The ultimate destination of any artistic endeavor is freedom. No one has taught that to us better than Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. This piece of music is considered to be the ultimate expression of humanity's struggle for freedom. The main tune, which we all know, the Ode to Joy, was purposefully written as a simple progression of pitches and rhythm that anyone can sing, hum, or whistle.
There is a freedom of expression in this iconic passage of music that is available to all. The rest of the Ninth Symphony? Not so much.
Following the Ninth
Trailer for the film Following The Ninth: In The Footsteps of Beethoven's Final Symphony
The Ode to Joy is the payoff for the struggle that precedes it and the launching pad for the ecstasy that follows. A performance of Beethoven’s final symphony requires an enormous amount of stress and pressure from the performers.
It feels almost as if Beethoven were saying, “Here, anyone can sing this part, but no one will be able to sing the rest of it without leaving blood on the stage.”
The vocal parts for soloists and chorus are notoriously difficult on the human voice. The performance on Saturday, December 10, by the San Diego Symphony, soloists, and the San Diego Master Chorale bore witness to the struggle for freedom.
The logistics of the concert put the soloist about 100 feet upstage and I appreciated bass soloist Nathan Berg’s opening proclamations. He appeared to be determined to overcome the limited acoustic of Symphony Hall. Bringing his voice all the way “forward” Berg growled out the final low notes of the phrase in defiance of the space in which he was singing. Freedom isn’t always free.
In the Ninth, the quartet of soloists is always a thankless situation. When it comes to writing for the voice, Beethoven is not among the greats. The quartet that was assembled for this concert was formidable and capable and the balance, in spite of Beethoven’s unbalanced approach — the mezzo can rarely be heard because of where it lies in relationship to the other voices — was excellent.
The one drawback was tenor Barry Banks who was miscast. To be frank, I’m surprised he accepted the gig. Banks is a bel canto specialist who has enjoyed great success with composers such as Rossini, Donizetti, and the like. The tenor solo in Beethoven's Ninth is something that is other than bel canto.
The San Diego Master Chorale sounded good when the entire chorus was singing. However, in the passage where sections sang individually it was not so good. The sum was clearly greater than the total of the parts.
This is the third Beethoven Ninth I’ve reviewed for the Reader and it was by far the most capable. Edo de Waart may not have stormed the peaks of inspiration for this piece, but it came together in an ultimately satisfying fashion.
Under his direction the third movement stayed tight in the sections featuring the woodwinds and solo horn. In the past this movement has tended to wander aimlessly, but on this occasion it stayed focused and the center held.
Before the final notes ended hundreds of patrons leapt to their feet. Although I’ve given this a less than glowing review, the fact of the matter is that Beethoven’s Ninth is so transcendent that the idiosyncrasies of any given performance and the pet peeves of any given writer are inconsequential.
As I’ve mentioned before, the ultimate destination of any artistic endeavor is freedom. No one has taught that to us better than Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony.