The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Music in the Mountains Festival Orchestra and Chorus
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - June 30, 2013
by Winslow Rogers
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was the main choral work of the 32nd annual Music in the Mountains SummerFest, performed in the Amaral Center at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley. I bought tickets the first day the concert was announced, and it sold out well in advance.
SummerFest is built on the foundation of the Music in the Mountains Chorus, a venerable local 90-voice auditioned chorus directed by Ryan Murray. The festival's artistic director and orchestra conductor is Gregory Vajda (VOY-da). The Festival Orchestra draws its members from near and far for the three-week festival.
The Amaral Center is the name for a large exhibit building when it has been temporarily transformed into a comfortable 600-seat concert hall. It is shoebox-shaped with the stage at one end, so every seat has a good view. Large panels around the stage and on the ceiling provide excellent acoustics. There are tables down front, and behind them are comfortable seats on gradually raked risers, with staggered seating and plenty of legroom. The overall result is elegant, informal, and welcoming.
With the temperature in the mid-nineties, the air conditioning was on during the entire concert, resulting in an audible low-pitched hum. I couldn't filter it out entirely, but the acoustics were good enough that even when the string basses were bowing pianissimo low notes I could still hear them. The sound was natural, without any electronic amplification.
(Click here to open excerpts of the SummerFest program in a new window.)
After humorous and informative remarks to the audience, director Vajda began the program with another ninth symphony, this one by Shostakovich. Vajda explained that this lightweight and sparkling work was Shostakovich's way of side-stepping the anxiety many composers have felt in trying to write a ninth symphony worthy of comparison to Beethoven's.
I found it an ideal aperitif to the main course. In his 20th -century idiom, the composer evokes the 18th-century musical world of Haydn and Mozart that Beethoven demolished in his ninth symphony.
After the intermission, Vajda led his orchestra in the first two movements of the Beethoven, and then there was a short break while the choir and soloists took their places. They were onstage during the instrumental third movement, which leads directly into the choral finale. I thought this arrangement worked well. The chorus did not have to be onstage for the entire symphony, but there was no distracting pause right before their dramatic entrance.
As anyone reading this review probably knows, this symphony was shocking and groundbreaking when it was first performed, and has not lost its ability to surprise, delight, and uplift an audience. After three movements of Beethoven's best symphonic writing, he impatiently casts that music aside and asks for "more pleasing and more joyful sounds." A purely instrumental finale cannot fulfill his musical vision. He needs to add a full chorus and solo quartet singing out Schiller's "Ode to Joy," a celebration of the universal brotherhood of mankind. This work broke the mold of the classical symphony and opened up previously undreamed-of musical possibilities.
The choral finale is challenging work for any chorus. Beethoven does not treat the singers kindly; they are mere footsoldiers on his higher quest. The twenty-minute movement has few breaks for the chorus, has complex variations on the famous melody, including an intricate fugue with each part singing a different stanza of the poem, and has notes at the top of every singer's range.
The MIM Chorus almost made it seem easy. Their tone was rich and well-balanced, and they sang with energy and conviction. Intonation was quite good, and entrances and cut-offs right-on, with only minor exceptions. The ethereal section before the fugue had poignant beauty. They maintained their energy right to the thrilling conclusion.
The quartet of soloists also acquitted themselves well. We heard vivid contrasts in texture between the solo quartet, the chorus, and the orchestra. The singers were Liisa Davila (soprano), Jennifer Kosharsky (mezzo-soprano), Brian Thorsett (tenor), and Anton Belov (baritone). Davila's clear high notes were breathtaking, and Thorsett was an ideal soloist for the bouncy Turkish March section. While Belov soloed impressively, I thought his rich dark voice sounded a bit muffled and out of place in the quartet passages.
How can a chorus project the German text so that an audience will understand it? There are difficulties such as the fugue mentioned above, and a full orchestra they need to be heard over. Since most audience members have not sung this work and aren't fluent in German, what should a chorus aim for? The MIM chorus had clear diction, with crisp German vowels and consonants, and I could follow the general outline of the poem. But no text or translation was provided for audience members to study before the concert or during intermission, so many audience members must have gone away not knowing how much they had missed.
The concert was greeted at the end with an enthusiastic and well-deserved standing ovation. I'm glad that choral director Ryan Murray came out to take his bows along with Vajda and the soloists. He had prepared his chorus extremely well.
The chorus had a busy schedule at this year's SummerFest. In addition to the Beethoven symphony, they appeared on June 29th with the Festival Orchestra in Michael Shotton's Music of Queen rock-and-symphonic spectacular, and on July 3rd in the Happy Birthday USA concert, both events presented outdoors from a stage on the fairgrounds lawn. In addition, a chamber ensemble from the chorus was featured on July 1st in a new work by noted film and television composer (and Nevada County resident) Jerry Grant. All this comes after their complete concert performance of H.M.S. Pinafore on April 26. No slackers need apply to this chorus!
One more note about the Beethoven concert: I was disappointed by the printed program material. As mentioned above, no text or translation was provided to help audience members get the full impact of this work. There were bios of the soloists, but not of conductor Vajda or choral conductor Murray. The program annotator didn't seem well-versed in classical music; he called the adagio movement (which is very calm and slow) a scherzo (meaning playful and quick). I thought the program was a weak link in an otherwise outstanding production.
Still and all, this was an exciting performance of one of the great masterpieces of Western music. The performers got an obvious thrill from performing this music, which was warmly received by the audience. For Music in the Mountains to do the Ninth, and do it so well, left me with a feeling of deep gratitude.
Winslow Rogers was educated at Amherst College and Harvard University, where he earned a Ph.D. in English and American Literature. He has been a professor and administrator at universities in the Midwest and in Southern California. His teaching and publications cover literature, film, autobiography, computer software, and the history of baseball. His latest course was "Who's Afraid of Classical Music?" This is his first review for the Sacramento Choral Calendar.