IN: Reviews

Community Music Center’s Beethoven Cycle Culminates with the Mighty Ninth


with contributions from Peter Van Zandt Lane

No slips, falls, crunches or other medical mishaps interfered with the presentation by the Community Music Center of Boston of its cycle of the Beethoven symphonies in piano transcriptions. The cycle, in a series of free concerts that form part of CMCB’s centennial celebration, concluded on Thursday, April 8 in CMCB’s Allen Hall, with the colossal Ninth Symphony in an arrangement by Otto singer for two pianos, soloists and chorus. The pianists were CMCB faculty members Stephen Yenger and Shoko Hino; the chorus was the CMCB’s resident adult community choir Una Voce, under the leadership of Samuel Martinborough. The other singers comprised a quartet of soloists and a quintet, both largely drawn from members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (and who are mostly also active freelancers in the region). The soloists were Pamela Wolfe, soprano, Cindy Vredeveld, mezzo, Martin Thomson, tenor, and Michael Pritchard, bass-baritone. The quintet consisted of Christine Pacheco Duquette and Susan Cavalieri, sopranos, Louse-Marie Mennier, alto, Martin Mulligan, tenor, and Tim Wilfong, baritone. The musical part of the program was preceded by a brief lecture by Mary Greer, a New York-based choral director and musicologist.

Department of full disclosure: your correspondent is a member of the CMCB’s corporation and has various personal and family ties to the organization, though none directly participating in this program. Our BMInt colleague Peter Lane contributed his observations to the following discussion, but owing to scheduling snafus was unable to hear the entire program.

We all know Beethoven’s Ninth; it has taken on nearly mythic significance in the history of music, no less for the composers who followed Beethoven as for audiences then and now. The very sound of it reverberates like a racial memory in Western society, both for its musical value and as a symbol of the highest aspirations of Western culture. We don’t have to tell you, therefore, what Beethoven’s Ninth is about or what it does. But the sound of it ringing in our ears is an orchestral sound, and so to hear it stripped to the bones is both jarring and enlightening. While Liszt made his own transcription of the Ninth, along with all the others (some of which were performed on earlier CMCB programs in this series), Yenger and Hino went with the one by Otto Singer (1833-94), a Saxon-born onetime student of Liszt’s who came to the US in 1867, and settled in as a teacher at the Cincinnati College of Music from 1873-92. The version he created generously affords both players occasions of prominence by allocating principal lines among them—something a lot harder to do with one piano four hands. By stripping out the orchestral colors and doublings, it is possible to see the unadorned architecture of Beethoven’s conception, which, apart from the historical curiosity of hearing these works as 19th and early 20th century households would have had to do, is why to bother with an enterprise such as this series. It is also interesting in this context to contemplate Beethoven’s compositional process as being shaped by his sitting at the piano, and his great prowess at the instrument.

The duo pianists in this performance were well coordinated with each other, and they plainly have the chops to get through this big piece. It’s a bit unfortunate that they didn’t take the exposition repeat in the first movement, which most orchestral performances nowadays do, and their tempo in the outer sections of the scherzo was a bit on the slow side. On the other hand(s), they were very effective in conveying and clarifying the contrapuntal play throughout the work. What one really missed, though, was the poetry of the piece: the collaborators did not come to an understanding of the expressive arc of the symphony, most vividly observable in the slow movement, whose “cantabile” heading seems to have gotten lost in translation.

The finale, of course, is what everyone wants to hear, and the vocal forces, suitably scaled to the intimate dimensions of Allen Hall, provided a crisp and highly intelligible performance. The soloists complemented one another well in coloration and tone; Mr. Thomson thrillingly scaled the notoriously perilous heights of the tenor part, and everyone’s German enunciation was admirable. One remarkable aspect of this was that, except for Ms. Wolfe, who must have trained differently, all the soloists pronounced the “y” in “Elysium” as it would be spoken, namely the same as “ü”. All the other umlauted vowels were also conveyed in the spoken, rather than in the artificially flattened conventionally sung manner. We liked it. The Una Voce ensemble was effective in filling out the larger choral sonorities. Next stop: the Symphony of a Thousand? Singer transcribed the Mahler symphonies, too!

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble. Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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  1. Is there really an exposition repeat in the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth?

    Comment by George Hungerford — April 16, 2010 at 10:12 am

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