Beethoven 9 at Ravinia

July 20 2009

Saw the CSO perform Beethoven’s ninth last weekend. This was basically the first time for me to see it live. I had seen the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra do this piece a long time ago (maybe when I was 11 years old, before I had reached any kind of musical consciousness). This also marked the first time I saw a CSO-Ravinia concert on the lawn because they didn’t offer student discounts for this one.

The program started with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. This piece is naturally a cinch for the CSO brass, and it was highly enjoyable. Next came Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. This is an interesting piece, with a narrator describing Lincoln and some of his speeches. The Chicago Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra did this last year, and our narrator (Dan Laino) did an amazing job, subbing in at the last minute and delivering an emotional performance. Jessye Norman narrated for the CSO; while she ably performed the role of narrator, I found her to be a little dry and detached - along with the CSO. There are some incredible climaxes in this piece, and I feel like the CSO didn’t really reach high on them.

It would've been fun to see a deaf Beethoven conduct the Ninth


My overall impression of the Beethoven was that the performance was very good and met my expectations for how the piece should feel. The first three movements didn’t make much of an impression on me, even though they represent great music and I love listening to them. I think this was because we sat on the lawn (albeit extremely close, literally as close as can be to the pavilion). The listening experience is just not as intense on the lawn - people talk out loud, you have less to focus on and more distractions, and we brought food. I was not exactly captivated.

However, a wonderful moment took place in the last movement, which basically redeemed my experience. The concluding movement starts with conflict and remains so for a few minutes. Then, almost magically, when the cellos came in with the famous Ode to Joy melody, the entire place stopped. All the little chatter ceased, and everyone stood still. The cellos only have this line for about 30 seconds, but nobody dared to move for those 30 seconds, instead taking in the absolutely glorious music.

After that, I was obviously hooked. Starting from when the Bass soloist finally comes in, I watched the performance from the back of the pavilion with a pretty good view. There really is nothing quite like watching incredible music with so many people. At the end of the performance, I nearly got clubbed by a couple among people around me, who instantly whipped their arms up to celebrate/applaud.

As for the actual performance, I don’t feel like the CSO performed better than usual, or with more excitment/passion. If anything, they seemed a little flat all night. There were many sections in which the strings were not together and nearly fell apart. That was probably just part of the summer orchestral experience. Conlon was his usual self (boring), although he did a great job making sure the choir was in sync with the orchestra, something that doesn’t even go right in recordings someimt.

The soloists were decent. My favorite part of the symphony is near the end of the last movement when the soloists last sing as a quartet. This whole section is strange, because the four voices are seemingly all singing their own lines with no real rhyme or reason. This all kind of comes together when the soprano reaches up and hits that high B, and then order is restored again by the orchestra. Done right, this can be incredibly poignant. The soloists didn’t really shine here, and unlike in some recordings I’ve heard, they sounded actually out of sync with each other, instead of just giving the impression that they were out of sync.

Those are just nitpicks. I still need to see this in a proper music hall setting, if only so I can concentrate the whole time and get the full sound experience. However, I wonder if the visceral, emotional feeling would have still been there had I been seated in a chair the whole time instead of rubbing shoulders against complete strangers, all standing behind the pavilion and stretching their necks to get a good look at the stage. I am glad I was able to share my first real Beethoven 9 experience with so many people, as we all collectively celebrated an Ode to Joy.


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