Bogidar and Beethoven … both “Mammoth” figures! (Photo: Geisel)
When most people think of composer Ludwig van Beethoven, they more than likely will recall one of two things: his deafness, or the first eight notes of his Fifth Symphony, arguably one of the best known pieces of music in history.
When Eastern Sierra Symphony Orchestra conductor Bogidar Avramov thinks of Beethoven, he thinks “Mammoth.”
“I was drinking a lovely glass of 1997 cabernet, one of the best years for cabernet, and thinking of the theme for this year’s [33rd Sierra Summer Festival], and I knew I was going to feature Beethoven,” Avramov recalled. “In the academic circles of classical music, he’s considered a titan, a giant, and I thought, ‘He’s a Mammoth!’” Avramov said that led to thoughts of the grandeur and power of Beethoven’s music. “And I looked around and it occurred to me that what appeals to audiences is the raw, crude power of his work, and the sense of heroic desire that’s also found in our nature and the rock formations here in the Eastern Sierra.”
Thus the imagery on this year’s poster of Beethoven set against the backdrop of Mammoth Mountain.
Bogidar the Mammoth
Interestingly, Beethoven’s journey to headlining status this year actually dates back to Avramov’s first journey to the Eastern Sierra in the late 1960s. “I’ve been in the U.S. since 1967, and around 1969 my wife said, ‘I want to take you somewhere I like to go and ski,’ which was Mammoth Lakes,” he relates. He bought one of the first condos in the then-new Seasons 4 development, and a year or so later, a real estate agent named Dick Nevins asked him about bringing music here.
“I was still teaching and conducting in Los Angeles at the time, and brought a chamber ensemble up from L.A. in 1971 and 1972,” he said. “In all modesty, I suppose I was the first to bring classical music here.”
Before long, Avramov and his wife were spending more and more time in their “second home,” where he happened to find a couple of small groups of musicians in Mammoth and Bishop playing in an ad hoc type of capacity. “They weren’t organized as such, and I had the idea to use local instrumentalists, so I got them all together,” Avramov said. At first there were 10, then 15, and the number kept growing, especially when he started looking further south. “I found many in Inyo County, Lone Pine and Independence … and Ridgecrest turned out to be a gold mine! They have very good schools and music down there.” A core group of players, many from Ridgecrest, have been with the ESSO for some 20 years now, and seen it grow to its present 70-player complement.
The passage of time has meant considerable improvement, but also smaller budgets and performances than those in the ESSO’s late ‘70s heydays, when huge budgets meant huge spectacles.
“We had big shows. L.A. professionals such as Joe Sample, who also lived here, thousands of spectators. We did ‘Star Wars’ by John Williams with lasers,” he remembered. But the purple period was somewhat short-lived. Within a few years, earthquakes, economic downturns and other factors began to whittle away at the ESSO’s resources.
These days, budgets are challenging, and Avramov can’t do everything he’d like to. Nonetheless, he’s kept things stable and managed to fill a few key seats with professionals, such as Scott Hosfield violin, Andrew Pickens viola, Leighton Fong cello, John Reilly bassoon, Steve Durnin french horn and Wes Hawks clarinet and Orchestra Manager.
Back for his second year with the ESSO is young pianist Stephen Beus, who though only in his late 20s has already earned considerable accolades as a competition winner and performer. Also joining Avramov is Concert Mistress Maria Newman, a composer in her own right. If that last name seems familiar to you movie music fans, it should. Her father, Alfred, was a nine-time Oscar winning film composer. Maria is also part of the large Newman film and TV composing dynasty that includes Lionel, Thomas, Randy, David, Joey and Emil.
Local stringed instrument master Pete Watercott can also be found among the ESSO’s 70 musicians.
Today, the orchestra can pick and choose its members, but also serves as an educational body, bringing up young players who will eventually take their place on the concert stages of Mammoth and the rest of the world.
A Fifth of Beethoven
A “titan” in the world of classical academia, Ludwig has also become iconic, or “Mammoth,” in the larger, pop culture world. Top actors Ed Harris and Gary Oldman have played him on film, the Peanuts character Schroeder could frequently be heard playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” and even a disco version of the Fifth Symphony (“A Fifth of Beethoven”) was a ‘70s one-hit wonder for Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band. What makes Beethoven probably the best known composer?
“Consider him the Mt. Everest of composers,” Avramov replied. “He’s one of the most important creators in human history. Good conquering evil, triumph over defeat … his music reflects the tragedy in his life, such as his hearing loss, family problems, illness.” Audiences, Avramov thinks, can relate to his music’s universality. “He grabbed destiny by the throat and wrote about what we strive for as humans.”
The weekend’s Festival finale includes the Overture to “Egmont,” Opus 84. Pianist Beus joins the orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s startlingly dramatic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.3 in C Minor, Opus 37.
And you’ll get to hear those eight notes and the rest of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67, likely the most popular of Beethoven’s works, which will bring the concert to a decidedly dynamic finale.
Accompanying the performance will be a narrative by Chuck Scatolini, giving the audience more insight into the musical program, and a greater understanding and appreciation of the selections.
The Sierra Summer Festival, with the ESSO conducted by Avramov, present “Beethoven the Mammoth” Friday, Aug. 13, at 7 p.m. and again Saturday, Aug. 14, at 8 p.m. in Mammoth Mountain Ski Area’s Mountainside Conference Center.
Immediately following the Friday evening concert, the audience is cordially invited to meet the musicians at a punch and cookies reception hosted by Anita Haenni and the Mammoth Lakes Women’s Club.
And Nevados once again hosts the the Festival’s Annual Gala Celebration, featuring an all-inclusive dinner at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday. Gala guests will have reserved seats for the symphony concert at the Mountainside Conference Center, and can enter the annual raffle of Maestro Avramov’s baton for the thrill of conducting the ESSO.
Tickets and reservations: go to www.sierrasummerfestival.org, Mammoth Gallery or purchase at the door.