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Total `Immersion' in Music

Roger Norrington and his London Classical Players plunge audiences into a composer's world - complete with lectures and exhibitions

THE musical talk of London these past few years has been Roger Norrington's weekend-long ``Experiences'' - total immersions in the world of a composer and one of his major works, featuring Mr. Norrington's own London Classical Players. The United States finally had a chance to experience the ``Experience'' and to sample for the very first time the wares of the London Classical Players. The subject was Beethoven's Ninth; the locale was the architecturally inhospitable theater complex at the State University of New York campus in Purchase; the event was the grand finale, Aug. 4-6, of the 10th and final season of the provocative Summerfare arts festival.

The weekend opened with a concert devoted to excerpts of works by Haydn, Gluck, M'ehul, Mozart, Cherubini, Rossini, Spohr, and Weber. Norrington put each selection in its historic context to give the audience a sense of where music was going during Beethoven's most productive years and what influence the composer exerted in his own lifetime.

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The ``Experience'' also includes lectures by prominent musicologists; a small but intelligently organized exhibition of documents, biographies, and critiques about Beethoven and his friends; and material pertaining to performance practices of the day and the specific problems of organizing the premi`ere for the Ninth; small concerts for voice and piano, dance, solo piano; and a sing-along performance of the last movement of the Ninth.

With guides Hugh Macdonald, David Levy, Owen Jander, Alessandra Comini, and David Cairns, we learned about Beethoven's environment and personality and the creation of and reaction to his Ninth. We were given a ``map'' with which to explore his ``Choral Fantasy'' (the study, as it were, for the Ninth). We traced the gestation and later life of the symphony, as well of Beethoven's image, right through current times.

We actually heard the ``Choral Fantasy'' with fortepianist Melvyn Tan as soloist and the remarkable New York Choral Artists performing eloquently in that piece and in the Ninth. We were given choices between a variety of ancillary events in between lectures and the principal concerts. And we always had the option of just sitting outdoors on the endless stretches of tree-lined, runway-like brick plazas that surround this austere, windowless fortress.

As for Norrington, it was clearly his weekend, his star turn. And why not? After all, Norrington is early music's most prominent fomentor - an engaging, amusing spokesman for the cause. Even when he was not involved, he was on stage listening, smiling. We heard at great length his views on Beethoven and his contemporaries and on the metronome markings that dictate his performance of the Ninth.

And yet, despite his frequently uttered insistence that there is no single way to perform this music, that his is just one of many approaches, it was possible to detect an undercurrent of dismissal, even put-down, of the ways we have come to listen to the Ninth and the ways we view its composer. Several of the talks were couched in a ``can you imagine people ever really thought this way'' tone, which crossed over into sarcasm. This was most tangible in Ms. Comini's potentially useful chronicle of the evolution of the Beethoven mystique from disputatious composer to Germanic cultural mega-hero, and it blunted the value of her talk.

In an open rehearsal lasting nearly three hours, Norrington discussed, demonstrated, and defended his controvertial adherence to Beethoven's metronome markings, and made less-than-veiled criticisms of the critics of early-music performance. At several points, he also demonstrated other approaches to tempos (a valuable plus) but then dismissed them as ``not the way we do it.''

Sad to say, the way Norrington does it - as heard here in Purchase, on his EMI/Angel compact disc release of the Ninth, and even in performance at Carnegie Hall earlier this year with the modern-instruments St. Lukes' Orchestra - has jelled into a rather calculated approach that rarely deviates from a tempo, once it is set.

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As Norrington's Ninth passes by, some pages emerge with a bracing briskness; others offer entirely different, even revelatory moments, when heard at the invariably faster tempos.

Norrington indisputably proved that there are no truly slow movements in this work but was unable - in such passages as the first violins' variations in the ``adagio'' or the cello-bass recitative at the beginning of the fourth movement - to overcome an unmusically hectic quality to his interpretation.

Not unexpectedly, the ``Experience'' prompted a huge amount of discussion during breaks, focusing mostly on the merits of so-called authentic performances. One opinion that was voiced struck me as crucial to the entire period-instruments issue: Does this make the music more immediate, or does it push it further into the realm of a museum piece?

Most of the speakers noted that this work of indescribable genius has spoken to every generation with startling immediacy and impact, even when performance traditions of a particular era had wandered very far from what Beethoven would have expected. The claim that we really must push the work back to the idiom of 1824 to fully understand it implies that a work of genius cannot have validity in any other sort of performance tradition. Does this not limit its relevance to the age in which it was created rather than all ages?

Unfortunately, Norrington was not able to lift his Ninth out of the ``museum'' context and give us a glimpse of Beethoven the visionary. Ironically, his account of the ``Choral Fantasy'' was far more enriching and emotionally satisfying, despite the grotesque emotings of Mr. Tan at the keyboard.

And yet, this ``Experience'' was enriching. It offered the concertgoer the luxury not only to learn but to question. And this is something we all too rarely take time for. It is just the sort of thing Summerfare has encouraged under Christopher Hunt's directorship these last five years. One may not have always agreed with what was being presented, but Summerfare is a festival that will be sorely missed.

New York's Mostly Mozart Festival plans to present Norrington in a ``Mozart Experience'' in 1991, as part of the bicentennial commemoration of the composer's death.

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