They knew it was a big bite — as big as the bacon-and-egg breakfasts they were enjoying in a London pub as they hatched the plan five years ago.
But then, big bites are the whole point of fundraisers — as the three friends well understood.
“We wanted the project to be mad in its scale, fun, involve community players, and raise money for charity,” says Holly Mathiesen, one of three British conductors who settled on their big idea that day:
No, not one of those running races you have to finish before the music stops. A marathon performance of Beethoven’s symphonies. All of them, played nonstop, in order. Twelve straight hours of sturm und drang, with short tea and pee breaks.
It’s actually less crazy than it sounds. If you’re attempting an all-day music jam — and your tastes run more Salzburg than Altamont — Beethoven’s your man. You can get through the whole roster (of his symphonies, if not his sonatas). Just about everything is a crowd-pleaser. And something about Beethoven invites a testing of limits. His music “asks for extreme measures to be taken,” the pianist Jonathan Bliss told the New Yorker not long ago. (Bliss has undertaken marathon performances of all of Beethoven’s sonatas. Now that is One Seriously Big Day — 24 hours and change.)
Mathiesen and her pals — Sam Burstin and Adrián Varela — would divvy up the repertoire. Each would conduct three symphonies. They’d alternate: fresh legs off the bench every hour and a half.
As for the charity, the three settled on Doctors Without Borders, whose work was very much front of mind. News had broken that the MSF trauma centre in Afghanistan had been bombed by Western coalition forces, leaving dozens dead.
“The moment we made that decision, the enormity of what we were undertaking registered,” Mathiesen said. “This was no longer three mates having a lark. This was an artistic act of political protest.”
So far, so inspiring. Now they just needed warm bodies to play the music.
Amateur musicians and soloists were recruited on the following terms: Please come join our party. There’s no pay, and no guaranteed audience. On the plus side, you’ll get a full 15 minutes to rehearse each symphony (three minutes per movement!). And at the end of the whole shebang, Mathiesen promised, “We’ll buy you a beer and give you a hug.”
Who could resist?
April 23, 2016. In the early morning, inside the majestic Great Hall at Goldsmiths, University of London, Mathiesen and Burstin and Verela waited nervously to see if anybody would show up. One cellist had semi-firmly committed. That was pretty much it.
Musicians began shyly trickling in. By 9am, a modest complement sat on stage, tuning up. There was one string player per part, with a piano filling in for a few absent woodwinds. Several people gave notice that they were pretty busy, and they’d be going home after the second symphony.
9:45am: Showtime. Verela led off, with Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21. The piecemeal group did their best, but the sound was pretty thin, like three cats in a cathedral.
Then more musicians arrived to fill in the holes. “By the time we hit Symphony 3, we had a full orchestra,” Verela says.
The musicians soon hit their groove. Something amazing was happening. More players arrived, a constant stream of them, from all over southeast England, musicians and singers “of every level of ability and time of life, from aging community players with battery-less hearing aids to some of London’s top professional players and most promising conservatoire students,” Mathiesen said. “They all sat side by side, shared the tricky passages when needed, and no one said a word about the inevitable wrong notes.”
Fuelled by trays of donated sandwiches, the band played on.
8pm. After more than ten straight hours of Beethovenery, it fell to Mathieson to bring the horses home. Symphony 9. Aka, “The Beast.” Hope, Triumph, Peace, Freedom, and — in its celebratory chorale final, one of the most stirring and familiar piece of music ever written — Joy.
Beethoven was deaf when he recorded it.
Mathieson was exhausted as she stepped up to conduct it.
“I’d had a huge professional gig in the days leading up to this, and I simply hadn’t prepared as I normally would,” she says. “And to be honest, it was probably the worst conducting I’ve ever done.”
But nobody noticed. The power of the group had by then created an unstoppable momentum. Five dozen people belted out a hymn to the triumphant union of mankind. Almost all those folks who said they had to leave after Symphony 2 were still on stage. It was as if nobody dared leave.
In the big finale, Steve Kennedy, who had played viola for the entire day, including the first three movements of the 9th, put down his instrument, stood up, and sang the bass solo. (“What an animal!” says Mathiesen.)
At the end of it, many of the musicians, having been spared the burden of opening their wallets to receive a paycheck, opened them now to make a donation to Medicines Sans Frontiers UK. So did their friends and families. The pot grew to more than two thousand pounds.
“There were tears, embraces, copious servings of gin, and one fainter at the pub afterwards,” Mathiesen recalls.
The marathon jam session, everyone agreed, was one of those what-were-we-thinking kind of follies, “the craziest, most exhausting musical adventure of our lives to date.”
So of course they knew they would have to do it again.
“We’re thinking maybe Brahms before lunch and Schumann after,” Mathiesen says. “That would be cool.”