Ludwig van Beethoven likely wrote the most famous opening motif in the history of music.
His da-da-da-dum leading off his Fifth Symphony served as a bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras. More than a century later, it helped inspire the Allies to defeat the Nazis in the Second World War. And celebrated astronomer and science educator Carl Sagan included the Fifth Symphony’s First Movement on a “Golden Record” on the Voyager spacecraft.
This was for the benefit of any aliens who might stumble upon it.
Beethoven’s opening melody even inspired a book, The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination, by U.S. author Matthew Guerrieri.
But according to Ken Hsieh, music director of the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra, it’s not an easy piece to lead. Part of the reason, he says, is that there is no opening beat for musicians to respond to.
“It’s one of the most terrifying works for any conductor,” Hsieh tells Pancouver by phone. “This is why this piece is always on conducting exams and auditions.”
On Saturday (April 15), the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra will feature Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in its Spring Concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. It will be performed in addition to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, with Japanese piano soloist Ikuyo Nakamichi.
Hsieh jokingly refers to the show as his orchestra’s “55 concert”.
Generations of music historians have debated the motivations behind Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. For many years, people felt that the opening “short-short-short-long” motif of da-da-da-dum was linked to fate knocking at the door.
Another story, according to Guerrieri, is that the music master came up with the opening from the song of a bird.
Watch this BBC documentary on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.
Was Beethoven focusing on liberty?
In addition, there’s speculation that Beethoven wrote it as a protest against Napoleon Bonaparte, whose armies invaded Vienna as the composer was working on this landmark symphony.
Beethoven had previously been a great admirer of Napoleon, believing that he would bring democracy and liberty to Europe. Beethoven had supposedly even named an earlier symphony after Napoleon, but then crossed it out after the French ruler had crowned himself as emperor.
“This episode has become the stuff of legend, giving rise to an abiding image of Beethoven as a lover of liberty, an admirer of the French Revolution and—above all—a republican,” the History.com website states.
Hsieh believes that through music, Beethoven was trying to explore the challenges going on around him, including war. The Vancouver conductor also attaches a great deal of significance to the three notes in the symphony’s final movement, suggesting that they represented liberty.
“Yes, it’s about fate, but when you get into the last minute, you can really see that Beethoven was really about expressionism and freedom and all these things,” Hsieh says.
He then draws a parallel to modern times, noting that the world is facing similar struggles today.
He points out that the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 is in E flat major. The relative minor of that is C minor, which happens to also be the key of Symphony No. 5.
“It’s something that we say is very subconscious, but it’s related,” Hsieh explains.
Nakamichi plays King’s wedding celebration concert
Nakamichi, who will perform Piano Concerto No. 5, brings impressive credentials to the Spring Concert. She gave her debut recital performance at Carnegie Hall in 1999, and has since played with many of the world’s leading orchestras.
Furthermore, Nakamichi performed on-stage at Windsor Castle with the English Chamber Orchestra. This was for a “Wedding Celebration Concert” in 2005 for the future King Charles III.
In 2021, Nakamichi received the annual Commendation from the Commissioner for Cultural Affairs in Japan. This was for “outstanding achievements in cultural activities”, as well as for contributing “to the transmission of Japanese culture overseas and to international cultural exchange”.
Hsieh describes Nakamichi as a ”very honest and very genuine” pianist. He says that her talents have been showcased in Germany, Finland, and other countries, but she’s not as well known in Canada.
“She’s a very petite lady, actually, with a very big sound,” Hsieh says. “I played with her. She’s very lyrical. She’s very theatrical with a really amazing sense of phrasing and musical ideas.”
Spring Concert is a tribute to Japanese conductor
The Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra has been holding an annual spring concert since 2009, with the only interruptions occurring during the pandemic. Hsieh says this show is in honour of one of his teachers, Japanese conductor Morihiro Okabe.
Okabe, who died in 2008, taught at the Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo. That’s where the Edmonton-born Hsieh was a student in the early 2000s.
According to Hsieh, Okabe was the first student of a legendary conducting teacher at the school, Hideo Saito. Saito’s students also included masterful conductors Seiji Ozawa and Kazuyoshi Akiyama, among others.
“When Saito passed away, Okabe became the head of conducting at the Toho Gakuen School of Music, and they produced a number of great—I would say—second-generation conductors,” Hsieh says.
Each year, the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra invites a soloist of Japanese ancestry to perform at the Spring Concert. In the past, guest musicians have included cellist Mari Endo and violinist Tamaki Kawakubo.
This year’s soloist, Nakamichi, is also a teacher at the Toho school. In addition, she once played for Akira Nagai, the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra’s concertmaster. This was back in the early 1980s when Nagai was guest concertmaster of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra.
Hsieh, who’s in his 40s, says he’s too young to have seen this concert.
“I was barely even walking at that time,” he quips.
The Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra presents its Spring Concert with piano soloist Ikuyo Nakamichi at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday (April 15) at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. For tickets, visit the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra website. On May 19, Gryphon Developments will present the VMO 20th Anniversary Season Finale with flute soloist Jasmine Choi at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. Tickets are also available on the website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.