NSO: The Immortal 9th

Beethoven’s ninth.

Everyone knows it.

Or they think they do. ‘Ode to Joy’ has been used and reused in everything from church hymns to TV commercials, but do you know the whole thing, its ins and outs, and what it says not only in that final movement but through the world it creates? Anyway….

We had a weekend of Mahler last week, with Maestro Herbig in town, and he sold out the National Concert Hall tonight with Beethoven’s ninth. Just a number of hours ago, a certain friend bit the bullet and bought Beethoven’s symphony cycle from Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus. I was thinking about what Chailly said about programming the eighth and ninth together, or how any number of smaller pieces are performed before the ninth and performed without interruption leading into Beethoven’s magnificent magnum opus.

What we got first this evening was Bach’s double violin concerto. For some reason, I was under the impression we had one of the Brandenburg concertos first, and that seemed somehow like a perfect pairing. Turns out I was wrong. We had the two violins listed as concertmasters for the NSO, 吳庭毓 and 李宜錦, as soloists, and the obviously-period-appropriate ensemble, harpsichord and all. As one young fellow behind me hollered, “a piano!” He was like…. 5 tops, and I commended him and his parents after the program for how incredibly well behaved he was. His mother’s response was to apologize, but I wanted to make sure she didn’t think I was being sarcastic. He whispered a few times “when will they start singing?!” but he was very well-behaved.

Back to Bach.

I must say, sort of confessionally, that Bach’s violin concertos are some of my least favorite pieces of music I’ve ever heard. That’s just an opinion, and that having been shared, I will say the performance this evening was light, shimmery, buoyant, and had a natural forward motion that almost made Herbig seem unnecessary; I actually do think he stopped conducting here and there, but the three movements were light and even a bit festive, our two soloists, familiar faces, shining standing instead of sitting, and welcomed wiht wonderful applause after the final bar. There must have been a certain pride in the orchestra, featuring two of their own, and I think that was shared with the obviously full house for the evening.

As a delightful encore, our two baroque soloists suddenly turned into backwoods jig-like fiddlers, with the principal bass now stationed between them, giving a bowed or plucked foundation to a jazzy, fiddly compression of the three movements of the Bach. Absolute genius. In whole it didn’t last five minutes, but it was a little improvised (but not because they had sheet music) take on the baroque content. Brought down the house.

Intermission. Kid is very well behaved but wants to hear singing.

Beethoven 9.

I mean…. can you use words? Knowing the ‘Ode to Joy’ is like knowing the final story-changing reveal of a trilogy of books, watching the final scene and paying little attention to what comes before it, what gives it meaning. So… how can you summarize an entire piece, and an entire, individual, nuanced performance of a piece? The hall was abuzz with energy, a full concert hall, and packed stage with chorus and all the rest, like a feedback loop of excitement, and the downbeat happens.

Gunther was noticeably score-less at the podium, and the first movement, as you know, begins, not with a bang, but a flicker, a wisp, like the clicking on of a pilot light. But before very long, the entire orchestra went up in flames; Herbig brought fire and brimstone and a thunderous fury to the first movement; my fellow concertgoer, having moved down the aisle to the empty seat next to mine (one of the few in the hall) said it struck fear. It was structurally sound, well executed, balanced and built enough momentum to carry us into and through the rest of the movements.

The second was full of punch and power, and the trio a perfect contrast. The third movement, one of the slowest moments in the work, both literally and figuratively, was navigated with perfection, giving sweet, caressing repose from the energy of the first two movements without losing that momentum or energy.

The finale… well, the right performance of the ninth convinces you, hands down, that it’s one of the most genius things ever written, that there could be no more perfect expression of joy, of elation, ad astra per aspera, and the sheer power and opulence but expressiveness of the work was executed with brilliant balance. The chorus was somehow maybe the warmest, roundest most forward, balanced I’d ever heard, and the vocalists (林玲慧, 翁若珮, 王典, 葉展毓) were also out of this world, and the overall result was a performance that made it a little difficult to breathe, caused sniffles throughout the audience, and long roars of applause at the end. My concertgoing friend sitting next to me tells me this performance stuck with him more than Berlin’s six months ago. Now that’s saying something. And there was personal agenda of some kind there, a passion, an absolute urgency to the music that was sublime. What an evening. Just spectacular.

Words really don’t do it justice, but if you weren’t one of the few thousand in attendance tonight, I’d say you missed an evening that might go down in National Concert Hall (or NSO) history as one of the most magical that’s happened. Thank you, one and all, and we’ll see you again soon.

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