A full orchestra and choir sit on the stage of Woolsey Hall. Of the 150 performers, only the pianist moves to break the silence.
An ominous first note blossoms into an intense improvisatory passage that spans four minutes. Then, at the top of a scale, the pianist pauses, handing the music off to a few orchestra members. More musicians join as the piece builds to the triumphant, celebratory close of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy.”
“The Choral Fantasy includes as many people as we can possibly fit on the Woolsey stage,” said Peter Oundjian, who is Yale Philharmonia’s principal conductor. “It’s a big celebration and a lovely way to come together.”
On Friday at 7:30 p.m., the Yale Philharmonia will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth with an all-Beethoven program. The concert will include his Choral Fantasy, “Triple Concerto” and Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.” The Choral Fantasy will feature the Yale Glee Club and faculty pianist Boris Berman. The soloists for the concerto are violinist Sunmi Chang MUS ’08 ’09, faculty cellist Paul Watkins and faculty pianist and School of Music deputy dean Melvin Chen.
Beethoven composed his Choral Fantasy for a benefit concert in Vienna in 1808, where he also premiered his fourth piano concerto and fifth and sixth symphonies. The Philharmonia’s concert juxtaposes several of Beethoven’s works written around the same time. Beethoven wrote each of the concert’s three pieces between 1803 and 1808.
“It’s interesting to see all the different colors and languages that Beethoven was capable of in such a short period of time,” Oundjian said.
The Philharmonia will play the piece as Beethoven intended: as a community-building piece. The Choral Fantasy brings together all of the concert’s performers: the piano soloist, chorus and orchestra.
Yet having a piece with so many moving parts creates a different set of challenges in rehearsal.
“Singing something with an orchestra, you have to listen to all the different colors of the instruments and see how your voices fit with them,” said Mahima Kumara ’20, manager of the Glee Club.
The next piece on the program, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, has a unique instrumentation for its time. Scored for a solo piano trio rather than a single soloist, the piece highlights a dialogue between the soloists.
“Playing the [Beethoven Triple] feels like chamber music with a really fun band supporting us,” said Chang.
Chang, a former violinist in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, was one of Oundjian’s last Yale violin students. When she was a member of the Philharmonia, Chang performed Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto” with the orchestra on its Asia tour. The concert marks Chang’s second time soloing on a Beethoven concerto with the Philharmonia — this time, with her mentor as the conductor.
“He’s been the most amazing mentor for me,” Chang said. “He’s been so supportive, and I remember always just being inspired by his lessons every time. I’m just so happy. It’s so great to play with the orchestra and with him.”
Among Watkins’ many accolades are a Grammy nomination and a former position as the principal cellist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Chen holds chemistry and physics degrees from Yale College, a double master’s degree from the Juilliard School in piano and violin and a doctorate in chemistry from Harvard.
The Triple Concerto, although known for its incredibly difficult passages, is unlike the other two works on the program. It lacks drama and fury. Expansive, agreeable and jovial figures characterize the piece.
“It’s a magnificent piece, and the interplay between the piano trio and the orchestra, and between each individual instrument in the orchestra is absolutely masterful, unsurprisingly,” Oundjian said. “It’s a masterpiece with a very noble first movement, contemplative second movement and jovial final movement.”
The final piece, Beethoven’s Third Symphony, is among the composer’s most well-known works. Because he supported Napoleon’s stance against tyranny, Beethoven initially intended to name it after the French general but tore apart the title page after Napoleon crowned himself emperor. Instead, Beethoven named the symphony “Eroica,” which means “heroic.” The work underlines the struggle between idealism and disillusionment exemplified by Napoleon’s story. It also represents the transition between the Classical and Romantic periods of Western music.
“The ‘Eroica’ symphony is an incredibly revolutionary piece of music which changed the direction of music from that point forward,” Oundjian said.
A typical performance of the symphony lasts one hour, and it is broken up into four movements: Allegro con brio, Marcia funebre: Adagio assai, Scherzo: Allegro vivace and Finale: Allegro molto.
The Philharmonia’s next concert will be on Feb. 28.
Phoebe Liu | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Jan. 24: This article has been updated to reflect that the concert will be held to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, not his death.