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Lexingtonian Anniversaries


Max Klinger’s 1902 evocation of the master.

In this 200th anniversary of the premiere of Beethoven’s last and most triumphal symphony, the Ninth with its perorational ode “To Joy” has been heard many times around the world, and Sunday’s matinee performance at Cary Hall in Lexington, following a successful one the night before, duly resounded again. The Lexington Symphony, Jonathan McPhee directing, honored its 29th season by combining with the Masterworks Chorale and Concord Chorus to fill the stage and half the floor with gratifying closeness; the large wraparound balcony completed a packed hall, with an audience that included many young people and small children.

The imperfect acoustical experience nevertheless sounded intimate; the orchestral volume was fully umschlingend. In fact, from where I was sitting, in the balcony, the wind sound, and the four horns in particular, tended to obscure or even overpower the undermanned strings (8-7-7-6-4) in sustained sound; this felt particularly problematic in the slow movement, where Beethoven indulged in some exotic horn writing with many long-held notes. In the first two movements, orchestra sections balanced favorably; of course in the massive, combined sound of the finale, balance didn’t matter, because the brilliance swept us all away. The players displayed authoritative strength and were obviously well prepared to cope with Jonathan McPhee’s generous and unflagging tempi.

The momentum of the first movement with its unforgettably intricate development was irresistible in this vigorous performance — it points the way even to Bruckner 50 years later (compare the rhythm of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony beginning). The second movement, the greatest of Beethoven’s symphonic scherzos, has outer sections in sonata form; I missed the indicated repeat of the Exposition section. The Trio, in 2/2 meter marked Presto, proceeded with superb warmth, including memorable solo work for oboe and horn, and gently underlined by the trombone section.

The finale, so often criticized by subsequent generations for its artificial military grandiosity, proved its well-loved durability with all-encompassing choral grandeur. Beethoven and Schiller alike intended their Millionen to be fully embraced by this symphony, which made the performance a totally communitarian experience. Baritone Craig Juricka heroically filled the Evangelist’s role as he responded to the opening strident dissonances with “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” and called for joy. Jonas Budris, a fine solo tenor in the 6/8 march (“Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn”), had to fight to be heard, standing to the rear of Beethoven’s airy wind octet. Soprano Carley DeFranco and true-contralto Emily Marvosh nicely completed the vocal solo quartet, but Beethoven, perhaps thinking ahead, didn’t give them much to do of importance. The large choruses, seated and standing (more than 140 names listed in the program), shared their confident might at every moment.

The concert began with Brahms’s 15-minute-long Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), op. 54, on a text by the classicist Hölderlin, composed apparently as a gloomily peaceful pendant to the large-scale Deutsches Requiem that Brahms had completed two years before; there are even musical and textual connections with the bigger work. No composer in the 19th century wrote more comfortably or graciously for chorus than Brahms, who himself had extensive experience as a choral conductor. Kevin Leong, director of both choral groups, controlled the luminous choral-orchestra sound admirably.

In all, this event not only confirmed the strength of already-established orchestral and choral institutions, but also brought home the power and might of great music into a town where a revolution which began 250 years ago next year and echoes today.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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