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January 1, 2005

Philharmonic opens with somber undertone

From: Seattle Post Intelligencer, WA - Jan 1, 2005


NEW YORK -- Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is the ultimate paradox: an expression of crowning joy from a deaf composer - a melancholy misfit who at the end of his life created an epic hymn of freedom for all humanity.

It was this work that Leonard Bernstein conducted by the fallen Berlin Wall in 1989, signaling Europe's new freedom.

On Friday, German conductor Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic ushered in the new year with an urgent account of Beethoven's masterpiece. There was a somber undertone: The concert was dedicated to the victims of the earthquake and tsunamis in South Asia; on the reverse side of that announcement was a list of organizations seeking donations for the survivors.

In the Ninth, struggle is present in just about every note - exploding in the "Ode to Joy" whose lyrics by 18th century poet Friedrich Schiller mean, "All men will become brothers."

But that chorus comes only in the final movement.

First, the deaf composer wove through a three-movement musical maze steeped in doubt, probing themes in minor keys and endless variations, abruptly cutting them off, taking a jab at whimsy in the "Scherzo."

The symphony is scored for massive forces that include 100-plus choristers and an orchestra of about the same size, plus four vocal soloists - all of whom delivered a seamless, exciting performance under Masur's deft baton.

The quartet was a treat, from Christine Brewer's creamy soprano and Marietta Simpson's rich mezzo to Thomas Studebaker's solid heldentenor and Albert Dohmen's powerful bass-baritone unleashed for his Philharmonic debut.

Clearly, this is music that flows naturally through Masur's blood, leaving him free to play with subtleties. One such breathtaking detail came in the final movement, when the almost inaudible softness of the New York Choral Artists created maximum drama.

Like many great works of art, this one is constructed with deceptive simplicity, its opening scales played in unison by the whole orchestra.

But it takes split-second precision to cue crucial attacks, which Masur did, while breathing humanity into the moments of doubt and writhing that makes the "Ode to Joy" almost miraculous.

In a sketchbook, Beethoven recorded his search for this joyous moment, announced by the baritone. He tries out one theme, then Beethoven scribbles, "Oh no, that won't do; I want something more pleasant .... That's also too tender. Must find something more rousing ... That will do! Now I have found a way to express joy."

Essayist George Steiner once described Beethoven's music as an "awesome encounter between God and one of the more god-like of his creatures," adding that to have heard such music out of deafness "is to have wrestled with the angel."

The finale starts with a crashing discord - D minor with B flats - before the symphony is transformed into the triumphant, major-key ending.

Beethoven's answer to his plight was to ignite "a spark from the fire that gods have fed" - in Schiller's words.

For the work's premiere in Vienna on May 7, 1824, the composer faced the orchestra, demonstrating a different kind of triumph: Totally deaf, he conducted, beating the rhythm inside him even after the piece ended - oblivious to the roaring applause.

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