Stilian Kirov Leads Rutgers Orchestra in Revealing Beethoven Ninth

United StatesUnited States Dove, Shaw, Beethoven: Antonina Chehovska (soprano), Siena Miller (mezzo-soprano), Abraham Bretón (tenor), Ben Wager (bass), Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia / Paul Rardin (artistic director, conductor), Symphony in C/Stilian Kirov (conductor), Gordon Theater, Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts, Camden, New Jersey, 17.3.2018. (BJ)

Jonathan DoveIn beauty may I walk
Caroline ShawSeven Joys (Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and Boston Back Bay Chorale commission – world premiere)
Beethoven – Symphony No.9 in D minor Op.125 ‘Choral’

The greater the work, the more varied are the possibilities it opens up for stimulating or indeed revelatory interpretation. (That is why ‘definitive’ is just about the last word I would ever use in endeavoring to praise a performance: if it were accurate, it would leave no reason to ever play the piece again.) Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony presents an extreme example of music that admits of a wide range of interpretative options, and already in its first movement Stilian Kirov, the 34-year-old music director of Symphony in C, was fashioning an account that provided a view of the work quite different from any I have experienced in many dozens of previous encounters with it.

Usually this grimly dramatic and involuted music makes its impact preeminently in terms of motivic concentration and the building up of dynamic force. By his handling of line, texture, and instrumental balance, however, Kirov revealed quite how profoundly the movement depends on the gradual efflorescence and expansion of eloquent quasi-lyrical melody. It was not that dynamic climaxes were in any way shortchanged. Indeed, in the playing of this professional training orchestra based on Rutgers University’s Camden campus, the sheer tigerish enthusiasm and technical aplomb of the musicians, reinforced at every appropriate moment by the incisive contributions of Japanese-born timpanist Sae Hashimoto, ensured an effect of more than ordinary grandeur and nobility.

Though perhaps less original in conception, the scherzo that followed was brilliantly rendered, with a trio section of unusual fleetness and clarity. I found myself somewhat at sea for the first few minutes of the slow movement, where Kirov’s textural explorations made it hard to follow the main thematic lines. But all was back on track in the choral finale, which thrilled a receptive audience with its uncompromising joyous noise. The chorus itself achieved marvels of textural control and verbal clarity, making the absence of a printed text in the program book no significant deprivation, and for the most part the vocal soloists were also excellent. It’s true that, just as there are varied ways of conducting, singing allows of deviation from the written text in more than one direction. You can sing the right notes wrong or you can sing the wrong notes right, and while his musicianship was evident, Mexican-born tenor Abraham Bretón tended somewhat toward the latter effect: his notes were assured and unfailingly agreeable, but in the potentially hilarious military march section they were not always the ones that Beethoven wrote.

The first half of the concert was purely choral except for the addition of a brass quintet in the score of Seven Joys, the 25-minute commissioned work by New York-based Caroline Shaw, who was born in Greenville, North Carolina, in 1982, and became the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2013. Preceded on the program by a graceful setting of a Navajo folk poem by the 58-year-old English composer Jonathan Dove, Seven Joys proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable blend of relaxed melody and some more experimental interludes: clearly Ms. Shaw is a talent to be taken seriously. And the Mendelssohn Club, under the baton in this first half of its own artistic director, Paul Rardin, showed itself to be an ensemble in excellent shape, singing with finely focused tone and, as in the Beethoven after intermission, diction of rare clarity.

Bernard Jacobson

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