MusicFest keeps 9th in check

Venzago approaches Beethoven's work with clarity, restraint


July 15, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

After another week of dismal news about human misbehavior, the admonition of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony seemed doubly welcome Friday night: "No more of those sounds. Let us sing more cheerful songs."

These words, and the rest of the "Ode to Joy," reverberated mightily in a packed Meyerhoff Hall for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Summer MusicFest.

The Ninth Symphony, rightly or wrongly, continues to inspire reactions that go beyond the purely musical. It's a symphony that forcibly declares an intention to be about something, and it doesn't take much imagination to hear it as a noble and ennobling utterance.

That's not what folks in Beethoven's day expected of a symphony. Some, even highly learned ones, laughed at the piece when they first encountered it, thinking it a bizarre joke, or simply dismissed it as a sad mistake attributable to the composer's deafness.

Eventually, needless to say, the world hugged the Ninth as tightly as Beethoven, via Friedrich von Schiller's ode, hugged the world in his symphony ("You millions, I embrace you; this kiss is for all the world").

All that love over the ages has generated remarkably varying interpretations of the Ninth; the music still means different things to different people.

Although Schiller's poem couldn't be more straightforward, the symphony, like all great music, refuses to put all its cards on the table. It can be accepted as a pinnacle of Romantic thought, the triumph of brotherhood over chaos. It can be heard more dispassionately as a complex set of musical challenges, painstakingly resolved.

In the 20th century alone, the Ninth inspired vastly opposing artistic and philosophical visions -- from the cosmos-hugging, transcendent type of a Wilhelm Furtwangler or Leonard Bernstein to the clear-headed, lean and tightly focused view of a John Eliot Gardiner.

On Friday, Summer MusicFest artistic director Mario Venzago steered a course closer to Gardiner and other advocates of historic performance practice. This was a solidly anchored Ninth; for all of the talk in the last movement about soaring above the stars, the music stayed within earth's orbit.

Venzago, an endearing and energetic speaker (he's the antithesis of the BSO's publicly taciturn music director Yuri Temirkanov), let the audience in on his ideas about the symphony beforehand. His goal was to strip away some of the heaviness associated with the Ninth, to get closer to what Beethoven actually wrote.

Within that framework, Venzago's concept was certainly effective, boasting great clarity, cohesion and crispness. Textures were transparent, tempos bracing.

The orchestra responded with tight ensemble work. The strings delivered considerable sheen, the woodwinds and brass abundant color (notably bassoonist Phillip Kolker and horn player Philip Munds).

In the finale, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society produced an evenly blended sound that could let loose with an intense force or, just as impressively, draw back into an expectant hush. Of the vocal quartet, bass-baritone Mark S. Doss offered particular richness and power. Soprano Elizabeth Keusch, mezzo Victoria Avetisyan and tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan (swamped by the end of his solo) phrased sensitively.

(Earlier in the evening, the four singers sang some of Beethoven's English and Irish folk song settings with warmth and charm, if not uniformly intelligible diction. Pianist James Harp, violinist Andrew Wasyluszko and cellist Bo Li provided the stylish accompaniment.)

For all of its strengths, Venzago's way with the Ninth Symphony missed, to my ears, some of the score's drama, suspense and surprise. The closing measures of the first two movements, for example, were a few watts short of a jolt, as was the dissonant start of the fourth. The third, taken at a brisk clip, sounded like a tributary of the babbling brook depicted in the Sixth Symphony, rather than a profoundly lyrical and introspective reflection.

Still, the performance had a unifying integrity and, where it counted most, terrific thrust. This week's remaining concerts of Summer MusicFest have a tough act to follow.

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