Rock on, Beethoven
North State Symphony plays Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in full grandeur
It may be inappropriate to describe a symphony the way one might a particularly compelling rock show, but the North State Symphony’s rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 at Laxson Auditorium on May 11 was badass.
Such a sentiment might not be so far-out—Beethoven’s four-movement, hour-long masterpiece as performed that evening was exhilaratingly loud and more muscular than I previously knew classical music could be; similar to a standout rock concert in its sheer awe-factor. With a preposterously massive chorus (a combination of Chico State’s University Chorus and the Shasta College Chorale) at its back, the North State Symphony created crescendos that were spine-tingling and powerful.
For those unfamiliar with the Ninth, which animated NSS conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett described as “perhaps the most iconic work in the Western classical music repertoire,” there are a handful of sections and phrases throughout that we have all heard, but maybe didn’t recognize as Beethoven. The stabs of violin and timpani opening the second movement, for instance, have been used out of context so many times that it was surprising to hear the phrase as part of a larger work. And the instantly recognizable melody of “Ode to Joy” in the fourth movement is so deeply engrained in the Western consciousness through use in TV, radio and movies, it came as a surprise to learn that one of the world’s all-time greatest composers made more than 200 attempts to nail such a seemingly simple tune.
While listening to the Ninth, I couldn’t help but marvel at how enormous an undertaking composing such a piece would be. That one man—a deaf man, at that—could painstakingly arrange dozens of instrumental parts down to the finest subtlety with such a grandiose vision in mind is truly a testament to human potential. Indeed, singling out the various NSS musicians and noting the sheer technical proficiency necessary to play each of their parts added to my admiration of the work as a whole.
And for an hour-long piece of music with so many twists and turns, the Ninth is relatively easy to follow. There are enough recurring musical elements to remind the listener that it is, in fact, the same piece all the way through. The uplifting fourth movement, often described as a “symphony within a symphony,” introduces the melody to “Ode to Joy” with cello and bass alone at first, then repeating the tune several times with varying dynamics and four solo vocalists (two sopranos, a tenor and a bass) at center stage. Though the soloists’ operatic vocal style wasn’t my cup of tea (as a symphony newbie, I assume it’s an acquired taste), the overall effect was captivating—the anticipation of knowing the symphony would repeat the “Ode to Joy” melody at full power, with all choral hands on deck, was exciting in itself.
The performance concluded with all the pomp and grandeur of a parade of whinnying, high-prancing royal steeds, with an appropriately celebratory flurry of cymbal-strikes and brass and woodwind flourishes. And after about an hour and a half of polite silence, the full-house audience erupted into a roughly three-minute standing ovation. Clearly, many in attendance shared my appreciation for the music and were similarly moved.
I look forward to the North State Symphony’s schedule for the 2013-14 season, which is set to include: The Composer’s Palette (featuring Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto,” among others) on Sept. 22; New American Portraits on Nov. 16; An Embrace of Romantic Masters (including “Romeo and Juliet” works of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev) on Feb. 16, 2014; and Harmonic Landscapes (highlighted by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8) on May 10, 2014.