Beethoven’s 9th Symphony has become an icon for all that is good about humanity. Its flight from darkness to light, from chaos to order, from pain to bliss has become emblematic of the human desire to transcend suffering. The Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, led by Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky, in conjunction with four able soloists and a gangbuster performance by the Greensboro Choral Society gave a thrilling performance of this lengthy and involved masterpiece. At the conclusion of the performance, one could easily understand why Beethoven thought that the simple act of singing together made humanity better.
The first three movements are instrumental, with the vocalists joining the proceedings in the Finale. The murky opening theme, which slowly coalesces out of the mist, was powerfully put forth. In the course of this 15-minute Allegro, which holds an inordinate amount of tension, a tremendous battle takes place. Maestro Sitkovetsky’s taut direction kept the conflict never far from the surface. To be sure, not everything was perfect: in the thick of the mêlée, ensemble got a bit messy.
Sitkovetsky kept the energy coming with a fast tempo for the second movement Scherzo in which the fugal opening fairly flew, with rhythmically vital and loud timpani playing by Peter Zlotnick adding to the fray. The more pastoral Trio featured some great brass and wind playing.
The heavenly third movement Adagio, set in a major key, is a loose set of variations with some surprising trumpet fanfares. The movement provides some respite from the previous minor-key movements and provides lots of great wind and brass solos.
The 20-minute Finale is practically a symphony in itself. Beginning with a violent outburst that rips open the mood established at the end of the previous movement (Richard Wagner called it the “fanfare of horror”), Beethoven brings back the opening tunes of the previous three movements, ultimately rejecting them for something different. Separating each of these quotes is an instrumental recitative played by the low strings, which Sitkovetsky took unnecessarily slow (boarding on the pedantic).
The rejection of the past is announced by the evening’s bass soloist, Harold Wilson, who displayed a hearty and commanding presence. The famous “Ode to Joy” theme follows, which the GSO played wonderfully soft and stirring. From this humble beginning comes an intricate series of variations that eventually calls for solo soprano (Meredith Hansen, displaying good sound and the ability to surmount the thankless high notes), alto (Cheryse McLeod Lewis, who provided solid middle support), tenor (Daniel Stein, whose voice added color and drama to the quartet), and bass.
As accomplished as the soloists were, the real sparks flew when the chorus sang; they were well prepped for the arduous vocal journey by GCS Conductor Jon Brotherton. Stamina is definitely needed to negotiate the long, loud, and high tessitura demanded by Beethoven. And the Choral Society gave forth one of its most exciting and polished performances heard in recent years.
The evening began with magnificent singing by Richard Ollarsaba in the form of three bass arias. Mozart’s comic “Catalog” aria from Don Giovanni gave the large audience a taste of the bass-baritone’s substantial and rich vocal timbre. His winning presentation revealed his acting chops as well. Even though the soloist tried to move the tempo forward, Sitkovetsky seemed unwilling or unable to accommodate the singer — a pity, because the opening section would have been more effective at a brisker tempo.
The second aria, from Rachmaninoff’s opera Aleko, featured Ollarsaba’s romantic side, as the character sings of his grief over lost love. The third aria, from Verdi’s Macbeth, revealed the dramatic side of the singer, who, as the character Banco, senses his own impending murder. The audience was justly smitten with Ollarsaba’s wonderful artistry and beautiful and moving voice. We look forward to hearing more from this up and coming singer.
Also on the first half of the concert was the Adagietto movement from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, which served as a gentle memorial for long-time GSO violist Emile Joseph Simonel, Jr., who passed away this year; a lovely tribute to a beloved colleague of the symphony.