In 1824, the first performance in Vienna of Beethoven’s magnificent Ninth (“Choral”) Symphony, capped off his career. All but deaf and, thus, unable to conduct the orchestra, the composer stood on the stage as the audience was introduced to the first symphony ever to include among its necessary instruments the human voice. This past Sunday, the Minnesota Beethoven Festival concluded with the great composer’s arguably greatest work. Under the baton of Osmo Vanska, the orchestra and the Minnesota Chorale delivered yet another stirring performance to a full house in the Winona Middle School auditorium.
The performance of the singers is, of course, crucial to any performance of the “Choral” Symphony. On Sunday, baritone Philip Cutlip and soprano Angela Meade particularly stood out, though all the duets and quartets were skillfully executed. The entire Chorale demonstrated their power, as they had a week before in performing Rachmaninoff’s “All Night Vigil.” At times, I had some difficulty following the text, but this may be owing to my decrepit German, rather than the singers’ enunciation. In any case, it was immensely helpful to have the Schiller/Beethoven text and a side-by-side English translation supplied, especially in the parts where Beethoven emphasizes certain ideas, such as the certain existence of a “loving Father” who dwells “beyond the canopy of the stars.”
The Ninth’s final movement, based on Beethoven’s adaptation of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,’ is introduced by the words of Beethoven himself: “O friends…let us tune our voices in more pleasant and more joyful song.” The moment, along with the following stanza of Schiller’s poem, represents a turning point in the piece, and is always galvanic, and Cutlip richly realized its drama. (I can’t imagine sitting for almost 45 minutes, then turning it on so beautifully at full throttle!) Later in the final movement, Meade’s lovely delivery of the lines, “He who has found a goodly woman/ Let him add his jubilation too!” captured the lovelorn composer’s sentiment perfectly.
The soloists’ and Chorale’s unique contributions notwithstanding, the Ninth is, after all, primarily an orchestral work. Given the Minnesota Orchestra’s long history of performing the cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies—all of which it has now performed in the Festival’s five years—it was no surprise that they delivered a compelling rendition Sunday, demonstrating over and over the full range of a truly world-class orchestra.
As the late Michael Stromberg’s excellent program notes remind us, “The Ninth Symphony traces a path from darkness to light.” So the orchestra’s shadings become crucial, moving the audience’s emotions along that path. From the outset of the first movement and throughout, the smooth, immediate transitions from fortissimo to piano and back were impressive. The precision of performance, likewise, was prominent in the second movement, where the energy picks up notably. Vansko’s own energy and involvement here—where the conductor at times literally left his feet—and later added considerably to the audience’s pleasure and commitment. (I’ve had more reason, these last few years, to appreciate the amount of dedication a conductor must have.)
The third movement’s lyrical sweetness was slightly less involving, but it set up nicely the work’s magnificent close, where the complex interplay between orchestra and chorale makes enormous demands on all the musicians. The audience’s immediate and prolonged standing ovation was perhaps the best proof of how thoroughly its expectations were met and exceeded.
Before the performance, Ned Kirk, the Festival’s artistic and managing director, gave a short glimpse of next summer’s offerings, indicating that it will run from July 1 to 22 and urging Winonans to mark those dates on their calendars. Good idea. As a community, we owe Dr. Kirk and all the Festival’s supporters and participants a huge and continuing vote of thanks.