April 6, 2014

Chorus of voices helps Wichita Symphony Orchestra close out Classics series

Four guest soloists, the Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the Friends University Singing Quakers joined the Wichita Symphony Orchestra for “Ode to Joy,” the last program of this season’s Classics series.

The Wichita Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125,” has put me in mind of endings, for several reasons: not only was it Beethoven’s last (completed) symphony, the symphony itself has one of the most famous finales in all of music: the setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in which Beethoven included the human voice in a symphony for the first time.

In addition, as it was the last program of this season’s Classics series, the thunderous combination of chorus and orchestra was a fitting conclusion to the season as a whole.

The orchestra, directed by Maestro Daniel Hege, was joined by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus (directed by Cecil Riney) and the Friends University Singing Quakers (directed by Mark Bartel) for Saturday’s performance, as well as four guest soloists: Barbara Shirvis, soprano; Barbara Rearick, alto; Matthew DiBattisto, tenor; and Peter van de Graaff, bass.

Beethoven’s symphony, over an hour in length, was paired with Ralph Vaughan William’s “Serenade to Music,” a relatively short setting of text by William Shakespeare (from “The Merchant of Venice”) for the same vocal forces as the symphony, a decision both practical and thematic.

Vaughan Williams’ unabashedly romantic harmonies provided a rich background for the four soloists, and the orchestra balanced well with the full chorus, even at soft dynamics. The performance was lush without being muddled; each instrument could be heard clearly, including the extended violin solo played by concertmaster John Harrison.

I could have tarried a little longer in this semi-operatic world; the tempo was brisk, sometimes hurrying past musical moments that might have been lingered over, but the ending was relaxed and satisfying, with a gorgeous final run from soprano Barbara Shirvis at the end.

To the audience’s audible frustration, before the last chord was cut off, it was interrupted by a ringing cellphone. The simmering irritation of a crowd given a nasty jolt gave way to rueful laughter as we collectively realized that the moment was over, the spell broken.

Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony begins with a little more than a faint shimmer, as the first theme gradually emerges from a very soft sustained perfect fifth. From the beginning, the orchestra played with intensity; they shared the audience’s excitement for this music.

Even after getting underway, many small moments shone among the large gestures: there are solos for the winds throughout, and there are challenging passages for each section of the strings. It was sometimes a performance in which the challenge to the performers was audible, but it was a challenge well met: the victory lap of the joyous finale was thoroughly earned.

Hege’s style is well suited to Beethoven, energetic and always pushing forward. The quick tempos, based on Beethoven’s original metronome markings (the metronome was a new invention in Beethoven’s day, and one which he enthusiastically adopted), made for a lively performance.

Stripped of the portentous romantic haze that gradually took over Beethoven performance in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Hege’s interpretation begins with taking Beethoven’s own markings seriously and moving forward from there. Real moments of tenderness, however, were not excluded, as in the lovely, lyrical third movement.

As propulsive as much of the music is, especially in the stormy first movement and rapid scherzo of the second, the timpani of principal percussionist Gerald Scholl provided a crucial rhythmic snap. Later on, Scholl was joined by additional “Turkish”-style percussion, one of several expansions upon the expected instrumentation of a classical symphony.

The final movement of the symphony is both unusual and revealing: amidst the striking dissonances of the finale, passages from the first three movements reappeared, only to be dismissed, as if Beethoven were considering and discarding his previous utterances. During this section, the cello and bass sections play melodic lines in operatic recitative style, as if giving a running commentary. Under Hege’s direction, each fragment was marshaled and played with a military precision.

Once the soloists and chorus entered with the “Ode to Joy,” the upbeat tempo posed a challenge; as the soloists’ lines became more florid, it became more difficult to hear them clearly.

Fortunately the spirit of the words comes through in the elaborate choral finale. Saturday’s chorus (the Bethel College Concert Choir, directed by Doyle Preheim, was to take the Singing Quakers’ place for Sunday’s performance) had a fine, full sound that balanced well with the orchestra and soloists.

It is often an exaggeration to say that a piece of music has “something for everyone,” but for Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony it is the truth. There is passion; intelligence; rhythmic vitality and hummable melody; dramatic structure; instrumental virtuosity; and the theatrical introduction of the voices in the final movement. Saturday’s concert flew by, and I didn’t want it to end; I could say the same for this season.

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