When Beethoven premiered his Symphony No. 9 in Vienna's Karntnertör Theater in the spring of 1824, it wasn't the clean, polished experience one might expect of the most revered symphony ever written. The performers were a mixed bag of players from the house orchestra, the Vienna Music Society (a.k.a., Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde), and various amateurs. The chorus was all-volunteer. And, with only two full rehearsals, the performance was reportedly spotty, even sloppy at times. It didn't help that Beethoven - who was by then totally deaf - conducted the performance; beforehand, the theater's Kapellmeister instructed the orchestra to ignore Beethoven's wild, out-of-sync gestures.
Nevertheless, the audience - which numbered just shy of a thousand - responded to this monumental, ground-breaking work with rapturous applause and multiple standing ovations. The greatness of Beethoven's achievement could not be ignored, regardless of the circumstances. (A repeat performance on a sunny Sunday afternoon two weeks later was less successful, playing to a half-empty house.)
In that sense, the performance of Beethoven's 9th this past Sunday afternoon by the all-volunteer Greenwich Village Orchestra at Washington Irving High School was probably the most authentic I've ever heard. Sure, I've heard plenty of polished performances of the 9th by professional orchestras in some of the greatest concert halls in the world. But, I've never heard one more vital, filled with the same struggle and hard-won victory as that Vienna premiere 193 years ago.
For the past 30 years, the 70-odd members of the Greenwich Village Orchestra - all of whom have day jobs in other fields - have given monthly performances of staples from the orchestral repertoire: concerts earlier this season featured substantial works such as Dvořák’s "New World" Symphony, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, and Ravel's Daphnis & Chloé. But Beethoven's 9th, with it's 65 minutes of incredibly challenging music - not to mention full chorus and soloists? That's just crazy ambitious.
Credit the moxie of music director Barbara Yahr, who has led the GVO for nearly half of their existence. Following a bracing, if technically uneven, performance of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, Yahr introduced the 9th, arguing that it's message of brotherhood and freedom is all-too-relevant for our turbulent times.
"We are all still learning how to live with each other," Yahr said. "Perhaps this work can offer us some guidance."
Sitting less than 50 feet from the stage, I felt like I was hearing the 9th for the first time. Throughout the first three movements, Jahr led a straight-ahead performance that was crisp and well-paced, without anything eccentric or overly dramatic. (The 9th doesn't need any extra seasoning.) Was it flawless? Hardly. But, just as at the Vienna premiere, Beethoven's music was all there: the shining sonorities, the quirky cadences, the promethean length. No disrespect to the hardworking players of the GVO, but the ultimate testament to Beethoven's genius is that regardless of who's playing the 9th, it works.
Of course, the highlight of any performance of the 9th is the choral finale. Without warning, the chorus emerged from the audience and assembled in the well of the auditorium, where they sang the words to Schiller's "Ode to Joy" with visible passion and conviction. After getting a taste of choral singing last summer, it made me want to jump up there sing and with them. Joining the orchestra onstage were capable soloists Rachel Rosales (soprano), Jan Wilson (mezzo-soprano), John Tiranno (tenor) and Peter Stewart (baritone).
I can't even tell you how many times I've heard this 200 year old symphony, both live and on recordings. And yet, it still blows me away, every time. There are so many extraordinary moments, like when the chorus sings, "Brothers - beyond the starry canopy/ A loving Father must dwell" with shimmering strings oscillating underneath. Or when the chorus climaxes with the famous "Freude, schöner Götterfunken!" ("Joy, beautiful and divine spark"), punctuated by brass and percussion. This symphony leaves you breathless, overwhelmed. It shakes you, and won't let you go. It's audaciousness is almost gaudy. And, yet, it's meaning and capacity to inspire is universal.
Was there a standing ovation? You bet: a well-deserved one. Not a bad way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon.
More pics on the photo page.