May Festival 2014: Ode to Joy

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Friday night’s concert repeated a pattern I had seen before at the May Festival: a minor introductory work featuring well intentioned but clumsy fugues, followed by a good regional orchestra tackling the first three movements of a challenging masterwork, and ending with a spectacular, world class performance of the Ode to Joy.

In 2008, the introductory work was by Zeisl, an Austrian composer from the WWII era whose work has been largely forgotten. In 2014, it was Tchaikovsky’s Ode to Joy, a work written while he was a student at the conservatory and one that the composer wanted people to forget.

This was an interesting history lesson. You can hear hints of the genius that would later flourish, but these were separated by some pretty tedious passages. I became more engaged with the piece during the a cappella setting of “But if there be one to whom these blessings [the paradise of women’s friendship] are strange, in tears, in secret, retreat and be gone”. Given Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation and the culture of his time, it is not surprising that such lines inspired the young student to write something more personal, more meaningful, than the studied formality that constrains much of the rest of this work.

Frankly, I was dissatisfied with the performance of the the first three movements of the Beethoven. The same thing had happened in 2008: having recently heard wonderful concerts conducted by Paavo Jarvi, I wondered, upon hearing the opening section of the Ninth, “Is this the same orchestra?”. Friday night was similar. The thrilling opening movement should sizzle, and it simply didn’t. The ensemble was not always crisp, the horns were sometimes a bit insecure, the balance seemed haphazard, and the melodies lacked luster. The scherzo was better, but the slow movement was a bit dull. In sum, it was ok, but nothing to get excited about. Perhaps, during the busy preparations, these movements were underrehearsed; after all, the orchestra has performed this music often. Perhaps Conlon’s heart wasn’t in these merely instrumental pieces. In any event, this was not the work of a world class symphony orchestra.

Then, the final movement, the one with soloists and chorus, the one the May Festival is designed for, began. A new energy immediately appeared. The opening recitative in low strings had shape, intensity, unity of ensemble, subtle nuance. The conductor’s gestures seemed to shaped the sound. In short, the orchestra was suddenly great.

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I was pleased to see Rodrick Dixon substituting for the tenor who was sick, thus integrating the cast of soloists. The performance of the Dett in the earlier concert brought attention to the racial prejudice in the late 1930s. Our culture has made some progress in this area since then, and Dixon’s presence made that progress visible on stage during Beethoven testament to to the brotherhood of man.

The soloists sang beautifully, with power and grace. I was particularly impressed by the bass, Kristinn Sigmundsson. Often, basses with large, powerful voices sing with such a thick vibrato that it is difficult to follow the music. With Sigmundsson, I had no such problems. (On the following night, I had the pleasure of hearing his recital of Romantic German Lieder, accompanied masterfully by pianist Micheal Chertock: never have I heard a finer performance of this repertoire.)

However, the real star of Friday night’s concert was the May Festival Chorus, one of the best large chorus in the world. The Beethoven Ninth, as demanding as it may be, is right in their wheel house. Their opening “Freude” sent chills down my spine (it always does). The long high notes in the sopranos floated in the starry night. The final double fugue was clear and thrilling.

I found the last movement so packed with material, so exciting, and, though nearly a half hour long, so short! It was worth the wait.

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