Review: ISO Symphonic Hits Program No. 9 

4 stars

ISO Symphonic Hits Program No. 9; Hilbert Circle Theatre; June 17-18.

The Circle Theatre was packed, as expected. When has it not been, with the programming of one of Western music's — even Western art's — greatest icons? Some have termed Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 ("Choral") the greatest piece of music ever written. I think that goes too far, but it is safe to say that it is the greatest symphonic work which gets full public recognition of its merit.

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conductor laureate Raymond Leppard, now 83, returned once more to the podium, first to introduce the Ninth with the Eighth — Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93, a light-veined "overture" to the drama, the adventure, the serene calm and the ecstatic joy which follows.

Of course, as always, we had the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, currently with director Eric Stark, and four vocal soloists to join the orchestra in the fourth and final movement. The Ninth had its world premiere in 1824, three years before its composer's death and 12 years after the premiere of the Eighth. Since then, other symphonic composer's have, on occasion, added voices to parts or all of what had been an instrumental form — the first one by Mendelssohn in 1840, a work seldom played today.

Mahler, almost a century later, used the voice in four of his ten symphonies, all of which have become popular within a certain sect of music lovers. But Beethoven's Ninth is equaled in its "density of inspiration" only by the composer's other late works: e.g. the Missa Solemnis and the five "late" string quartets—which, for various reasons, do not have the overwhelming public approbation of the Ninth.

From the beginning of No. 8, Leppard's style returned to his former players as though they had never parted company: a slow tempo, with which some might say he is "explaining" or "dissecting" the music. But in Leppard's case he "reveals" it. With a steady beat, he articulates the phrases, bringing out often hidden voices within the instrumental choirs. All the "moments" are highlighted — given meaning. This is in contrast to the dry, run-through quality the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welzer-Most gave the Eighth a few weeks ago at the Carmel Palladium, with an otherwise top-notch orchestra.

Following the intermission—or, as Leppard stated in a video introducing the Ninth, "the interval"—we heard those ominous cellos, basses and two horns deliver that open A – E fifth, launching the cosmic drama that is the first movement. Using once again a very moderate tempo, Leppard succeeded in revealing the concealed beauties within the unfolding passion.

The one movement which could have benefited from a greater speed was the ensuing Scherzo. Though Leppard's articulation remained manifest, his pace conveyed a lack of energy, as he observed both sets of repeats (the only ones in the entire 1 hour and 15 minute symphony) before bridging into the "trio" section. Once again he highlighted more beauties therein.

The slow movement, a double variation form, with its cascade of principal and counter-themes, is a true Adagio, which our conductor laureate captured in its essence. We heard some lovely woodwind playing, especially by principal clarinetist David Bellman.

As for the "Ode to Joy" movement, with words based on Friedrich Schiller's poem, it held together rather well, considering the difficulties imposed on the totality of the huge assemblage of forces. The soloists consisted of soprano Sara Jakubiak, mezzo Michaela Martens, tenor Sean Panikkar and baritone James Westman. With only the two male singers having solo parts, both gave us somewhat overly opulent deliveries, as well as the two women when singing as a duet.

The Choir— standing on a tiered platform in back of the orchestra — gave us, as usual, Schiller's verses in German, the words all but inaudible (but that is the rule and not the exception). Otherwise it projected a delivery too soft in places to be heard above the orchestra.

Still, the viewing public is justifiably more than forgiving of the movement's myriad difficulties, some of which can be attributed to Beethoven's vocal writing. Leppard scored a triumph with this concert. May he have many more.

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