It’s hubristic to even think of staging a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Just the amount of space required for orchestra, choir and soloists is daunting. Not only is it one of the most technically challenging pieces of music in the entire classical canon, it’s also one of the most physically taxing. “It didn’t feel like we were onstage as long as we were,” one of the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s cellists exclaimed, flushed and practically winded, after their lavish performance of it yesterday evening.
“Beethoven was insane when he wrote this!” groused one of the bassists. “It’s like the Grosse Fugue.” He was referring to the notoriously thorny coda to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13. But he and the cellist and the rest of the low strings – whose fingers really take a beating in the symphony’s final movement, leaping between registers at breakneck speed – dug in and delivered a performance that was more of a hymn to adrenaline than the ode to joy in the famous Schiller poem from which Beethoven took his inspiration. The rest of the orchestra followed suit. And that’s fine, that’s what music should be about a lot of the time. In context, it was the perfect choice. If you can play this at all, chances are it’ll be good. And it was. The roar of a pretty-much sold-out house afterward affirmed that.
After she’d led the orchestra through a brief fanfare well-known to NPR listeners, conductor Barbara Yahr offered her usual insight. She sees Beethoven’s narrative in the symphony’s four movements as contiguous. The first, a vibrant life somewhat in disarray, awash in ups and downs. The second, a “diabolical dance,” which as she accurately pointed out draws a straight line back to the pizzicato third movement of the Sixth Symphony. The third, a love ballad, and the fourth, a tug of war between orchestra and the low strings, who refuse to accept a new theme again and again until finally, “The one we know from childhood recitals,” as she said with a grin, finally takes centerstage and redeems everything and love wins over all.
Whew. Beethoven influences people who write about him too.
Now here’s an alternate interpretation. Those of us who love Beethoven know how, for all intents and purposes, his Fifth Symphony was really his Fourth, and vice versa, and how the disconnect between when he happened to write a piece and when his publishers put it out occurred all the time. Just like pretty much everyone who writes music, Beethoven had a “song junkyard” full of unfinished ideas in one form or another. It therefore stands to reason that he took the four favorites he had kicking around and strung them together as a swan song. That he was able to tie them together as much as he did, and in the process made it pretty much impossible for any other symphonic composer to follow him, conceptually at least, underscores why the Ninth is such an important piece of music . Even if, say, you find the famous final theme cloying and the Schiller poem it’s based on trippy and unfocused.
So from this point of view, the piece de resistance at this performance was that clever and richly interwoven first movement. The doomy main theme is akin to the theme from the Fifth Symphony, times two. Watching conductor and orchestra weaving through the waves of uneasy bluster juxtaposed with moments of joy, holding nothing back in reserve for what was to follow, was a blustery joy to witness. The second movement came across not as diabolical but heroic and triumphant, precision matched to unrestrained passion. Maybe the composer put the third movement in for the sake of a momentary breather, awash in lustrous high/low harmonies, and the ensemble seemed glad to back off for a bit.
It took a total of three all-ages choirs: the Ars Musica Chorale, directed by Dusty Francis; the Brooklyn Conservatory Chorale, led by Nelly Vuksic, and Seraphim, conducted by Robert Long, to deliver the fourth movement’s titanic polyphony, and they did with a precision and robustness to match the orchestra’s herculean efforts onstage. The choral soloists: baritone Peter Stewart. soprano Rachel Rosales, mezzo-soprano Jan Wilson and tenor John Tiranno, all punched in strongly when their moments came.
Not having seen this performed since childhood (and hating it at the time, and wishing it was over), it was impossible not to be caught up in it – and to be grateful for the opportunity to revisit it and learn something new. Plenty of new things, actually. The Greenwich Village Orchestra conclude their most ambitious season to date with a pops concert – something which, if they’ve done it before, they haven’t in almost twenty years – on May 7 at 3 PM featuring singers Grasan Kingsberry and Betsy Struxness.