When the Juneau Symphony began planning for their 50th anniversary concerts, there wasn’t much debate about which piece should be chosen to mark this major milestone: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was it.
“It’s just a gigantic kind of thing,” said Juneau Symphony Music Director Kyle Wiley Pickett. “When WWII ends you play Beethoven Nine. When the Berlin Wall falls you play Beethoven Nine. When your orchestra turns 50 you play Beethoven Nine. It has ceremonial significance because its message is so great, and its message is about the brotherhood of man. It’s such a powerful piece.”
For the listener, Beethoven’s Ninth has the advantage of being not only familiar and uplifting but also mysterious and complex. Or, as Atlantic writer Benjamin Carlson called it, “a sphinx to which every earnestly given answer is both right, and inadequate.”
Symphony Choral Director William Todd Hunt, who led the symphony in their rehearsals before Pickett’s arrival from California, said it’s a fascinating piece to work with and to listen to, in part because of the unusual nature of what Beethoven accomplished — not just in his own time, but in any time — with the orchestra and chorus.
“It was completely ground breaking,” Hunt said. “The quality of the music is really high. But besides that, it’s the first use of a chorus and soloist in a symphony. And the way he brings it out in the last movement is, I think, complete genius.”
The last movement, which features the well-known “Ode to Joy,” is the only one to feature singers. Before the singers come in, there is an interesting interchange within the orchestra, Hunt said: dissonance is quickly followed by the introduction of tiny fragments from each of the previous movements, which are overridden by the cellos and basses, as if being dismissed.
“You can sort of see this evolution, as if Beethoven is sort of saying ‘I am trying to get something across to the people listening and this just isn’t working.’ Finally, about five minutes or so into it, the bass soloist stands up and starts to sing and after that — and I think it may be the most miraculous part of the whole symphony — just after his first entrance the strings have about a five bar little chromatic part, very soft, and it’s almost like the orchestra is completely dumbfounded — ‘what is the person doing singing?!’ On just about any level you can think about it, it’s completely miraculous,” Hunt said.
The lyrics, taken from a poem by Friedrich Schiller, then introduce the theme of universal brotherhood and joy, which is soon taken up by the full chorus. In this way, the integration and resolution of the musical themes mirrors the poetry of the lyrics, Hunt said.
In order to achieve what he wanted to achieve, Beethoven asked a lot from his singers; it is a very difficult piece to perform, Hunt said, built with long phrases and a high range (not to mention it’s in German).
“I wouldn’t say he was the best vocal writer,” Hunt said with a laugh. “There are a lot of things that are awkward and almost instrumental in the way they are written. He wasn’t concerned about making things easy or singable, he had a sound in his head that he wanted to have, so he wrote it. And I guess figured we’d figure out a way to do it.”
He also asked a lot from the orchestra. Viola player Hetty Barthel said many of the measures are played very fast, and have odd note changes — for example, one note may change in a pattern that’s been repeated, even if its not part of the melody line and is being played so softly that most listeners probably won’t even catch it.
As many will remember, the symphony first performed this work 10 years ago. About half of the orchestra and chorus members are returning for this performance, said Pickett, noting that this is not the same organization as it was at that time.
“When we did it 10 years it ago, it was kind of crazy that we did it; it was far and away the hardest thing that we’d done and in a lot of ways that was the turning point for the Juneau Symphony, where we really moved from being a community orchestra to being a community orchestra that operated like a professional orchestra.”
For Juneau, the concerts will be a community gathering on a grand scale. The orchestra and chorus together number about 150, and they will be joined by 30 singers from the Juneau-Douglas High School choir, who have been working with choral director Richard Moore, as well as a handful of out-of-town musicians and four solo performers — Kathleen Wayne, Missouri Smyth, Brett Crawford and Philippe Damerval; that brings the total number of performers up to more than 170. The auditorium, which will likely be filled Saturday night, can seat more than 900.
“When you think about the nearly 200 people on stage and 900 people in the audience — twice — that’s a very sizable percentage of Juneau experiencing this,” Hunt said.
Both Hunt and Pickett said Juneau’s orchestra members and singers have really risen to the challenge of this piece, and, moreover, made it their own. Part of the purpose of the concerts is to showcase the Juneau Symphony’s tremendous growth since their first performance at the Twentieth Century Theater in 1963.
“That’s part of what I’m so proud of the Juneau Symphony about. We tackle these big, monumental works and it’s not about just getting through them, it’s about making music and saying something about them.”
“Our performance won’t be technically perfect. That’s not what we strive for. What we strive for is being sort of perfectly musical with it.”
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will be performed twice, Saturday, April 6, at 8 p.m., with a pre-concert talk at 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 7 at 3 p.m., with a pre-concert talk at 2 p.m. Both concerts will be at the Juneau-Douglas High School Auditorium.
Saturday’s performance will be followed by a public reception in the JDHS Commons with refreshments and a short program about the Symphony’s 50th Anniversary.
Tickets are on sale at Hearthside Books, the JACC and online at www.juneausymphony.org. All tickets will have reserved seating. The symphony strongly encourages patrons to purchase advance tickets as they expect the Saturday evening concert to sell out. Pay-as-you-can seats will be available at both performances if space is available and can be purchased at the door only.
For more visit www.juneausymphony.org