Beethovenus Interruptus

Jung-Ho Pak and Orchestra Novaban keep St. Paul’s Cathedral on their list of venues (along with Sherwood and Qualcomm auditoriums) despite a multitude of problems that the venue presents.

For starters, the lack of parking means musicians must give themselves extra time to drive around Banker’s Hill in search of a parking space without breaking the contract rule that says they have to arrive 15 minutes before their 7:30 call time. The cathedral’s narrow stage crowds musicians together, leaving them barely enough room for full-bow length. Wide pillars and a large pulpit interrupt audience sight lines, and the wooden pews make for hard, uncomfortable seating. Poor lighting necessitates stand lights. The lack of heating and air-conditioning sometimes results in a too-hot or too-cold environment in which instruments have to be retuned in the middle of a performance. Plus, the 45-foot ceilings and pkeroured concrete walls create an acoustic environment that one orchestra member likens to “a big, huge cauldron.”

On Friday, May 7, Orchestra Nova returned to St. Paul’s Cathedral with a debut of “CSI: Beethoven — Inside Ludwig’s Head.” The crowd of 420 came dressed in everything “from jeans to ball gowns,” as advised on the orchestra’s website. Some of the more experienced concertgoers brought their own seat cushion.

The first half of the program included highlights from the three “Leonore Overtures” and the “Fidelio Overture” in its entirety. When the show began, Pak, the orchestra’s conductor and artistic director, instructed concertgoers to examine a program insert entitled “Structural Comparisons of the Fidelio Overtures.” The single-sheet insert included four colored bars, each broken into two pieces — one part blue, one part red — two of which were twice interrupted by yellow lines. Each bar bore the label of one of the overtures and the date Beethoven wrote the piece. Pak asked the audience to refer to this visual representation and listen for differences and similarities between the overtures while the orchestra played.

The point, Pak explained to the crowd, was to explore Beethoven’s creative process. While audience member Patty Vainik and other concertgoers loved the “mini tutorial” format, some of the musicians felt otherwise. The musicians played short excerpts of each piece and then had to stop to listen while Pak explained them to the audience.

Cellist Mary Alice Hendricks says, “The starting and stopping can be tiring,” but that the worst part of the evening was when — in the midst of all of the page turning from excerpt to excerpt — she lost her place in the score. Pak was about to turn around and resume conducting when her stand-mate helped her find it.

“[Pak] would have waited for us, but I didn’t want to be the one to hold up the whole orchestra,” she says.

John MacFerran Wilds, the orchestra’s principal trumpet player, felt “a little bit of impatience” during the tutorial because he was tuned up and ready to play. The more Pak talked to the audience, the more likely that his trumpet would cool down. “Wind instruments need to have warm air circulating in them,” says Wilds. “The trumpet becomes flat when it’s cold.” For Wilds, however, the biggest surprise came when he had to leave the stage in order to do his distant trumpet call.

“I take this huge breath of air — because I’m playing maybe 50 yards away from where the orchestra is — and I’m going to play really loud.” But the air in the chapel was “choking with [an] incense smell, and I almost started sneezing my head off.”

At the end of the “Leonore Overture No. 3,” during a trumpet fanfare, Wilds caught Pak cuing him “about a half bar earlier” than he expected. “He’s, like, ‘Okay, you can finish now,’ and I’m, like, ‘Oh, really?’ In that hall you can get lost in your own little corner of sound.”

Kennedy says, “It’s a little frustrating and hard to play in there.” During “a sweet spot” in the “Fidelio Overture,” the flutes and clarinets were “marked a ‘mezzo forte’ in our score, which is like a medium loud. And then Jung-Ho had us mark it down to piano in the rehearsal — but then during the concert, he was cuing us to play it louder.”

Pak agrees that St. Paul’s does present a unique set of challenges. Clarity, he says, “is a constant obstacle in this hall.”

Tyler Richards Hewes, the orchestra’s executive director, says, “Overwhelmingly, what [the audience is] saying is, ‘If there’s one thing I could change about the hall, it’s cushions.’”

The evening included a brief talk by Jennifer Shen, a criminologist from the San Diego County Forensic Chemistry Unit. Shen spoke about the scientific methods researchers used to analyze a lock of Beethoven’s hair and fragments of his skull. According to Shen, scientists conclude that Beethoven’s many illnesses were the result of lead poisoning and that he did not, in fact, have the “genius gene.”

After intermission, Orchestra Nova played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 without interruption. According to Pak, Beethoven’s “even-numbered symphonies suffer a great disadvantage in terms of notoriety,” and he claims No. 4 as “Beethoven at his most exuberant, his most joyful.”

One audience member from Temecula said that although he was impressed with the skill of the musicians, his preference leans toward a more traditional classical concert experience.

“When I come to a concert, I generally come to hear music,” he says. “Not to hear people talk.”

But the event was called “CSI: Beethoven — Inside Ludwig’s Head.” ■

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