Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony…SpartanNerd’s Music Review

          Nothing could taint the experience of finally seeing the Ninth Symphony performed live!  The Spartanburg Philharmonic absolutely nailed it…It may be the highest art Spartanburg has ever experienced, and this is an artsy place.  Worries about three of my students who didn’t arrive couldn’t scar it.  Neither the hazardous weather; neither the annoying synthetic buzz of the speakers in Twitchell Auditorium at Converse College: neither the horrible parking situation or record crowd audience.  No.  Beethoven’s music transcended it all.  This is a piece that I have purchased several times over the years, the first of which when I was sixteen years old and had my family scratching their heads.  A piece that I have taught about since my career began with glowing reverence.  A piece that I have never seen performed except in odd snips and pieces, and never with singers.
          The program started with the unconnected Modern piece, Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” which provided a point of variety and contrast, and set the stage for conductor Stefan Sanders’ remarks about the nature of life…the What, How, When, Why, and Where of life.  This piece has a pretty and controlled strings component, and “questioners” who played from the balcony, disconnected from the rest of the players, and playing with differing keys and tempos.  He explained that Beethoven strived to give us the answer that Charles Ives was also looking for with his greatest and final symphony.  He described the first movement as having an urgency, the second movement as a type of demonic dance, the third movement a tribute to love, and the fourth movement all about brotherly love.  I personally have always given deeper explanations of each movement…more technical ones.  But Mr. Sanders let his orchestra do the talking…
          As the first movement began, the straight sounds of open violin strings, the droning of the winds, the feeling of the orchestra being tuned, (a revolutionary idea in the great master’s day), the power of it all was too much for me.  My heart began to race and, yes, I began to cry.  How many times have I just sat and listened to recording of big-name orchestras?  How many rides from college back to Pacolet have I let this play?  (Yes.  Years ago.). I remember listening to this to go and pick up a pet rabbit with one of my sons, and I explained each movement and what was going on to him.  All of this crashed down on me at once.  To me the Spartanburg Philharmonic’s rendition was devastating, powerful, and unashamed to make statements in every way.  And the tempo that they played it in was perfect, not dragging at all.  And as annoying as that droning synthetic speaker sound in that room was, It was completely washed away by the raw strength of the orchestra.
          During the break between the first and second movements, you could hear a torrential downpour as a storm raged outside.  This was God smiling at us as we listened…the second movement evokes a tempest, and this heavy rain made a perfect backdrop.  As I listened, I noticed how perfectly balanced this orchestra is.  I have a few recordings that sometimes when I listen to, and feel like the recording or the players don’t sound as spot on as they could.  We had good seats for this concert…it’s true.  But the orchestra itself was pristine.  Never all night was there a single time that a horn was too loud, a section overpowering, or even a drum too tight.  I mention that I have never seen the Ninth Symphony performed live before, but I HAVE seen this movement performed a few times.  But the Spartanburg Philharmonic brought the greatest performance tonight.
          As there was another break before the third movement, something odd happened that I didn’t understand until later.  Four singers entered the stage and took a seat at the front.  For this event, the choir that was to sing the Chorale at the end was seated onstage for everyone to see.  But these four entered and took a seat up front, undoubtedly the soloists who would sing in the final movement.  And suddenly I had a slight panic.  There was to be no singing until the fourth movement?  Were they skipping the third movement? (Blasphemy!). No.  Nothing like that at all.  I felt my tension ease as the orchestra began to play the prettiest part of the the Ninth Symphony, the Pastoral movement.  I do enjoy the melody of this part…it reminds me of some of Beethoven’s other work.  But I will be the first to tell you as a teacher that this is also the least exciting part of the whole work.  After listening to the thing several times, you know the real treat is in the fourth movement, and sometimes it feels like some of the extended phrases and sections of the third movement are hoops Beethoven has you jump through to keep you anxious for the end.  The orchestra delivered this movement nicely, and then…
          So why did those singers come onstage so early?  Mr. Sanders had about a fifteen second break in between the third and fourth movement.  I don’t even think the players rested their instrument or turned pages.  He froze in place, as many times I have done in conducting different groups…and then, with more electricity than the raging storm outside, the fourth movement began, and I jumped to the edge of my seat!  And so the conversation began between the low strings and the rest of the orchestra, and it is like every single note is stamped on my soul.  I look over at the cellists and bassists at the right, and then back at the other players on the left, anticipating and reveling in it all.  Beethoven wrote this when he was COMPLETELY DEAF!  And the classic themes of the three movements before, Orchestra Tuning, Thunderstorm, and Pastoral are all shot down, and then the low players begin to play the hymn of the ages, the Ode to Joy, and the rest of the orchestra follows suit.  Then on cue.  My kinsmen, the singers, they all stand in one accord at the right moment…the same electric music that made me sit up in my chair had me moving again as they all sprang into action.  I was pleasantly surprised to hear that wonderful bass singer singing the classic German text as we hear the conversation yet again, with words.  And how did this great chorus sound?  I was worried about the balance.  But it was sparkling and as pure as the greatest recording I have ever listened to.  And did I mention that I was glad to hear them singing in German?  My wife, sitting beside me the whole time, elbowed me in the side during the Turkish March and asked me if I was alright, and I realized again that I was crying.  The quartet delivered part beautifully, and when It was time for the rest of the chorus to come in with those notes…the ones with the droning trumpet…the notes that let you know a cathartic moment is upon you, it was ecstatic.  And the coda section of the piece, (should we really call it that?). This terrific group made it the greatest “mad dash” of all time.  Literally, the second that it was over, the audience roared in applause and stood to its feet.  The clapping went on for…five minutes?  And then it kept going!  Of course there wouldn’t be an encore, not after all that.  But what a rush!
          Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was the closing performance of the 2018-2019 orchestra season for the Spartanburg Philharmonic.  I want more.  Our city needs more.  Please keep this happening Spartanburg!
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Metallica….

I like a lot of different music.  My college education has exposed me to a lot of different styles and forms, and my experiences teaching (guitar especially) have granted me access to many new acts and stuff like that.

I’ve had a few spells…Country Music, Punk Rock, Top 40 etc.  But through it all, Metallica remains.  I can’t make a top ten list of songs…I would rather make a top ten list of albums!  Here’s my list with some commentary.

9 and 10.   Load and Reload  I do not have a copy of these anymore.  Just the same, Load and Reload would represent low points for Metallica to me.  Not that some of the songs aren’t good…they are.  But the band is being influenced commercially too much, and they are losing some of their punk edge.  To this day I don’t like the song “Until it Sleeps.” I feel “The Hero of the Day” is a good song, but it’s weak because it is over-produced.  I love “The Memory Remains.”  The use of of the Hurdy Gurdy Marianne Faithful’s singing voice are really cool here.  But the band just seems to be thinking wrong…

8.  S & M (Symphony and Metallica)  Remember the SpartanNerd mentioning the music degree?  You see, I had this idea.  First.  It just seemed…impossible.  Surely Metallica wouldn’t be interested in working with a symphony orchestra.  Surely an orchestra wouldn’t want to work with them.  It’s like angels and devils.  Oil and water.  It is the kind of thing I would dream of, but then dismiss right away.  BUT THEN IT REALLY HAPPENED!  This is a good concert.  Not exactly the same as other live recordings Metallica had put out…A little calmer, a little longer….But you get most of the “hits” and a few others.  Before this concert, I never gave too much thought to the song “Of Wolf and Man,” for instance.  This concert put that song back on my radar.  The orchestra is its own piece of art in this concert too.  I have to wonder how the band prepared for this.  They must have had a recording.  But the orchestra just read the notes on the page.  And if you listen close you can hear some Modern period or Post Romantic style art music coming from them as they play “the fifth Beatle” to Metallica.  It’s good to hear a live orchestra playing “The Ecstasy of Gold” at the beginning.  And it’s good to hear that lead into “The Call of Ktulu,” another song that Metallica had retired.  “The Memory Remains” is a good one here, and the two new songs, especially “No Leaf Clover” are pretty good.  I feel a few things were lacking.  At the end of the concert the producers say “Next year!”  I don’t think this ever happened.  If they did, it would have been good to hear “Orion.”  I also wish they used a heavier live bell sound in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

7.  Garage, Inc  I have similar feelings about this as I do to number six on the list.  It is more like a history lesson.  You get the rare EP “Garage Days Revisited,” the “Metallica and Friends” radio show, and some punk rock covers done in Load and Reload style.  But the real gem here is “Turn The Page,” a Bob Seager cover.  Who would have thought?

6.  Kill ’em All  My punk rock friends would probably bash me right now, for listing this album at number six.  But I really like this album.  It’s just my sixth most likely to turn on.  When I’m bored.  TO me it is more of a history lesson.  And I never listen to it without thinking of Megadeth.  (Mustaine was fired just before the recording, evidently)

5.  Ride the Lightning  People like to talk about sophomore albums generally being failures.  I like Ride the Lightning to Mortal Kombat 2.  It is an advance on the original in almost every way.  Where “Kill ’em All” had an unpolished sound, this album is only slightly less raw…That tiny bit of shine helped them really get noticed.  You also get “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Fade to Black,” and “The Call of Ktulu,” all experiments of baby-band Metallica that would grow into greater things in the future.

4.  …And Justice For All  I like this album because it is a beatdown.  It has plenty of weaknesses. (Lack of bass, band seems to wander a little, over produced at times, etc) But still it delivers the kick in the gut I need.  Guitar World Magazine said (wrongly) that after this album “Metallica laid down their axes and walked away from Thrash Metal forever.”  (That was a loose quote, and from a magazine 10 years ago.)  I like just about every song, but strangely not “One.”  I mean I like the guitar solo, but the whole life support thing and all is just too depressing.

3.  Metallica  What most people call The Black Album, me and my middle school friends used to all “Metallica Metallica”, I think because it would be listed this way in catalogues and all.  This one takes me back to a younger SpartanNerd, who was just learning the ropes of listening to music and getting involved in a scene.  I enjoy music from the 1990-1996 period more than other music…I see it as MY generations music.  The singles, videos, radio play, and grammy performances of this album are what exploded me into being a Metallica fan.  Prior to this album, I had a little exposure to “..And Justice For ALL.”  But this one got me hooked.

2.  Death Magnetic  You might be saying “Seriously?”  Yes.  It represents a return to their roots.  But they’ve matured and gone through their own little fads and all.  PLUS Robert Trujillo gets to shine.  “All Nightmare Long” and “The Unforgiven III” are my favorites, but I like it all.

1.  Master of Puppets  (of course!)  The book 1000 Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die says something deep about this album.  It says that it is the point where Metallica began to create “thinking-man’s music.”  A statement so true.  I firmly believe this album is the brainchild of Cliff Burton alone.  Sure the rest of the band definitely had a role, but it is so much more artistically advanced than their other albums, in ways the band has not returned to since.  References to H.P. Lovecraft stories, Sonata Allegro forms, guitar synth, and concept album.
           My highlights are…

The intro to “Battery”, with it’s clean but still heavy opening chords, to the punch in the gut you get right after…Then this song breaks into something akin to stuff on “Kill ’em All.”

The song “Master of Puppets.”  Honestly, I get sort of tired of this song because of the heavy rotation it gets EVERYWHERE.  But no denying it is a true metal masterpiece.  The instrumental section in the middle that leads to a beatdown chorus and then a wild solo…this is great stuff!

“The Thing That Should Not Be” is just about the HEAVIEST SONG IN HISTORY.  This song is TERRIFYING!

“Sanitarium” Arguably the weakest song on the album.  I do like the chimed harmonics at the beginning.  This song cements to the concept premise of people exerting power over others…the theme of the whole album.

“Disposable Heroes” is a war song.  I love it!

“Leper Messiah,” probably the most controversial song on the album.  This song comes close to the heaviness of “The Thing That Should Not Be.”  And man is it fun to play!  Do I agree with what it says.  I do, in fact.  This song is about TV preachers and the like who abuse the religious trust that other people put into them…Somewhere I heard that James Hetfield’s mom was a member of Christian Science, and died of cancer, refusing treatment.  If true, this song and other religious statements by Metallica probably speak to their anger and feelings towards the way the Church has treated them.  And instead of people going around criticizing them for their views, or wondering why they aren’t afraid of satanism, humanism, and atheistic viewpoints or why they might yield those (whether they do or not), they should instead show them the joy that a true relationship with Jesus Christ can bring.  The problem is most people of christmas persuasions in America do not show joy and peace.  Just judgement, head shaking, and finger pointing.  But that’s enough of my high-horse!

“Orion”  If I was stuck on an island…….You know the rest.  I don’t have a favorite song.  More like a list of favorite songs.  But this song is up there on that list.  I tried to play this for years.  Then one day I cheated, and looked in a tab book.  I mean this piece is heavy, danceable, imaginitive, sexy (yes!) and is also a statement….It belongs on this album as a testament to the artistry of Cliff Burton…and goes along with the theme of people controlling others…The stars are ever above us.  Orion the hunter hunts every night.  Horoscopes are printed every day….

“Damage Inc.”  I believe that this song was recorded as a continuation of “Disposable Heroes.”  This is probably truly the last “old school” Metallica song.  You could argue about that, but with the death of Cliff Burton, this creative mode came to an end.  What if Cliff was still with us?  How would the band have been different over the years?