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!