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Beethoven's "Eroica"

The timelessness of 'Eroica'


It's fun to imagine the kind of kid who would fall in love with Beethoven's monumental "Eroica" symphony — that jolt, eyes lighting up, smile growing wide.

"It's one of the first pieces I ever loved as a child," says Courtney Lewis, who will guest conduct the Rochester Philharmonic in a program headlined by Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony this weekend. "'Eroica,' [Bach's] Brandenburg first, and [Stravinsky's] 'Rite of Spring.' These are the pieces that made me want to be a musician."

In the 1990's, Lewis was a teen growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. At a similar age, but in the 1980's and in Indiana, violinist Corey Cerovsek was also falling in love with "Eroica." Cerovsek will be the featured violinist at the upcoming RPO performance, which will also feature Margaret Brouwer's "Remembrances" and Wieniawski's Violin Concerto No. 2.

The pairing of the Wieniawski violin concerto and the Beethoven "Eroica" symphony "is sweet for me," says Cerovsek. "I remember studying 'Eroica' in music analysis classes at the same time I was studying Wieniawski — at age 13, 14, 15, something like that. These are the primary colors of my musical education."

Regarding the "Eroica," Lewis says, "of all the Beethoven symphonies, including the 5th and the 9th, it's the most emotionally complex and wide-ranging. 'Eroica' begins with great energy, but has this kaleidoscopic range of emotion, energy, and enjoyment of life. But as soon as it gets into the development, there is a sense of human beings struggling with something that is very difficult to grasp. It includes the funeral march for mankind. But it traverses into some of the greatest triumph you can imagine experiencing."

Lewis left home at 18 to go to Cambridge, England to study music. It was there that Lewis first conducted the "Eroica" while a student. Now 28 years old, Lewis approaches the score feeling like it's even more his own. "It's almost terrifying; it's such a huge piece of music," says Lewis. "How do you assimilate it all and give it out to the orchestra in just a few rehearsals?"

Adding to the level of challenge in conducting such a monumental symphony is that Lewis has yet to meet the RPO. "It always feels like a blind date the first time you meet an orchestra," says Lewis. "You know in the first minutes whether it will work or not. I generally don't say anything for the first half hour — it's just play, play, play. I'm figuring out what the orchestra will do when I do this. Or, when I do that, what is the sound they will make. What do I need to do more or less. It's a process."

Lewis, who is also a composer, brings a perspective to his interpretation of "Eroica" that includes a study of the earlier drafts of the symphony. On Sunday, April 21, Lewis will lead a discussion and performance of excerpts from earlier drafts of "Eroica" at the Hochstein School of Music & Dance.

"When you look through Beethoven's sketches, it's insane. It looks like spiders crushed on the page," Lewis says. "The score hadn't yet been typeset. But, you can see that he's always trying to simplify the music into something that is easier to understand so that the listener can get at what he means."

On Sunday "we'll take the audience through that process so that they can get more insight," Lewis says.

Although you may never have heard of the composer Wieniawski, violinist Corey Cerovsek has been performing his works since he was a teenager.

"I have a certain affection for this piece that goes way back for me," says Cerovsek. "It's part of the romantic, virtuoso repertoire. It has lovely, lyrical passages, a slow movement. It is well constructed. It is well orchestrated."

While the "Eroica" is a symphonic masterpiece where the audience will easily see the hard work exerted by every musician, Cerovsek says that sometimes it is more difficult for the audience to see the challenges faced in a piece that is a virtuoso challenge for a violinist.

"Your hand travels a few inches from one end of the fingerboard to another, sometimes it's only a sub-millimeter of movement on this instrument without frets," Cerovsek says. "I often close my eyes; small spaces become kind of immense from the inside. A part of me says, 'I hope the audience can see this.'"

Cerovsek will play on his "Milanollo" Stradivarius from 1728, which has been played by the likes of Niccolo Paganini. He says of his instrument, "It is a relationship. I've spent nine years with it. Each Stradivarius has its own unique personality. This one is beautiful, but temperamental. Very sensitive to changes in conditions."

Both Lewis and Cerovsek bring a particular sense of history to their approaches to music. Lewis wove historical context in and out of his remarks, as did Cerovsek. Both revere the magnitude of a giant composer like Beethoven, the historical context in which he worked, and even what he was reading in the newspapers of the day. And both have been tied to the music they will perform over the course of their lives.

Cerovsek puts it this way: "The older you get, the more you enjoy these strands that tie together the experiences of your life. One of the things I love about the music career is traveling through a magical transporter, where normal rules of time don't apply. I'm communing with the composer and hundreds of years evaporate. I'm pouring my heart into a performance that evaporates. But over decades, how I change and how that changes my performance of this virtuoso piece makes me part of the change of the universe. It's not the clock that time measures; it's another dimension."

Conductor Courtney Lewis will also present the program "Beethoven and the Making of Genius" Sunday, April 21, 2 p.m. at Hochstein School of Music & Dance, 50 N. Plymouth Ave. The afternoon will feature music from Beethoven and Mozart. $10-$24; visit for more information.

Conductor Courtney Lewis and violinist Corey Cerovsek will join the Rochester Philharmonic for the "Eroica" this weekend.