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Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010

Of Simple Gifts and Odes to Joy

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra opens its season with Beethoven’s Ninth

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At the conclusion of a world premiere performance of a new work on May 7, 1824, in Vienna’s Hoftheater, the composer stood silently facing away from the audience as they applauded and cheered. It was the greatest public success of his career. In one of the most poignant accounts of his final years, Ludwig van Beethoven had to be turned around by one of the soloists so that he could see the hundreds of clapping hands he couldn’t hear. The new piece was fated to be his last large-scale orchestral work: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125—the so-called Choral Symphony or, to legions of fans ever since, simply Beethoven’s Ninth.

The finished work was of visionary proportions and scope and represented the apex of technical difficulty in its day. As English pianist and musicologist Denis Matthews observed: “As with other late-period works (of Beethoven), there are places where the medium quivers under the weight of thought and emotion, where the deaf composer seemed to fight against, or reach beyond, instrumental and vocal limitations.”

When viewed individually, the first three, purely instrumental movements still have their roots firmly planted in the late 18th century while the “Ode to Joy” finale—rhapsodic and imbued with great and universal meaning—seems to explode from that mould.

Maestro Edo de Waart and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra open the season with this wondrous work, accompanied by Lee Erickson’s fine Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and vocal soloists Pamela Armstrong, Meredith Arwady, Vinson Cole and Oren Gradus.

Sixty-five years after its composition, Appalachian Spring remains the quintessential masterpiece of American composer Aaron Copland (1900-90). Written for a Martha Graham ballet of the same name, the music of this concert suite is wholly characteristic of Copland’s “Americana” phase in the ’30s and ’40s. Its harmonic language is both sparse and straightforward. Interestingly, Appalachian Spring’s most famous theme is not actually Copland’s at all. Rather, he presents the traditional Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” in a set of variations that progress to a dignified and grand climax.

The briefest and most modern work on the concert program is the fanfare for orchestra Tromba Lontana (1985) by another American, John Adams (b. 1947), first performed (and commissioned) by the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

As Adams himself explains: “Taking a subversive point of view on the idea of the generic loud, extrovert archetype of the fanfare, I composed a four-minute work that barely rises above mezzo piano and that features two stereophonically placed solo trumpets (to the back of the stage or on separate balconies), who intone gently insistent calls.”

He continues: “The orchestra provides a pulsing continuum,” while “in the furthest background is a long, almost disembodied melody for strings that passes by almost unnoticed, like nocturnal clouds.”

All three of these works will be performed in Uihlein Hall Sept. 24-26.