FAYETTEVILLE — Last night (April 14) at Walton Arts Center, the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas under the baton of Paul Haas offered Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor as an extremely grand finale for the inaugural SoNA season.
Joining the orchestra were special guest artists Sarah Wolfson, soprano; Teresa Buchholz, mezzo-soprano; Kevin Courtemanche, tenor; and Charles Perry Sprawls, bass-baritone. Joining them was the 130-voice SoNA Chorale anchored by the SoNA Singers and Bentonville High School Chamber Choir, all under the direction of Terry Hicks, and the John Brown University Cathedral Choir under the direction of Jacob Funk.
Beethoven, as one of the first great composers to write for posterity, reportedly told musicians who were perplexed and confused by his compositions that he was not writing for them but for the generations that would come after them. The Ninth continues to perplex and confuse as it overwhelms one generation after another.
No other musical work has evoked so many printed words as the Ninth. It's surprising that it has not collapsed under the weight. In many ways, it is the James Joyce Ulysses of orchestral works. Since the Ninth premiere in 1824, professional and armchair critics have created a cottage industry as they publish and blog their convictions and disagreements.
But no one seems to disagree that the Ninth is a non-stop roller coaster ride that is possibly the fastest 70 minutes in the symphonic canon. It is also one of the most ambitious performance choices for an orchestra to pursue.
Another characteristic of the gigantic Ninth is the way a performance reflects the times in which it is performed. At one end of the spectrum there is the fatalistic, even scary sound of Conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler's recording of the Ninth in 1942 Berlin as Germany was falling to the Allies. At the other end there is Leonard Bernstein's joyously triumphant Ninth when at the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 the word Freiheit (freedom) for Freude (joy).
It was no surprise that SoNA's Ninth reflected life in Northwest Arkansas. It was smart, well-played and commanded a somewhat relaxed performance. With 200-plus musicians on stage at one time, the Ninth was almost as satisfying to watch as it was to hear. And the audience was once again reminded that for maximum enjoyment, we should experience music live.
The Masterworks III Concert began with a charming piece performed by SoNA's principal contrabassoonist, Richard Bobo. It was Julius Fučik's “The Old Bear with the Sore Head” for solo contrabassoon that Bobo arranged for orchestra. This was followed by an Oklahoma medley as a tribute to SoNA executive director Karen Kapella.
Then came the heavenly Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 in C Sharp Minor by Gustav Mahler. One of many things that is notably wonderful about SoNA under the direction of Paul Haas, is the emergence of the sublime SoNA pianissimo strings. Even during the softest of passages they maintain lushness and depth while emoting and conveying the gentlest of emotion. The superb symphonic strings are one of the reasons why Movement III of the Ninth was so satisfying.
Beethoven's Ninth, the curtain closer for the night and for the season, was received enthusiastically by the Walton Arts Center audience with countless standing ovations. At the arrival of the fourth movement, especially the initial chorus entry, sparks began to fly and didn't subside until this "symphony within a symphony" ended.
The dynamics of the performers on the “Joy” movement were especially compelling. On most recorded performances, one hears choirs made up of mostly mature voices. Beethoven's Schiller poem is one of the first great messages of the enlightenment. And to recieve that message that recent night at the arts center, with a wonderful orchestra, a stunning professional quartet and a sea of young voices behind them — young voices full hope and optimism sung in a way that only the young could. When they sang "All mankind will be brothers” (“Alle Menschen warden Bruder”) we were all young and hopeful once again. It was a revelation that made the performance memorable. The choirs of Maestros Hicks and Funk were perfection.