Beethoven Symphony No. 9
Grant Park Music Festival
August 19, 2017
By Lori Dana,
After a day when Chicago’s lakefront was devoted to showcasing U.S. military technology and the skills of those who operate it, respite from the blazing sun and the scream of jet engines could be found Saturday evening in the cool, green surroundings of Millennium Park. The full Grant Park Symphony and Chorus, joined in the performance of two classical masterpieces extolling compassion and joy, seemed a fitting counterpoint to the annual Air & Water Show. In their final performance of the summer, these world-class musicians proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the transformative power of great music is as mighty, and far more soul stirring than any display of mechanical energy could ever be.
The evening began with the Schicksaslied (“Song of Destiny”) of Johannes Brahms. Based on a lyric poem by German Romanticist Friedrich Hölderlin, the work is meant to contrast the eternal bliss of the gods with the agony and despair of mortality. In order to accomplish this, Brahms employed two themes, one an uplifting affirmation and the other a dark, apprehensive roiling of instrumentation and voices. The second theme appears suddenly in the center of the piece, dominated by the chorus in a somewhat Wagnerian way that suggests tragedy just below the surface. Brahms ultimately redeems himself and his audience by reprising the optimism of the opening theme, transforming the softly glowing Pritzker Pavilion for just a moment into a serene sanctuary.
Brahms’ gentle introduction to the evening is carried a bit further in the opening movement of Beethoven’s beloved 9th Symphony. Also based on the work of a German poet (Freidrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”), this 65-minute opus is the composer at the very zenith of his creative power. The opening Allegro ma non troppo begins in a desolate space with the barest thread of melody provided by the strings. The balance of the orchestra is quickly drawn into this orbit, deftly coming together into the first powerful statement of the symphony’s main theme. Throughout the first movement, several subordinate themes are introduced, each representing a different expression or aspect of joy. Those themes are fleshed out in the second and third movements (Molto Vivace and Adagio molto e cantabile, respectively). After a bold opening statement, the second movement combines elements of scherzo, fugue and sonata to form a galloping dance of unbridled revelry, alternating with periods of bright contemplation. The Adagio, considered one of the most transcendent pieces of music ever written, brings together a soothing lullaby full of longing, and a swiftly moving pastoral theme punctuated by percussive breaks, each given a regal feel by a brief trumpet voluntary. All of these very different movements build upon one another, weaving in strands of the opening theme to create an exquisite tapestry of sound. The magnificent finale, divided into orchestral and choral sections, is married together by a recitative (a technique borrowed from opera) that incorporates bits and pieces of the earlier movements to create an intuitive transition. The foundation of this movement is the melody we all recognize as “Ode to Joy”, a simple theme that Beethoven embroiders upon and reprises in a number of different ways: as march, as fugue, as triumphant recessional. For the first time in recent memory, the majestic power of full orchestra, chorus, and soloists dominated every ambient sound surrounding the park. Not a bird, bus, siren, or flying machine could be heard; as artistic spirit set the night ablaze with hope, joy, and redemption.
(The Grant Park Music Festival Orchestra was conducted by Carlos Kalmar, The Grant Park Chorus was conducted by guest artist Benjamin Rivera. Vocal soloists were Janai Brugger, Soprano; Allyson McHardy, Mezzo-soprano; Brendan Tuohy, Tenor; and Russell Braun, Baritone. )
Photo by Norman Timonera