ASO takes on Ninth with enthusiasm Beethoven's symphony was worth hearing

April 23, 1996|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to The Sun

Beethoven's towering Ninth Symphony is a musical expedition from which many orchestras with higher pedigrees than the Annapolis Symphony have failed to return alive.

So it is with admirable pluck -- if not downright chutzpah -- that an ensemble like the ASO takes a crack at Beethoven's inimitable valedictory address every few years.

The offering last weekend at Maryland Hall, the first-ever led by Gisele Ben-Dor, was in some ways, distinguished, in others, not. But it certainly was worth doing and hearing.

I responded positively to her brisk, no nonsense approach to the first two movements. The first movement certainly could stand more breadth than it got Saturday night, but I don't mind my Beethoven straight, hard and fast on occasion. If a conductor wants to save the real momentousness for the "Ode to Joy," who am I to quibble?

The second movement was extremely brisk; no dawdling for Ms. Ben-Dor, even at the usual slow-down spots.

She also kept the traffic moving smartly through the many fits and starts of the final movement. The cello recitatives spoke eloquently and the famous theme built nicely. Aided by the Annapolis Chorale, she presided over an exciting vocal explosion for Vor Gott!, then gave us a quick, spirited Turkish March, a zippy fugue and a rousing conclusion.

If she could have one movement back, though, it would have to be the third, an adagio that was extremely episodic. The movement needed more time at the drawing board.

In terms of overall technical polish, we got a mixed bag.

Bravo to the ASO strings, who delivered big-time for their conductor, and to the Annapolis Chorale, which managed to sound bright and assertive in dead-as-a-doornail Maryland Hall.

While I enjoyed the lovely sounds from oboist Ruth Reimers-Keehner, there were real problems elsewhere in the winds. The solo clarinet and a few of his neighbors made hash of the problematic adagio, and there were too many wobbly passages in the earlier movements as well. The French horns also sounded anemic.

Adding to the difficulties were three unsatisfactory soloists; a miserably out-of-tune bass, an inaudible mezzo, and a lagging soprano stuck in a different time zone from her conductor. Only tenor Paul McIlvaine lent anything of substance.

This was, no doubt, the first of many Ninths for Gisele Ben-Dor and I was glad to have caught it. May she grow and prosper with the work, and may her Santa Barbara Orchestra be blessed with better soloists than the ones she wound up with in Annapolis.

Pub Date: 4/23/96

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