Milwaukee Symphony, "Ode to Joy"
On Sunday afternoon, December 2nd, we attended another very fine concert by the Milwaukee Symphony, Music Director Andreas Delfs, conducting. The program consisted of Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" and the concluding installment of the Symphony's complete Beethoven Symphony cycle, the 9th Symphony, "Ode to Joy."
The Symphony was joined by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Lee Erickson, Director, for both halves of the program, and the Chorus was in excellent voice.
I was not familiar with the "Chichester Psalms," but found the piece very pleasing. It was commissioned in 1965 by the Very Rev. Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, while Bernstein was on a sabbatical from his duties as music director of the New York Philarmonic. When asked what he had done while on his retreat, Bernstein replied with a bit of verse:
"For hours on end, I brooded and mused
On materiiae musica, used and abused;
On aspects of unconventionality,
Over the death in our time of tonality,
Over the fads of Dada and Chance,
The serial structure, the dearth of romance,
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos,
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos,
Played with the forearms, the fists and the palms--
--and then I came up with the 'Chichester Psalms.'
These psalms are a simple and modest affair;
Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square,
Certain to sicken a stout John Cager,
With its tonics and triad in B Flat major.
But there it stands--the result of my pondering,
Two long months of avant-guarde wandering--
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet
And he stands on his own two tonal feet."
This somewhat explains why the music suited my admittedly conservative tastes.
The piece was scored for mixed chorus, "boy soprano," and orchestra. In this presentation, the soprano solo was relabled "child soprano," and sung by a local young lady, Mikaela Schneider. She lead out the second movement with a voice that was strong, sweet, accurate and confident.
I was initally a bit surprised to find that the Psalms were sung in Hebrew rather than English or Latin, but then reflected that after all, this is probably the language in which they were written. The Symphony employed the Opera's supertitle system to provide translation, which was a nice touch but left me wondering why they didn't also use it for the choral movment for the 9th, which is, of course, in German. The psalms were: Psalm 108:2/Psalm 100 "Awake, harp and lyre/I will awaken the dawn." "Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth./Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs" in the first movement; Psalm 23 "The Lord is my shepherd," and Psalm 2 "Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?" in the second movement; and Psalm 131 "My heart is not proud, O Lord," and Psalm 133 "How good and pleasant it is/when brothers live together in unity!" in the third.
Of course the 9th was why we came, and we were not disappointed. Andreas Delfs conducted without a score which may seem an accomplishment given the length and complexity of the piece, but then again, all the themes are so familiar to the classical music lover that one might think many of the audience members could have done it. Delfs is a very physical conductor,and his exuberant bobbing and weaving added an element of visual enjoyment to the performance.
An Ode to Joy! What a concept! Such a piece would not be written today. "Joy" seems such an outmoded emotion, let alone rare in our time, which focuses so much on misery. The ode is not "the joy of--" in celebration of any particular thing: it is a celebration of celebration itself. Poets may "toss off" an ode or sonnet to any emotion they happen to feel, but how remarkable that Beethoven, immortalized to us in his scowling bust, should have been the one to invest enormous labor transforming Schiller's poem into an immortal work of music.
The 9th is a big, sprawling, rowdy piece. It begins with the familar sparse notes like the first drops of rain falling, then more and more until the first lighting flash in the horns and the storm is on. The second movement is another one of Beethoven's busy, driving, energetic themes. Where, in 1824, did Beethoven discover the machinelike reciprocation that drives these portions of his work? The third movement, Adagio, is slower and more contempative, but even this movement builds to triumphal climaxes before a calmer denouement.
The famous fourth movement begins by briefly reprising prior themes before building up the classic "Ode to Joy" melody. Unlike the 8th Symphony, this tune begins in the low strings, the basses and cellos, then being picked up by the violas, at last the violins, and then the full orchestra. The basso soloist, Andrea Silvestrelli, who has a remarkable voice and is cutting a wide swath through basso roles, lead off the the choral portion. He was joined by soprano Erika Sunnegardh (seen with the Florentine Opera as an excellent "Fidelio"); alto Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, and tenor Stuart Neill, all of whom were quite fine. The Chorus gave its all as the Symphony wound up to a thrilling climax. Milwaukee audiences are "easy" in giving standing ovations, but rarely have I seen one this rapid and spontaneous. The audience was on its feet almost before the last note had died away. (Including Georgie, and its hard to get a standing ovation out of her!) In my opinion the ovation was well deserved.
"Joy, thou shining spark of God,
Daughter of Elysium!
With fiery rapture, Goddess,
We approach thy shrine."