The Seventh Symphony is one of my favorite Beethoven Symphonies to listen to. Whenever I have had the chance to play the piece I have really looked forward to it. After the first rehearsal, though, it always comes flooding back to me how physically demanding the seventh symphony is and I start to plan how to make it through the week without injuring myself. Tonight after the dress rehearsal, Concertmaster Mark Zelmanovich joked that there were two orthopedic symphonies: Beethoven's Seventh and Schubert's Great. I don't think he's too far off.
I know, “My, what an athletic group of people” is probably not the first thought that enters your mind when you see the Knoxville Symphony on stage. There is no KSO baseball team or even fantasy football league. But, like professional athletes, we have worked for years and years to train our bodies to do what we need them to do. The difference between, say, the KSO's viola section and the LA Lakers is that we in the viola section have spent our time honing our fine motor skills while the LA Lakers have been focusing on gross motor skills. All of the musicians in the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra are elite fine motor athletes.
The element that makes Beethoven's Seventh Symphony so physically challenging is rhythm. The entire symphony is driven by repeated rhythmic figures. In the hands of a lesser composer I could see this being boring or even irritating for the listener. Not so with this symphony. Actually, the repetition of rhythm is what makes the first and fourth movements so exciting to listen to. It is music that GOES somewhere.
Everyone sitting on the stage has a turn at driving the rhythm, but Beethoven seemed to be particularly fond of putting the second violin and viola sections in the driver's seat. In the fourth movement, the seconds and violas play pages of fast notes. This is after we have played everything else on the program. If the concert were a marathon, the last movement of the Beethoven would be right around mile 20 where people start hitting “the wall” and feel like they can't go on. Tonight during the dress rehearsal I hit the wall about half a page into the last movement. I had a cramp in the bicep of my bow arm. (I didn't know it was even possible to have a cramp there!) The muscle started twitching. My shoulder burned. But, like a runner, I powered through and felt exhilarated at the end.