, [the ASO] wanted to feature something by a different composer for the second half of the program, and Bruckner’s Third was a natural choice for several reasons,” Botstein explains. “In addition to the fact that we’ll have a pair of threes [i.e., two third symphonies] and that both works are dedicated to historical figures, there’s also the Viennese connection [Beethoven, Bruckner, and Wagner all lived in the Austrian city]. Also, Bruckner’s Third has the influence of Schubert, another Viennese composer, who was himself influenced by Beethoven. So there’s a definite link there.” Yet another parallel between the featured symphonies is that they both comprise four movements.

A leading advocate of progressive education, Botstein has seen his programs, like that of so many other institutions, having to navigate the uncertain waters of funding, which have grown even murkier in recent times due to deep cuts in arts grants. “Unfortunately, besides there being less government funds to work with there’s also less money coming from private patrons, either because they don’t have the money to donate because of the economy or because they’re simply disappearing [dying off],” says Botstein. “Which means the audience itself needs to be more philanthropic. It’s easy to assume that someone else is paying for the performances, but that’s not the case; the price of the ticket only covers about 10 percent of the cost that goes into the performance. My ability to raise money for the events we do is dependent on the interest reflected by the public. Even if someone doesn’t necessarily attend every event that happens at Bard, they usually do recognize that what we do is good for the community. So if the performances and other events that take place at Bard are to continue, the public has to step up to the plate more than it has.”

And one couldn’t ask for a more rewarding way to help these events continue than to step into Bard College’s acoustically and structurally magnificent Fisher Center and hear one of the world’s foremost symphonic orchestras perform some of the greatest music ever composed. Your seat awaits.

The American Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Leon Botstein will perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major (Op. 55) and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 in D Minor at Bard’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts in Annandale-on-Hudson on February 5 and 6. (845) 758-7900;

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