Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra closes season with Beethoven’s great Ninth
By Pat Suarez
Photo: The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra presents Beethoven’s Ninth on May 16 and 17 in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center
Try this: Put a blank sheet of musical staves (those five horizontal, parallel lines separated by four spaces), enough for an orchestra’s woodwinds, brass, percussion and strings in front of you. Grab a pen. Conjure in your mind a musical work for orchestra – choose the form of a symphony. Decide the number of movements; let’s make it four. Work up the nature of each movement: its tempo, key signature, which instruments should play and when they should be heard and not heard, when the instruments should play softly or loudly and when those volume transitions occur. Create a melody, establishing which section or sections of the orchestra carry it, which sections augment it and how they augment it. In a revolutionary move, add voices, both solo and chorus – this means more staves and the selection of a text the vocal performers will sing, who will sing when, how those voices will complement the orchestra and vice-versa.
This is difficult, you say? Now, do this when you’re nearly stone deaf. Ladies and gentlemen, we present the Ninth Symphony in D minor by, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven.
In their final concerts of the 2013 – 2014 symphony season, on Friday, May 16 and Saturday, May 17, Artistic Director Neal Gittleman will lead the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus in Beethoven’s landmark work at the Schuster Center. Assisting as soloists will be Andrea Chenoweth, soprano: Brandi Samuel, mezzo-soprano; Jason Slayden, tenor; and Nathan Stark, bass.
That this was the first symphony to add the human voice is common knowledge. But to think this is the work of Beethoven in his final years – this symphony premiered just three years before Beethoven’s death in 1827 – and that the human voice was in the forefront of Beethoven’s creative flow would be a mistake. Beethoven began sketches for what would become this Opus 125 symphony as early as 1793 and his original plan for that revolutionary final movement was for instruments only. However, Beethoven put those sketches aside and did not use them until he wrote his Opus 132, String Quartet in A minor.
In terms of the text for the Ninth’s finale, Beethoven had greatly admired the poet Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller and had used Schiller’s writings occasionally as inspiration for his own works. In 1811, Beethoven considered setting the 1795 “Ode to Joy” as a cantata. He discarded that idea and then deliberated over a purely orchestral ninth symphony followed by a choral tenth symphony, setting “Ode to Joy” in that work. By 1823, however, after thirty years of sketching musical ideas, Beethoven settled on the idea of incorporating “Ode to Joy” into the last movement of his Ninth.
We asked Neal Gittleman about the Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony:
Each time you conduct this symphony, is there anything new for you or anything that you do differently from previous performances?
What I always do is go back to the score and see what it says to me. After all, that’s my job – to be Beethoven’s representative and advocate to the musicians and the audience. Of course, this is a little bit like a Supreme Court justice interpreting the Constitution. The text remains the same, but how you read it may change over time. When I sat down with the score to study it for this performance, I was toying with the idea of maybe taking a “more romantic” approach than I usually do: broader tempos, more rubato, etc. I did something like that with Beethoven’s Fifth several years ago, and it was fun, kind of an old-school approach. But, to be honest, when I sat down with the score, that’s not what the score told me to do, especially with the finale. I still think it needs to be, well, joyful, instead of the heavy, serious, “This-is-the-Ninth-Symphony” approach the old-school interpreters favor. – Neal Gittleman
How did a deaf composer assemble such an exquisite symphony?
Well, that’s the composer’s business, of course, to know how the combinations would work. Beethoven had written a lot for soloists, chorus and orchestra before the Ninth (and also when his hearing faculty was still intact). There are a few places in the piece where maybe he miscalculated, or maybe he was imagining a sound that’s difficult to pull off. But it’s our job as performers to make those miscalculations sound just as beautiful as he imagined them. You know how they say when someone loses one of their senses, sometimes other things come to the fore, like the old cliché of the blind piano tuner (my parents had several over the years)? I think it’s entirely possible Beethoven’s hearing loss may have actually enabled him to imagine sounds he may never have imagined with his hearing at 100 percent. Maybe the lack of external sound let him explore a world of internal sound that led him to some of the incredibly beautiful and mystical works of his later years. – NG
The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra presents Beethoven’s Ninth at 8 p.m. Friday, May 16 and Saturday, May 17 in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. Also on the program are Roberto Sierra’s A Joyous Overture, written in 1991 and inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Michael Schelle’s energetic Swashbuckler!, from 1984, an homage to myriad ocean-based motion pictures from 1930s. For more information, please visit daytonperformingarts.org.
Reach DCP freelance writer Pat Suarez at PatSuarez @DaytonCityPaper.com.