SARATOGA SPRINGS – Never have I experienced turning onto the Avenue of Pines during the summer without hitting even the slightest bit of traffic. Not only was I able to enter the Park, I was able to park near the Hall of Springs a coveted spot at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
The silence somberly reminded me of the auditory prison the same individual being celebrated this evening was locked for the latter part of his life. To experience an immediate sense of muted quiet, in a location always known for sound was jarring. Unbeknownst to me, the evening experience had exposed what a horror this must have felt like to Beethoven, losing something so expected, so relied upon – absence of sound.
The evening’s quiet wrapped around my ears while walking towards the entrance. My eyes, gleefully gazing upon a lovely bicycle rack constructed of musical notes, perfectly honoring the symbiotic partnership between the community who lovingly ride bikes through town for a performance and SPAC.
The act of walking to the ticket booth while not hearing music, murmurs from a buzzing crowd, shouts for tickets or an occasional beer, nor smelling the crowd of people, food, or smoke nearby but able to see the amphitheater and the newly constructed pavilion, felt like mass trickery on my senses. A cruel joke, that fittingly prepared my mind for the upcoming performance. “Tempest” was a story about transformation and the pain that it has caused, it would only be fitting that one would experience transformation, and large ones at that, when walking to what may be a jolting, unique experience for the senses during a time like no other in modern history.
And with that, I become acutely aware of the mask on my face.
My footsteps sounded louder than normal when walking to the ticket counter. Mask on, listening to directions from the staff member, regarding contact tracing, the moment felt surreal. The entire walkup experience was so tastefully done, while still asking one to grasp the reality of today by providing contact tracing information. Such uncharted waters are what we swim in today. After a quick hand sanitize, it was reassuring to greet the security guard with his smiling eyes, saying have a good evening – just as they would if it were any other event.
Looking around, I surveyed what was in front of me and struck by its beauty. My goodness, SPAC, how I’ve missed you!
My eyes, darting to familiar points of reference familiar to all who have visited these grounds, the symbolic bridges with its globed lights connecting to the balcony, the majestic Hall of Springs in the background adorned by mature, maple trees and flowing bushes surrounding the building and pathway that leads one through. When walking through the lovely, paved path alight by lanterns and the red hues of sunset, the surroundings felt like a secret garden. Strikingly quiet, talking just barely over a whisper, sound seemed to evaporate into the air almost immediately.
The evening was being dedicated to a musician who defined musicality, having practiced and practiced over and over again “Ode to Joy” for a NYSSMA solo when young. Beethoven’s music was a favorite of mine to perform. I was endlessly fascinated over the fact the creator never heard its creation. The performance was about an exceptionally brilliant musician, capable of creating combinations and cadences never before even heard of, and the tempest during his transition to total deafness.
The transition SPAC has experienced jarred my mental memory map a bit, noticing where bathrooms and concession once stood, a pavilion now stands, providing open air seating where families and musicians alike could sit, enjoy a meal at the picnic tables and listen to the beautiful sound emanating from the stage below. For the first time ever, an unobstructed view from the top of SPAC lawn directly to the Roosevelt Bath and Spa exists.
With a jumping heart, I gazed at new buildings constructed with materials blending perfectly with the surroundings. A beautifully constructed wooden Pavilion in hues of mahogany and gold, it showed a reverence to the surrounding nature and its confluence of nature and music.
New views made it feel as if I was in a place where time has passed without the presence of human impact and the lack of visitors has treated these grounds kindly. The worn trodden paths that had once snaked through the lawn have since healed and growing in its place is luscious thick, green grass.
But terrible realities have been brought upon us this year. With what was supposed to be a celebratory year in so many respects, has turned to be one of catastrophic loss in so many ways; deeply affecting the nations psyche. The earth is in mourning, we are fatigued, and the sound of silence continually falls on tired ears.
This year, a battle of epic proportions against an invisible enemy, has required many of us to retreat into the safety of isolation. We are confronting a threat so foreign, it leaves many feeling desperate and unprepared, and the urge to desperately self-isolate or self-medicate while reminiscing about the past is understandable.
SPAC’s grounds have been given an entire growing season, something never thought possible, acting as a cruel reminder of the tragic reality of our invisible world war. During a normal summer, the front lawn would have imprinted circles and paths carved in a myriad of patterns by dancing feet. In its place, grows lush green grass.
The Pavilion acts as a natural gateway, allowing sound to flow from the amphitheater across the courtyard to one of the first buildings commissioned by FDR under the New Deal, The Roosevelt Spa and Baths. The new Arts building, beautifully blending into its natural background, hosts a deck that allows visitors to experience a view never seen before on SPAC’s grounds.
Elevated views of The Hall of Springs; views deep into the Amphitheatre and onstage; across the majestic courtyard to other historical buildings on campus – are all shown in a different light. When a completely new view is being experienced, you feel with heightened senses. Edges of buildings seem crisper, the colors much darker. Soon we are to experience an auditory story about Beethoven, and his physical transformation, that was never told during music class.
Walking closer to the newly constructed venue, my ears instantly recognize music pouring into the night’s air from speakers tucked perfectly out of view. And then, the first exhibitions of human life gathering since walking into the venue appear. Entering the patio, donned with a mask, transformation again came to mind.
The view was absolutely stunning. My eyes were noticing how much the new buildings blended with the surrounding forest making the grounds feel even more dream-like.
We were introduced to the play by both Elizabeth Sobol, CEO of SPAC, and Marcus Dean Fuller, the Director of Testament and Executive and Artistic Director of Saratoga Shakespeare Company, each speaking with passion and love about what this art represents, at this moment in time. The persistence of every individual involved to make Testament, written by the supremely talented Damian Lanigan, was quite remarkable.
The Arts community has been dealt a seemingly impossible hand – a seismic black swan event that threatens its very existence. Competition for an individual’s attention is extreme in today’s environment. Everywhere one looks, a crisis exists.
However, the Arts do have some advantages. The arts define humanity. Its collective capacity to create and to feel joy reverberate through each fiber of your being is a unique asset. When listening to, or creating art, the human brain is fully engaged. Only the Arts affect the brain like this, as if tapping into an inner superpower.
That is why performances like Testament must go on, under every circumstance, because engaging the influence of the arts makes one feel that they have returned to their rightful place. How fitting that tonight’s performance was dedicated to his most tumultuous time in his life, when Ludwig von Beethoven was rapidly losing his hearing. Under great distress, Beethoven penned the Heiligenstadt Testament, dedicated to his two brothers Carl and Johann, and detailing his emotional despair about his increasing deafness, possibly contemplating suicide.
What a tragedy it would have been if Beethoven succumbed to his misery, and several of his masterpieces were never written! And today, like Ludwig, we have those determined to flex their talents even further or harder to deliver arts to the community. The arts are resilient.
Settling in, the sounds of being underwater started to cascade out of the speakers. The audience was introduced to Beethoven, voiced by brilliant Julian Tushabe, undergoing another yet excruciating treatment to maintain his hearing. He is desperate. Having another argument with his physician, Dr. Franz Wegeler, Beethoven was determined and adamant to “cure” beloved hearing. His work was highly recognized throughout Europe and he was keenly aware that “ruin” (so he believed) would happen to his beloved career if word got out about his impending deafness.
Tushabe inflects his deep, clear tenor voice so masterfully, capturing the emotional and mental anguish that Beethoven experiences, during what often is called the “Heroic” period of his life. The historical accuracy of Testament, having the Philadelphia Orchestra as a part of this creation fits so perfectly, and hearing it at SPAC, this performance is a joy.
Glimpses of Beethoven’s private inner circle, including the evolution of a partnership with his understudy turned friend, and eventual caretaker of personal matters, Ferdinand Reis, occurred via earnest conversations about how his erratic behavior could negatively influence the perception Josephine, the love of his life, may have of him. To avoid this impending reality, Beethoven endures excruciatingly painful treatments, fearing not only the impact of deafness on his career but that he would no longer hear Josephine’s voice.
The electrical therapy treatments left Beethoven completely bedridden for two days prior to a critical performance, where he would end the symphony early after nearly passing out onstage. What was really notable was learning of Beethoven’s labored deliberation on disclosing his love to Josephine against Reis’s recommendation, and how Lanigan’s performance sculpts Reis as a wise caricature that truly has Beethoven’s best interest in attempting to protect his fragile heart. Eventually Beethoven, awash with emotion from his feelings of defeat and distress, ventures to the countryside.
While there, Beethoven pens the Heiligenstadt Testament and allowed himself time to mourn and grieve over his hearing, Josephine, and his career. It was this act of mourning that allowed Beethoven to enter in the realm of acceptance and freedom from despair. The severe change in tone from the Second Movement, known as “Funeral March” to the exuberant sounds of Scherzo, highlighted with lighter, flighty tones, indicating a budding happiness and acceptance within the Third Movement, and then ending the symphony with such creativity and wonder, that it still astounds musicians today, over 200 years later. Beethoven had transformed.
Testament allows one to feel the lows of tragedy and highs of triumph along with one of the world’s greatest composers and a look into his world. These highs and lows reflect how many feel today and how today’s circumstances impact our psyche and outlook.
Beethoven, with his testy and often explosive behavior, is the embodiment of an angry arts society, not able to be heard due to something completely out of anyone’s control. Change is painful and invokes a very real sense of fear and foreboding. The tragic parallels with human suffering and grief that is 2020 are remarkable.
However, the old adage “When one door closes, another opens” is true. Beethoven accepted his impending fate and because he did, was able to provide the world many symphonies and quartets to be celebrated.
Perhaps our society will soon move into its own Third Movement: in which acceptance will enable the warmth of joy, creativity, and love to shine upon us.
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