Recap: Beethoven's mighty Ninth Symphony, plus world premiere, bring Grand Rapids Symphony's season to a thrilling conclusion

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

What does one say about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?

It’s one of the greatest achievements, not simply of classical music, but of all of Western civilization. The music, some of Beethoven’s best, stands on its own merits. The message that all of humanity is a brotherhood elevates it to a whole new level.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Leonard Bernstein led a performance on Christmas Day in East Berlin that may be the most important performance since its debut in May 1824. But the fact is any performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is a big deal.

It’s the piece that Music Director Marcelo Lehninger chose to end his first full season at the helm of the Grand Rapids Symphony. Together with the world premiere of Alexander Miller’s “Testament,” Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony -- both featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus -- brought the 2017-18 season to a thrilling conclusion.

It was an exciting season of big pieces of music including Verdi’s Requiem in November and Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” in March and of important milestones such as the Grand Rapids Symphony’s triumphant return to Carnegie Hall in April.

Friday’s performance, which repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 19, in DeVos Performance Hall, was the cherry on top.

Lehninger, firmly in command of his orchestra and chorus, led an exceptional performance of Beethoven’s Ninth featuring four wonderful guest singers, soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, tenor John Matthew Myers and baritone Richard Zeller. The mantra, “Go big or go home” certainly applied to the performance.

The dramatic opening moment, which settled into insightful ebb and flow and a forceful finish led to scattered applause in the audience. Not missing a beat, Lehninger turned to the audience and said with a smile, “If you like it, go ahead.”  That led to even more applause.

It’s worth pointing out that was the custom back in Beethoven’s day. People applauded whenever they wanted.

More good things followed. An insistent tempo filled the second movement with impressive energy, Lehninger practically levitating himself off the podium as he conducted the piece in triple time that nonetheless often feel as if it’s in quadruple time.

The warm string sounds enveloped the audience with the rhapsodic third movement with its prominent fourth horn solo skillfully played by Paul Austin. Lehninger capably balanced its two pairs of variations.

The finale featuring the singers and chorus is the highlight, but Beethoven still takes a little time getting there. In fact, the final movement is about as long as entire symphonies composed by Mozart and Haydn.  Lehninger plunged boldly into the movement with intensity, determination and a blisteringly fast tempo.

Remarkably, Beethoven revisits the first three movements briefly. When the famous “Ode to Joy” melody appeared on Friday, it emerged as a sunrise over the audience.

Beethoven did not write well for voices. His music is hard to sing. But the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, well-tuned from their performances in Grand Rapids and New York City just last month, delivered a refined wall of glorious sound.

Following the performance, which ended the concert, the audience erupted in an enthusiastic standing ovation that went on for several minutes.

Beethoven loomed large over the evening. The concert also answered the question, what else goes good with Beethoven? Try Alexander Miller’s “Testament,” inspired by Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament,” which Beethoven wrote in 1802 to his brothers, expressing his anger and frustration at losing his hearing. Though he considers suicide, Beethoven declares his determination to live on for the sake of the music he has yet to write.

Grand Rapids Symphony commissioned the 16-minute work and gave the world premiere of the piece by its assistant principal oboist by night and composer-in-residence by day.

It’s a raw, emotional work offering a cinematic look into the inner recesses of Beethoven’s mind and soul, masterfully arranged for bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra.

Zeller’s magnificent bass baritone poured forth the anguish of Beethoven, revealing his innermost thoughts. The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, serving as a Greek chorus with a big, opulent sound, offering commentary and added perspective.

The contrasts are rewarding, ranging from a solo voice set against a minimum of strings to an angelic choir of women paired with a solo cello, to full onslaught of orchestra and chorus delivering a pulse-pounding performance. Much as Beethoven could mesmerize with a single melody or suddenly move mountains of sound, Miller’s “Testament” offers a wide range of musical experiences in one satisfying setting.

As it happened, Lehninger conducted the world premier performances of two of the three works on the program. Just not at the same time.

The concert opened with “Variações Temporais, Beethoven Revisitado (Temporal Variations, Beethoven Revisited)” by Brazilian composer Ronaldo Miranda. Lehninger conducted premiere in 2014 with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Brazil.

It’s a witty, series of short, orchestral portraits, each inspired by another of Beethoven’s musical works, so it’s very musical. At times, it’s a clever game of “Name that Tune.” Early on, apart from assorted percussion, it’s also something that Beethoven might have arranged himself. But that’s early on.

It turns into an exciting, colorful tapestry of sounds using the full resources of the modern orchestra. The audience clearly enjoyed it.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 10:00 AM
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