Beethoven’s Ninth closes
year on poetic note

By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin

What is it about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that is so compelling?

There is, of course, its message of peace and the brotherhood of all mankind, but that hardly makes it unique. And it is Beethoven, the 19th century's great, tragic hero.

And it is not just any Beethoven, but his last symphony, a landmark work that expanded the genre to mythic proportions.

At each performance, audiences seem driven to recreate the work's premiere, enthusiastically applauding not just the work, but the deaf composer and what he came to represent: triumph over adversity, fierce idealism, and a passion for life.

No matter that the work is long and demanding, requiring huge forces. Or that Schiller's poetry falls rather far short of his best work. Or that the words, because of the way they are set to music, are generally unintelligible anyway. Or that the music, turbulent and unwieldy, does not lie comfortably. Or that performances are almost never flawless. Or even that the piece is overly familiar.

You would think that after almost 200 years, enthusiasm for the piece might wane or that audiences might tire of hearing it. But that doesn't happen.

Beethoven's Ninth, as its composer intended, has transcended its limits as a piece of music. It has become a symbol, a familiar and beloved cultural icon.

As such, it lies above criticism. The piece has had more than its share of truly dreadful performances, but sometimes even those inspire standing ovations. Audiences, responding to the idea of the piece, prove what critics rarely realize: in the grand scheme of things, minor flaws do not matter.

Saturday night's performance by the Honolulu Symphony, featuring the Honolulu Symphony Chorus and soloists Leslie Tennent (baritone), Laurence Paxton (tenor), Milagro Vargas (mezzo-soprano), and Mary Chesnut (soprano), was better than most.

Maestro Samuel Wong weighted the symphony toward its angst-ridden passionate side, deftly guiding orchestra, chorus, and soloists through Beethoven's varied world: the serious, intellectual opening essay; the rhythmically complex scherzo (which means "joke"); a tender, wordless aria; and finally, that famously singable, transcendent fourth movement.

Beethoven's schizophrenic joke, in which flitting fairies kept morphing into invading hordes, was particularly delightful.

The first half featured three festive chamber works by the Symphony's brass section, augmented by Don Immel on trombone and Orrin Olson on French horn.

Musicians stepped forward to introduce the works, which were not included in the program notes: "La Bergamasca" Sinfonia, an antiphonal, imitative work with terraced dynamics, by Lodovico Viadana (1560-1627); "Mutations from Bach," based on the chorale "Christ, Thou Lamb of God" and the only one of the three that Wong conducted, by Samuel Barber (1910-1981); and a festive march by William Byrd (1543-1623).

Ruth O. Bingham reviews classical music for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

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