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Another Ninth Symphony

available at Amazon
T. F. Kelly, First Nights: Five Musical Premiers
(including Beethoven's ninth symphony) (Yale UP, 2001)
Both of the pieces on this week's program from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, heard on Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, are repetitions from recent seasons: John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls, from 2006, and Beethoven's ninth symphony, more recently (and already planned again for next season). The combination of the two was also curious in that the events of the day commemorated by the Adams piece, September 11, 2001, seem to smash any and all hope one might have in the words of Schiller hammered on by Beethoven, "Alle Menschen werden Brüder." (The pairing was the same at the New York Philharmonic premiere of the Adams.) Worse than that, the length of the Adams made necessary some extremely fast tempi in the Beethoven, as if music director Marin Alsop was hellbent on hitting the target of a two-hour concert, as announced in the program. She almost made it by 10 pm, but at a cost.

My feelings about the Adams piece were not altered much by this performance, namely that it had its greatest power in the aftermath of the attacks, winning Adams a Pulitzer Prize in 2003, but as the years recede, its emotional power ebbs and weaknesses are revealed. I would love to hear the score without the recorded track, a recitation of victims' names and words spoken by their families, quoted in the New York Times. Most of the music is simple and repetitive in nature, soft chords that rise up and vanish through sections of the orchestra, and without those recorded voices it would be revealed as a vanilla accompaniment. Both the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and Peabody Children's Chorus made pleasing and well-articulated contributions to the atmospheric nature of the piece. It has one major emotional climax, as the chorus takes up the words of the wife of L. Russell Keene III, one of the victims -- "I wanted to dig him out. I know just where he is" -- in a sort of gut-wrenching howl, with big sweeps of Sibelius-like sound in the orchestra. Little else leaves a lasting impression.

Other Reviews:

Simon Chin, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra perform 9/11 tribute paired with Beethoven (Washington Post, June 8)

Tim Smith, Affecting pairing of Adams, Beethoven from the Baltimore Symphony (Baltimore Sun, June 7)
Beethoven's ninth symphony is performed so often that conductors look for something to make their interpretation stand out, and movement by movement Alsop's was marked by an almost anxious, frenetic quality. The first movement was rushed in a way that left little room for the "poco maestoso" part that Beethoven wanted to happen. In this attempt to wrench all the drama from the piece she could, most of the mystery of the movement, especially in the coda, was rushed over, with some sloppiness in the faster runs of the violins and winds. The scherzo was, appropriately, very fast and crisply articulated, but it felt more studious than playful, more furrowed brow than arched brow. Even beyond the sudden rests, the shift of time in the trio, and the surprise entrances of the timpani, it should have a playful side. The straightening out of the extreme rubato often applied to the third movement was much appreciated, but when you do not have to subdivide an Adagio molto, you are probably going too fast. The reason to make the trip to Baltimore was to hear a rather fine vocal quartet -- Angela Meade, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Dimitri Pittas, and Eric Owens (stepping in at the last minute to replace James Morris) -- but there was little to savor at the tempi imposed by Alsop. All of the musicians gave their best, but too much of this performance, from the first unsteady statement of the main theme by Owens, felt unsettled and rushed, even the final quartet moment, where Alsop could have luxuriated in Meade's voice soaring over our heads but did not.

This concert repeats tonight at Strathmore and tomorrow afternoon in Baltimore.

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