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Ode to joy welcomed in season of stress

Published December 19, 2005

CLEARWATER - Symphony No. 9 is not Beethoven's greatest. Surely, Symphony Nos. 3, 5 and maybe even 7 are greater from a strictly musical standpoint. But the Ninth is certainly the most impressive, a work of epic proportions.

It drew a full house to Ruth Eckerd Hall on Sunday night in a performance by the Florida Orchestra, the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and vocal soloists, with Stefan Sanderling conducting. Outside, it was chilly and rainy, but inside, it was a joyful occasion, a sanctuary from the stress of the holidays.

If the Ninth is not Beethoven's greatest symphony, it does contain his greatest hit, the simple melody first played by cellos and basses in the finale's Ode to Joy , and then sent soaring in a series of variations by chorus and solo quartet.

Bass Thomas Potter got the singing off to a fine start with a stirring O Freunde , and he and his soloist colleagues - soprano Laura Whalen, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Roderer and tenor Michael Hendrick (replacing an indisposed Thomas Studebaker) - went on to make a suitably joyous impression, weaving in and out of the powerhouse choruses.

Aptly, it was the chorus, prepared by Richard Zielinski, that voiced the spiritual message of Beethoven's setting of Friedrich von Schiller's verse, that, as the English translation puts it, "Above the canopy of stars surely a loving Father dwells."

In general, Sanderling's approach to the Ninth was romantic, as opposed to classical. He added extra wind players to help those parts be heard in sometimes thick orchestration, and probably could have used a few more at times.

At some points he followed contemporary performance practice rather than what many scholars think Beethoven would have wanted. One, his slow tempo in the tender Adagio, was very effective. Another, the long, showy pause he took before launching into the finale's big tune, was not.

In some ways, with its introduction of the voice to the symphony, the Ninth is the second opera that Beethoven never wrote, and a couple of dramatic opportunities were missed on Sunday.

The opening notes by horns and strings weren't as mysterious as they really ought to be, and the finale's dissonant opening recitative, what Wagner called the Schreckensfanfare (fanfare of horror), wasn't horrifying enough.

Introduced from the stage before the concert were Jay B. and Marsha Starkey, whose $1-million gift to the orchestra's endowment was just announced. Mr. Starkey sang in the tenor section of the Master Chorale.

[Last modified December 19, 2005, 01:38:18]

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