By Robert D. Thomas
Southern California News Group
This review ran in print editions on Sunday, May 7.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is one of his best-loved works. It would probably be his most-performed piece if it didn’t require a choir and four soloists, along with the orchestra. As a testament to its popularity, even with four performances of this “Choral” symphony within the span of a week all were nearly sold out.
On April 22 and 23 the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra used Beethoven’s Ninth as the penultimate concerts in Jeffrey Kahane’s 20th and final season as LACO music director. On April 29 at Ambassador Auditorium, David Lockington programmed the work in the final two concerts of the Pasadena Symphony’s 88th season.
Although the symphony was the same, there were significant differences in how the famous piece was presented.
For several years Kahane curated an annual non subscription “Discover” concert at Ambassador Auditorium where he spent the first half of the program analyzing the chosen work (usually a Beethoven symphony) with snippets played by the orchestra and the second half conducting the work in its entirety.
LACO’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth at the Alex Theatre in Glendale turned into such an evening, but apparently no one outside of the organization was told ahead of time (it certainly never appeared in any of the marketing materials).
The post-intermission performance at the Alex was stunning. Kahane balanced his forces (57 instrumentalists, 48 choristers and four soloists) expertly and his conducting reflected the passion of his lecture, especially in the “Adagio” movement that he conducted without a baton and used his hands to sculpt phrases lovingly.
There was a sense of urgency to nearly all of his tempos and the entire work clocked in at just 65 minutes (about 10 minutes less than some conductors use). The Master Chorale sang with precise diction and uniformly excellent tone. The orchestra’s reduced numbers enabled many of the inner instrumental voices to shine clearly.
The four soloists were also balanced expertly and placed on the front of the stage. Justin Hopkins’ clarion baritone voice was perfectly matched to the O Freunde opening, soprano Kathryn Mueller delivered a clean, bright sound and elegant, tenor Paul Appleby rose above the orchestra clearly, and mezzo-soprano Susanna Guzmán filled out the quarter expertly.
Lockington elected to pair two choral works in the first half of the Pasadena Symphony concert, which I heard in the afternoon. In the first piece, the Donald Brinegar Singers and JPL Chorus joined the orchestra for Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music.
The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus then took to the risers and, with the help of a quartet of instrumentalists (including Lockington playing cello) sang Holst’s Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Op. 26, Group III. Led by LACC Artistic Director Anne Tomlinson the chorus produced its typically sweet tone and sensitive musicality, but its positioning at the rear of the stage occasionally made the choristers almost inaudible from a mid-orchestra level seat.
Lockington’s concept of Beethoven’s ninth was more low-key than Kahane’s but was, nonetheless, propulsive — it clocked in at just a minute more than the LACO performance. Aside from a few articulation issues, the Pasadena Symphony delivered a brisk, first-rate account of the work but no sparks flew for this listener.
The stage was packed (the violins teetered at the very front edge of the stage). The combined Brinegar/JPL choristers were placed in the rear and they often seemed to be singing from another county in the “Ode to Joy” section. However, they warmed to their task and reached an appropriately majestic conclusion.
The soloists — bass Steve Pence, soprano Summer Hassan, mezzo-soprano Tracy Van Fleet and tenor Arnold Livingston Geis — were positioned to the left and behind the orchestra and thus were at the disadvantage of trying to be heard over the instrumentalists.
The one unusual touch in the performance was to have the LACC choristers file in during the fourth movement and line up on the floor in front of the stage to sing one of the “Ode to Joy” verses. It made for a nice generational touch.
If you’re not totally worn out from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, there are two other performances on the horizon. Joseph Modica will lead music students from the University of Redlands in a performance on May 21 at 7 p.m. in the school’s Memorial Chapel. The performance will serve as a benefit concert for homeless services in Redlands and in Hollywood. Information: www.redlands.edu
At Hollywood Bowl this summer, Gustavo Dudamel will lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic, L.A. Master Chorale and soloists in performances on July 13 and 18. Dudamel is pairing the symphony with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, with no details as to other pieces, intermission, etc. Information: www.hollywoodbowl.com
(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.