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Sarang N. Kulkarni
Lorin Maazel conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with (from left, foreground) soprano Christine Brewer, contralto Meredith Arwady, tenor Matthew Polenzani, and bass-baritone Eike Wilm Schulte.
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Boston Symphony Orchestra

Symphony Hall, Boston, MA

November 7, 2009

In the final concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s The Complete Symphonies series, celebrated conductor Lorin Maazel led the orchestra to a remarkable performance of Beethoven’s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. Maestro Maazel, former Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, conducted the orchestra in the last two episodes of the series in place of Maestro Levine.

The concert opened with the Eighth Symphony and, I must say, it was one of the best performances of the Eighth Symphony I have ever heard. Maestro Maazel’s tempi were conservative, perhaps a tad on the slower side, and they succeeded in bringing out the character of the piece. His interpretations of the piece were brilliantly executed by the orchestra, and, throughout the piece, I felt nothing but perfect musical harmony. Nothing was too loud, nothing was too soft. Everything felt perfectly synchronized. There were relatively few performers performing the piece but it was a very effective rendition.

I remember that it took no more than the first few measures to bring a big smile to my face and this lasted throughout the duration of the piece. On occasions, I even wondered if I was grinning somewhat stupidly at the orchestra. Clearly the cheerful nature of the piece was expounded very effectively by the performance. Frankly I was a bit surprised by the amount of applause the orchestra received; I feel they deserved much more.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major is one of the most cheerful and light-hearted of all his symphonies and shows none of the turmoil in Beethoven’s life when it was composed — he had just come to terms with the fact that he was mostly deaf. First performed in 1814, it is a brisk piece filled with jokes for both the listener as well as the performer.

In stark contrast to the Eighth, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor is a much more serious piece. It is also one of the most familiar pieces of classical music, especially its finale which has parts for voice and the famous poem “Ode to Joy.” The Ninth Symphony has been an integral part of popular culture as well, with many movies, from the 1971 classic A Clockwork Orange to the 2009 Woody Allen film Whatever Works incorporating portions of the symphony in their themes.

Thus, I am sure it is understandable that while entering into the concert hall, I was a bit concerned that the Ninth Symphony might turn out to be a bit blasé. My hopes were raised by the fabulous performance of the Eighth, but the Ninth was not as impressive. I did not get the “kick” I was looking for, quite unlike the Eighth. Maestro Maazel’s interpretations were slightly unconventional and I found the tempi to be too slow for my liking, especially the scherzo. I was at times reminded of how perfectly in sync the orchestra was for the Eighth, as their performance of the Ninth was not as perfect. Perhaps I am being a little harsh here, and I may have had unrealistically high expectations throughout, but I don’t think that that is entirely unpardonable considering that it’s the extremely popular, somewhat clichéd Ninth Symphony we are talking about.

Things started picking up when the vocals kicked in and bass-baritone Eike Wilm Schulte’s O Freunde, nicht diese Töne (O friends, not these tones) felt very apt after the third movement. He sang in a loud and clear voice, and it almost felt as if he was shaking everyone and imploring everyone to be more cheerful. The other soloists, tenor Matthew Polenzani, contralto Meredith Arwady and soprano Christine Brewer were also very good. At times I did feel that perhaps it would have been even better if Ms. Brewer had been a bit louder as at times her voice was drowned a little by the other singers. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus conducted by John Oliver sang beautifully and gave a very impressive performance. I was particularly impressed by the manner in which they smoothly sustained some of Maestro Maazel’s holds as they were rather prolonged at times.

The performance was greatly appreciated with many rounds of applause, confirming once again the popularity of the Ninth Symphony and of Beethoven’s greatness as a composer.