I fell in love with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 (“Choral”) at (ironically) age 9 and have remained under its spell ever since. The Ninth’s power, energy, beauty, gargantuan size and scope (certainly for 1824 — its world premiere year) and its use of the human voice for a chorale tune now universally known and loved have made it a must attend for concertgoers all over the world.
Last Friday’s second Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra classical program was an excellent case in point. The hall was packed from all across its front rows to the top of its third mezzanine. The same thing happened in April 2005 at the Ninth’s previous performance, and makes it evident that two or three years will continue to pass between successive Ninth programmings.
Beethoven’s mightiest symphonic opus also is a mighty challenge — a prime interpretive case study — for conductors. ISO music director Mario Venzago’s 2005 reading of it was far different from this one, and that contrast strongly favors the latter. To put it succinctly, this was the most exciting, rewarding Ninth I’ve ever experienced in live performance.
A Ninth taking scarcely an hour to play, with one Scherzo-repeat omitted! That’s what Venzago gave us, tempo-wise. (Traditional performances have run about 70 minutes.) Throughout the three instrumental movements, he made audible for us all those beautiful wind/horn parts, along with the first movement and the Scherzo’s inexorable energy: We were caught up in a whirlwind — one which occasionally moved the players into a slightly ragged, runaway mode. But each time Venzago quickly reestablished control, one which remained relentlessly constant throughout the Scherzo, along with nice dynamic inflections within those incessant triplet figures.
The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, under the direction of Dr. Eric Stark, provided the best dynamic shading of the last movement’s choral parts that they’ve given us. While vocal soloists: soprano Carolina Castelis, mezzo Ann Sauder, tenor Jeffery Springer and bass Arthur Woodley provided an adequate, unexceptional quartet, Woodley sang his opening “O freunde” solo as beautifully as I’ve heard it locally. Springer showed less pitch control in his “Turkish March” solo — one which also saw the use of a small side drum struck with a “wooden switch” (thin wooden strings), giving us a snare-drum effect, rather than the usual bass drum. Venzago prefers it as being more authentic."