Friday, July 24, 2009

BSO - All-Beethoven - 07/23/09

Conductor: Günther Herbig
Beethoven: Symphony No 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, "Choral"
Kelley O'Connor: Mezzo-soprano
Heidi Stober: Soprano
Gordon Gietz: Tenor
Stephen Powell: Baritone
After a couple of very slow weeks in terms of musical enjoyment, yesterday evening I was back at Strathmore for the last concert of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s "Summer Nights" series, the by now traditional Symphony No 9 by Beethoven. Amazingly written when the composer was completely deaf, it is by all accounts a remarkable work of universal dimensions and certainly has the track record to prove so. Among its numerous claims to fame are a performance conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the reopening of Bayreuth’s Festpsiel in 1951, a concert led by Leonard Bernstein in Berlin right after the tearing down of the wall in 1989, not to mention Seiji Ozawa conducting the Nagano Winter Orchestra as well as seven choirs in six countries (New York City, Berlin, Cape Point, Sydney, and Beijing and Nagano, where two choruses were at hand) for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games during the finale of the opening ceremony. Its grand fourth movement has become no less than the anthem of the European Union, and the list goes on and on. That was the only piece on the program, but, really, what else could have stood next to Beethoven's crowning achievement?
So it was in a packed Strathmore auditorium that the symphony took a straightforward but constantly improving flight under the well-experienced baton of eminent guest conductor Günther Herbig. The first movement was all gripping harmonies and the scherzo's rhythms were kept consistently propulsive and infectious. After a delicately meditative adagio came the truly grand finale with its majestic choral passages and a stirring rendition of Schiller’s beautiful “Ode to Joy” courtesy of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and the four dedicated soloists. Rejecting the main themes of the three preceding movements with a resounding "Oh Freunde, nicht diese Töne!" ("Oh friends, not these sounds!") baritone Stephen Powell decisively started singing the words of Schiller to the new melody, soon to be joined by an unstoppable, hair-raising chorus. Together with the fully engaged orchestra, they brilliantly brought out the joyful exuberance of Schiller's prose and the unabashed radiance of Beethoven's elated score, all in glorious praise of the human spirit. Overplayed as this symphony may be, it was still as good as the first time.

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