LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827), PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893), and AARON COPLAND (1900 – 1990): Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125 (‘Choral’), 1812 Overture, Opus 49, and Fanfare for the Common Man – Lyubov Petrova (soprano), Nancy Maultsby (mezzo-soprano), Rodrick Dixon (tenor), Marcus DeLoach (baritone); Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale, Greensboro Symphony Orchestra; Dmitry Sitkovetsky, conductor [Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 16 December 2021]
Of the many cancellations and postponements perpetrated by COVID-19, few can have been more disappointing to music lovers than those of celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. It seems sadly appropriate for this anniversary to have fallen during a time of global crisis. No stranger to physical maladies and social upheaval. Beethoven lived in a world in which one century’s enlightenment was supplanted by a new era’s incongruous tenets of Romanticized idealism and pragmatic conservatism. His was the time of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Franz Grillparzer, Friedrich von Schiller, and Sir Walter Scott—and also of Klemens von Metternich, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, and the first Duke of Wellington.
In recent years, it has become fashionable to regard Beethoven’s enduring importance and influence as inflated. As communities throughout the world have grappled with vital questions about racial discrimination, economic privilege, sexuality, and gender paradigms, the continued relevance of Beethoven’s music and the legitimacy of its prominence in the international repertoire have been challenged and in some instances declared to be products of systemic prejudice and cultural narrowmindedness. It cannot be denied that, in Art as in all aspects of human existence, deprivation is an inevitable casualty of choice. Works by lesser-known composers of all ethnicities are collateral damage of decisions to perform, publish, or record music by Beethoven. Though he worked in an epoch in which the making of art still largely relied upon aristocratic patronage, Beethoven would surely denounce the elitism that uses his music to obscure other composers’ music.
The abiding atmosphere of Greensboro Symphony Orchestra’s concert honoring the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, rescheduled to the 251st anniversary in response to COVID-19, was one of revitalization, not rehabilitation. The orchestra’s inaugural performance in Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, the concert intensified appreciation of the resilience that, having been so integral a component of Beethoven’s life, resounds in his music. The irrepressible joy of performing filled the auditorium and assumed even greater significance by contrasting with the grim milestone of the loss of 800,000 American lives to COVID-19. His life plagued by catastrophic wars and personal tragedies, Beethoven repeatedly faced loss, the effects of which suffuse his music. Conducted by the orchestra’s Music Director, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Greensboro Symphony’s concert extolled the progressive essence of his work, presenting both his music and works that bear hallmarks of Beethoven’s influence without agendas or idiosyncrasies.
Beginning GSO’s observance of the Beethoven sestercentennial with Aaron Copland’s 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man was a logical nod to the inspiration that Beethoven’s artistic ingenuity has been throughout the two centuries since his death in 1827. Copland’s writing for brass demonstrates unmistakable kinship with Beethoven’s music for winds in works like the Leonore and Egmont Overtures and Seventh and Ninth Symphonies. The nerves of the grand occasion intermittently undermined the GSO brass players’ intonation, jeopardizing the impact of Copland’s portentous flourishes. Nevertheless, Sitkovetsky and the musicians movingly imparted the Fanfare’s simple majesty, paying homage to the common man with uncommon eloquence.
So widespread was the popularity of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 49 The Year 1812 Solemn Overture within a few years of the piece’s 1882 première in Moscow that its famously sensitive, self-critical composer expressed regret for having written it. First performed to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of tsarist Russia’s defeat of Napoleon, the Overture overcame its creator’s disapprobation to claim a central place in many orchestras’ repertoires for festive events. As GSO’s performance affirmed, the Overture’s continued currency is attributable in no small part to its memorable melodies, cleverly interwoven by Tchaikovsky to fashion one of Western culture’s most identifiably programmatic pieces. Sitkovetsky devoted obvious care to cleanly articulating the contrapuntal intricacies of Tchaikovsky’s writing without making the performance an academic exercise. Brass statements of the Overture’s familiar battle subject and the ‘Marseillaise’ lacked consistent security but generated requisite excitement. The scurrying string figurations depicting the French retreat from Moscow were brilliantly rendered. The grandeur of the music was well served, but Sitkovetsky did not allow the reading to stall in august passages. The tubular chimes’ portrayal of Moscow’s church bells was wonderfully vibrant in Tanger Center’s acoustic, resolving Tchaikovsky’s paean to his ancestors’ valor with rousing splendor.
Composition of his Ninth Symphony dominated Beethoven’s creative endeavors for nearly eighteen months, spanning all of 1823, the year in which he also completed his monumental Missa solemnis. At the time of its first performance on 7 May 1824, secured for Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor only after prominent Viennese musicians and patrons of the Arts lobbied the disenfranchised composer to abandon a plan to stage the Symphony’s première in Berlin, the Ninth Symphony employed the largest musical forces heard in the genre to that time. In the pages of Beethoven’s score, past and future intersect, the symphonic styles of Mozart and Mahler directly linked. The setting of Schiller’s ‘An die Freude’ with which the Symphony ends is propelled by a melody, now often deemed banal, that captivates listeners as readily in the Twenty-First Century as in 1824. GSO’s performance of the Ninth Symphony was truly an ode to joy, recovery, and optimism.
Sitkovetsky is an undemonstrative but undeniably effective conductor whose pacing of Beethoven’s music in this performance at times recalled the very different qualities that Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Yevgeny Mravinsky brought to their conducting of Beethoven symphonies. In the opening Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso movement, Sitkovetsky accentuated the novelty of the part writing by encouraging the orchestra to play with crispness that lent the Symphony’s first bars Stravinsky-like harmonic ambiguity. Furtwängler’s legacy was evident in Sitkovetsky’s concentration on the ways in which subtle transitions of tempo drive the music. Contrapuntal expositions wielded seeming spontaneity, but each thematic journey progressed towards a finite destination. Fleeting insecurities in the orchestra’s playing of the Copland and Tchaikovsky pieces were largely absent from their performance of the Ninth Symphony, the musicians perceptibly engaged by the conductor’s goal of allowing Beethoven’s score to reveal its innovation and modernity on its own terms.
The timpani strokes that punctuate the Molto vivace movement were all the more exhilarating for being meticulously cued and sounded with unerring precision. The tumultuous energy of the music was limned by the intensity of the orchestra’s playing rather than exaggerated tempi and dynamics. As in the first movement, the music’s fugal elements were rendered with gravity, the heritage of Bach and Händel omnipresent but never oppressive. Moderation was the distinguishing characteristic of Sitkovetsky’s conducting, the orchestra’s full force reserved for those passages in which Beethoven instructed that it should be deployed. The conductor’s navigations of the abrupt shifts of momentum showed interpretive individuality that stopped short of sacrificing fidelity to the composer’s markings to creating a distinctly personal account of the Symphony.. Each musician on the Tanger Center stage approached the piece with unique perspectives, but, in even the most frenetic moments of the Molto vivace, this indisputably remained a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony.
Like Toscanini, Sitkovetsky savored the lyricism of the Adagio molto e cantabile whilst sustaining rhythmic exactness. Approaching this music as a tranquil respite from the turmoil of the Symphony’s outer movements, the conductor sculpted melodic arcs with subtlety, the interplay among instruments emerging organically from the writing. The string playing was at once rich and diaphanous, the bright patina of the violins’ high register floated above the churning lower winds. Beethoven’s tone painting evokes images of the natural world into which he often retreated, the music undulating like the Danube as it meanders through Vienna and rustling as the breezes caress the Wienerwald. In this performance, Sitkovetsky guided the listener on a trek through these scenes, so beloved by Beethoven, heightening the expressive potency of the music. Woodwind playing was superb throughout the performance but was truly magical in the Adagio molto e cantabile, in which wind textures are reminiscent of those in the slow movements of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and Antonín Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony. Still, the triumph of Sitkovetsky’s conducting was finding rather than forcing the music’s emotions.
Conductors’ reputations cannot bring them safely through the gauntlet of the Ninth Symphony’s Finale. In some performances, the recapitulations of subjects heard in the first three movements are wrongheadedly metamorphosed into a sort of miniature Wagnerian music drama, and the Symphpny’s final minutes are blared like political propaganda. Sitkovetsky avoided these missteps by perpetuating his dedication to following the music’s narrative without imposing his own subtexts on it. Above all, Sitkovetsky shared Mravinsky’s realization of the fact that, when conducting music as iconic as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, tradition is not the enemy of originality.
Aided by the conductor’s intelligent handling of the score and the orchestra’s best playing of the evening, GSO’s vocal soloists further increased the success of the performance, mastering music that fuses bel canto with the Romantic idiom of Carl Maria von Weber and Heinrich Marschner. Baritone Marcus DeLoach declaimed the recitative ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!’ stirringly and phrased ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium’ with exuberance. Achieving an ideal balance between vocal power and poetic sensitivity, tenor Rodrick Dixon sang ‘Froh, froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen’ boldly, rising fearlessly to the top B♭s. Mezzo-soprano (and Burlington native) Nancy Maultsby sang strongly and, more rarely in performances of the Ninth Symphony, always audibly, enunciating text with clear diction and cognizance of the meaning of the words. No announcement was made, but soprano Lyubov Petrova was audibly indisposed, cautiously avoiding many of the highest tones, most notably the pair of climactic top Bs in the soloists’ concertato on ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder.’ She bravely attempted the plethora of top As, however, only slight shrillness betraying her vocal estate. She, too, projected the text vividly, earning admiration for a valiant performance.
The twenty-five minutes of the Ninth Symphony’s Finale contain choral writing of unrelenting difficulty, encompassing reverent recollections of Händel’s oratorios and anticipations of the Masses and motets of Anton Bruckner. It is no coincidence that, in the Ninth Symphony’s discography, the finest performances are frequently those with the best choirs. This Greensboro performance introduced the Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale, an ensemble under the direction of Jonathan Emmons and James Keith that on this evening proved to be an immense gift to this performance and to the Triad community. There is something strangely touching about observing choristers singing as affectingly as GSO’s Master Chorale sang whilst masked, this small victory of will symbolizing the tenacity of the Performing Arts. Balances among the voices were nearly ideal. The differentiations of piano and pianissimo in the Adagio ma non troppo, ma divoto ‘Ihr stürtz nieder’ could have been more pronounced, but the voices filled the hall with sounds of compelling beauty and consequence, prompting hope that a future Greensboro Symphony season will include performances of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis.
Beethoven wrote in January 1804, twenty years before the first performance of his Ninth Symphony, that ‘Musik ist wie ein Traum. Einer, den ich nicht hören’—‘Music is like a dream. One that I cannot hear.’ The cruelty of a man whose life was devoted to music being deprived of the ability to hear it is devastating, but Beethoven persevered, listening with his heart when his ears failed him. Bettering an hour in which today’s world faces uncertainty similar to what Beethoven must have felt two centuries ago, Greensboro Sumphony’s performance of the Ninth Symphony was a dream of rejoicing in a night of despair.