Beethoven’s Ninth Resonates with Joy

May 13, 2011

Stephen Simon asks the musicians to to stand, following their performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

It was an extraordinary experience. Even from outside the Parish of Christ the King in Mashpee this past Tuesday evening, you could tell something special was about to happen. The parking lots were full, both at the church and at the library across the way, the adjacent streets were lined with cars, and people were hurrying, dodging raindrops, toward the Parish Hall.

Inside, there was an air of festive anticipation, as people lined up for tickets and programs. The large hall was packed with people who had home to hear Ludwig von Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, his choral symphony, to be performed by three much-loved and well-regarded Cape Cod musical institutions: the Simon Sinfonietta, the Falmouth Chorale, and the Chatham Chorale, and the fresh young voices of the Falmouth Academy chorus; all joined by four outstanding vocal soloists.

Altogether there were 52 instrumentalists (Mr. Simon had added several more players to his chamber orchestra, which normally numbers 40) and 143 singers, almost 200 musicians in all, led with a keen respect for the music and an abundance of enthusiasm by conductor Stephen Simon and, one can imagine, in spirit, by Beethoven himself.

The capacity crowd welcomed Mr. Simon’s arrival with loud and prolonged applause, in appreciation, it seemed, not only of Mr. Simon’s decision to perform the Ninth, but, also, in recognition of what the Simon Sinfonietta means to music lovers on Cape Cod. Now in its seventh year, the chamber orchestra is know for it varied and interesting programming and high-quality performances.

The Parish Hall was an elegant venue for the concert, with its high ceilings and spacious seating on three sides of the orchestra. The only drawback was the lack of a formal stage, so that, depending on where one was sitting, the full orchestra was not entirely visible.

From where I sat, for instance, it was difficult to see all but a couple of the violins, violas, cellos, and string basses, but several of the woodwinds where in prominent view. Yet, the concert had an intimate feeling, and the music drew everyone in.

Beethoven’s Ninth, which he completed in 1824, is one of the best-known pieces of classical literature, particularly the fourth movement, the “Ode to Joy” choral movement, the theme of which most people have heard in multiple formal and popular culture settings. Mr. Simon’s presentation of the work, which he has loved since he was a small child, was a wonderful gift to the community, and those in attendance surely gained an increased appreciation and understanding of the symphony.

The symphony began with murmurings among the strings, growing louder and accented by dramatic chords, creating an intensity of feeling and power from the beginning.  Claude Cobert provided some lyrical flute solos in the calm amid the rising drama of the work. Led by Mr. Simon’s vigorous conducting, the orchestra expressed the stormy emotions of this movement eloquently.

The second movement, the Scherzo, was played with wonderful energy and speed, driven with insistent rhythms, yet under control. Here, the flute and oboe (Betsy Doriss) solos had a gritty edge to them. The movement ended in a big, satisfying flourish.

The Adagio, the third movement, began dreamily, with long notes in the winds, lyrical contributions by the violins, and a shimmering horn solo. The plucked strings were particularly effective. After a last dramatic soaring, there was a gentle and moving dying away of sound.

After a brief pause to assemble the chorus and soloists and retune the orchestra, the much-awaited fourth movement began, the main theme first expressed resoundingly in the cellos and basses, moving to the violins, and back to the low strings, with kind of a subdued grandeur, building to a grand display of the full strength of the orchestra, and Beethoven’s simple, but powerful theme.

Bass-baritone Nathan Bahny then stood, introducing the choral section of the movement. His deep and expressive voice carried throughout the church. The chorus answered him, and he was soon joined by the other three soloists, Jason McStoots, tenor; Mary Thorne, soprano; and Mary Westbrook-Geha, mezzo-soprano. The four voices were elegant and vibrant together.

The chorus was awe-inspiring, strong, and confident in the fast passages, and impassioned in the slower, dramatic sections.

Though the words were in German, written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785, the theme of the symphony, universal brotherhood, resonated throughout the hall. It could be felt not only in the music itself, but in the grand collaboration of 195 devoted professional and amateur musicians, and the warm appreciation of the audience. Bravo!

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