B9 strikes trepidation into our singers’ hearts, but the work has nevertheless become a musical summit many of us look forward to climbing annually. As the summer Tanglewood season winds down each August, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus almost always partners with the BSO in a matinee finale featuring (but not usually limited to) Ludwig van Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 9.
This summer’s August 16th finale began with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra’s fiery reading under Israeli conductor Asher Fisch of Aaron Copland´s virtuosic Symphonic Ode (1929), an appropriate choice to celebrate the 75th year of the TMC, as it was premiered for the BSO´s 50th (1932) and then revised for the BSO´s 75th (1955-56, and finally paid for at that point). The Ode is part of the fascinating early period of Copland´s work which includes his Four Motets for Mixed Voices (1921), his Organ Symphony (premiered in New York and Boston under Nadia Boulanger´s direction in 1925), Music for the Theater (premiered by the BSO in 1925), the Piano Concerto (premiered by the BSO in 1927), the Piano Variations (1930), his early ballet Grohg (1922-25, rev. 1932), and his 1934 jazz ballet Hear Ye! Hear Ye! commissioned by Ruth Page in Chicago.
The revised 20-minute version of Ode, which we heard, was introduced by the BSO with Charles Munch conducting on February 3, 1956, calls for a large orchestra, including eight horns, Chinese blocks, field drum, slapstick, and piano. Koussevitzky had offered Copland a commission for a work to celebrate the BSO´s 50th, but when rehearsals began at the end of March 1930, the players experienced tremendous difficulty with the constant changes of tempo and meter. Copland worked hard to simplify the notation, and the early Boston and Mexico City performances went well. The Ode then disappeared for 16 years, not to resurface until a 1946 concert at Juilliard and eventually, in a further-revised version.
There was another way in which this work was appropriate for final concert this summer of the TMC Fellows, most of whom are in the 20s and early 30s: Copland described the Ode as the piece in which he announced that he had grown up: “The Ode resembles me at the time [of my 30th birthday], full of ideas and ideals, introspective and serious, but still showing touches of youthful jazz days, reflections of a Jewish heritage, remnants of Paris (Boulanger’s la grande ligne), influences of Mahler (the orchestration) and Stravinsky (motor rhythms). I used a two-measure blues motif (from my Nocturne for violin and piano of 1926) as the musical basis of all five sections.” Its jagged rhythms, brilliant triads, and complex counterpoint set up an athletic Scherzo, a series of popular dances, and a Mahlerian pileup at the conclusion.
A demanding and dynamic leader, Fisch took Ode and B9 almost completely apart during the rehearsals with the TMC Fellows, the BSO, and the TFC.
A Chorister’s Account
Conductors can put their stamps on the B9 by choosing tempi carefully and working out how to handle the many tricky transition Beethoven introduces. Some sections of the choral finale were faster in rehearsals than in the final performance, and Fisch demanded attention to the variety of (sometimes off-beat) accents and asked for some significant changes in how the musicians were accustomed to performing the work. For example, at the end of a fast section full of repetitions of “Alle Menschen” (all people), and preceding a sudden shift to Adagio for the entrance of the solo vocal quartet, he required the Chorus to stay at the previous (faster) tempo, while allowing the soloists to begin the Adagio simultaneously. In order to avoid the possible sound of the American-R at the end of German words, he preferred an almost ah-like vowel to the standard schwa sound (as in the omnipresent “Brüder,” meaning “brothers”). These kind of subtle alterations focused the singers´ attention to details in a work that has become somewhat routine and brought the piece to life in a fitting conclusion to the summer´s celebratory season.
Soloists Julianna Di Giacomo, soprano, Renée Tatum, mezzo-soprano, Paul Groves, tenor, and John Relyea, bass-baritone created a powerful, but balanced ensemble. Fisch placed them on the front of the stage, two on each side of the podium, and chose brisk tempi for the marches in the finale. Even though I was listening from behind him, Relyea shone in his introductory outburst, crushing the orchestra with his opening phrase and propelling the listener into Beethoven´s set of variations on the theme known as the “Ode to Joy.”
Afterword: More on the Chorus
The TFC has been singing for 46 years under the direction of John Oliver, so this B9 was special, as it marked his retirement from the post of Conductor. After 335 Tanglewood concerts (including a spectacular all-choral Prelude Concert in Ozawa Hall this August), and more than 2,000 regular concerts with the BSO and Boston Pops, Oliver has established a firm legacy. At intermission, Managing Director Mark Volpe presented him with the Tanglewood Medal of Honor (the first recipient was Seiji Ozawa), and he will assume the new title of Conductor Laureate of the TFC, as well as a Master Teacher at Tanglewood. Choral Arts New England has also honored him with the Alfred Nash Patterson Lifetime Achievement Award
Over the years, Beethoven´s Ninth has remained a fixture of the TFC repertoire, and the chorus performs it from memory, as it has for most of its regular choral-orchestral repertory since the Verdi Requiem in the late 1980s. Roughly three dozen members of the chorus have been regular singers since then (each concert program indicates choristers with landmark years of service), and a few were members of the original group, formed partially from the Framingham Choral Society Oliver was conducting the late 1960s, and replacing various young singing groups from the Berkshire Music Center, Hugh Ross’s choral department, Boris Goldovsky’s opera department, and Ingolf Dahl’s study group (for summer Tanglewood performances) and local Boston choirs such as Chorus Pro Musica and collegiate ensembles (for Boston performances).
The TFC is an all-volunteer mixed chorus, donating time for rehearsals and performances to both the BSO and Boston Pops, while singing and acting in a variety of other Boston-based ensembles. Singers re-audition regularly and rehearse infrequently, until the ramp-up to the performance week. The group has worked with an average of five different conductors per season, with particular variety during the directorship of James Levine, who enriched the TFC´s repertory with seldom-performed operas and new commissions.
Recent B9´s have been led by Charles Dutoit (2014), Bernard Haitink (2013 at Tanglewood), Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (2000, 2007, 2012), Kurt Masur (2010), Michael Tilson Thomas (2009), Christoph von Dohnányi (2008), James Levine (2006), Marek Janowski (2005), Hans Graf (2004), James Conlon (2003), Roger Norrington (2002), and Zubin Mehta (2001), just to list those of the current century. This fantastic diversity is reason enough to join the TFC, and each performance brings with it a sense of anticipation.
As the organization searches for a successor to Oliver, the first two candidates have been scheduled for this Fall: James Bagwell (Bard and Collegiate Chorale) will lead all rehearsals for the two October sets (Prokofiev´s Alexander Nevsky and Strauss´s Elektra) and William Cutter (MIT and the Boston Conservatory) will prepare the TFC for our holiday collaborations with the Boston Pops.