Kalmar’s Fresh Take on Beethoven’s Ninth

 United StatesUnited States Brahms and Beethoven: Carlos Kalmar (conductor), Nathalie Paulin (soprano), Angela Niederloh (mezzo-soprano), Brendan Tuohy (tenor), Charles Robert Stevens (baritone), Seattle Symphony Chorale, Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 28.12.2013 (BJ)

Brahms: Variations on the Saint Anthony Chorale
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, “Choral”

Exactly a year ago, Ludovic Morlot paired the Seattle Symphony’s traditional year-end offering of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with music by Astor Piazzolla. This year instead the music director yielded the Benaroya Hall podium to a guest conductor from just down the road, who presented by contrast a program devoted exclusively to Austro-German classics.

Carlos Kalmar, who was born in Uruguay to parents from Austria, now lives in Portland, where he is in his eleventh highly successful season as music director of the Oregon Symphony. A prodigally gifted conductor, he has a stylistic range that stretches impressively from those classics to various areas of the contemporary repertoire, encompassing such special enthusiasms as the music of the 20th-century Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams, two of whose symphonies he has recorded.

Kalmar’s program opened with a work about as distant in style as possible from Astor Piazzolla. But Brahms was no less inventive in the field of rhythm than the Argentine tango master. Given his penchant for metrical flexibility, it was natural that he should have chosen to base a set of variations on a theme (formerly thought to have been written by Haydn, but now known just as an anonymous composer’s Saint Anthony Chorale) that is laid out in five-measure phrases rather than the more conventionally familiar fours.

Brahms added rhythmic variants of his own to those of the theme itself, and all of these were expertly negotiated by Kalmar. He drew some subtly fined-away phrases from the orchestra, along with irresistible rhythmic verve and delicacy in fast and slow music alike; my only slight disappointment was the somewhat reticent balancing of the horns in the texture of the sixth variation.

After intermission, Kalmar’s deployment of a string section of only about 30 players—unusually small forces for modern performances of Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony—served to remove the mystique from the work, yet without stripping it of mystery. The modesty of the forces on stage revealed a good deal of textural detail that often goes for nothing. The conductor took plenty of risks, demanding extreme pianissimos at times and setting some uncompromisingly rapid tempos, but in performing Beethoven of all composers the sense of danger is a value in itself.

In the finale, Kalmar’s highly individual phrasing of the low-strings recitatives that “reject” earlier themes to prepare for the arrival of the famous “Ode to Joy” tune was vividly and aptly operatic. And the sheer populist elan—I might even say crudity—that he brought to the military march section was overwhelming. Vaughan Williams memorably observed of this movement that “Beethoven evidently considered that the stars were jolly good fellows, fond of a rousing chorus, fond of a glass of beer and a kiss from the barmaid.” Style, I have often felt, is a matter of knowing when you are being vulgar. Beethoven knew it when he wrote this music, and Kalmar followed his lead uninhibitedly.

With five string principals absent, the string playing demonstrated the Seattle Symphony’s strength in depth. Graceful horn solos from Jeff Fair, Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby’s skirling piccolo scales, crisp timpani incursions by Michael Crusoe, and much incisive work from the trumpets and trombones provided orchestral thrills in abundance. The vocal soloists did well enough, though their four voices didn’t blend effectively (which it’s very hard to know, when you’re hiring them, may turn out to be the case), and Joseph Crnko’s Seattle Symphony Chorale coped splendidly with Beethoven’s near-impossible vocal demands.

Altogether, then, this was a fresh and stimulating take on a work whose interpretation can too easily decline into routine. Allowing art to be a product of its time, created by recognizable and individual human beings, enhances universality rather than diminishing it.

Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.