Beethoven, the fine arts essential to successful student life

Lauren Glasby/Staff

When Gustavo Dudamel conducts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Hearst Greek Theatre on Friday as part of Cal Performances’ new Berkeley RADICAL initiative, it will be the case of two great agendas coming together: UC Berkeley’s, as expressed in its motto fiat lux (“let there be light”), and Beethoven’s, Seid umschlungen, millionen (“Be embraced, you millions”). For his great symphony, the composer chose words by the poet Friedrich Schiller that celebrate the unity of all mankind. We might not use the same words today to express this transcultural idea of inclusivity, which is why Beethoven, a humanist, cannily chose the big, public vehicle of a symphony for a large orchestra plus a chorus — the arena show of its day — to make the statement he surely wanted to be the most universal and public of his life. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which has transcended centuries, is for everyone.

Two years of planning has gone into this inaugural Berkeley RADICAL residency, which takes place in multiple venues on campus this week, including many free events. During that time, I could not help but think how neatly Beethoven’s agenda resonates with that of conductor and musical advocate Dudamel, who comes out of Venezuela’s resoundingly democratic El Sistema program of high-quality public musical education for all. Dudamel has dedicated himself to bringing his artistry — and that of the institutions he leads: the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, or SBSOV, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic — to the most diverse audiences possible, in as broad a range of venues as possible. That is one reason Cal Performances invited Dudamel and the SBSOV to be the first Berkeley RADICAL artists, and their performance in the glorious setting of the Greek Theatre on Friday will be but one highlight of their residency. In addition to performing Beethoven at the Greek and in Zellerbach Hall for a wide-ranging audience of students, faculty, members of the campus community, Berkeley schoolchildren and audiences from around the Bay Area, Dudamel and his musicians will be participating in master classes, lecture demonstrations, an academic symposium led by professor Nicholas Mathew of the music department and other events across our community, on campus and beyond.

As powerful a word as “radical” is, resonating with UC Berkeley’s history of progressive thinking and free speech, the name of this new program is an acronym that stands for “Research and Development Initiative for Creativity, Arts and Learning.” Berkeley RADICAL aims, through the performing arts, to uncover new means of revealing our shared human potential in two significant ways: by investing in the artistic literacy of present and future audiences and by connecting the world’s most innovative artists with the intellectual capital of our campus. As Dudamel told the Guardian in 2010, “It’s not that people don’t like classical music. It’s that they don’t have the chance to understand and to experience it.” While pedestals for musical masterpieces of all cultures have long ago been created, these works are intended for us all. With time and unprejudiced attention, anyone can — as Beethoven intended for his great symphony — claim the wisdom and wonder of such works.

Cal Performances sees the arts as a human right; Berkeley RADICAL is a new platform to bolster this right. We see a familiarity with the arts as an essential part of the full cultural citizenship that any human being and certainly every student of UC Berkeley deserves — as essential as numerical and verbal literacy. Works of art should always be among us. They are meant to create time and space, to help all of us engage in more useful ways with ourselves and our environment, to see and remember the essential qualities of life, especially those not defined by the economics of production and consumption. That is why the legacy of great works of art from all cultures is so precious: It is the sum of humanity’s most deeply considered thoughts.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a towering monument, a great achievement that speaks, in a universal way, of fundamental human values. I imagine that many of those in the Bay Area who already know the work are planning to join us for the performance at the Greek Theatre. I invite anyone who does not know Beethoven’s Ninth to be there, too. The music’s message, beauty and legacy are your right.

Matias Tarnopolsky is the executive and artistic director of Cal Performances. Contact the Opinion Desk at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter at @dailycalopinion.

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