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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Concert Review: A Pair of Nines Beats (Almost) Anything

Two different takes on Beethoven's last symphony. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
From a drawing of Friday evening's performance of Glen Roven's Goodnight Moon.
Art by Joan Chiverton. Used with the kind permission of Glen Roven © 2016 Joan Chiverton.
Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor is a difficult work to bring forth, with an heroic length that exceeds seventy minutes. The last movement requires four soloists and a chorus that can handle Beethoven's complex polyphony, the creation of a deaf composer who valued sound over ease of singing. On Friday and Saturday, two different arts organizations took on this titan, with the National Chorale offering it at Avery Fisher Hall and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony presenting the Ninth on Carnegie Hall's main stage.

Friday night's concert offered an interesting menu of choral works, starting with the Professional Performing Arts High School Choir singing five excerpts from Beethoven's little-known oratorio Christ at the Mount of Olives. This ended with a gorgeous, soaring "Hallelujah" chorus (no relation to the more famous one by Handel!) before the students exited to polite applause, their place taken by the National Chorale and Orchestra under the baton of Everett McCorvey.

Mr. McCorvey opened the concert with Randall Thompson's airy and thoroughly modern setting of "Allelulia", itself a welcome and fascinating contrast to the Beethoven setting. Chorus and orchestra were then joined by actress Annie Potts. She read the text of the beloved children's book Goodnight Moon, a prelude to the premiere of New York composer Glen Roven's setting of the same text.

Mr. Roven is well known to New York classical cognoscenti as a composer, producer and songwriter. His Goodnight Moon is an inspired update of this short text, using soaring melodies and rich, poetic orchestral detail that owes something to the more child-friendly passages of major works by Ravel. A sense of climax and build comes from the long choral arcs, reaching a peak with the arrival of the little old lady who said "Hush." It trailed away into the ether, drifting to its close and was met with appreciative, even triumphal applause.

The Beethoven followed after the interval, with Mr. McCorvey leading an account that emphasized transparent textures in the opening movement and taut rhythms in the Scherzo. The Adagio meandered, as did the orchestra in the complex fugal passages of the last movement. Four strong soloists, led by bass Eric Kroncke and tenor John Pickle helped to turn things around. The choral singing was better, showing evidence of thorough preparation by Mr. McCorvey especially as they leapt into the demanding double fugue that comes as one of the many climaxes of this sprawling movement.

Saturday's Carnegie Hall concert was billed as "Honoring Our Veterans", and was a much grander affair with three choruses, including the New Amsterdam Singers, the West Point Cadet Glee Club and Young New Yorkers' Chorus. The concert opened with a presentation of the colors and a singing of the National Anthem by all present. It was followed by the New York premiere of Jake Runestad's Dreams of the Fallen, a powerful work for orchestra, triple chorus and solo piano, the latter played by the fleet-fingered Jeffrey Biegel. The piano parts were dream-like intermezzi, connecting nightmarish memories of the battlefield with reflections on the horror and experience of war.

Mr. Bernard's presentation of the Ninth was taut and dramatic, evidence of close rapport between the conductor and his players. The opening movement hovered on a shimmer of violins before brass and timpani slammed home the motto theme, the orchestra rising on a tide before bringing itself back to hard reality. Careful control over tempos helped the Scherzo and Adagio move along, the latter flowing smoothly and relatively brisk.

With the massed triple chorus supported by an orchestra augmented by contrabassoon and extra percussion, this was a powerful, blow-your-socks-off attempt at the night. Here it was the female soloists who won the day, with strong performances from soprano Kristin Sampson and alto Edith Dowd. Tenor Cameron Schutza strained heroically in the big solo over the Turkish March but the rising swell of orchestra and chorus in the last half of the "Ode to Joy" compensated for any minor faults. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.