Have a Beethoven weekend

Festival Mozaic’s three-night WinterMezzo event focuses on the composer

Special to the TribuneFebruary 27, 2013 

The Festival Mozaic has put together a uniquely engaging WinterMezzo weekend. Not only will the focus be on the music of Beethoven, but listeners will get the chance to learn important things about the great man’s hair. No, I’m not kidding.

Historian Russell Martin, author of “Beethoven’s Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved,” will be on hand for a presentation Friday at the Masonic Lodge in San Luis Obispo to discuss the remarkable story of how an authenticated lock of Beethoven’s hair was clipped in 1827, wound up in Nazi-occupied Denmark, and was acquired from Sotheby’s by two American collectors in 1994.

Forensic analysis of six hairs from the lock revealed a concentration of lead 100 times higher than normal. From this fact, scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory determined that Beethoven died from a form of lead poisoning, which likely caused the deafness and social isolation that plagued his last years.

Martin’s book, the basis of an award-winning Canadian documentary, will form the basis of his talk Friday night. The Festival Mozaic musicians will be present that night as well, playing examples chosen from early, middle and late period Beethoven, suggesting connections between musical sensibility and personal health. (Saturday night’s event, a dinner with the musicians at the home of Sharon and Dennis Schneider, is already sold out.)

Festival Mozaic Executive Director Bettina Swigger conceived this pairing of author and musicians as a result of ongoing discussions with Festival Mozaic’s music director, Scott Yoo.

“Scott and I over the years have been extremely impressed with the intellectual curiosity of the Festival audience,” Swigger stated. “We have some sophisticated aficionados among our listeners, so Scott thought an all-Beethoven program that spanned his three major periods would show some of the range of his music.

“Coincidentally, a book club I belong to was reading ‘Beethoven’s Hair,’ and as I read it, I remembered taking a class from the author when I was at Colorado College. Scott Yoo also conducts there, so the synchronicity was nearly ideal.”

Martin’s book provides a solution to one of the deepest problems in romantic music: The actual cause of the tortured personal circumstances out of which Beethoven created his most revered music, the last quartets and the Ninth Symphony.

“Beethoven was aware that he suffered from some sort of malady, but he never knew what it was,” Swigger said. “His letters reveal his desire to solve his own puzzling behavior — his irrational bursts of anger at his friends, his heavy drinking, his adult-onset deafness — and his frustrations at not knowing the answer. Why was he so miserable? Personal shortcomings? Society? Fate?

“Now, science has vindicated Beethoven’s character. His unpleasant public behavior was the result of poisoning — possibly by swallowing lead-based medicines, or drinking from lead-based vessels — and his music can be heard as a great mind’s triumph over the body’s adversity.”

The main concert takes place Sunday at United Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo. The program concludes with the Opus 127 String Quartet in E-Flat, one of the great moments in romantic lyricism. Jason Uyeyama and Scott Yoo will be playing violin, with Miguel Hernandez on viola and Bion Tsang on cello.

Interviewed by telephone at his home in Los Angeles, violist Miguel Hernandez sounded lyrical himself as he spoke about the structure of the quartet.

“As a violist, I really enjoy these quartets. Each individual note is so important, for all the instruments equally — there are no meaningless measures,” he said.

“When I first started studying the score and listening to it, it seems so crazy, the way it’s written. But then I realized that the craziest parts are actually super-simple. This week, it all came alive for me. Beethoven’s genius comes in with the perfect placement of every note, exactly where it should be.”

IF YOU GO

WinterMezzo: The Mysteries of Beethoven
Various times and locations in San Luis Obispo, Friday through Sunday (Saturday event sold out)
$22 to $51
781-3009 or www.festivalmozaic.com

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