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The North Carolina School of the Arts' November 19 performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was a triumphant success from every point of view, but the big winner, appropriately enough, was the symphony itself. Written during the decade preceding its premiere in 1824, the work embodies a profound spiritual and emotional voyage. Empty fifths and fourths, cascading downward in the strings, lead to the birth of a powerful theme in d minor, the first of two seminal keys which dominate the entire symphony: D (Major/minor) and B flat Major.
Innovations abound in the "Ninth," including the size and position of the massive Scherzo, uprooted from its usual third place and planted after the first movement, a sort of huge coda to the first movement. Indeed, thematically it is closely related to the first theme of that movement.
The meditative and cantabile third movement, alternating between B flat Major and D major (with excursions into related keys) is a large set of variations. The opening theme, in its first four notes, even outlines the two seminal keys, D and B flat. The strings present the alternating themes with commentary from the woodwinds. Notable is a long horn solo, surprisingly written for (and played by, in this performance) the 4th horn, doubtless because of the extreme changes in tessitura, from high to very low and then back to high again. The difficult solo was played almost flawlessly by Elizabeth Tritica, a graduate student of David Jolley.
The juxtaposition of the two keys in question is nowhere more apparent than at the shocking start of the famous last movement, where they are played at the same time, on top of each other! After a furious passage, a cello and double bass unison recitative, marked (but almost never played) "in tempo," yields to reminiscences of the preceding movements before re-sounding the terrible dissonance of the opening.
Then ensues a vocal recitative, well sung by bass Alphonso Cherry, an alumnus of NCSA. Significantly, the first words (penned by Beethoven himself) refer to the clash of the two predominant keys: "O friends, not these notes, but something... more joyous!" The hymn that follows, quietly at first and ever more insistently, provokes a sharp gasp and a lump in the throat of the listener, no matter how familiar the tune.
Beethoven, with genius, has crafted this "Hymn to Joy" into a tremendous set of variations which include a Turkish March (in B flat, of course!) two double fugues, and intricate contrapuntal writing for the four soloists – soprano Emily Amber Newton and Cherry, both NCSA alums, and Marion Pratnicki, alto, and James Allbritten, tenor, both Artist-Faculty members of the NCSA. The vocal writing in this symphony is difficult and unrewarding; nonetheless, the soloists in this performance were very balanced and performed well. The only solo other than bass recitative mentioned is a sprightly tenor intervention in the Turkish march section which James Allbritten sang with energy and exquisite diction.
The chorus – the combined forces of the NCSA Cantata Singers and the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale, both prepared by James Allbritten – was frankly awesome! Accurate pitch, clear diction, rich vowels sounds, and a tremendous range of dynamics gave proof of excellent preparation and execution.
The orchestra, under the direction of NCSA Artist-Faculty member Serge Zehnacker, was equal to the chorus, although the beefed-up string sections – especially the violins in their upper register – tended to overbalance the woodwinds. It may well be that the new shell installed on the stage in the Stevens Center exacerbates this tendency, but one hopes experience will teach the musicians to compensate. On the other hand, the trumpets and tympani were often too loud and at one point (in the dissonant chords of the Finale) were so loud that they effectively drowned out the dissonance.
There are many ambiguities and even contradictions in the manuscript and the many subsequent editions of the score; so many as to spawn a vast panoply of interpretations – performances lasting from 58 minutes to an hour and a half. Maestro Zehnacker's rendition was at neither extreme; when faced with whether to trust Beethoven's metronome markings or not, he often chose the latter. Nonetheless, the performance was a moving and convincing one: proof that the music transcends the moment; that the spirit surpasses time. Beethoven won!
Note: To see a copy of an actual autograph of the 9th Symphony, visit http://beethoven.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/de/sinfonien/9/1/1.html [inactive 6/10] or http://beethoven.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/digitale-abbildungen.html. (Thanks to Orchestra-List contributor Neal Schermerhorn!)