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REVIEW: The Veil of the Immortal Beethoven (Minnesota Orchestra)

A portrait of composer Ludwig van Beethoven superimposed over a photograph of Orchestra Hall by Greg Helgeson.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s one-night-only Immortal Beethoven event on Saturday was one of the most distinctive evenings in its hall in recent memory. It was certainly not at all a traditional concert.

Imagine a crazy bedtime story by your kooky, quirky aunt and uncle. Imagine, then, that each anecdote is followed by their playing a few minutes of classical music to illustrate the scene. Add in a ragged, plodding specter of a man (that would be the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827) who stumbles in and out of frame, doing strange things. Now imagine that the narration and tortured composer are provided by the celebrated (and very quirky) theatre group The Moving Company, and that the classical music comes not from a CD player or streaming service, but live from the Minnesota Orchestra. That is more or less the tenor (or, if you will, the bassoon) of the evening.

This was not a performance for the aficionados who know Beethoven’s biography front and back. Nor was it for those who prefer full symphonies to excerpts, or who wouldn’t dream of listening to just the opening movement of the Moonlight Sonata. The performance sweet spot was for those a little more casual or new to their engagement with Beethoven, who wanted to know a little more and sample the tasting flights of music.

One of the evening’s more interesting conceits was to try and capture Beethoven’s sonic world as he faced increasing hearing loss. These fragments of audibility – glimmers of sound – were an elegant and thought-provoking device, and set a few members of the audience tapping their hearing aids knowingly and whispering to their fellows. Another was to graphically describe some of the privations, quirks, and irascibility of the composer in his later years – items of trivia that many music students and fans know, but that much more vivid when rendered through the performances of The Moving Company’s Nathan Keepers, Sarah Agnew, and Steven Epp.

For the fans of The Moving Company who arrived on Saturday night, the performance was hotly anticipated and warmly received. Leaving the performance, a group of high school-aged youth excitedly discussed the 70-minute, intermission-less evening, one pronouncing, “The perfect length for a concert!” Some of the more regular audience members discussed their favorite pieces teased in the musical performances (conducted by Sarah Hicks) as they trolled up the aisles, debating what they would have included and why. This one was not so much for the dearly devoted fans, but the closing monologue was worth the wait.

Basil Considine