Portland Symphony Orchestra
April 25, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
Isak Dinesen once observed that there are three sources of joy: love, to have been in pain and be out of it, and to feel in oneself an excess of strength.. Each of these applies to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony , which ends with Schiiler’s “Ode to Joy,” gloriously performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under music director Robert Moody on April 23 and 25.
One suspects that people nowadays are desperate for any source of joy—witness sold-out houses at Merrill Auditorium on both days. But there is another source of joy that Baroness Blixen neglected to mention—what William James called the “oceanic” feeling— the experience of being one with the universe, or the universal brotherhood celebrated by Schiller, Beethoven and Karl Marx.
Universal brotherhood was a subversive concept during the Romantic period, with the aristocracy desperately trying to hold on to power in the face of the French Revolution. and other popular movements. Beethoven had pondered setting Schiller’s poem to music for over 30 years before he wrote the Ninth, and there is evidence that the poet originally intended his ode to be in praise of liberty, rather than joy.
Music doesn’t have to be about anything but itself, but there must have been a powerful impulse at work for Beethoven to devote all of his genius, for an extended period, to a work that he would never hear, except in his own mind.
The Ninth is such a monumental creation that it is seldom heard live. To pull it off, Moody had to recruit a quartet of fine soloists: Mary Boehlke-Wilson, soprano; Margaret Lias, alto; John McVeigh, tenor; and Philip Cutlip, baritone, willing to risk their voices in Beethoven’s impossible roles, the combined forces of the Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson and the Choral Art Masterworks, under Robert Riussell, plus the full orchestra devoted to a demanding score lasting over an hour.
Although there were a couple of strained points, inevitable in such an undertaking, Moody held everything together admirably. The soloists tackled the impossible successfully, and the combined choruses were able to hold their own against the orchestra gracefully, and to sing a monumental fugue without the muddiness that often accompanies large numbers of voices.
The result was tremendously moving, in spite of superfluous supertitles (there is not a single decent translation of the Schiller ode anywhere on the internet). After the final fortissimo the audience leaped to its collective feet instantly, with the accompaniment of cheers and foot stomping. No one wanted to leave.
In the face of the Ninth, the opening Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings seemed a little muted, at least in retrospect, but its selection to set the sombre opening mood of the Beethoven symphony was inspired programming.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.