mr beethoven’s wild ride

We just finished our three concert run of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony last night at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It was, as many have observed, a bittersweet occasion. Sweet because of the great music making, bitter because of the recent passing of our beloved maestro James (Jimmy) DePreist.

As violinist Ron Blessinger said in his opening remarks honoring him, Jimmy had impeccable timing. To perform a larger-than-life work in honor of a larger-than-life man was perfectly natural. And to make the occasion even more special, after consultation with Jimmy’s widow Ginette, it was decided to perform the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony to open the program. As Carlos Kalmar said in his remarks, we could have performed one of the classic ‘mourning’ pieces: the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, or Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. But the purpose of the playing of a piece in Jimmy’s honor was not simply to mourn him, it was to show our love and appreciation for him as well. And nothing fit the bill quite as perfectly as the Mahler did, it being a song of love tempered with sadness.

As for the work the completed the first half of the concert, it was yet another confoundingly good composition by Benjamin Britten, his early and virtually unknown Ballad of Heroes. It is sandwiched (in terms of opus number) between two much better-known works: the Violin Concerto (1939) and the Piano Concerto (1938), both of which Britten revisited and revised in the 1960’s. It features lovely writing for the solo tenor voice (beautifully sung by tenor soloist Brendan Tuohy) and choir, and has a wickedly difficult scherzo section entitled Dance of Death –¬†it feels every bit close to the edge in performance, especially at Carlos’ tempo!

Finally, Beethoven’s Ninth. Most orchestral musicians, after a period of service, get a bit tired of this piece. I’m not sure why, but I think it has to do with the last movement. It is such a clich√© now – being used in the Die Hard movie franchise and countless television ads – that it is sometimes hard to take seriously. But if it is done right (and done well), it is still an amazing experience to perform.

The first three movements are unbelievable. The ambiguity of the opening of the first movement with the interval of an open fifth, and its almost cosmic and mystical sense of openness and enormity. The breakneck pace of the scherzo – with its island of calm in the trio. And the sublime third movement – a set of variations virtually unmatched for both beauty and inevitable formal elegance (but perhaps surpassed only by the slow movements of his quartets Op. 127, 130 and 135). Then, the last movement, where we get a whirlwind tour of the previous three movements interspersed with the seminal beginnings of what is to become the theme to the Ode to Joy. And the rest is history.

Carlos conducted the Ninth without a score – a rarity – he is seldom without a score, even if he might be actually using it very little in performance. His pacing was sure, and the piece passed as though it were mere minutes in duration, rather than being close to an hour in length. The Portland Symphonic Choir sang with power and finesse, and the four vocal soloists, especially the bass baritone Daniel Okulitch, were superb. It will be a long time before Portland sees another Ninth that’s the equal of this one.