Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Beethoven: Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op. 36
Beethoven: Symphony No 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Diana Damrau: Soprano
Kate Lindsey: Mezzo-soprano
Piotr Beczala: Tenor
René Pape: Bass
Westminster Symphonic Choir
Back in Carnegie Hall yesterday afternoon for the last concert of the whirlwind Beethoven marathon, I was feeling sad about this performance being the last time I would be enjoying the terrific West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim from this specific seat. A quick look around the capacity crowd confirmed that beside the score-following aficionada in her usual spot, a couple of faces were also eagerly back for more.
The homestretch was promising to be a memorable grand finale with what many, including myself, consider Beethoven's crown achievement, his Ninth Symphony. When I first got my tickets, I was so excited at the prospect of the whole run that I did not even pay attention to the soloists featured on the program. When I finally did, I figured that Carnegie Hall had put the Met on speed dial and grabbed a couple of its biggest stars, with Diana Damrau and René Pape, along with two of its fastest-rising singers in Kate Lindsey and Piotr Beczala. To complete this stellar cast, the highly regarded Westminster Symphonic Choir would take care of the chorus duties. I don't think there was much more I could have asked for.
Before the massive undertaking that is the Ninth, the orchestra and its conductor got to warm up with the joyful Second. Although Beethoven was going through a dark period in his life when he wrote it, having realized that he was growing deaf, his composition neither bears any trace of fear or anxiety nor breaks any new ground. And that is just fine. The musicians treated it with the same respect and enthusiasm as any of the major works, and it was a charmingly innocuous, light-hearted way to start the concert.
Then came the Big One of the afternoon, the one that revolutionized classical music in so many ways, including its colossal size, innovative structure and emotional complexity, that it is still hard to fully comprehend how much we owe to it. But no matter what its place in music history is, it is first and foremost a deeply personal work of incredible power. Even if they did not know what to make of it when it first came out, everybody seemed to have a fervent opinion on it. Now that things have calmed down and it has become part of the cultural landscape, it is still capable of grabbing the most distracting listener's attention and stir up strong passions.
And that's exactly what happened yesterday afternoon with the orchestra whole-heartedly negotiating the epic Allegro, the breathless Scherzo and the lyrical Adagio. If there were any slight mishaps along the way, the moment was way too big for anybody to notice. And then, when René Pape suddenly got up and forcefully exhorted the musicians to stop "these sounds", they all immediately executed and impeccably switched to the new melody that would accompany Schiller's Ode to Joy. The irrepressible intensity during the textually corny but musically exhilarating hymn shot up a notch or two as the terrific choir joined in to mightily proclaim some lofty moral truths on behalf of Beethoven. The four soloists did the little they had to do very well and predictably left us wanting for more. Always in total charge of the big picture as much as the tiniest details, Daniel Barenboim had orchestra and singers at his fingertips throughout the whole journey and drew an exceptionally thrilling performance from all of them.
And after all, what better advocates for Beethoven's sweeping call for understanding among men than a dedicated artist profusely awarded for his peace efforts and an ensemble of brilliant young musicians deeply committed to listening to one another?