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.