Over the past two seasons the American Symphony Orchestra, led by Leon Botstein, has presented the complete cycle of Beethoven Symphonies in its Classics Declassified Series at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Tonight was the triumphal conclusion, with a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony that lacked nothing in excitement, thrills, depth, beauty, and inspiration. This came on top of a superb performance just two days ago of the 8th Symphony at the same venue.
The Classics Declassified series gives audiences an opportunity to get "inside" major musical works by a bit of an immersion method. First conductor Botstein gives a talk about the piece, illustrated with examples played by the orchestra, then they perform the entire piece, and finally, if time remains, Botstein (and sometimes members of the orchestra) answer questions posed by members of the audience. (I've taken to leaving before the Q&A, which I've found over time to be less interesting than what comes before.)
Botstein's talk about the 8th Symphony on Sunday afternoon struck me as a bit odd. It was as if he really didn't know what to say about the piece. Perhaps this is because the 8th Symphony is, in my opinion, a satirical look at the classical symphony by a composer who had in recent years up-ended the classical models with each of his prior works in the genre. I don't know if Botstein understands the piece in this way. He did point out some humorous aspects of the score, but he also seemed a bit clueless as to some of the broadest jokes…, and apparently wanted to argue for the seriousness of the work.
Of course, different listeners have different reactions to great pieces of music, undoubtedly influenced by their past experiences of it. Unusually for me, my first exposure to this piece was a live concert performance. (I first became acquainted with all the others through recordings, having grown up in far suburbia – Suffolk County, NY – without regular access to live symphony concerts.) As a child, one of my first musical obsessions was Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Concerto, heard on the 78 rpm discs in my father's collection played by Dimitri Mitropoulos. One of the first LPs I bought as a teenager was the old recording by Gary Graffman with Enrique Jorda and the San Francisco Symphony. When I saw in our local newspaper that Graffman would be playing the piece in concert with the then-new Pro Arte Orchestra at Hofstra University, I pestered my Dad to take me to hear my favorite piece live. Elie Siegmeister was the conductor. The opening work on the program, which I'd never heard before, was Beethoven's 8th Symphony. I was blown away by it, and soon acquired a recording (Barbirolli/Halle), but the recording was not nearly as satisfactory as memories of the live performance. Ultimately, the recording that really opened my ears to the wonders of this symphony was Pierre Monteux and the Vienna Philharmonic, an RCA recording I heard in the listening room at the Cornell Music Department library during my freshman year. For the first time, I perceived the piece as a satire. I could actually hear the twinkle in Monteux's eyes as I listened to the second movement – a humorous commentary on Maalzel's metronome, a then-new invention that Beethoven played with. For the first time, I understood that the archaic inclusion of a "Menuetto" movement was a wry tribute to the late master Haydn and also intended to be humorous, and that the use of the bassoon in many places in the symphony was also intended to be humous, as was the lengthy (in terms of number of bars) concluding rondo with its extremes of loud and soft, stamping chords, and over-extended coda (by contrast to the end of the first movement, with its wimpy little restatement of the heroic opening them, sotto voce in the low strings). Ever since, I've thought of this piece as a satire.
As I listened to the talk, I feared that the performance to follow would be disappointing in light of my conception of the piece, but I was in for a pleasant surprise, for the rendition by Botstein and the orchestra had all the wit, warmth and humor that one could want, and was tossed off with great precision and flare.
Botstein's talk on the 9th was much more fulfilling, in my estimation, since he concentrated on the history of reception of the work and its influences on later composers in a way that was quite enlightening. (One major omission, I thought. He pointed out how the opening of Shostakovich's 5th was inspired by the opening of the Beethoven 9th, but never mentioned Bruckner. Bruckner's symphonic openings are positively haunted by the Beethoven 9th!) Botstein takes the view that Beethoven was reaching out in this symphony beyond the connoisseurs to the common people of his time, selecting a deliberately simple "big tune" for his finale to emphasize the commonality of humanity. HIs talk was most persuasive.
The performance that followed was overwhelming. The American Symphony is a capable ensemble and, throughout this Beethoven series, has proved itself most worthy of performing these great masterpieces. But the 9th poses a special challenge to the virtuosity of the orchestra, and they fully rose to that challenge. Everybody was "on." Nogroup is perfect in this piece, but they were very close to it. The only time I felt uneasy about ensemble was during the introductory section of the finale, where the coordination seemed to loosen just slightly, perhaps because of Botstein's determination to play the passages usually treated as rhythmically free recitative more strictly "in tempo" (as Beethoven indicated in the original score). Musicians are not used to doing it that way, as generations of conductors have indulged in a less strict approach to the tempo. But Botstein's way (that is to say, Beethoven's way) works: great musical geniuses like Beethoven knew what they wantdc and what they wantdc is usually better than their doubters give them credit for.
The Collegiate Chorale, prepared by their director James Bagwell, sang the dauntingly high passages with assurance, and the vocal soloists, four young singers, were superb as well. Heather Buck (soprano) and Jamie Van Eyck (mezzo) were not given much to do by Beethoven, but what he provides is challenging and they were up to the challenge. The more extensive solo work in this piece goes to the bass-baritone, who gets to introduce the vocal section with a real recitative and then to lead the chorus in the first statement of the "big tune" – and here Christian Van Horn was stunning. I can't recall having heard him before – but I'm sure I would if I had, as he was that memorable. His big, focused, beautiful voice outshone the other soloists and emerged from the ensembles with ease. Tenor Scott Ramsay was slightly thrown in the shade by Van Horn's work; heard on its own, his rendition of the big march-song solo had the requisite swagger and I would be eager to hear him again.
A fine conclusion to an enjoyable series. Next year it is back to more variety with three great masterpieces of the orchestral repertory: Mahler's 1st Symphony (Oct. 30), Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (Feb. 26), and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra (April 29). These folks are nothing if not super-ambitious, but after hearing this Beethoven 9th, I think they can tackle just about anything. Definitely worth subscribing, at AmericanSymphony.org.