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[whitespace] Beethoven's Uniquely Ninth?

Larry Granger's decision to play Beethoven's Ninth Symphony creates a brooding, grim atmosphere

By Scott MacClelland

If Larry Granger's reason for playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony alone, without any other piece on the program, was to dwell in this strange and exhilarating world without external distraction, his wish came true in abundance.

To describe the Ninth Symphony as unique is largely, but not entirely, true. The trio section of the scherzo movement and the variations of the slow movement both recall the composer's "middle" period, well known for most of the symphonies and concertos and the popular chamber and piano works. What makes the Ninth unique is the darkly manic first movement, the demonic scherzo and, of course, the unparalleled final movement, for which Beethoven had to completely reinvent symphonic form.

As the first movement unfolded before a sell-out audience Sunday afternoon at Watsonville's Mello Center, a certain tarnish lay on the orchestra, especially the brass. This is actually inherent in the music; the composer's staccato expletives from brass and woodwinds are not exactly lovely, as indeed the entire movement sustains a relentless obsessiveness on limited thematic material.

But the drama was unmistakable, brooding and grim. Its epic striving marked out a huge space in time, one that could only be answered by more of the same and on a similarly grand scale. The scherzo would be the first in that progression, twisted sardonically into a scherzo amaro, a bitter joke. The far more affecting adagio variations are derived from one of Beethoven's most haunting melodies.

Crafting Schiller's "Ode to Joy" into a symphonic movement gave the composer several problems to solve. In the first place, the sentiment "all men shall be brothers" was controversial; the composer's aristocratic patrons in particular were not disposed to embrace it. He solved the problem by elevating the status of the common man to that of aristocrat, cleverly avoiding the opposite impression. Then there was the musical problem of introducing a sung text into a symphony and justifying the verses of the poem in symphonic form. His solution was to synthesize an unprecedented hybrid reconciling both sonata--allegro and variations. As an apologist, he added a bit of text before the Ode to explain the joyous "folksong"--as he called it--after all the dark drama that had gone before. To get all this out of Beethoven's colossus requires no small attention to detail. (Best place to start is with the text.)

Granger and his forces painted an epic, almost biblical image across the vast and visionary canvas. Cheryl Anderson's Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus sang splendidly and in the louder passages with true symphonic power. (They should ring the rafters in next season's Berlioz Requiem.) The solo quartet--Deborah Berioli, Theresa Cardinale, J. Raymond Meyers and David Small--carried their roles well; Small made a large impression with his opening solo, and Berioli's soprano soared with warmth and clarity above her colleagues. The orchestra delivered a fine performance with only a few rough spots. For all its unforgettable greatness, Beethoven did not make this piece easy going for anyone, including audiences.

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Web extra to the May 4-11, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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