Beethoven Festival Reaches a Cathartic Close

United StatesUnited States Beethoven: André Watts (piano), Rachel Hall (soprano), Maribeth Crawford (soprano), Kathryn Findlen (mezzo-soprano), Timothy Culver (tenor), Britt Cooper (baritone), Nathan Stark (bass), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 25-26.4.2015 (TW)

25 April

Beethoven: Musik zu Einem Ritterballet (Music for a Knight’s Ballet); Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major

26 April

Beethoven: Choral Fantasy; Symphony No. 9 in D Minor

“It’s not just a question of conquering a summit previously unknown, but of tracing, step by step, a new path to it.”  -Gustav Mahler

First-time listeners to Music Einem Ritterballet (Music for a Knight’s Ballet) might understandably hear more of Mozart or Haydn than Beethoven in the score, which opened the third concert (April 25) of the Canton Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival. Still, the choice of this early 1791 composition—jaunty and charming as it is—ultimately served to illuminate Beethoven’s separation from his classical predecessors, in his steady and bold ascent to the pinnacle of his Ninth Symphony.

As in previous concerts, the festival continued with pianist André Watts, this time performing Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 (“Emperor”). In these, all of the aspects that comprise Watts’ consummate artistic integrity were wholly evident: his breathtaking embrace of lyrical nuance, his keen attention to intimate dialogue with the orchestra, and the sheer force of his technical virtuosity. During the intermission, I heard one audience member, wide-eyed and nodding his head emphatically, declare to his companion, “That piano player is a poet.”  Indeed.

Particularly astonishing was the lengthy cadenza (the longest I’ve ever heard) in the first movement of the Fourth, replete with sustained trills, lavish scales and chording, and crisp arpeggios that travelled up and down the keyboard like so many cascading waves. That monumental interlude seemed to foreshadow the even more electrifying dynamics and sumptuous orchestral textures of the Fifth—all performed with riveting panache.

A similar presaging unfolded in the final concert (April 26), beginning with Fantasia in C Minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, generally known as the Choral Fantasy (1808). Structurally unique in Beethoven’s oeuvre, the work augured many of the ideas and innovations that would come to fruition in his Ninth Symphony, completed 15 years later. Both works have a choral finale, and the main theme threaded through the eight sections of the Choral Fantasy greatly resembles that of the Ninth’s glorious last movement, which is something of a symphony in itself.

Mr. Watts’ piano work was especially enchanting as he finessed the successively more elaborate variations on the main theme, all impeccably balanced with the orchestral sonorities. The choral finale was initiated by the wondrously ethereal voices of sopranos Rachel Hall and Maribeth Crawford, along with mezzo-soprano Kathryn Findlen, tenor Timothy Culver, baritone Britt Cooper, and bass Nathan Stark. (The quartet of Hall, Findlen, Culver, and Stark would return for the fourth movement of the Ninth.) Joining them were the Canton Symphony Chorus, the University of Mount Union Concert Choir, and the Walsh University Chamber Singers. This marvelous gathering of blissful, inspired voices paved the way to the evening’s summit.

In introducing the Ninth, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann has never been more sincere, articulate, or poignant. He rightly referred to the work not so much as an earthly accomplishment, but as an unparalleled, life-changing phenomenon—a “…miracle in music history,” and a profoundly cathartic message for humanity.

From the primordial quiet, chaos and struggle of the first movement, the startlingly brisk pace of the second (what Zimmermann called “a maniacal dance”), the ineffable serenity and majesty of the third, to the unearthly power of the finale, I remain confounded by the inadequacy of words to describe what transpired. Then again, it is in the nature of the greatest music, greatly rendered, to leave one speechless.

As if driven by the same forces that compelled Beethoven to find his expression of the mysteries of life, all of the elements that have made the CSO so remarkable in the past were here elevated to an unprecedented zenith. Cosmic silence to creation. Angst and suffering to the blessing of brotherhood and joy. Divine destiny. Here was Beethoven’s rapturous “kiss for all the world,” his urgent and sacred embrace of the universe, delivered by a magnificently impassioned conductor, ensemble, and chorus.

After the final, triumphant burst from cymbals, bass drum and timpani, the audience stood in its own rapturous noise of gratitude and approval. FREUDE!

Tom Wachunas       


Leave a Comment