Why Beethoven matters: Jan Caeyers and Kit Armstrong in conversation

An established conductor and world-class pianist met to discuss their favourite subject: Beethoven. Jan Caeyers and Kit Armstrong are the two figureheads of Beethoven27. We arranged an exclusive double interview in the beautiful art deco Église Sainte-Thérèse-de-l-Enfant-Jésus in Hirson, in the north of France, where Kit lives, works and performs. A lively debate followed about the project’s mission, vision and the relevance of classical music today.

Jan and Kit, you are both spearheading Beethoven27 as artistic partners. Can you tell us a bit more about your ambitions with this project?

Jan: ‘Our aim with this project is to offer a different view on Beethoven’s music and allow a broader audience to appreciate his genius. The music of Beethoven is often performed during one-off concerts, which doesn’t give musicians or the audience enough time to fully connect with his work. With this project, we are exploring Beethoven’s work in-depth, by performing it over the span of four years and nine productions.’

Kit: ‘The genesis of the idea lies with Jan. As he explained it to me, I really started to see the difference this project could make in the way classical music is performed and appreciated. By concentrating on one composer, we get to communicate to the audience our idea of Beethoven. That singular focus is exceptional within the classical music industry. It is also what attracted me to this project, to have the opportunity to dive into the mindset of Beethoven and go on this educative journey with Jan, who is a true expert on the subject.’

It is not the first time you two collaborate. How did you first meet? 

Jan: ‘The director of the Konzerthaus in Vienna, Matthias Naske, was a fan of what I was doing with my orchestra Le Concert Olympique (LCO Orchestra), and of Kit’s talent. His dream was to bring us together and get us to collaborate. Of course, beforehand, you’re never sure that you’ll click with another musician, but when I met Kit and heard him talking about his experiences, I recognised a state of mind that fits with my orchestra.’

Kit: ‘When I met him, I too sensed this artistic kinship. Jan invited me to perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 1, which we did in January 2023. I already was a big fan of his Beethoven biography and had had a positive experience working with some musicians of the LCO Orchestra. So, of course, I was eager to collaborate with him.’

What makes the LCO Orchestra the ideal orchestra to undertake this project?

Jan: ‘When I founded the orchestra in 2010, I wanted to bring musicians together who share the same view on performing classical music. In every performance, we want to bring out the best in each other.’

Kit: ‘The LCO Orchestra, and myself included, we make music as amateur musicians would. And I mean this in a good way. When I studied music in London, my professor told me something I will never forget: “As an amateur musician,” he said, “your goal is to play something until it’s really good. But as a professional musician, your goal is to play something so often until it’s not possible to be really bad.” A professional ensures that he is acceptable. None of that is present in LCO Orchestra. We don’t want to survive the night, we want to be something more.’

"By concentrating on one composer, we get to communicate to the audience our idea of Beethoven. That singular focus is exceptional within the classical music industry."

- Pianist Kit Armstrong

Beethoven27 is not just a musical project, it has a profoundly humanistic ambition: bringing audience members closer together. How do you think music is capable of that?

Kit: ‘It doesn’t matter what your background is or outlook on life, music brings people together. The same holds true for classical music. Too often a concert hall is seen as elitist, while a performance actually offers the audience an experience they will have in common after its conclusion. It is not unlike going to church.’

Jan: ‘Indeed, a concert can be spiritual. But it can also be harmonious in a physical sense. During a performance, all musicians are breathing according to a composition’s rhythm. Slowly, the audience will join in. In the end, everyone is doing meditation. There’s collective breathing, hearts beating with the same frequency. I’m sure the reason why applause lasts longer when a performance takes longer, is because there’s a sense of physical relief involved. And hopefully, in the case of a good orchestra, a transformation took place within the audience and they will leave the hall changed.’

Of course, the project also celebrates Beethoven, one of the most revered composers in the history of Western music. What lessons can we learn from his life story and work? 

Kit: ‘One admirable quality of Beethoven is that he was always wishing to improve and reinvent himself. He believed in things bigger than himself, in art that can inspire and amaze. And he undertook ways to achieve that. That’s both very human and admirable.’

Jan: ‘The more I’m involved with the life and music of Beethoven, the more difficult that question becomes for me. He is of course a musical computer, capable of composing masterpieces in which every note is significant. That alone is astonishing. But aside from that, he’s the prime example of someone who does not give up on his dreams and invests all he has in them. To try and do the maximum with your talent, that’s the main message we can take away from Beethoven’s life.’

Jan and Kit, thank you both for this inspirational interview and for giving us more insight into the beating heart of Beethoven27. 

Will you celebrate Beethoven with us? 

The Beethoven27 project will kick off with a bang. The year 2024 marks the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Beethoven27 is celebrating it with a live performance in Antwerp on 13 May. Are you celebrating with us? For tickets and info, keep an eye on our ticket page.

Why Beethoven matters: Jan Caeyers and Kit Armstrong in conversation

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