Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9 in D Minor “ is a great touchstone for conductors, an all-embracing work that separates the men from the boys.
It’s been said often that in sizing up conductors, orchestra musicians always ask: “His Debussy and Tchaikovsky sound okay, so does his Beethoven’s Fifth; but how is his Ninth?”
While one shouldn’t generalize, I think it’s safe to say that conductors will not tackle Beethoven’s masterwork until they’ve reached the age of wisdom.
Last Saturday afternoon, the crowd that packed Yountville’s Lincoln Theater for the return of the Russian National Orchestra discovered why Festival del Sole producers had asked 35-year-old James Gaffigan to take the baton for the festival’s premiere performance of the vaunted Beethoven Ninth. He was more than up to the task.
A regular guest with such renowned orchestras as the London Philharmonic, Dresden Staatskappelle, Czech Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Orchestre de Paris and Vienna Symphony, Gaffigan displayed heaven-storming passion in bringing together all the elements of the beloved work.
Beethoven spent nine years completing his Opus 125. It appears that the idea of adding a chorus to the final movement had occurred to him only in the course of writing the work. Biographers indicate that he had longed for some time to set Friedrich Schiller’s poem, “Hymn to Joy,” to music. Earlier works actually contained the melodic idea he would use in the final movement of the Ninth.
For many, this is the symphony to end all symphonies.
Harvey Sachs, a writer and faculty member at the renowned Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, describes Beethoven’s only vocal symphony as a statement of freedom in the repressive political environment of Europe after the Congress of Vienna. Sachs sees it as a “declaration in favor of universal brotherhood.”
Following the pianissimo opening of the first movement, Gaffigan made his mark as the main theme erupted to fill the auditorium. It was not just volume, but the crisp attack that drove home the power of the music. As we would soon discover, this was a big, fearless presentation of a monumental work, with Gaffigan’s passions on full display from start to finish.
A noteworthy element of this movement’s opening salvo was the heightened emphasis the conductor placed on the timpani, recalling memories of the historical Toscanini recording. The conductor’s and orchestra’s energies throughout reminded us of Beethoven himself. The orchestra was magnificent, the performance, therefore, joyful and triumphant.
Then there was the superb singing by a quartet of gifted soloists — soprano Amber Wagner, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor John Tessier and the ringing bass-baritone of Brandon Cedel — plus the glorious 81-member Volti Festival del Sole Chorale. In short, these voices seemed heaven-sent.
For many of us, the Ninth is a summing up of all that had come before. Today, as Gaffigan, the dynamic Russian National Orchestra, the mighty Volti Chorale and four outstanding soloists demonstrated, Beethoven’s Ninth remains a shattering original creation that, at times, seems almost divine.
The first orchestral performance of the 10th anniversary Festival del Sole season began with the world premiere of five choral works for orchestra and chorus by the Bay Area’s Gordon Getty, to whom the current festival season is dedicated.
Playful strings gave way to majestic chorale in the opening Getty poem, followed by a dance theme for piano to accompany John Masefield’s “Ballet Russe.” The Volti singers celebrated the quixotic nature of John Keats’ “There Was a Naughty Boy” with scant orchestral accompaniment, while winds and strings caressed the tribute “For a Dead Lady” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. The welcome sounds of a harp helped the distaff members of the Volti Chorale rhapsodize Sara Teasdale’s “Those Who Love.”
The work was well received by the audience, cheering the composer when he was brought to the stage. Composer Getty stands in good stead in his stamping ground.