For sheer drama in classical music this year, it will be hard to top the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s knife’s-edge performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on Saturday night at the sold-out Music Center at Strathmore.
Featuring exceptionally lively tempos, a quartet of fine vocal soloists, and superb choral delivery of music and lyrics, the BSO under guest conductor Nicholas McGegan transmitted Beethoven’s musical vision of the Brotherhood of Man with passion and abandon.
You can’t easily surpass the stagecraft of a few measures before the end of the symphony, when the impish and ebullient Mr. McGegan, who doesn’t use a baton and stomps his feet for extra emphasis, grabbed the railing behind him with his left hand and swiveled around. Almost facing the audience, he conducted the finish like a jockey riding the winning horse at the Kentucky Derby. Standing ovations may not mean anything in terms of artistic validity, but if Beethoven wanted people to be moved by his Ninth Symphony, it might please his spirit to know that the entire house was on its feet in three seconds flat.
The key to the BSO’s triumph was an outstanding performance of the symphony’s first and last movements. Beethoven’s Ninth opens with what the BSO’s excellent program notes referred to as a “primordial ooze” of open chords on the string instruments’ fundamental tones looking for a key to settle in. Mr. McGegan found a relatively sprightly tempo to make this opening less academic-sounding than it often does. That gave it the propulsion to grow into an ominous declaration of the symphony’s official key of D minor (only to be defeated an hour later by Beethoven’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in D major).
Without a true melody in the traditional sense to guide it, the orchestra gave a muscular reading of the first movement, with large swells and retreats at key moments. Superb interplay between the full string section and counter-lines in the oboes and bassoons set an expectant tone for the finish of the movement in a perfect unison of the entire orchestra.
The performance of the played and sung fourth and final movement – really the signature of Beethoven’s Ninth – was a magnificent reading of a very challenging and potentially confusing piece of music. Credit first goes to bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams, who luminously opened the singing with an extra line penned by Beethoven himself, which pleads for the orchestra to put aside the doomsday theme it had suddenly returned to and get back to the “Ode to Joy” theme it had instrumentally introduced a few minutes earlier.
Mr. Foster-Williams set up the moment with visible reactions to the orchestra’s changing moods, making his vocal intrusion into a symphony orchestra (on the German equivalent of “Oh friends, not these tones! Let us sing more cheerful songs, full of joy”) seem like the most natural thing in the world. His own vocal tone is a perfect mix of a warm baritone and a stentorian bass, with projection to spare in the large Strathmore hall. The blend among Mr. Foster-Williams and his solo compatriots – soprano Katie Van Kooten, mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips, and tenor Thomas Cooley – was winning and gratifying.
But the real star of the movement was the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, all of whose 100 or more members behind the orchestra demonstrated total buy-in to the letter and spirit of Beethoven’s Ninth. Superbly prepared by its director, Tom Hall, the chorus delivered crisp diction of the German lyrics rather than the watery mix it can easily fall into when sung by Americans. Blends among the soprano, alto, tenor and bass sections were balanced and enjoyable. A difficult passage of high A’s and B-flats by the sopranos – no big deal for any soprano soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth but a very big (and often shrieky) deal for a large soprano section in the chorus – was nicely carried off.
Before reaching “Ode to Joy,” the middle two movements of the symphony were effective if occasionally a bit of a white-knuckle ride. Mr. McGegan ramped up the metronome a tick or two further and sent the second movement – a brilliant spinning wheel of a single rhythmic figure passed all around the orchestra that served as theme music for a national newscast in the 1960s – off to the races. The fantastic acoustics of Strathmore were practically a character in this movement, as temporary retreats by orchestral sections on the movement’s signature rhythm created a marvelous “decay” in the final notes of those passages.
The only problem was that the tempo was so fast I often wanted the music not to continue so I could enjoy the brief fadeouts even more! And then the final unison passage of the second movement (unlike the perfect final unison of the first movement) almost didn’t start together. But helping to hold the piece together was the fascinating sight of principal second violinist Qing Li regularly looking to her right and catching the eye of BSO Concertmaster (or head first violinist) Jonathan Carney to keep the bowing of their large sections in sync. It wasn’t out of any evident real anxiety – Ms. Li often smiled when she did this and, at one point, even appeared to start laughing – but it was a good device with an extra-enthusiastic guest conductor on the podium to make sure things didn’t go awry.
In the lyrical third movement, the orchestra mostly played with a luscious tone over the course of the movement, even if it did have to navigate past one or two momentary bobbles.
Prior to Beethoven’s Ninth, the BSO concisely opened the program with three concert pieces, two of them with the participation of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. The most notable was a setting by Beethoven of another poem, by his own contemporary Friedrich von Matthisson, called Opferlied (or “Sacrificial Song”). The text – suspend disbelief if you need to – speaks of a boy making a sacrifice to Zeus in an oak grove and asking for beautiful things in his old age because of his good behavior now. But it was actually a showcase for Mary Phillips, the mezzo-soprano, singing in a gorgeous combination with clarinets, bassoons, horns and a solo cello line performed by BSO principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski.
You know that the BSO has established a broad-based following in the D.C. metro area when you head out of a concert and you hear a fellow attendee urgently relating to his group the play-by-play he’s receiving on his cell phone of the playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Can the National Symphony say the same about its audience checking in on Redskins games? Don’t answer that.) Whether thanks are due to Mr. McGegan, the singers, the orchestra’s resourceful section principals, or Beethoven himself, it’s been proven yet again that in the right hands, Beethoven’s Ninth is an event not to be missed.
Running time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Beethoven’s Ninth with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society was performed on Saturday, January 3, 2015 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane in North Bethesda, MD. For future Baltimore Symphony concerts at Strathmore, check the BSO’s Strathmore concert calendar. For all future Strathmore events, check their calendar of events.