Billed as the Season Finale Gala, Beethoven 9 was always going to attract an enthusiastic following. Although in my opinion it would stand admirably as the only work on a program, a curtain-raiser is traditionally required, and in an inspired programming choice, we were presented with John Adams’ Absolute Jest for orchestra and string quartet as the short pre-interval work.
The MSO, conducted by Associate Conductor Benjamin Northey, was joined for this interesting work by the Australian String Quartet – Dale Barltrop (violin), Francesca Hiew (violin), Stephen King (viola) and Sharon Grigoryan (cello). The ASQ has been closely associated with the MSO as its 2017 Ensemble in Residence.
This “concerto grosso”, written in 2011-12 to celebrate the San Francisco Symphony’s centenary uses fragments of scherzi from Beethoven’s late quartets and the 4th and 9th Symphonies from which Adams crafts his work. The “Jest” in the title he describes as “indicating an exercising of one’s wit by means of imagination and invention” – a serious homage, not a “send-up” as some early critics took it to mean.
Less frenetic than much of Adams’ work, there are extended periods of lyricism, characteristic metrical shifts and use of instrumental effects which had the trumpets laughing, the clarinets braying and low brass delivering rather uncouth sounds. Mysteriously evocative harp, piano and cowbells bookended the twenty or so minutes of free variations. The brilliance of the ASQ shone through, assisted by sympathetic orchestrations when the quartet took charge of events. Some of the most exquisite playing from quartet and orchestra came in the “meno mosso”, with more expansion of chromatic motifs from the late quartets, though throughout the work, tantalising snatches of familiar scherzo themes could be heard.
After interval, the stage was re-arranged, with the violas at the front of the stage to Northey’s right, and the cellos and basses more central. The ASQ members took the stage with the MSO, Dale Barltrop taking the concertmaster’s chair. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus assembled in full force at the rear of the stage, and in front of them (but behind the orchestra) the four soloists, Jacqueline Porter, Liane Keegan, Henry Choo and Shane Lowrencev.
“Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op.125 Choral” was commissioned in 1817 by the London Philharmonic Society, although Beethoven had begun to make sketches of this work 25 or so earlier. Receiving the commission gave him the impetus to develop the plan he already had. The first performance in 1824 was in Vienna’s Kärntnerthor Theatre, and used extraordinarily large forces – a very large string contingent, double wind, brass and timpani, and a chorus of up to 150 singers. There was a conductor for the orchestra, another for the singers, and Beethoven himself, deaf, but trying to assist from behind a piano. It was programmed to follow his Overture “Consecration of the House”, and three movements from his Missa Solemnis. It appears that Beethoven had an almost sacred intent in his new symphony. Following the first three movements came a choral finale, using some of Friedrich Schiller’s 1784 Ode An die Freude (To Joy) – Ahnest du den Schöpfer Welt? Such ihn überm Sternenzelt. (Do you sense your creator, world? Go seek him beyond the stars!)
This work has been appropriated to serve a huge range of political causes, and so much has been written about a range of performances – one that Hitler organised, conducted by Furtwängler, the European Union’s use of it as its official anthem, Bernstein’s fall of the Berlin Wall performance, and Sir Simon Rattle’s concentration camp memorial concert.
Benjamin Northey as conductor gave us a very energetic performance, in which the opening sonata form “Allegro” felt just a little too brisk to allow for the development of the brooding themes, although the orchestral playing was fine. The second movement, the scherzo whose theme we had heard before interval worked well, brisk and brimming with jollity and vitality. The long slow third movement produced both despondency and compassion, with some beautiful lyrical lines, superb string sound, and wonderful wind solos and section playing.
After these three movements, there was a noticeable change of energy in the auditorium. People were moving in their seats, changing position, and clearly anticipating the final movement. The MSO Chorus and soloists opened their scores, after sitting motionless since interval, and the final movement was off and running.
And run it did! This movement proceeded with dynamism. It was fast and full of vitality. But it lost some of its breathing spaces. The orchestral recitatives were too fast to cadence strongly, and the famous “Ode to Joy” theme heard in the cellos and basses was fast. When the countermelody appeared, there was no chance to fully shape phrases.
The four soloists acquitted themselves very well, although the distance between them and Northey was big, and they sometimes felt as though they were trying to catch up. The MSO Chorus was in fine form, and their contribution to the drive and energy never ceased. They negotiated Beethoven’s crazy choral writing at extremes of the ranges with a good deal of vocal control, and articulated the text even at breakneck speed.
Having had such an energetic opening to the movement, there was nowhere further for it to go, though the upbeat mood was successfully maintained right through to the end, and the audience response was certainly very warm.
Perhaps to mark the end of the Season, the audience was treated to a couple of speeches before the concert began. It did feel rather unnecessary, and the sentiments expressed could possibly have been better made as a special note in the program. It was a Season Finale in the sense that the regular subscription concerts are all but over; however the MSO does have several gigs over the coming weeks with Rachmaninov Second Symphony, Messiah, and some highly anticipated film music concerts –Harry Potter and Star Wars.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Season Finale Gala, titled Ode to Joy was performed a1 Hamer Hall on Friday, November 3, 2017. Margaret Arnold was there for Classic Melbourne.