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Splitting the Beethoven Attoms

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
08/12/2014 -  August 13, 2014
Ludwig van Beethoven: Overture, Consecration of the House, Opus 124 – Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (Choral), Opus 125
Erika Grimaldi (Soprano) (New York debut), Anna Maria Chiuri (Mezzo-soprano), Russell Thomas (Tenor), Ildar Abdrazakov (Bass)
Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell (Director), Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (Conductor)

G. Noseda (©Sussie Ahlburg)

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;/
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.

At an otherwise moving funeral service in a New Jersey Methodist church last Sunday, we in the audience finished by singing hackneyed verses to a tune of utter banality.

That tune was indeed the celebrated “Ode to Joy” by Ludwig van Beethoven, an ideal melody for a church service. One couldn’t imagine Schubert, Mozart or even Irving Berlin using such a banal set of notes. But Beethoven knew exactly what he was doing. From that kernel, Beethoven extracted, with difficulty, with arduousness, with singular imagination, music which reached the cosmos.

Other tunesmiths created beautiful atoms. Beethoven cracked the atom to produce his final Symphony. And if the Ninth didn’t exactly fit the title “Mostly Mozart”, it cannot fail to produce unimaginable results.

The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, a summer group comprised of serious musicians from America’s finest orchestras, does not have the grand sweep of the New York Philharmonic at its grandest. But the 60-odd players could still fill Avery Fisher Hall with resonance and a pungent thrill, thanks to that dynamic Milan-born conductor Gianandrea Noseda. While his New York visits are fairly regular, mainly with the Metropolitan Opera and last year with Mostly Mozart, this was the first time I had seen him conduct. And it was a dynamic experience.

Physically, he can get down-and-out with the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra. He seemed to cue in every instrument, he could crouch almost to his knees, could jump up when needed. But mainly, his was the kind of confident movement which any orchestra could enjoy.

Performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was, on the one hand, a daring challenge. The work has been played here for almost two centuries, essayed by the greatest names. The forces are mammoth, the effects can be mighty. Or its familiarity can lead to disappointment.

On the other hand, the Ninth is a crowd-pleaser–and Avery Fisher Hall was almost packed for the occasion. Yes, it seemed that most of the listeners were neophytes, with their applause between each movement. But hey! If they enjoyed it, who were we listeners to object?

It was worth applauding as well. The Ninth can open with a mystic chord coming from the Cosmos (the Furtwangler style) or the earthy experience of a mighty human creation (the Toscanini style). Mr. Noseda plunked for the latter. The opening was a swift entrance to Beethoven, and he never let off that tempo.

The Scherzo was indeed a Gargantuan joke (the timpani bangs could have been played in a circus), and while the third movement was of course slower, it never was a real Adagio. Mr. Noseda gave it a cantabile lilt and lift.

I. Abdrazakov (© Courtesy of the artist)

If most of the audience was waiting for the finale–especially that Methodist church hymn-tune–they were in for a thrill. The thrill was another Metropolitan opera star, Ildar Abdrazakov, a bass whose summons to “raise our voices in joyful song” was actually a command. Such a stirring voice, along with the equally stirring Russell Thomas, an always welcome tenor to this hall, gave the finale the kind of unalloyed glory which the Ninth needs and loves.

As usual, the Collegiate Chorale gave with their hearts, their mouths and utmost clarity. When it was finished, had the chance to express their legitimate insatiable appetites to put their hands together.

Preceding the Ninth was the work which Beethoven wrote preceding that composition, the overture to Consecration of the House. In its own way, the piece can be as impressive as the Ninth. The fanfares, the trombones, the sweeping strings hide the fact that Beethoven mastered every technique here, from fugues to strange modulations and some truly tremendous climaxes.

Mr. Noseda conducted with all the verve this work needed, and with the brio that allows him to stand out among Beethoven’s myriad titans of the baton.

Harry Rolnick



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