Viswa Subbaraman

Opera and Orchestra Conductor

The Apotheosis of Dance

In February 2010, I’ll be conducting the Yakima Symphony Orchestra – I know it seems like forever from now, but I’m really excited about the repertoire!  I’ll be conducting Bernstein’s “Three Dance Episodes from Fancy Free,” Respighi’s “Adagio con variazioni,” Revueltas’ Janitzio, and Beethoven’s seventh symphony.   I put the program together a few months ago, so honestly, I hadn’t thought about it in a while.  (Looking forward to it, but I hadn’t thought about the program and the music for a few months).  I got an email to go over the notes that would be printed in the program, so that started me thinking about the piece.  I am also using the first movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony as the piece for the Opera Vista Apprentice Conductor candidates, so that symphony is rather fresh on my mind. I put the Yakima program together based on rhythm – the dance variations of the Bernstein, the mariachi waltz quality of the Revueltas, and as Wagner nicknamed Beethoven’s seventh, “the apotheosis of dance.”  (The Respighi is the slow beautiful piece juxtaposed against the driving rhythmic pieces).   The past week or so, I’ve been going through the Beethoven, and I’m thoroughly fascinated by the sense of rhythm.   The first movement is famous for the driving dotted eighth, sixteenth note, eighth note rhythmic pulse (see below).  One way to think of the rhythm is to say Amsterdam with a bit of an emphasis on the “Am.”

In classical music, tension is built through a variety of means – harmonic shifts, dissonant tones, juxtaposition of character (i.e. a strong, driving theme versus a lilting, melodic theme).  I’m fascinated by the fact that Beethoven uses rhythm to create that tension in the first movement.  If you’re really careful about looking at how he wrote the rhythm, he wrote that “Amsterdam” rhythm a few different ways.  The first is the dotted eighth-sixteenth-eighth version of the motive, which sounds like Amm-ster-dam, Amm-ster-dam.   Then, you have the dotted eighth-sixteenth-eighth note version with staccato marks above them.  (Staccato marks look like dots above the note – and usually staccato either means to play the note short or to put some space between the notes.)  I believe this would sound like Am’-ster-dam with a very short “am.”  Finally, he wrote the rhythm with a rest in the middle of the three notes.  It looks like eighth note-sixteenth rest-sixteenth note-eighth note.  I believe this actually changes the feel, so instead of Amsterdam, you have ster-dam-Am, ster-dam –Am, but the “Am”s are still the down beats.  It’s almost jazz-like in how the rhythm turns.

What I find brilliant about the whole thing is how he uses these three simple variations of the same rhythm to create tension in the first movement of the piece.  The First, Amm-ster-dam, Amm-ster-dam version puts more emphasis on the downbeats, or the strong beats of the bar.  (If you listen to the first movement after the slow introduction, you’ll notice that the piece feels like it’s in 2, and each of those beats is a strong beat.)  Then, you have the Am’-ster-dam version that creates a lighter, more dance-like feel (with the short “Am”).  Finally, you have the ster-dam-Am version, which almost feels like it’s running forward since the “Ams” are the downbeats, the ster-dam wants to move forward to the strong beat.  (Tough to write about, actually!  Much easier to sing!)

So, if you'd like to hear a bit of what I'm talking about, here it is:

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Stay tuned – I’ll be posting some thoughts on the next piece I’m going to be conducting, Wynton Marsalis’ “A Fiddler’s Tale” as well as thoughts about Opera Vista’s upcoming Opera 101 event at Bar Boheme in Houston.