12 February 2012

B9 v.2

It was at the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Sydney Philharmonia Choir that we caught our second live performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the famed Choral Symphony, the Ode to Joy. Our first experience is written up here in CJ when we heard B9 done at the Llewellyn by the Canberra Symphony. I know the work a bit more now. Megan and I both experienced this performance as less ecstatic than the Canberra one but more considered and understood. Perhaps it was our location: we had seats in the boxes above and behind the basses. The Music became 3-D with the choir to the right of us and basses to the left. I could follow the bass line in detail, and this was hugely instructive. I had great sight from behind of the fourth bass in the front row: watching the bowing (he wielded a German bow amongst 6 French and 2 German) and the fingering and even the trivial tasks like turning pages and rosining the bow. It was amusing, too, to see the casualness amongst the players: percussionists tapping while waiting several movements for their written part; brass players draining their instruments; the tedium of counting bars; the discomfort of the singers eye-to-eye with the audience throughout the third movement. But also the joy of a good line: Megan particularly noted the timpanist was having a great time. But the performance was serious enough, and demanding. I was following the basses and there were plenty of demanding lines there. But we could also see and hear the various wind instruments: the flutes that passed lines to oboes and bassoons. The cornets that waited, waited, then tapped a note to give harder edge to a repeated horn line. That contrabassoon that I was waiting to see used, then missed. And perhaps the biggest opportunity of all was to see the conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and how he leads his orchestra. I mostly watched his conducting in the Richard Strauss piece (more later) and was a non-plussed. I understand a conductor taps the beat at the top of a baton stroke, and sometimes he did, but he also tapped more frequently and outside the beat at times, perhaps to speed the players up, then other times it was sweeps of emotion rather than direction. That I didn’t comprehend. The voices were blissful as ever. I enjoyed the play of male and female voices and the gut wrench of the tutti. Also, although we were behind the featured singers, we could hear them well enough and, despite the warbled traditions of classical vibrato, I loved the playful interplay. It’s easy to see why this is such a loved and respected work. Despite all the drama and dynamics and stops and starts, nothing ever seems forced. Every line just fits and leads to the next, however diverse. Everything is purposeful. Not for nothing that Beethoven is so respected. One more thing I noticed, and this of the Opera House: it’s surprisingly intimate when viewed from the stage. I’d sat in rear rows for another SSO concert, and the orchestra seemed like dots in the distance. From the stage, the rows of audience well up in serried ranks and the impression is of intimacy. Do the players realise how distant it all seems for their audience? It reminds me of advice on PAs and foldback. Most important is to get the band feeling right, because then they will perform their best. So this approach, an intimacy for the orchestra, is maybe the right way to go. I must also praise the SSO programs. They are free to collect and informative. This one even has an annotated selected discography.

The program started with Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen. I only realised after, but this is subtitled: for 23 solo strings. Presumably the players all have their own charts, so the normal sections are groups of individual instruments. I’d noticed solo lines from a violin, then another, then strangely, a unison line from two distant violinists. And the bassists were similar. There were three, but each played separately, perhaps in a pair and the program says only once together. Quite strange. But the tempo was steady, rich in long lines of quavers that moved in various ways. This didn’t feel like a work of virtuoso demands but the whole was deep and emotional and very satisfying.

Then the B9 after the interval. Those first loud lines of the first movement weren’t loud enough to my ears (or to Megan’s less damaged ears) but I expect they set my response to the performance as considered rather than ecstatic. It was magnificent none-the-less. How could it not be? The second movement was all thrills of the extended chase. It’s probably my favourite movement, except maybe for the fourth which is all of the above and more. How wonderful is this and how unneeded are these words? Just to say B9 v.2 was a great night.

Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor) led the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs in a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 in D minor and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings at the Sydney Opera House. The singers were Lorina Gore (soprano), Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo-soprano), James Egglestone (tenor) and Michael Nagy (baritone).

No comments: