Last night I attended the Columbus Symphony Orchestra's presentation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (Choral). I love Beethoven, and even though I am (along with the rest of humanity) very familiar with the fourth and final movement, the "Choral" of the title, which contains the "Ode to Joy", I didn't know much--if anything--about the rest of the hour-long symphony. So I thought I'd go and hear the entire thing.
A little background: Beethoven's 9th is ground-breaking, for a couple reasons. First, the introduction of voices into the symphony. Before Beethoven's 9th, this had never been done. Sure, there were oratorios (ie, Handle's Messiah), but voices had not been incorporated into the symphony form, which was purely instrumental music. Beethoven's addition of chorus and four soloists--soprano, mezzo, tenor, bass--in the last movement was incredibly innovative. As a singer, I love anything with a chorus and soloists, so that was the particular attraction the 9th held for me (as well as Beethoven being my favorite instrumental composer. Vocal composers--different story).
The concert, held at the Ohio Theater, was preceded by a talk about the work by Christopher Purdy, a classical music specialist from the local NPR/public radio station. I am a sucker for pre-or-post work talks--Symphony, BalletMet, whatever. I love them. After the talk, the instrumentalists came on stage to begin the warm-up process. This is one of my favorite things about the symphony--how everyone (except the concertmaster) comes out at random and just starts playing. A marvelous cacophany is produced.
By the time the concert began, the hall seemed pretty full. I was in the first row (not the best for orchestral hearing, but I like to see the faces of the players, plus I wanted to study the vocalists' technique, who were seated up front), and behind me the floor seemed packed. THis is good. The CSO had some money problems of late (they finished last season in the black-yay!), so it's great to see the hall crowded. In my row there was also a family with two little girls, who behaved beautifully. The soprano singer, at the curtain call, even blew them kisses. They were adorable (and I think related to one of the violinists, but can't be sure.).
After the playing of the National Anthem (which was especially awesome, since the chorus was onstage singing too), the Ninth began. Since it runs about an hour, it was the only item on the program.
Describing instrumental music is harder for me then say, theater or dance. How I define a good performance is based on how it moves me. Of course I can hear/see any massive problems, but in a professional symphony any mistakes are usually far beyond my ability to identify them (when I go to a concert with Tiffany, who has her MA in Clarinet performance, this is much improved, because she can hear everything, including the tiniest mistakes.). But let me say that this was a glorious performance. Everyone seemed to be on top of the music, and the feeling from the players was evident. They really seemed to enjoy performing this piece.
The vocalists, who entered the stage prior to beginning the third movement, were also very good. I enjoyed watching the soprano the best--she had excellent stage presence and expression--and the tenor, who had a marvelous voice. The bass seemed a bit easily overtaken by the orchestra. The mezzo was technically excellent, but I felt her face was somewhat lacking. Not that she wasn't pretty, but she seemed too concentrated on the music to convey the expressions of joy that she was singing about to the audience. Since the text was in German, expression is important, because chances are the majority of the audience has no idea what you're saying. All the singers were technically excellent, but I would've liked a bit more emotion from the mezzo.
The chorus was, as usual, superb. They always do a good job. When they make their entrance in the main "Ode to Joy" theme, backed by the full orchestra playing all out, it was a glorious sound. Truly wonderful.
I can think of no better way to summarize the performance than this--the CSO, chorus, and soloists received the longest standing ovation I have ever seen. People leapt up as soon as the last note was sounded, and we kept clapping for at least four curtain calls. We just did not stop clapping. I wouldn't be surprised if the applause lasted for four or five minutes.
Sometimes when a piece ends, the audience is so lulled into it, or so intensely involved, that when it ends, there's a sort of disconnect. You're still thinking of the music, and the moment hangs in the air. But after this piece, the reaction was electric. People loved it, and not just because it's Beethoven's 9th. We had seen a truly remarkable performance.
The CSO is performing the 9th again today at 3:00. If you can, head on down to the Ohio Theater and hear it.