The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s annual summer performance of Beethoven’s Ninth at Strathmore was sold out well before the concert began at 8 pm. Preshow, the lobby buzzed with activity, as patrons streamed in chattering and hopeful enthusiasts asked “Extras? Any extra tickets?” Off to the side of the patio outside the Music Center’s orchestral level, a family of nine deer munched contentedly on the vegetation, in full view of some delighted humans. Bunnies scampered across other Strathmore hills. Earlier, buckets of rain had fallen as the sun blazed on; the air still hung full of moisture, lending a special brilliance to the waning light. Plus it turned out that my favorite rapper was cohosting on my favorite radio station as I drove over. The evening had a palpable sense of occasion and specialness, is what I’m saying.
Obviously, the Ninth draws its crowds with the most popular tune in classical music history. (Eat that, Pachelbel!) But there’s a whole lot of music before the cellos hum that fourth-movement theme, and the Ode to Joy really only works in the context of all that has come before, which Beethoven even acknowledges by doing a series of “Previously…In Beethoven’s Ninth” episodes before said cello humming.
Conductor Günther Herbig, helming the BSO for this endeavor, understands this in his marrow. He seemed to have thought about every moment in terms of its thematic material, texture, tempo, and volume, judged it against the surrounding music and against the piece as a whole, and calibrated each element so that Beethoven’s overall structure — which can certainly feel ungainly, or even perfunctory, in the wrong hands — led inexorably to the finale’s eruptions.
Sometimes he had to sacrifice to achieve this effect. He took the first two movements at something close to Beethoven’s metronomic markings, in the modern period-influenced manner, and kept his textures light, so that the climaxes of the first movement perhaps did not have the same sheer weight they do in other performances. Yet said climaxes still whipped up plenty of excitement, as the Balmer strings played the open fifths of the main theme in enough of a whisper to provide the necessary contrast.
The scherzo, which has to be the second most-reused movement of this symphony, zipped forward at an athletic pace, but without enough rhythmic spring to find that hint of a dance. Yet even going fast, the BSO provided well-detailed playing, with fine gradations of dynamics and smooth handoffs of the melodic material between strings and woodwinds, to usher the listener smoothly along.
These last virtues became especially prominent in the slow movement, which proceeded slightly faster than usual but with plenty of dramatic ritards, so the big moments piled up drama before smoothly returning to tempo. Here the BSO’s strings, which typically excel in heart-on-your-sleeve melodies, shone at their brightest, the woodwinds and brass continued to play splendidly, and Herbig relentlessly followed the line of argument through Beethoven’s ecstatic meditation, thus heightening the temporary suspension of reality.
One moment can speak for many: after one climax, Beethoven picks up a little three-note motive (first two notes repeated, the third a step up) and moves it around the scale, groping for the next direction. On one repetition, Herbig really brought out the dissonance the basses play under the third note as it’s sounded in the violins, underscoring the uncertainty that little bit more. I’ve never heard that detail so clearly before, and I am deeply grateful to Herbig for bringing it to my attention.
The Millionen sold out the hall, of course, for the finale, and as you may have guessed by now, Herbig and the BSO did a splendid job building up to this theme that has featured in so many commercials and TV shows and movies and ringtones and electronic keyboard demo tracks and seriously everything you can think of, making it sound new once more and expanding their sound to a new, previously unheared level to fill the hall in the purely orchestral first climax (giving me goosebumps in the process). Then baritone Stephen Powell came in and, stentorian, rich, and ringing, took it that one step further with a knock-‘em-flat solo.
From there the performance got just a teeny bit messier. Soprano Heidi Stober and mezzo Kelley O’Connor possess fine voices but had some trouble balancing them. Tenor Gordon Gietz got a case of the behinds in his big solo (“Froh, wie seine Sonnen”), which normally one would excuse except that a military march like this one requires on-beat swagger.
The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, being composed of mortals, at times failed to make Beethoven’s ridiculous choral writing sound completely natural, although none would dare quarrel with the power of their full-throated climax on the big theme or the stern remonstration of “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” that followed it. The choristers’ sturdy German pronunciation can no doubt be traced to their director, Tom Hall, and they responded well to Herbig’s architectural conception of the double fugue right before the part that leads up to the coda (or is that just one huge coda? One can never tell with Beethoven).
It was a satisfying conclusion to a performance that, minor quibbles aside, gripped the listener the whole way through. Even with the crowd, the deer, and the sunny rain, the evening’s sense of occasion ultimately came from Herbig, the BSO, the soloists, the chorus, and (not least) Beethoven.
STUFF THAT IS TOO IRRELEVANT TO INCLUDE IN A REVIEW EVEN OF THIS LENGTH
- Herbig’s bio in the program says that he “left the challenging political environment of East Germany and moved to the United States in 1984.” Is it too forward (or something) to just say “totalitarian government”? Or “Soviet satellite state “? I’m not sure what’s gained by the ellipticism.
- I ended up giving my second ticket to one of the hopeful enthusiasts mentioned above, and it was a good deal because she had gone to the rehearsal at the Meyerhoff the night before and had inside info (Herbig had really demanded a lot of the woodwinds, for example). She also mentioned that Stephen Powell is “easy to look at,” which I am just throwing out there for you. After the concert, she said that Herbig needed UnderArmor, which was true, in that his formerly severe collared black shirt was clinging to his body, completely drenched in sweat. I wonder if a performance/compression garment could be made for conductors? And if so, who would wear it?