This week, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra presents Beethoven's greatest hit. On Thursday and Saturday nights, guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger will bring down the baton to cue the most famous eight-note sequence in history — the motto that begins Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
This is one symphony everybody knows and every conductor has led: a current catalogue lists 358 available recordings of it. What keeps Beethoven's Fifth so fresh and so popular?
The first eight notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony were described by the composer as "Fate knocking at the door." As Leonard Bernstein demonstrated in a long-ago TV show, Beethoven knocked at that door for a long time before coming up with the seemingly inevitable beginning to one of the great works in symphonic literature.
What comes after that opening is even more impressive. By examining Beethoven's fearsomely messy sketches, Bernstein also demonstrated how the composer worked and scratched out, worked and scratched out, until he flawlessly sustained the energy unleashed by those opening notes. The "victory over adversity" program of Beethoven's Fifth is laid out so clearly that no one who has heard this work for almost two centuries has ever doubted it. This is clear no matter to what use the music has been put, whether it signifies victory of the Allies over the Nazis or of Tom over Jerry.
A lot of great music has been written since, including symphonies by Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and many more that follow the same template as the Fifth. But Beethoven's work remains one of the most intensely concentrated and exhilarating half-hours music has to offer.
The RPO is offering a real "Beethoven in C Minor" evening, balancing the Fifth Symphony with two other works in that stern key: the Coriolan Overture and the Third Piano Concerto, with the British pianist Stephen Hough as soloist. The New York Times called Hough "extraordinary," and they were right.
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performs Thursday, February 5, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, February 7, at 8 p.m., at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs Street. $16-$92. rpo.org.
Also on Thursday, the RPO has partnered with Rochester Young Professionals for a "Beethoven and Brews" happy hour at Victoire (120 East Avenue). The happy hour starts at 5:30 p.m. and will include complimentary appetizers, a cash bar, and a meet-and-greet with RPO musicians and president Charles Owens.