Humanitarian conductor discusses Beethoven, empathy at music department event

A promotional poster for the Jan. 28, 2019 concert organized by Music for Life International, 'Beethoven for The Rohingya,' is pictured. via Music for Life International

Music is an art form that exists across cultures. Be it religious hymns or national anthems, music always has the ability to bring people together. This is the key philosophy behind Music for Life International, a nonprofit that organizes classical music concerts to raise money and promote dialogue about humanitarian crises around the world. One of their upcoming concerts is “Beethoven for The Rohingya: A Concert of Solidarity For the Rohingya Refugees,” which will be a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. on Jan. 28 at Carnegie Hall in New York. In an event Wednesday hosted by the Tufts Department of Music, the organization’s founder and artistic director, George Mathew, spoke at Distler Performance Hall in the Granoff Music Center about this upcoming concert and the particular resonance of the Ninth Symphony.

Mathew opened his discussion not with a long-winded history or overview of Beethoven and the upcoming concert, but by playing a section of the symphony for the audience. The string section, bolstered a few bars later by trumpets and horns, sets up a dramatic building of tension, ultimately resolved by a low male voice taking over. That particular music motif is repeated elsewhere in the symphony, which Mathew and Tufts music professor John McDonald — who also introduced Mathew at the event — demonstrated together on one piano. Even without an in-depth knowledge of music, it is clear to listeners that Beethoven utilized the entire span of the piano in complicated arrangements. Mathew explained that, although hardly noticeable today, Beethoven’s complex style would have been seen by contemporaries as a totally “chaotic, disharmonious, conflicted representation of sound.” This style was revolutionary, but Beethoven was not simply an artist who created bold and unusual works for the sake of it; as anyone familiar with the Ninth Symphony knows, the ultimate goal of the piece is resolution.

The symphony concludes with the famous “Ode to Joy” which, according to Mathew, was intended to evoke a popular drinking song of the time. Although this presumably would have been recognizable to Beethoven’s audience, they may not have recognized some of the instruments he used in that section, like the snare drum, cymbals or triangle. This is because although these instruments seem like traditional, established parts of a Western orchestra today, they are actually of Turkish origin. Thus Beethoven “embraces the music of the other,” Mathew said, in a familiar and comfortable context to Germans. It is an appropriation that is meant to arouse a visceral, cultural empathy, not imitation. Later on, Mathew returns to the piano to demonstrate how Beethoven combined two coherent harmonies — each sounding complete and beautiful on their own — in a way that creates the impression of discord. “Identity is often what we listen for,” Mathew said, and “if you don’t know what to listen to, you are easily manipulated.” This is where the parallels with humanitarian work come in.

The concerts of Music for Life International have been organized on behalf of a range of public interest issues, like natural disasters (“Beethoven for the Indus Valley” in 2011), public health crises (“Mahler for Vision” in 2017) and political conflicts (“Shostakovich for the Children of Syria” in 2013). Although these concerts do raise money as well as awareness, Mathew said that the central goal of the organization is to provoke dialogue and unity. It isn’t about awareness, he pointed out, because with the prevalence of information in the internet age, people do know what’s going on. The problem is a disconnect between people, whether because of political or social biases, or the struggle to see others as we all see ourselves, Mathew said.

To the untrained ear in a live concert, the subtleties of Beethoven’s musical theory may be easy to miss, which is why Music for Life International attempts to draw these connections between musical elements and real-life political situations through program notes, occasional speakers at concerts and even multimedia pieces. Mathew explained how, in “Shostakovich for the Children of Syria,” Shostakovich evokes a military march multiple times in his Seventh Symphony before ending it with a refrain of a lone trumpet, which is low and tragic compared to the splendorous sound it had before, possibly representing the devastating effects of warfare. The trumpet is accompanied by a snare drum, which Mathew said sounded similar to the sound of coins hitting each other; at this moment, the music was spliced with a speech given by President Dwight D. Eisenhower warning of the growing military-industrial complex in the United States.

Although that piece ends on a painful note, Beethoven’s Ninth ends in joy — a call for the brotherhood and sisterhood of mankind. Music is culturally and personally significant on a number of levels, but according to Mathew, “the world needs us to act … and if we can do it through music, we can probably do it through other disciplines.”

Tickets for “Beethoven for The Rohingya” are now on sale online. All proceeds will go to Médecins Sans Frontières.


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