Grant Park Music Festival presents BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO. 9 Review—a joyous and traditional ending to another summer season

Conductor Carlos Kalmar opened the program, performed on Friday, August 18 and Saturday, August 19, with an anecdote about a contemporary of Beethoven who upon the premiere of the Ninth Symphony, was highly critical of the piece. Kalmar noted the irony that the piece is now easily the most popular symphony of all time – and one of the most popular pieces of any type of classical music, and the audience chuckled in agreement. With its length (65 minutes in Kalmar’s sprightly reading of it), extensive instrumentation requirements, and parts for a full vocal chorus as well as vocal soloists and quartet, it was the largest, most grandiose symphony ever as of its premiere in 1824. That quality alone makes it an appropriate season-ender for the Grant Park Music Festival -  a showcase for both the festival’s resident groups -  the Grant Park Orchestra and the Grant Park Chorus.

The most popular symphony of all time?

Given the short attention spans of today’s populace, one might wonder how a symphony of the Ninth’s length could hold a  listener’s interest.  But each of the symphony’s four movements has its own personality and is marvelous in its own way. At roughly 16-17 minutes each, the musical landscape changes quickly enough to different melodies and instrumentation that the Ninth is satisfying as a full concert in itself. It is often the only piece performed when it is programmed for concerts, though here the orchestra opened with SCHICKSALSLIED FOR CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA, opus 54 by Johannes Brahms.

The first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth is the one that was found least objectionable by the critic mentioned by Kalmar in his opening remarks. That may be because it’s the most traditional and stereotypically Germanic sounding.  Beethoven marked it “Allegro ma non troppo” – (translation – “Fast, but not too much”) and its pace is predictably deliberate. The movement has an orderly feeling more connected to earlier music and would probably not have been as jarring to ears of the time as the second movement, which is marked “Molto vivace – Presto - Molto vivace” (quickly, lively and bright). Listeners of a certain age will recognize the movement’s opening theme from NBC nightly newscasts by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, from 1952 to 1970. That provides an easy entrance into this complex movement, written in 6/8 time (6 notes to a beat), in which melodies come and go in counterpart. Beethoven brings in the tympani (kettle drums) and trombones for a brassier, more percussive sound – a wonderful showcase for the orchestra’s full personnel beyond its marvelous string sections and an urgent, lively movement for those with ADD.

 

Grant Park BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY9
Photo: Norman Timonera
Grant Park BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY9
Photo: Norman Timonera

A rich, lush third movement and a majestic fourth

Beethoven next gives his listeners respite from the frantic second movement with the lyrical third movement. It’s built around a smooth, soothing use of strings, highlighted by a mellow French Horn solo, lovingly played by principal horn player Jonathan Boen. This emotional movement is a wonderful transition to the much loved fourth movement – largely a setting a of Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” and one of the most recognized melodies of classical music. This movement is the first we hear from the singers of what is called the “Choral Symphony,” but it begins with a solo for a baritone – beautifully sung here by bass Russell Braun. The soloist is joined by the full chorus (rehearsed for this concert by guest conductor Benjamin Rivera), and the scale of this performance – involving 150+ singers and 85 instrumentalists – becomes apparent. As Kalmar noted in his opening remarks, the text (sung by the chorus in German, with an English translation provided in the program) delivers a wish for brotherhood – an especially fervent hope coming as it did exactly one week after the violence in Charlottesville. Schiller wrote “Divinity, your sacred shrine. Your magic again unites all that custom harshly tore apart: all become brothers under your gently hovering wing.”

The full quartet of Braun, Tenor Brendan Tuohy, Mezzo-Soprano Allyson McHardy and Soprano Janai Brugger sang “Whoever has won in that great gamble of being a friend to a friend.”  Tenor Tuohy got a brief solo, then the chorus began a lengthy section with the orchestra, building to a magnificent finale with all voices and instruments, singing Schiller’s wish – “Be embraced, ye millions. This kiss is for the entire world. Brothers, above the canopy of star surely a loving father dwells.”

Grant Park BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY9
Photo: Norman Timonera

OPENING NUMBER PROVIDES SOLACE TO A WEARY WORLD

The concert began with the 18-minute SCHICKSALSLIED (“Song of Destiny”), written by Brahms in 1868. It too, is a choral setting of a German poem. The poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, according to program notes, “describes the bliss of the immortal gods, and as a contrast, the despair and suffering of mankind.” Brahms is more hopeful, though – and the piece – delicately conducted by Kalmar with technical skill and perfect balance between orchestra and chorus – has a comforting air much appreciated in that moment.

GRANT PARK MUSIC FESTIVAL A GIFT CHICAGOANS AND VISITORS

Those arts aficionados among us don’t have to be reminded of the healing power of art, but it was certainly present on this warm Chicago evening. The ability to enjoy a free concert of such professionalism, in a central location accessible to all – is a great gift to our citizenry. That the selections carried both a recognition of the difficulties of life on earth as well as the promise of the joy of brotherhood – was an extra bonus.

For more information on Grant Park Music Festival bookmark the Grant Park Music Festival Website

*All Photos by Norman Timonera

Grant Park BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY9
Photo: Norman Timonera
Grant Park Music Festival BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY9

John Olson is principal of John Olson Communications, providing public relations and marketing services to arts and entertainment clients (www.facebook.com/johnolsoncomm) He is also the Chicago reviewer for TalkinBroadway.com.

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