Sunday, May 12, 2013

Beethoven Week

My best excuse for not blogging much lately is that, besides working a "day job," I've been rehearsing and performing fine-art music most of the last few weeks. There was "Brahms Week," in which the St. Louis Symphony Chorus (yours truly included) performed the Schicksalslied (Song of Fate) and Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates) under the baton of up-and-coming young conductor Ward Stare, formerly the St. Louis Symphony's resident conductor. Then there was a "Bach Week" (really more of a weekend) with the American Kantorei ("Bach at the Sem"), performing two whole cantatas and choruses from two others, led by guest conductor Scott Hyslop of Frankenmuth, Michigan. And now I have just touched ground after seven glorious days, including a full concert-order rehearsal and four nearly sold-out public performances, of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, with the celebrated "Ode to Joy" in the fourth movement.

The program began with an a capella choral number by Anton Bruckner, "Christus factus est" (Christ is made obedient unto death), for a middle-sized group of singers selected from the Symphony Chorus. This work, appropriate for the week of Ascension Day, focuses on the humiliation and glorification of Christ—more than half of it being devoted to the Latin words for "which is above every name" as a reference to the honor to which Christ has been exalted. Bruckner's short piece led without a break into Act 3 of Alban Berg's expressionist opera Wozzeck, in which a smaller select group of chorus members sang briefly. Berg, whose reputation is tied to the serialist school of Schoenberg, used the orchestra to powerful effect in portraying scenes of madness, murder, despair, suicide, superstitious anxiety, and the sociopathic egotism of a child who goes on saying "Hop-hop, hop-hop, hop-hop" when told that its mother is dead. And all this, drawn from a real-life drama that unfolded at about the time Beethoven was writing his Ninth, sets the background for his amazing testimony of faith in the brotherhood of man and the unifying power of humanistic ideals.

David Robertson conducted the hell out of this program. Based on his interpretation of the Ninth Symphony's four movements, I have distilled my thoughts down to a two-word description of what aspects of Beethoven's character each movement reveals. So, Movement I: the monumental sonata whose opening theme, based on a spare interval of a fifth, emerges out of a nebula "without form and void," represents Beethoven's fierce intelligence. Movement II: the scherzo driven by insistent rhythms, given to rude interruptions, pointed pauses, and sudden arbitrary changes of key, and ending in a joke—that shows the exuberant willfulness in Beethoven's character. Movement III: the slow, tender variations on an alternating pair of themes, painted in lush colors by his mastery of the orchestra (albeit a bit soporific to some exhausted participants in this afternoon's performance) demonstrates Beethoven's sincere humanity. But when he caps it off with a huge finale that makes the orchestra speak like a human voice, then unprecedentedly introduces the human voice to the symphonic form, he does so in a way that points up his revolutionary instinct. And there in bold type, o Freunde, you have my analysis of B9 in eight words.

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