Sometime in his or her life, every living person should experience a live performance of the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven. It’s not enough to know the tune or hymn of the last movement, or to have experienced it in a movie such as A Clockwork Orange or even to know the piece from a DVD performance. To share the message of Joy – after the mysterious search of the first movement, the fury of the dance in the over-sized scherzo and the sublime repose of the Adagio/Andante – with an audience who is experiencing the same music at the same time makes that experience indelible and unforgettable.

Piedmont Triad audiences have ample opportunity of share this experience in one of the three performances this weekend at the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem. (See sidebar for details.) Robert Moody conducts the Winston-Salem Symphony and combined choruses of the Symphony Chorale and the Cantata Singers of the University of NC School of the Arts as well as four outstanding soloists, Christina Major, soprano, Stephanie Foley Davis, mezzo-soprano, Vale Rideout, tenor and Soloman Howard, bass.

The orchestra, under the leadership of guest concertmaster Daniel Skidmore, was in fine fettle and except for a couple of early woodwind ritardandi in the first movement, delightfully together and well in tune. Fourth horn player Lynn Beck played a spectacular solo in the third movement, crowning a great evening for the brass in general and for the horns in particular.

The powerful bass voice of Soloman Howard invited us to new musical ideas in the last movement recitative. Tenor Vale Rideout soared over the somewhat stodgy Turkish March section, and soprano Christina Major was at her best in the fioratura passages of the Poco adagio moments, as was mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis.

The chorus, prepared by Dr. Christopher Gilliam and Dr. Nathan Zullinger, was incredibly powerful in the high and ungrateful register Beethoven chose to place it. One wished only for more nuance in the middle passages – the performance seemed either loud or louder, and the softer gentler moments (e.g. “Ihr stürtz nieder, millionen?”) were given short shrift. But the double fugue (6/4) was glorious, even at break-neck speed! Bravo!

Maestro Moody’s choices of tempos were fairly orthodox – my mother would have been quite at home with them – particularly compared to performances based on recent scholarship (see Jonathan Del Mar and David Levy), which shave off as much as five minutes from the length of the work. But the performance was satisfying, with the appropriate moments of profound inquiry and introspection.

Technological innovations are supposed to simplify and improve the human condition – but often the contrary occurs, at least for a while. Beethoven’s interest in the recently invented metronome and his decision to use it for many of his most important compositions is a case in point. Often the printed metronomic indication seems too fast for the sensitive musician who “feels” that another tempo might better allow him or her to express Beethoven’s music better. And fair enough – as long as the relationships between Beethoven’s chosen tempos is respected; faster movements must be at least somewhat faster than slower tempos – or so one would hope! Yet, often this relationship is neglected or even contradicted.

Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is unique in that there are several ambiguities and errors in the setting out of the metronomic tempos by Beethoven (who was by then totally deaf and had to rely on handwritten messages to convey his thoughts), his nephew Karl (who was already shown to be unreliable as a scribe) and the publishers themselves. As a result, there is a wide variety in the understanding of Beethoven’s wishes, and of performances of this masterpiece in particular.

The concert opened with Ode, by Mason Bates, a 10-minute work for very large orchestra, but which takes its inspiration from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Beginning with a colorful cluster of notes (which is replayed just before the end), somber and tragic episodes alternate with hopeful snippets of moments from the “Ode to Joy” and work backwards through the symphony until we arrive at that strange open fifth (A and E) which opens the “Ninth.” What a pity that the horns had to re-attack their notes to start the symphony… But the idea is still intriguing!

This performance repeats Sunday, October 16 and Tuesday, October 18. See our sidebar for details.