Ann Arbor Symphony opens season in Hill Auditorium with powerful Beethoven program
“Do you sense the Creator, world?” Schiller asks in his “Ode to Joy,” the text Beethoven set in the finale of his late, and still great Ninth Symphony.
That “spark divine” made itself felt many times Saturday evening as the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of its music director Arie Lipsky, opened its 2012-2013 season with an all-Beethoven performance featuring the Ninth.
Hill Auditorium was packed—who doesn’t want to hear the Ninth or its message of brotherly love?—and overall the orchestra’s fans were surely not disappointed by what they heard either in this remarkable work or in the two “warm up” Beethoven works that preceded it: the cheery Twelve Contradances or the dramatic concert aria for soprano and orchestra “Ah! Perfido.” It was an evening that grew and grew, with fine performances from all the sections.
The contradances, played by a small-is-beautiful force from the orchestra, made for a charming opener, with the barnstorming Beethoven hiding discreetly in the wings. The longest of these dances is still just a tiny bite—that’s part of the charm. Hearing them is like eating M & M’s: they’re crunchy outside, smooth inside, swallowed almost before you’ve popped them into your mouth. The performance was high on color and clarity and balance (Aaron Berofsky, the concert master, was particularly fine in his voicing), and the playing was equal parts taut and sly.
In the daunting “Ah! Perfido,” internationally acclaimed soprano Laura Aikin, appearing for the first time with the A2SO, made a dazzling impression. The aria, portraying the torments of a woman scorned, is a thing of many moods, and Aikin conveyed them sensitively and strongly with nuanced and beautifully produced singing. Her concentration was fierce as well: though many in the audience were riveted by how the shoulder of her gorgeous beetle-green gown had slipped down along her arm, threatening a major wardrobe malfunction, Aikin continued as if nothing were wrong. And, in the end, it wasn’t, though it did contribute some extra-musical tension to the performance.
Sustained musical tension, a tension of chaos breeding order, is very much at the heart of the opening of the Ninth Symphony. From its opening bars, the work seems about nothing so much as formation, coalescing. It is about becoming rather than being. The A2SO brought that out beautifully in its reading Saturday; you could hear it in the hollow swirl of the sound in the opening bars, a conjuring of creation.
And yet, neither the first movement, nor the scherzo that follows, were its strongest moments. Through much of the first movement the orchestra seemed to be searching for its sound and looking for line; there was little musical direction. And in the scherzo, despite excellent articulation, the playing seemed quite earthbound.
Then the “divine spark” was lit. In the Adagio, Beethoven seems finally to have found the coming together the first two movements point toward. The orchestra sang its refrain with a sort of hushed heavenly respiration, underpinned by the heartbeat of basses and cellos.
And the finale was similarly inspired. The bass and cello recitative had exquisite speechlike pacing. The soloists—soprano Aikin, joined by alto Melody Racine, tenor Timothy Culver and bass Stephen West—were superb. And the chorus, combining singers from the Carillon Women’s Chorale, the Livingston County Chorale, the Livingston County Women’s Chorus and Measure for Measure—were mighty and moving. Their German diction could have been better, but that was a minor quibble.
Maybe we always need Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s an amazing thing to encounter it and to be shown, all over again, its genius. And even in untrying times, which these are decidedly not, the uplift of its choral finale and its message of brotherly love, are potent. When a performance ignites, as this one did, it’s simply revivifying to be there.