Beethoven's Ninth Symphony expands the form with the addition of a chorus, almost demanding a special occasion.
By JOHN FLEMING
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 2000
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony almost demands a sense of occasion. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, Leonard Bernstein conducted the work in the reunified city. Last May, when the Vienna Philharmonic performed on the site of a World War II concentration camp, Beethoven's culminating symphony was the music. Whenever a new concert hall is dedicated, the Ninth Symphony invariably tops the bill.
"That's because it's a monument," said Jo-Michael Scheibe, artistic director of the Master Chorale, which is performing the work this weekend with the Florida Orchestra.
"To understand the Ninth Symphony, I think it's critical to understand Beethoven's consistent concern for humanity," he said.
Scheibe, on the phone from his office at the University of Miami School of Music, where he is professor of choral studies, rummaged through some papers, then read from a letter by Beethoven quoted in Maynard Solomon's biography of the composer: "From my earliest childhood my zeal to serve our poor suffering humanity in any way whatsoever by means of my art has made no compromise with any lower motive."
There is no special occasion to this weekend's performances except to draw sizable crowds to hear the orchestra in a non-subscription program with ticket prices a few dollars more than usual. Also on the program is Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Lang Lang, one of classical music's rising young stars.
It will be the third time in eight years that music director Jahja Ling has led the orchestra in programs build around the Ninth Symphony, the previous two during Beethoven festivals.
Stylistically, the symphony was revolutionary because the final movement features a chorus, with the text from Schiller's ode, To Joy.
"It was a recognition that the voice was the next instrument to be added to the symphony because there was no other place to take the orchestra," Scheibe said. "Until the Ninth, the voice was not used in anything other than the sacred form, such as oratorios, but, after Beethoven, Mahler, Debussy and others started adding voices to the symphony orchestra. When you can do no more, what you must do is add text."
The Ninth requires chorus and vocal soloists to wait until the finale of the 65-minute work to open their mouths and sing. "The problems are high tessitura for the sopranos and tenors and the lack of opportunity to warm up," Scheibe said.
The soloists this weekend are Janice Chandler, soprano; Eleni Matos, mezzo-soprano; Robert Breault, tenor; and Richard Zeller, baritone.
"The last time Jahja did this he put the soloists in the chorus, which is a traditional European way of performing the work but is a very un-American way of doing this," Scheibe said. "The American soloist wants to be out front. The European soloist is used to being in the chorus."
Scheibe has prepared many choirs for Beethoven's Ninth under many conductors. The two most memorable performances, he said, were by the Master Chorale for Ling and the Florida Philharmonic Chorus for James Judd, music director of the Philharmonic in South Florida. The two conductors took very different approaches with similar-sized choruses.
"With Judd, the tempos in the chorus were faster, brighter," he said. "Some conductors are calibrated so that every time they do it is going to be at the same tempo. Jahja's performances from night to night change a little bit."
Ling tends to stretch the tempos. "In a fermata, I trained the chorus to hold it at a certain length, and yet he doubled that length during performance, which was fine," Scheibe said. "My job is to prepare the chorus so that Jahja can come in and put his stamp on it and make changes as he sees fit. My job is have the choir as flexible as possible."
The Florida Orchestra, Master Chorale and soloists perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Jahja Ling conducting. Lang is the soloist in Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1. Concerts are at 8 p.m. Friday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 8 p.m. Saturday at Mahaffey Theater and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Tickets are $24 to $42.
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