Six weeks ago, Monique Mead began journeying up mountains, into people’s homes and through synagogue doors, and at each stop the violinist and Carnegie Mellon University professor of music played the same piece with an 18th-century Stradivarius in hand.
Repeating the same Beethoven violin concertos in disparate settings is all part of an undertaking Mead calls “Beethoven in the Face of Adversity.”
The “social experiment” consists of gifting 50 performances of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the German composer and pianist’s birth (most scholars accept Dec. 16, 1770, as Beethoven’s birthday). Mead, who is also celebrating her 50th birthday, will do the 50 shows over the course of 250 days.
As a professional violinist, Mead has spent her career playing with major orchestras throughout the United States and Europe. Navigating between Europe and the United States is not unfamiliar to her family. Mead’s European mother moved to Salt Lake City after meeting Mormon missionaries in Switzerland, and although Mead grew up Mormon, at the age of 21 she discovered her mother’s mother was German Jewish and had fled to Paris to avoid persecution. While in France, her grandmother married a Persian doctor. The two spent World War II in Tehran and later returned to Paris. Their daughter (Mead’s mother) moved to Switzerland, became Mormon and later relocated to Utah.
Mead’s international career has allowed her to perform before thousands and garner great acclaim, but playing Beethoven’s violin concerto with an orchestra has “always been my dream,” she said. Unfortunately, when the opportunity finally presented itself, the timing was inopportune, she said.
The Shadyside resident was going through a divorce, had two teenagers at home and was in the process of selling a house and relocating.
“It was just really the worst possible time [and] it seemed like there’s not going to be five hours a day for me to practice and prepare — and it takes about a year to prepare this concert,” she said. “But somewhere in that turmoil, it dawned on me that Beethoven himself had his own little bit of adversity, which was being deaf and depressed and on the brink of suicide, and he still managed to write this glorious, epic work. … In the DNA of this piece is that indomitable spirit of his to overcome.”
Despite the scheduling challenges, Mead accepted the offer to perform and discovered that by beginning each day playing Beethoven, “that sort of put everything else into this lens of beauty.” She even found that she “bonded” with Beethoven “on that sort of epic task of overcoming adversity.”
Profoundly impacted by her engagement with the piece, she wondered if others would have a similar reaction. “If this can be such a relief to me, could it be to anybody else?” she wondered. “Could it lessen somebody else’s burden as well?”
Mead followed up her March 9 performance with Edgewood Symphony Orchestra by inviting requests for free performances of the violin concerto. The response was positive, leading her to travel to private residences, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, Presbyterian SeniorCare in Oakmont, Little Sisters of the Poor and to the summit of Mt. Kuchumaa in Rancho La Puerta, Mexico, for a dawn performance.
Having completed nine of her 50 shows, Mead said it has been “humbling” to observe the concerto’s transformative ability. Nowhere was the piece’s power more apparent than at Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill, where Mead played Beethoven for family members of victims and survivors of the Tree of Life attack.
“I felt very honored to be there. What they told me afterward was that there have been many public concerts for them, but this was the first that was private, that was just for them, where they didn’t feel that everybody was looking at them.”
Barry Werber, a survivor of the Tree of Life attack, attended the Beth Shalom performance, and said the performance “took us to another land.”
“Just to watch her hand on that violin and knowing how old that Stradivarius was blew me away,” he said.
Depending on the setting, Mead speaks a little before and after with her listeners. The music itself takes about 45 minutes to perform, and Mead typically comes with a pianist — who she pays $100 if the audience is unable to compensate — and collects no remuneration for her efforts.
The task is about celebrating the “indomitable human spirit,” she said. “In a world of Facebook, where we look at everybody else’s glamour shots and success and feel like we’re the only one that has problems, what I’m trying to do with this is sort of normalize and put in the center the fact that the stone in your path is your path. And this is how the people in our community are dealing with that and overcoming it every day. And I think that’s worth celebrating.”
Now, with several successful concerts under her belt, Mead is hoping to reach new audiences. “I really would like to broaden this to the non-white community. I want this to be as diverse as possible,” she said. “I would like this gift to be for all neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.”
In taking her talents elsewhere, Mead is hoping to eradicate some regional snobbery. “I am a complete non-elitist when it comes to music and to culture. I really dislike the fact that classical music is viewed as elitist. I spent my entire career trying to make it accessible to everyone, and it really pains me to still see this sort of division, particularly in our city, when it comes to cultural opportunities,” she said. “This is an opportunity that is absolutely free to everyone and I would like it to be for everyone. I say it’s for people as diverse as the adversity we face, and that’s pretty diverse.”
Beethoven, she noted, is the perfect artist to play in opposition to elitism.
“Beethoven himself was the ultimate non-elitist. He wrote for the people and he wanted to be for the people. He was absolutely in the face of the aristocracy and had no respect for the sort of hierarchy of people. And I think, for me, that music is for everyone.”
Those interested in hearing one of Mead’s 50 performances can put a request in at her website, beethovenintheface.com. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.