Monday, May 11, 2009

Beethoven Week, Part 3

The Saint Louis Symphony concluded its 2008-09 season yesterday with a matinee performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, together with a piece called Asyla by living composer Tom Addis, which I never heard since the box office had been selling standing-room tickets to all the performances. I did get to hear David Robertson's pre-concert "perspectives" talk, one of the things that makes the SLSO a better deal than you can get in other cities, where you have to buy a separate ticket to hear a lecture by someone outside the organization, situated in a remote part of the building, rather than the conductor himself speaking from the stage at no extra charge.

Robertson defended his controversial tempo decisions, pointing out that objecting to them basically amounts to saying, "The composer was wrong!" One particularly daring moment - where the final "harrumph" of the instrumental recitative gives way to the first soft, unison iteration of the final movement's main theme - may come in for particular criticism because the way he paced the "harrumph," it almost drowns out the beginning of the theme. Robertson defended this by saying that it suggests the theme has always been there, waiting to be discovered. He makes an interesting case for an alternative interpretation of one of the old standards. I should think such an interpretation would be welcome at an hour when fine art music is struggling for audience share.

The performance went quite well. Apart from a few minor glitches in intonation and togetherness, the orchestra (horn solo and all) was spot on. We in the chorus sang our hearts out once more; the soloists... well, least said soonest mended. And I did notice a few more of Beethoven's ingenious sonic touches, particularly one moment where pairs of flutes and oboes seem to be saying "Uh-huh" to each other, back and forth. Also, during the instrumental laying-out of the Ode to Joy theme, there is a variation where the first bassoon joins the violins on just the last half of each phrase of the melody. And the slow movement has a stereo effect for the violins, in which the melody passes from the second violins to the firsts in successive variations - an effect best enjoyed while watching a live performance with the two violin sections seated on opposite sides of the stage.

That's all I have time for today. Cheer up! It can't be a completely dismal world where Beethoven's music still plays!

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