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Wowing 'Em: The SJSU Concert Choir, along with the SJSU Chorale and Choraliers, and the Santa Clara Men's Chorus, sang 'Ode to Joy' in the choral finale.

Ode to Beethoven

SJ Symphony's Beethoven concert stuck to the tried and true

By Scott MacClelland

WITH ANY LUCK, the next local hearing of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony will make use of Jonathan Del Mar's new critical edition, published by Baîrenreiter. Compared with performances by orchestras using the new edition, the reading last Friday by the San Jose Symphony sounded stale. Indeed, mounting a Beethoven festival without the new urtexts is even harder to understand in view of the participation by the Beethoven Center at San Jose State University.

Even though Del Mar and Baîrenreiter took pains to make the new edition as user-friendly as possible, replacing the entire Beethoven symphonies is no small undertaking. Supplying new bowings for all the string parts is an enormous chore and makes renting the edition impractical. Buying a set is not cheap, and demanding that conductors start their study of the scores all over from scratch will likely meet with some resistance.

The Beethoven Center would seem to have scholastic justification for acquiring a permanent set--and possibly more assets to apply toward it than does the San Jose Symphony. However it is done, a deal ought to be struck. There is a noticeable difference in the sound, especially in slurs, articulations and other features of performance practice at the start of the 19th century.

As for Friday's less than riveting performance, the orchestra's intensity drifted in and out of focus even while conductor Leonid Grin worked up a considerable lather. The long first movement struggled to build momentum, and even the normally animated second movement felt ponderous. Notes out of tune, which had pestered the first movement, troubled the adagio, and the fourth horn sounded uncomfortable during much of its lengthy and daunting solo.

These concerns were virtually mooted by the arrival of the "Ode to Joy" choral finale, that unprecedented piece of musical architecture. Some 175 singers, assembled from the choral program at San Jose State and the Santa Clara Men's Chorus, raised the temperature of the room and ignited the audience to cheers of enthusiasm, a tradition that goes all the way back to the work's premiere 175 years ago.

While the Ninth Symphony sounds like no other composer than Beethoven, it does not sound like any of his other symphonies. As the themes interact with the work's tonalities, there emerges music of unique character, as witness the shift to "celestial" harmonies when the chorus sings of "a loving father [who] dwells above the canopy of stars."

The solo vocal quartet, on the other hand, gets some of Beethoven's most ungrateful counterpoint. Was this because the composer was now totally deaf? A better argument is that he was writing for voices as if they were instruments.

The one real standout is the baritone who first announces the Schiller poem. Benno Schollum, however, lacked the depth of sonority to strike a truly commanding presence on the Center for the Performing Arts stage.

GRIN OPENED the program with Beethoven's Symphony no. 1 in C, a cheeky essay that must have struck its first hearers as more mischievous than grand, at least in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart. But here, too, the orchestra was on edge and not at ease in a reading that lacked spark and intensity. The opening movement got up to allegro but never quite con brio.

Knowing that the Baîrenreiter is out there waiting only made this performance sound that much more tired. Anyway, wouldn't the effort to get closer to Beethoven's intentions arouse an excitement of expectation among the musicians as well as the audience? Sooner or later, one of the consequences of doing things the "traditional" way is a ho-hum attitude. This concert seemed to be saying just that.

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From the April 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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