Ligeti Trumps Beethoven in Season Closer

United StatesUnited States Ligeti, Beethoven: San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 29.6.2012 (WA)

Perhaps it’s unfair to search for a reason behind an orchestral program; most of the time, I’d be among the first to argue that wonderful music played well needs no justification. There are a few works, though, that seem to need a defined impetus to be performed, whether for their sheer scale, difficulty, or historical significance. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony falls into at least two of these categories—scale and significance—and really fits the third as well; though it isn’t as technically difficult as a Mahler symphony or as hard to fit together as say, The Rite of Spring, it is by no means easy music.

Completed in 1824, Beethoven’s Ninth is his last and biggest. The Third, written in 1804 and close to 50 minutes long, was viewed as something of a monstrosity; an 1806 review of the work in the journal Der Freymüthige admitted “that the [Third] symphony contains many beauties, but [its] inordinate length…wearies even the cognoscenti and is unendurable to the mere music lover.” (Later in the same review, the critic “wishes that L. v. Beethoven would employ his acknowledgedly great talents in giving us works like his symphonies in C and D [Nos. 1 and 2].”) Similarly, the Ninth—20 minutes longer and scored for full orchestra, chorus, and four vocal soloists—was greeted with decidedly mixed reactions.

Certainly, though, the last 188 years have solidified its reputation as one of the greatest orchestral works ever written, and have made the theme of the final movement, the setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” one of the world’s most widely recognized melodies. The symphony has taken on particular significance not only in the orchestral canon, and has become emblematic of historic occasions. Perhaps the best known of these is the 1989 Christmas performance celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, with Leonard Bernstein conducting a multinational orchestra and choir, and replacing the word “Freude” in the final chorus, “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” (“Joy, beautiful godlike spark”) with the word “Freiheit”—“freedom.”

Opportunities like the fall of the Berlin Wall don’t come around often, of course, but I still wanted to feel that the San Francisco Symphony’s performance had a purpose—one somewhat higher than simply selling tickets. Quibbles about greater meaning aside, the result was oddly divided: at its best the reading was precise, musical, and thoroughly attentive, but at its worst it became sloppy, shapeless, and with technical mistakes surprising from musicians of such caliber.

Excellent throughout were the strings—their sound resonant and full. The first theme of the second movement, marked molto vivace, is a fugue of running staccato quarter notes that starts in the second violins pianissimo and is passed from viola to cello to first violins, growing, finally, in a 12-bar crescendo to fortissimo. As the whole orchestra plays staccato quarter notes at once for the first 45 measures, a single ill-timed note could send the whole thing tumbling towards chaos. Here, though, was only order, with each section clearly listening to excellent effect. After the dramatic opening octave chords, the second violin entrance was elfin, wonderfully mysterious, with each part’s subsequent entrance adding certainty, slowly building back to the triumphal fortissimo of the opening. In contrast, though, the winds and brass sounded poor. Perhaps by sheer bad luck, the principal oboe, horn, and clarinet all seemed to perform at less than their best, missing notes and playing solos that felt oddly unmusical, and even harsh.

In the end, though, the most riveting part of the night was not the Beethoven, but the opening, György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna. Though the text is part of the familiar and oft-set Catholic requiem mass, Ligeti’s a cappella setting is such that individual words are essentially impossible to distinguish. Written for 16-part mixed chorus (and famously used by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey), Lux Aeterna uses many of the styles for which Ligeti became famous, particularly cluster chords and micropolyphony. Sung by members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and conducted by Ragnar Bohlin, Lux Aeterna was awe-inspiring—the dense polyphony creating a wash of sound remarkably removed from the sound of the human voice. The end of the score contains seven written-out measures of silence, here accompanied by an almost eerie stillness from the audience, waiting for the conductor to lower his baton. I wasn’t the only one mesmerized.

Wells Andres

Wells Andres is a senior at Yale University majoring in psychology and neuroscience. He has been president, assistant concertmaster, and principal second violin of the Yale Symphony Orchestra.