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PREVIEW: Tanglewood performance by Igor Levit, JACK Quartet to highlight notorious demagogues

Beethoven suffered fools from time to time, but he wanted nothing to do with despotic megalomaniacs.

Lenox — Russian-born pianist Igor Levit knows a thing or two about narcissistic autocrats and criminally deranged tyrants. And so did his favorite composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, who withdrew his “vote” for Napoleon Bonaparte when it became clear to all but the most soft-headed that the French demagogue with the Caesar haircut was dangerously off his rocker. Beethoven suffered fools from time to time, but he wanted nothing to do with despotic megalomaniacs, and neither did the other two composers on the program that Levit and the JACK Quartet will present in Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall on Wednesday, August 15: Arnold Schoenberg and Frederic Rzewski.

Levit will begin Wednesday’s concert with Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue in E Flat, Op. 35, “Eroica,” so named because it shares thematic material with the finale of the “Eroica” symphony, a work originally dedicated to Napoleon. When he realized his mistake, Beethoven retracted that dedication and, according to his secretary Ferdinand Ries, proclaimed vehemently, “Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!”

Gramophone called Levit’s debut release on Sony — a double CD of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas — “neither reckless nor arrogant, but a debut of true significance.” The Guardian called him “the real deal, and definitely a pianist to watch.”

Igor Levit. Photo: Robbie Lawrence

Second on the program is Arnold Schoenberg’s “Ode to Napoleon,” Op. 41, which was inspired by Lord Byron’s satirical poem of the same name. Byron’s stinging rebuke pulls no punches:

“All Evil Spirit as thou art,
It is enough to grieve the heart
To see thine own unstrung;
To think that God’s fair world hath been
The footstool of a thing so mean”.

Wednesday’s concert will conclude with American composer Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, a set of 36 variations on a protest song written prior to the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende in a coup d’état supported by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Rzewski wrote his piece as a tribute to the thousands of Chileans who were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by Augusto Pinochet’s regime following Allende’s ouster.

When it dawned on Ludwig van Beethoven that he had made a terrible mistake in dedicating his third symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, he immediately rubbed the general’s name off the symphony’s title page. He had no problem admitting that he had endorsed the wrong man.


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