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Monday, Dec. 22, 2008

Be Embraced, Ye Millions!

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Though some rudimentary sketches for a Tenth Symphony were eventually found among his belongings, it is hard to imagine where Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) could have taken the symphonic genre after the completion of his D Minor Symphony-a work written a dozen years after his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and a fitting culmination of Beethoven's symphonic output. Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 has been called the "Choral Symphony," but that is misleading and a mistake in emphasis, undervaluing the three purely orchestral movements that precede the choral finale. But the title (which was not Beethoven's) understandably acknowledges the overwhelming effect of the Presto-Allegro assai finale with its setting of Friedrich Schiller's poem An die Freude (Ode to Joy).

Beethoven spent much of his compositional life reinventing the wheel, musically speaking: keeping his audiences on their toes with a rare ability to combine the familiar with the unexpected. Though he stayed within traditional forms, he changed them to such a degree that the whole of Western music was transformed. Such later composers as Berlioz, Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler, whose own compositions cannot be imagined without the precedent-setting Ninth, took the Ninth Symphony as a point of departure.

Schiller's poem captured Beethoven's imagination even before he had left his hometown of Bonn, though he finally completed the musical treatment of the lyrics only three years before his death. "It was a long way from conception to fulfillment of the Ode to Joy project," writes Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon.

The Ninth Symphony received its world premiere on May 7, 1824. Beethoven, unable to conduct, stood next to the conductor turning the pages of the score, beating time. Indeed, the choir and orchestra had been told to ignore the composer, who was by this stage so deaf that he could not even hear his own music-or the thunderous applause that erupted as the finale came to its end. As one reviewer aptly put it: "Art and truth here celebrate their most brilliant triumph." Less lofty praise but perhaps more revealing was what Beethoven's friend Karl Holz wrote: "When I think of the music of Beethoven, I am happy to be alive."

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with four vocal soloists, perform Beethoven's Ninth on Dec. 31. In two additional performances on Jan. 2 and 3, the work is preceded by the Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra in B-Flat Major, K. 191 by W.A. Mozart (1756-91). This is a work Mozart composed when he was 18 years old for an instrument that had only recently been developed. The soloist for this work will be Theodore Soluri.

Conducting all three performances (at Uihlein Hall) is Lawrence Renes, who rose to fame in 1995 when he replaced Riccardo Chailly with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Maestro Renes later assisted MSO Music Director Designate Edo de Waart at the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.