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The Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra ended its formal season on a damp Saturday night* with a powerful – and powerfully moving – performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Huff Concert Hall on the campus of Methodist University. The stage was packed. The auditorium was nearly so. This orchestra is a treasure. Its conductor is a superb artist. And this great work's message is something we all need to hear. It's a shame the FSO gave it only once. It's a safe bet that many of those who were there to hear it would be happy to hear it again.
As a lead-up to the Big Event, music director and conductor Stefan Sanders and the orchestra provided a series of excerpts from other symphonies – by Haydn (No. 89), Mozart (No. 40), and Beethoven (Nos. 3 and 5). The purpose was to contextualize the Ninth, to demonstrate just how radical it was, at the time of its creation. It occurred to us that far lesser music by some of Beethoven's contemporaries might have done the job even better. But then only the masterworks have survived, haven't they?
It may be worth noting that there's somewhat of a performing dichotomy between Haydn conductors and orchestras and Mozarteans – rarely do the two meet in a single stick-waver. It's a pleasure to report that – absent the fact that the excerpts were played by the full FSO, and it's a substantial orchestra – the selections were very handsomely realized, making one hope to hear more music from the late Classical period from these players.
But it was Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, in D minor, Op. 125, known as the "Choral Symphony," aka "Ode to Joy," that was the draw, and this Ninth did not disappoint.
The performance involved the orchestra, of course, and it was in very fine fettle. Maybe there were too few double basses, but this ensemble has a cello section to die for, and the cellists playing with the basses on several key occasions produced some truly radiant sound. The winds were consistently excellent, the brasses and timpanist and percussionists were spot on, and the overall impression conveyed was akin to a well-oiled, precisely tuned machine. Minor glitches, including some wayward horn passages, were few and far between and never disfiguring – and imagine, if you will, what some of this music must have sounded like before the brass instruments had valves!
The soloists, arrayed across the lip of the stage for the finale, were very nicely matched. Soprano Erin (Leigh) Murdock nailed the climactic high passage that defines all successful performances of this great work and everywhere else made sterling contributions to its success. Mezzo-soprano Angela Burns likewise made consistent contributions to the ensemble, moving from strength to supporting strength. Tenor (and real estate executive) Melvin Ezzell demonstrated his excellent voice and musicianship while adding to his lengthy list of solo accomplishments in Wilmington and beyond. Baritone Jeffrey L. Jones rounded out the foursome, bringing both elegance and drama to his prominent solos.
The huge choir, performing as The Spring Festival Chorus (the name is a nod to Cincinnati's famous May Festival Chorus, whose long-time director spent several years at UNC) consisted of singers from six regional ensembles, brought together for this concert and polished by Michael Martin of Methodist U. The participating choirs and their directors were: the Campbell University Choir/Choral Society (Phillip Morrow), the Cumberland Oratorio Singers (Jason Britt), the Fayetteville Technical Community College Choir (Jenne Carey), the Fayetteville State University Concert Choir (Denise Murchison Payton), and Martin's own Methodist University Chorale. This aggregation made for a big assembly, and the precision of the singers' training was often evident in their good projection of the German text. But despite some likely (albeit unobtrusive) amplification – there were mikes in front of the choir, at the back of the stage – the choral portions seemed somewhat remote except when the group was singing pretty much on its own. The hall's width and relatively low ceiling coupled with the depth of the stage makes this matter challenging, for certain. (I am not sure how I would deal with it, were I required to address it.)
The chief oversight was a lack of Schiller's text – with the composer's emendations and additions – and a translation thereof, for the perusal of which the house lights would have had to have been raised. This would in turn have perhaps undercut the prevailing mood, but the meaning of that last movement is crucial so for the record readers may see the poem here.
Sanders knows his stuff, and this was a spectacular piece of conducting work. He'd warned us that it would be a 70-minute sit – this incidentally reflects the reason the compact disc is the length that it is, so as to accommodate this very work on a single piece of plastic – but he brought it in at 63, drawing us so intensely into the music that during crucial portions – for example, in the sublime, quite other-worldly Adagio – the audience seemed totally spellbound in its collective contemplation of the meaning of the work and its import.
The audience clearly included some folks who are not regular patrons – a thoroughly positive thing, of course. There was applause at the conclusion of the first two movements and then cheers and a complete standing ovation at the end, as if with one voice all were indeed for a brief period of time united. We can hope.
This was surely the first performance of the great work for many of the participants and for the crowd that assembled to hear it. Let us hope it is not the last for most of them. (From his seat near us in the darkened hall, an old man unobtrusively conducted nearly the whole thing. Here's hoping he has many more chances to do so!)
It was good. Very, very good.
As noted at the outset, this orchestra is a treasure – it's one of our state's best. We must cherish and support it to keep the music going in our midst, because music is vital to our civilization.
There's a youth orchestra concert on May 9 and a patriotic pops event on July 1. Next season begins on Oct. 9 and encompasses seven attractive programs. Visit the orchestra's website for details.
*The monsoon seems to have been at its worst between Dunn and Falcon about two hours before the concert, as players from the Triangle were making their way south to Fayetteville....