Conducting Ninth an honor

April 19, 1996|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Keep your eyes on him; someday he will give the world something to talk about," said Mozart about 16-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven.

Talk about Beethoven we have in the 168 years since his death, and one of the principal topics of conversation has been his towering Ninth Symphony.

Indeed, no piece ever written approaches its mystique or inspires such awe, reverence or sense of occasion. There are extraordinary ninth symphonies by Schubert, Dvorak, Mahler and Shostakovich among others, but say "The Ninth" to a music-lover, and it means only one thing: Beethoven's Ninth with its final movement choral setting of the poet Schiller's fraternal "Ode to Joy."

To Gisele Ben-Dor, whose Annapolis Symphony Orchestra will be joined by four soloists and the 150 voices of the Annapolis Chorale in performances at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts tonight and tomorrow, Beethoven's symphonic valedictory statement is one of music's greatest thrills.

"This will be my first time conducting a complete Ninth, but if I had done it 10 times before, I'd still feel a sense of occasion," she says. "It's a great thing; a privilege to be able to do it."

First performed in 1824, three years before the composer's death, the symphony took on mythical status soon after.

The 53-year-old Beethoven, by then severely deaf, sat on stage facing away from the audience beating time to himself. As his cataclysmic hymn to universal brotherhood concluded, he was turned around to acknowledge the thunderous ovation he could not hear.

At that moment, the work ceased to exist as a mere symphony and became instead a musical way of life. Open a concert hall or close a music festival even today, and the ninth commemorates the occasion. When the Berlin Wall fell, it did so to the strains of "Alle Menschen werden Bruder."

But the work is far more than the ebullient choral passages, operatic solos, monumental fugue and crazy Turkish March that explode out of the "Ode to Joy."

The first movement is as tense and declamatory as anything Beethoven wrote. The turbulent second movement never fails to energize, and the intricately spun variations of the Adagio explore the outer reaches of beauty in a most unearthly way.

Of course, all this emanates from a composer who cared not a whit about the inhuman demands he placed on his performers, especially the singers who must sustain Schiller's text at murderously high pitches for 20 minutes.

But, as Ms. Ben-Dor explains, the choral element is the source of the work's power. "Because of the voices, you can't come close to the real sound of the piece on your home stereo," she says. "Everyone must be there together experiencing it at the same time. This feeling is something that truly justifies a visit to a concert hall."

The concert ends the ASO's 35th anniversary season in performances at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow April 19-20 at Maryland Hall in Annapolis. For ticket information, call 263-0907.

Pub Date: 4/19/96

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