Last night at Symphony Hall, the Boston Philharmonic, under the direction of Benjamin Zander, performed an all-Beethoven program that was more than just a musical event. The back-story on this particular program is that it was originally scheduled to be performed as last season’s grand finale on April 19th. But five days earlier, Boston experienced the bombing of the Boston Marathon. At that time the performance would have been intended to be a defiant stand in the face of the senseless loss of life and countless injuries, and to demonstrate the capacity of music to express suffering and healing and the triumph of the human spirit. Fate had it that on that Friday, the city went into lock-down as police and other first-responders tracked and caught the individuals apparently responsible for the bombing, and no concert, or any other event, could take place.
What this postponement allowed was an opportunity to invite people injured in the bombing and first-responders to be a part of a later audience, and along with Governor Deval Patrick, to be able to share in the celebration as they continue to recover. After the overture, Maestro Zander spoke briefly to honor them.
Recalling the shock, confusion, fear, anger and tension of those days following the Marathon event, it is possible that no other musical work could have so effectively captured the range of emotion that it is possible for humans to experience as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Considered by many as the epitome of symphonic expression, it is a work against which all other symphonies are measured. Michael Steinberg’s comprehensive notes detailed its history and structure.
The concert opened with a near perfect rendition of the Coriolan Overture, Op. 62. The slashing downbeats of the opening bars were balanced by the lusciously rounded phrases of the gentler second theme. The horn section sounded especially fine.
Though the 9th Symphony is now so familiar that it is rare to be surprised by the work, Zander managed to do just that by cleaving with fierce independence to Beethoven’s metronome markings. The result was that many of the movements were considerably faster than this listener has ever heard. For the most part, the orchestra was up to the challenge, though there were a few ragged bits, and a notable faux pas at the opening of the fourth movement. Aside from these minor quirks of live performance, it was an expansive, tender, furious, despairing, mysterious, and ultimately exalting rendition.
From the tension of the opening, Zander led a restrained crescendo that had the leashed power of galloping horses. The brisker than usual tempi allowed the phrases to flow sinuously one to the next, and for the mood changes from dark to light to be even more manic than usual. If this work is a rendering of Beethoven’s interior landscape, his was a much troubled mind, though with escapes into the sublimely tender and compassionate. Several bassoon counter-melodies that were exquisitely played, as well as the very conversational cello recitative in the fourth movement were among the moments that stood out. Overall intonation, phrasing, and dynamics of all the sections were simply outstanding.
Joining the orchestra was the fabulously well-prepared Chorus Pro Musica. They were a wall of sound, never harsh, well-balanced, and a worthy partner. The soloists for the evening were Michelle Johnson, soprano; Sarah Heltzel, mezzo soprano; Yeghishe Manucharyan, tenor; and Robert Honeysucker, baritone. Honeysucker’s recitative was sung with such power and familiarity that he conveyed all the comfortableness of a well-loved slipper. He surely knows this work in all his fiber, and sang with conviction and clarity, conveying the sense of the words so that even if one did not know German, it would have been clear what he was asking of the listeners. The other singers sang equally beautifully, with both pairs of duets simply sublime.
Schiller’s poem exhorts “All men are made brothers where your gentle wings abide. Be embraced, ye Millions! This kiss to the whole world!”
Boston in the face of tragedy did unite; we recognized our neighbors as ourselves, and rose to meet the challenges as needed. To be able to celebrate that spirit and to nurture it with the greatest music ever written heard in such a passionately committed performance was a happy stroke of fate. We were blessed and embraced by unalloyed joy.