Just because Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is one of the most beloved and most performed works in classical literature, it doesn’t mean it’s easy on its performers.
“It’s this juxtaposition, because you’re singing this message of hope … but it’s awkward because you have to balance it with a challenging score,” said Michael Hanawalt, tenor soloist in next weekend’s Wichita Symphony Orchestra concerts featuring the Ninth. “It’s a bit of a struggle to try and sing it beautifully with the effect that is necessary.”
Hanawalt, who also directs the chorus for the symphony performances, is a first-time soloist on the Ninth, as is mezzo-soprano Krystin Skidmore. Soprano Cristina Castaldi performed the solo once last year, in east Texas.
And classical music veteran Alan Held, singing the baritone?
“I’ve sung it a gazillion times,” he said with a laugh.
Believed to be Beethoven’s last symphony, the Ninth gets its lyrics from the Friedrich Schiller poem “Ode to Joy” – a life-affirming, joyful piece — as its foundation.
“Beethoven has this reputation of being a little bit of a curmudgeon-like figure in music history,” Hanawalt said, adding the composer was going deaf and was in a custody fight over his nephew at the time the symphony was written.
“In the midst of all that, he chose this text to create this message for an audience,” Hanawalt continued. “I think it really says something about his belief in humanity and his belief in the world in general. To me, that’s the real draw of this piece – this message of hope. We need to hear that, often.”
Even though the soloists’ pieces aren’t lengthy, they provide one of the most difficult pieces in choral music.
“Beethoven challenges the sopranos,” Castaldi said. “It’s all I can do to hang in and go along for the ride.”
Held, who as a child practiced being a symphony conductor with a record of the Ninth, said the piece contains a two-octave range for the baritone solo.
“It’s short, but it’s powerful stuff,” Held said. “It’s very exposed singing and you have to be in control of that.”
Nevertheless, parts of its work have been used for everything from movie soundtracks to Billy Joel songs to church hymns – “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” has its tune directly from the Ninth.
And that leads to greater interest for the piece.
“There’s something exciting about singing something that’s so recognizable for an audience,” Skidmore said. “You do draw in patrons that might not be there otherwise.”
“He married the tune and his words perfectly together,” Held said. “You don’t have one without the other. The theme is played throughout the orchestra before we even come in.”
Beethoven’s Ninth, Held said, is a piece that audiences appreciate as much as performers.
“It’s so rewarding at the end, every time you do a Beethoven Nine, to hear the audience’s response,” he said. “As an artist and a musician, that’s a pretty uplifting thing for us, too.”
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by Wichita Symphony Orchestra
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 13 and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 14
Where: Century II concert hall, 225 W. Douglas
Tickets: $20-$70, from wichitasymphony.org, by phone at 316-267-7658 or at the symphony box office at Century II. Discounts available for students, seniors and military.