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ISO ends season with Beethoven's Ninth

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Indianapolis Symphonic Choir
  • Indianapolis Symphonic Choir

What is there about Beethoven's Ninth (as it is always termed) that makes it the greatest symphony ever written? Is it the length -- the first symphony composed to exceed an hour in duration? Is it the introduction of the human voice in the final movement -- with four vocal soloists and a full chorus? Is it the proclamation of the human spirit in the verses through the pen of Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" that Beethoven set his fourth movement to?

The above factors surely contribute to the work's unceasing popularity (Friday's concert was sold out). But there is perhaps a factor more hidden to the average listener than the obvious superlatives mentioned above -- something none of the succeeding Romantic-era large-scale symphonies with greater length, bigger orchestras and more vocal writing possessed. . .musical density.

Which means more beauty -- tension and resolution -- that Beethoven compressed into each measure, each phrase, each section, each movement than in any of his preceding eight symphonies, as fine as they are. It defines Beethoven's so-called "third period" of his musical output late in his life (1817-1826), with his late piano sonatas, late quartets and, most of all, his Missa Solemnis (which the ISO will present this fall for only the second time in its history), most of which convey that density, perhaps more abstractly for some listeners.

ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański, at this writing, is conducting the Ninth each evening from Thursday through Sunday (Sunday's to be held at the Carmel Palladium). Unlike his preceding weekend, in which he conducted only the Mahler Fifth, with a length similar to the Ninth, he this time added Witold Lutoslawski's (1913-1994) late-written Symphony No. 4 (1992) to give us a full, two-hour program.

Using "ghostly" violin harmonics, an occasional violin solo by ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue and lots of percussion, the late Polish composer's symphony displayed splashy orchestral colors with no rhythmic drive attached within its two movements. I'll only say in closing that I found any part of its 25 minutes difficult to "hum."

ISC director Eric Stark
  • ISC director Eric Stark

So how well was Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 ("Choral") performed? Urbański's tempos, though on the fast side, were not the fastest I've heard on recording. But he seemed to employ one of the newer published editions which supposedly gets us closer to Beethoven's "urtext" than the time-honored Breitkopf & Härtel edition having been used forever. I heard one prominent note in the first movement's exposition that differs from what people are used to. Having heard Zinman's Tonhalle Orchestra use it many times, I'm adjusting.

Urbański observed both repeats in the Scherzo--the only ones in the entire symphony. Though the winds and brasses played well throughout the 65 minutes, the rapid string work in the first, second and fourth movements was often imprecise, nearly coming apart between the fugal statement of the "Ode" theme and the four vocalists' final quartet. The result sounded rushed, and would have worked better at a slower tempo.

Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch opened the fourth-movement singing with a wobbly delivery, rendering his variable pitch difficult to discern. Later, in the Turkish March section, tenor Eric Barry showed a bit better control but still denied us a well centered pitch. However, the Eric Stark directed Symphonic Choir sang the choruses with typical excellence. Of course the German words to Schiller's "Ode" could not be heard, but that is nothing new.

Nonetheless, we need to experience a live performance of the Ninth at least every three years, knowing a priori that it will not be perfect. June 12; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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