Ode to Joy

The Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra finished its season with a glorious program of Beethoven. After Maestro James Somerville’s gracious tribute to retiring first violinist, Lance Elbeck, who has been with the HPO for thirty years, we heard soloist James Ehnes play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The packed house gave him a rousing standing ovation, and he played an encore… from Bach’s third violin concerto!

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony completed the program, played to perfection, sung my excellent soloists and both Chorus Niagara and Hamilton’s Bach Elgar Choir… probably about 150 voices, perhaps more.

Unbelievable! When I hear music at a concert, it is always much louder, and more present and immediate than when it is on at home, often as appreciated accompaniment to some other activity. It is so different to sit completely still, in the dark, and share the experience of listening, with no distraction and full concentration, among a few thousand other rapt listeners.

I lack musical training and so my musical vocabulary and my understanding of the subtleties and underlying structures of the symphony are regrettably limited. I close my eyes to avoid visual distraction and just let the music wash over me in waves! At the end I am both refreshed and exhausted… it is all very hard to explain.

There was a young man seated next to my husband who wanted to talk but had difficulty communicating… a speech impediment perhaps, or a mental disability. He was not obviously distracting, but over and over we could hear him whispering to himself… “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”

Indeed, he spoke for all of us!

So this morning I went looking for samples to share with you. There are many. You may want to spread them out over several sessions.

First, a program note:

The Symphony No. 9 in D minor: Choral, Op. 125, is the final complete symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven. Completed in 1824, the symphony is one of the best known works of the Western classical repertoire, and has been adapted for use as the European Anthem. It is considered by critics to be one of Beethoven’s masterpieces  and one of the greatest musical compositions ever written. Beethoven started the work in 1818 and finished early in 1824.

We will be hearing  the final movement: IV. Presto – Allegro assai – Recitativo: “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” Final chorus from Schiller’s ode “To Joy”

The first is Maestro Herbert Von Karajan conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1983. Timed at 14:36, the fourth movement here is shorter than the next clip, but it is complete.

This version has Maestro Leonard Bernstein conducting the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor and Wiener Philharmoniker in 1979… Vienna, of course. The last few bars are missing… an anguishing disappointment after the music builds and builds to that amazing climax! But I include it here because I love to watch Berstein conduct. He wears the music on his face, and his gestures dance. Quite a few years ago there was a series of educational television programs with Bernstein conducting, and I was mesmerized by watching this physical response as he seemed to move both with and within the music.

But wait there is more, much more!

The Symphony No.9 composed by Beethoven is affectionately called “Daiku” in Japanese.  Concerts featuring the symphony “Daiku” are held throughout Japan in every December.

One of these annual concerts may seem peculiar to the Western people. It is the biggest classical concert, “Suntory Presents Beethoven’s 9th with a Cast of 10000,” in the Osaka Castle Hall.

It is performed by a special orchestra that includes foreign players and an amateur chorus group consisting of 10,000 people mainly from the Kansai district. The choir trains intensively for about four months. The audience of 7,000 is also allowed to sing a part of the chorus. It may not be so much a concert as a religious ritual.   This year the 200 members of the Tohoku choir, who were affected by the 3.11 disaster, will join the chorus via live remote broadcasting. Maestro Yutaka Sado was an apprentice of Leonard Bernstein.Which would be more exhilarating… to sing with this massed choir and be, literally, inside the music for your section as it swells all around you, or a member of the audience, hearing all the sections blending in glorious harmony?

Then Andre Rieu…  his talent for popularization, sometimes verging on parody, seems to have no limit… but it is always presented so seriously that you have to  pay attention to it.

What would Beethoven think of all this!?

The Choral Symphony may be well loved, but it has also been much abused. There is a great deal of silliness and outright bad music and bad taste as well.

I found the choral passages in scenes from A Clockwork Orange, yowling cats, a heavy metal version, steel drums, ukeleles, banjos and kazoos… and even played on a home-made panpipes constructed of tampon tubes. Sesame Street had a go at it… with very restricted lyrics, and there is an absolutely awful but rather funny beer commercial.

You never know what will turn up on YouTube! Take a look around for yourself!

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