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The recent film Monuments Men reminded us of the importance of human artistic "monuments," focusing on the paintings, sculptures, and architecture saved from destruction and theft during WWII. Like these other arts, music has its own "monuments," in the vanguard of which the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven has its own reserved place. Its combination of ground-breaking music with the inspired poetry of Friedrich von Schiller's Ode to Joy has made it a focal point for celebratory events of worldwide (think Leonard Bernstein's performance at the crumbled Berlin Wall) and local significance. This concert was one of a series celebrating the renovation of Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium.
"The Ninth" united the performing forces of the Duke Symphony Orchestra, the Duke Chorale, members of The Choral Society of Durham, soprano Andrea Moore, alto Elizabeth Tredent, tenor Timothy Culver, and baritone Brian Johnson, all under the direction of the Orchestra's conductor, Harry Davidson. An amateur performance, yes, and like all such performances, it had its points of weakness; but what is important is not the flaws, but rather the great majority of times when the performers did what their conductor asked of them.
After the late beginning (the orchestra tuned at twelve minutes past the announced starting time), Davidson cajoled, urged, marched on the podium, encouraged, and inspired his musicians with gestures that, while sometimes less than subtle, were always exactly what was needed for the moment. Orchestral balances were generally good, although the string players placed at the front of the proscenium lacked the enhancement provided to the main-stage-placed woodwinds and brass by the handsome acoustical shell. One exception: the timpani, which were frequently too booming for this symphony's sonic requirements. Without having to resort to a total "period instrument" approach, using less modern timpani heads would solve this imbalance.
As the opening movement progressed, it was clear that these young orchestral musicians are on a journey of continuing discovery of the best that the human spirit can produce. Meeting on this musical ground where generations since Beethoven have had their own revelations of music and self, these players with backgrounds from both Western and Eastern cultures offered proof, once again, that music is indeed the one "universal language." That language was spoken fluently by all during this concert.
The second moment (Molto Vivace) was taken at a slightly slower pace than one often hears it when played by professional ensembles. That pace was, however, almost exactly the tempo prescribed by Beethoven in his score. The orchestra was up to the challenge of the perpetual-motion figurations of the opening and coda sections, while both string and woodwind sections brought out the lyrical quality of the "presto."
An unfortunate intermission followed the second movement, breaking the work's continuity for both audience and performers. Ostensibly added to allow entrance of the chorus, the interval was much longer than that stage business required, and seemed to rob the third movement (Adagio molto e cantabile) of the lyricism and serenity one would have expected after hearing the first two movements. As for it being too demanding of the chorus to ask it to stand silently during the first three movements of the symphony: the conductor does. At the "andante" section of the third movement, the orchestra recovered its sense of the work as Davidson implored the first violinists to spin out their elegiac melodies.
While the opening chord of the final movement lacked the attention-raising quality that led Harvey Sachs to call it Beethoven's "terror chord," the cello/bass recitatives which followed were superbly played. Baritone Brian Johnson delivered the first vocal appearance of the principal melody with vigor and clear tone, although his low register failed to carry through the orchestra. Davidson's interpretation of the fermata (hold) of the final fortissimo chord which closes the first choral section was electrifying: longer than usual, with the intensity building all the way to the cutoff. Beethoven clearly wanted to emphasize the phrase vor Gott (" before God") here, as he repeats it three times, the last time ending on a surprising F-major chord in the D-major tonality of this section.
Tenor Timothy Culver's "Janissary March" rang through the rather forceful woodwind score; soprano and alto soloists Andrea Moore and Elizabeth Tredent handled their quartet responsibilities with distinction.
The choral sound was excellent; balance was good except for the alto section, which seemed vocally outweighed by the other sections. Davidson encouraged their marcato singing throughout much of the movement, a curious departure from his faithfulness to Beethoven's markings throughout the rest of the symphony.
The final peroration, surely one of the greatest closing pages in all symphonic literature, brought the full house to its feet. Conductor Davidson, the performers, and chorus master Rodney Wynkoop received deserved applause from the audience.