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MN Orchestra gets back to Beethoven basics

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Osmo Vanska
Osmo Vanska
Joel Larson

It is not unusual for an orchestra to play Beethoven; it's some of the most recognizable and important music ever.  But what's more unusual is what the Minnesota Orchestra is in the midst of: a Beethoven marathon.

The orchestra started the year performing his nine symphonies and five piano concertos over eight different concerts. The marathon continues this weekend

As host of the Friday night concert broadcasts on Classical MPR, Brian Newhouse has spent a lot of time with the orchestra and its music director, Osmo Vanska. He sat down with All Things Considered host Tom Crann to talk about the significance of the marathon, and what the orchestra has done to distinguish itself as a performer of Beethoven's work. 

Some highlights:

"I'm not sure that 'marathon' is the best word for it, even though that's what they call it. It's more of a sprint. ... These are big pieces. You can't just toss these off. Osmo came off the stage on our New Year's Day broadcast, having just finished conducting the First Symphony, which is one of the shortest pieces, the earliest and not quite as dramatic as the other ones. ... And he was out of breath, and he was drenched in sweat. He went on to do the Ninth, which is an hour and 15 minutes' worth of music, big chorus, big orchestra. It's an enormous physical undertaking."

"What Osmo's done, and the orchestra has really bought into this to great effect, is this radically simple thing: He's actually looked at Beethoven's music. That sounds pretty basic, right? ... Beethoven has kind of gotten loved to death. If you love him, you feel a certain attraction, that 'Maybe I can improve on Beethoven here, I'm going to take this passage a little slower, this one a little faster, a little louder, a little softer,' to make it different. So there's been this centuries-long accretion of new traditions around it. ... You weren't necessarily hearing what Beethoven wrote. So here along comes Osmo and his band, and they say, 'We are going to do the radical thing of going back to the score. Every tempo marking, every little accent, every dynamic marking, we are going to be strictly adherent to that.' What the surprise has been is how fresh it sounds. It's the amazing thing."