Orchestral Music Review



Beethoven's Ninth Closes Winston-Salem Season

May 17, 2009 - Winston-Salem, NC:


As Robert Moody, music director of the Winston-Salem Symphony, remarked on air (WFDD, 88.5FM), everybody should experience a live performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony sometime in their lifetime! And for many, this was the performance of a lifetime.

From the tremulous and mysterious opening, akin to Genesis (in this writer's view), through the gigantic Scherzo, to the tender flowing third movement, and finally arriving at the much anticipated choral Finale, this was one of the best executed performances of Beethoven's monumental Ninth Symphony this reviewer has heard. The packed house included many children and teenagers, for most of whom this was their first "Ninth."

The orchestra was in fine form — special mention must be given to the fourth horn player, Lynn Beck, whose many solos in the third movement were impeccably rendered. It is to the credit of Music Director Moody that the orchestra has made continual improvement in the last two seasons. The new principal players in the viola, bass, clarinet, bassoon, and horn sections have proven to be excellent choices, judging by the tone quality and intonation of each respective section, and their ensemble playing has been excellent all season.

The combined forces of the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale and the UNC School of the Arts Cantata Singers were on top of their awkwardly written chorus parts. The solo vocal quartet was powerful, but not always in agreement with the tempos Maestro Moody was giving — soprano Lisa Saffer appeared to want more time in the first solo quartet, and tenor Tony Stevenson tried to push a faster tempo in the Turkish march section. Bass Patrick Carfizzi was magnificent in the opening recitative, imploring more joyful sounds. Mezzo Rita Litchfield wove and embroidered her intricate mezzo solos with accuracy and artistry.

That it was also the first performance of the "Ninth" for Maestro Moody was evident in the supercharged tempos he chose. The unfortunate decision to disregard the relationship between many metronome markings robbed the work of some of its unifying elements. To be sure, even scholars debate at which value the Trio (Presto) should be played, at 116; in either case, the metronome marking is identical to the Scherzo proper. In the Finale, it is unclear from the score whether the famous 6/8 Turkish march marked "Allegro assai vivace" ("Allegro, extremely lively") should be played 84 to the beat or 84 to the measure; whatever the choice made by the conductor, that tempo is also identical to the long double fugue in 6/4, and barely faster (84 vs. 80) than the opening theme.

In the program notes, David Levy, Ph.D., an expert scholar of Beethoven symphonies, took a novel approach to the Finale, likening it to a 4-movement symphony, again with the scherzo as the second movement (instead of the traditional third movement), one of the innovations of this masterpiece.

I would humbly suggest that a further unifying feature of this immense work is the intricate interweaving of two key areas: D major/minor and B-flat major. With the exception of the Scherzo — in itself a profound peroration of the theme of the first movement, almost like a gargantuan coda — each movement uses this atypical key relationship in novel ways.

In the first movement, the key of the first theme is D minor, whereas the second theme is in B-flat major, a shocking deviation from tradition wherein the second theme would have been in F major, or alternatively, A major. Skipping the aforementioned Scherzo, once again the importance of these two keys becomes apparent in the slow movement. The "Adagio molto e cantabile" (60 to the beat) alternating with a barely faster "Andante moderato" (63 to the beat) again contrasts the distant keys of B-flat major and D major. The movement progresses from B-flat to D, back to B-flat, to G and E-flat and back to B-flat through to the end. Also striking is the outline of the principal theme of the whole movement, D — A - B-flat — F, which, when taken two-by-two, outlines the keys of D and B-flat.

The very first chord of the Finale confirms Beethoven's will to contrast these harmonic areas — this dissonant chord is the simultaneous sounding of a D minor chord and B-flat major chord (in its first inversion)! The famous (and often rhythmically mangled in church arrangements) "Ode to Joy" theme is clearly in D major but, later, the long and elaborate Turkish march is again in B-flat. Of course the triumphant conclusion is again in D.

The poignantly tragic Adagio for strings by Samuel Barber began the concert. Why? Although well played by the Symphony's entire string section, it seemed out of character and out of place in this concert. Also upsetting was the resetting of the whole stage between third and fourth movements of the Beethoven which robbed the last movement of its surprise.