Nothing packs 'em in like Beethoven's Ninth. This has been true ever since the symphony was new, in 1824, and in just about every part of the globe. I'm surprised orchestras don't program it every season, just to give the cash flow a boost.
The Ninth's drawing power was evident Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for the finale of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Summer Wine and Music Fest.
Pianist-turned-conductor Jeffrey Kahane led the BSO, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and a quartet of vocal soloists in what, for better or worse, constituted a typical late-20th, early 21st-century performance of Beethoven's crowning symphonic utterance.
In days past, conductors took their time delving into the misty music that launches the score, and drew out the first movement's weighty, ominous implications. They rarely hurried in the Adagio, gently exposing layers of soulful beauty in the gradually flowering melodic lines.
Those old-timers also had a way of making the "Ode to Joy" finale an astonishing, unpredictable ride through emotions and affirmations. There didn't seem to be any rules against long-held notes, extended silences or wild tempo variations.
Today, thanks to a historical authenticity movement that has altered perceptions about idiomatic style, conductors are more likely to step back from this music, lest they tumble over the brink into romantic excess or personal idiosyncrasy.
The prevailing approach to Beethoven is now lean and clean, with the emphasis on propulsion and transparency, allowing only a dollop of lyricism or poetic breadth. Yes, this probably is, as the authenticity folks tell us, how Beethoven's music was played in his day, but I'm not ready to believe that's the only way to play it now.
Kahane, Marin Alsop's successor as music director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, made a respectable case for the historically informed approach as he whipped through the Ninth. At his speed, nothing particularly deep happened in the first movement or the Adagio, but the Scherzo certainly benefited from the driving force.
The conductor pushed the finale along, as if attempting to hold its disparate parts together by virtue of momentum alone. There was plenty of joy in this ode, to be sure, but I missed a sense of awe to complement the exhilaration.
Aside from some surprisingly rough patches in articulation, the BSO proved effective enough. The smoothly blended, ever-expressive chorus rose admirably to the challenges.
Morris D. Robinson delivered welcome volts with his ripe, hall-filling bass. The tenor soloist, Michael Hendrick, sounded pushed by Kahane's tempo, but got the job done. Soprano Indra Thomas coped reasonably well with Beethoven's cruel demands. Like many a mezzo in the Ninth, Barbara Rearick was just about inaudible.
The program opened with Beethoven's infrequently heard choral cantata Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Kahane shaped the score sensitively and atmospherically (no rushing here), drawing refined singing and playing from his forces.