BSO's guest reins in the 9th

CRITIC'S CORNER

Gardner conducts a restrained Beethoven masterpiece

Critic's corner//Music Review

July 31, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In the 182 years since Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 was premiered, it has never lost its ability to stir the senses. Unfortunately, the last movement's message of joy and brotherhood has always fallen largely on deaf ears.

The world is about as far away from elysian contentment as it was when the composer envisioned such a daring way of conveying it - by stretching the boundary of what had been considered an all-instrumental genre and crowning his symphony with a choral explosion of goodwill and optimism.

Beethoven forever changed the musical landscape with that Ode to Joy, putting the personal and the universal more emphatically into a work of aural art than anyone had ever imagined. He made Wagner possible. And Mahler.

Every encounter with the Ninth - including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's performance Friday night to close the 2006 Summer MusicFest - reaffirms the work's boldness and breadth, its endless possibilities.

The enormous variety of approaches to the score is instructive in itself. Even today, when interpretations usually fall within a predictable range of propulsive tempos and reveal roughly the same concern for clarity of texture, there are usually distinctive features.

Conductors typically avoid the super-weighty reflections that marked performances from decades past, when the Ninth was treated as the ultimate expression of deep romanticism, but still tend to get beyond mere musical abstraction. It's hard to find a presentation of this symphony that doesn't try to say something.

It's also hard to find a totally satisfying account of the Ninth; this can be a very elusive symphony.

Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Edward Gardner, a British conductor just into his 30s and already making a mark in operatic and orchestral circles, seemed determined to keep the music crisp, transparent and, up to a point, impersonal.

That's a perfectly justifiable attitude, of course, but it keeps a tight lid on the Ninth's power. Gardner missed the air of mystery in the opening movement, mistook velocity for ferocity in the second, skated over the sublime lyricism of the Adagio.

The conductor's propulsive approach to those three movements might have made a stronger impression had the BSO responded more effectively to him. Much of the playing was limp, careless, even messy. It sounded as if the orchestra, which goes on vacation this week, was already there mentally.

The idea of using a modest number of strings - only four basses, for example - didn't help any. That size may be historically appropriate for a Beethoven symphony, but the trebly result did the music no favors.

Although Gardner shaped the eventful introductory portion of the finale rather coolly, things quickly improved from the moment the first human voice entered - baritone Stephen Powell, weak at the lower end, but otherwise firm and expressive. The intensity and interest continued right on up to the rushing coda as Gardner, without losing a grip on the music's fragmented structure, let the emotion rip.

The other soloists (soprano Alexandra Deshorties , mezzo Kelley O'Connor, tenor Gordon Gietz) coped quite decently with Beethoven's sometimes cruel demands, compensating for any technical soft spots with fervent phrasing.

The well-prepared Baltimore Choral Arts Society produced a richly nuanced tone and articulated with great finesse.

That energized singing seemed to light a fire under the orchestra, which, with sturdy strings, colorful winds and brass, sounded more like the BSO we all know.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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