On Sunday, the Olympia Symphony Orchestra will be climbing a mountain, competing in the Olympics, and running a marathon – at least musically speaking.
The orchestra will be tackling Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica,” a piece that is often regarded as the most influential symphony composed.
“Beethoven is the Everest of composers,” said the symphony’s conductor and music director Huw Edwards. “This is where musicians test their mettle, the once-every-four-years Olympics. You have to do these pieces. They’re a mirror of where you are at, musically, physically, emotionally, spiritually. No composer asks more of you than Beethoven.”
Of course, the orchestra does play Beethoven more than once every four years, but his work isn’t on every program, even though Edwards considers him to be the greatest symphonist.
“You come to rehearsal knowing that you’re facing this giant,” he said. “It’s a huge mountain to climb. That’s why we only do one a year. It’s taxing, strenuous music.”
In fact, Edwards took his comparison one step further. “It’s very remarkable music, and it’s so strong,” he said. “It just never rests. It’s like being stretched on a rack.”
Two hundred years after its debut, the symphony continues to be a subject of discussion and debate about its influence on music history and its connection to Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven intended to name the piece for Bonaparte, but changed his mind when the leader declared himself emperor.
“Beethoven was a product of the French Revolution and the siege of Vienna,” Edwards said. “He identified with people who stood up against tyranny. When he found out that Napoleon had declared himself emperor, he was enraged and ripped up the title page and changed the title of the symphony to ‘Eroica,’ ‘heroic.’ ”
The connection led Alfred Hitchcock to include a reference to the piece in “Psycho,” cultural critic Peter Conrad speculates in “The Hitchcock Murders,” an analysis of the director’s enduring appeal.
“What could possibly be sinister about the record of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica,’ which Vera Miles finds on a gramophone turntable during her investigation of the Bates house?” Conrad wrote. “At the age of 13, I had no idea — though I felt an unmistakable chill when the camera peered into the gaping box to read the label of the silent disc.
“Now I think I know the answer. The symphony is about Napoleon, a man who — like many of Hitchcock’s psychopaths — set himself up as a god, and it includes a funeral march for the toppled idol.”
Edwards, for his part, believes the composer planned to name the work for Napoleon to increase his music’s popularity in France. “He may have ripped up the title page, but he didn’t destroy the whole symphony,” the conductor said.
Regardless of the title, the work has a statement to make about humanity and society, he said.
“Beethoven’s idea about the hero was showing the strength of man’s spirit,” Edwards said. “He wasn’t interested in heroes as individuals; he was interested in people who showed the great strength of human spirit. He felt that his music could influence how people thought and take them to a higher level of human possibility.”
The other pieces on Sunday’s program also comment on the societies from which they came.
Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102, with pianist Tanya Stambuk, was a 19th birthday present for the composer’s son, Maxim.
“Although it’s full of high jinks and comedy and the energy of youth, in the slow movement, you hear this father worrying about his son growing up in post-Stalinist times,” Edwards said.
The symphony also will perform the overture from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” adapted from Pierre Beaumarchais’s play of the same name. The play is said to foreshadow the French Revolution.
“The opera was watered down a little bit; otherwise, I think it would have been censored,” Edwards said. “This is Mozart in great comic form, ridiculing the aristocracy.”
From the Heart of Society
What: The Olympia Symphony Orchestra continues its season with a program of works inspired by the societies in which they were composed.
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
The program: Mozart’s overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102 (Tanya Stambuk on piano) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica”
THE REST OF THE SEASON
From the Heart of the Lover, 7 p.m. Feb. 9, with soprano Christina Kowalski
From the Heart of the Theater, 7 p.m. March 16, with selections from musical theater, ballet and opera and featuring mezzo-soprano Sarah Norton, formerly of Olympia
From the Heart of Joy, 7 p.m. April 27, including a symphony by Brahms and a Prokofiev piano concerto played by Brenda Miller