There is perhaps no ninth symphony as famous as Beethoven’s Ninth – the Ninth. It is the summit every composer after him sought to reach but none surpassed. Johannes Brahms’ crafted his own first symphony in the shadow of Beethoven, paying homage to the great composer through musical references. Bruckner, another great symphonist, reached his own ninth but died before it was completed. Stricken by self-doubt through his life, never sure of his own talents, it is ironically Bruckner’s own ninth which many consider his best. Then there is Mahler, who was so intimidated by Beethoven’s symphonic opus that he renumbered his own symphonies to avoid the magic number “9.”
Performances of the Ninth are always filled with a sense of occasion because of the symphony’s overarching message of universal brotherhood. It is a message worth heading during these challenging times for the Seattle Symphony. The Ninth has been used in Seattle to mark the change from one year to the next; a local tradition embraced as enthusiastically as the Messiah is at Christmas.
This year’s Ninth was preceded by Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes. Brahms’ charming waltzes aren’t as demanding as the Ninth, but the proved to be friendly pieces for the orchestra, soloists, and the chorale. But, it was the Ninth people came to hear, and just like previous years, Wednesday’s performance predictably stirred the spirit.
Gerard Schwarz customarily takes the podium for the annual performance of the Ninth. After so many performances of Beethoven’s masterpiece, you might not expect Schwarz to have anything left to say. But, by keeping the movement’s storminess in check, Schwarz and the orchestra captured the mysteriousness of the movement’s opening and instilled a grand purpose and gravitas Schwarz retained in the symphony’s subsequent movements. This was true in the the slow third movement and especially the horn solo, which were beautifully rendered contrasts to the preceding two movements.
Beethoven lets everything hang out in the final movement. It takes a few tries for the movement’s music to find its moorings and escape the dissonant opening. The orchestra cycles through musical ideas from the previous three movements before settling on a subject which is repeatedly varied during the movement. Schwarz whipped the orchestra into white-knuckled intensity while the Seattle Symphony Chorale and the four soloists for the evening – Amanda Pabyan (soprano); Kathryn Weld (mezzo-soprano); Jason Collins (tenor) and Charles Robert Austin (bass-baritone) — sang out on the Ninth’s message of universal brotherhood. Austin’s is the first voice we hear. Deep and stentorian, he exclaims an urging call to retire our sadness and replace it with joy. Tenor Jason Collins does exactly that when he steps forward later in the movement with the statement – “Froh!”– Joyous. If you saw the Ring this summer, you’ll remember Collins from his portrayal of Froh and Siegmund. Collins seemed out of sync with Schwarz’s chosen tempo on the first night of the Ninth. Nevertheless, Collins’ solo will be remembered because of his incisive diction and genuinely optimistic presentation.
By combining urgently new music with Schiller’s message of brotherhood, Beethoven created a masterpiece that endures as one of the most important pieces of music in the Western cannon. Performances of the piece don’t need the trappings of an event or a holiday to be an occasion. Even as most of the people gathered in Benaroya Hall attended Wednesday’s concert as a way to wrap up their 2009, the real occasion, at least for me, was Schwarz and the SSO’s excellent performance of the Ninth.