Beethoven’s most exuberant essay in the symphonic form has always been a benchmark for orchestras and conductors alike. In yesterday’s performance—which elicited the first spontaneous standing ovation witnessed in many years—the intrepid players largely acquitted themselves in compelling fashion while guest conductor Diane Wittry had to settle for a tempo-savvy reading that fell far short of the music’s most essential component: rhythm.
Wittry’s clean, concise gestures worked to everyone’s advantage in the first half of the program but after choosing to conduct without the score for Op. 92, much of the earlier attention to detail vanished as surely as the “incessant repeats” were abandoned
For this music to truly settle into its magnificent skin, the conductor must become a rock-solid source of unfailing pulse, providing the musicians the artistic foundation upon which to soar through their passagework or reveal the harmonic subtleties and thematic mysteries that create the compositional subtext.
The famous introduction (Poco sostenuto—the second word is the key) began with much promise. Wittry’s first tempo was divine and, wisely seating the orchestra as the master would have experienced it (moving the second violins to the outside, opposite their tuneful colleagues), the chance to hear the “stereophonic effects” was palpable. To their credit, the seconds have never been heard to better advantage.
Unfortunately, with the antiphonal scales moving steadily forward with excitement and vigour, breaking new structural ground (imagine being at that première!), the final punctuation of those roving sixteenths, quite literally, withered on the bow. The score clearly indicates a full-value quarter note, with no staccato marking such as the first four quarters have, yet no one was invited to give them their requisite weight. With so many much more detailed indications ahead, surely this most basic request from the composer ought to be granted. The difference to the power of the music is huge, but here, could only be guessed at or recalled.
When the Vivace was reached, perhaps the most misplayed rhythm in the standard repertoire made the first of its countless appearances. The exact placement of the 16th after the dot has tested mettle of performers for eons—matching length, attack and direction amongst all of the disparate instruments (no one misses their moment in the vibrant 6/8 sun) is truly a fine art. Sadly, making the distinctions that Beethoven so painstakingly crafted (some iterations have staccati, others have a wee rest) is as rare as taking the expositions repeats (if the material is not replayed, then when does the development begin?).
Once again, Wittry seemed content leaving her charges to their own devices, resulting in too many versions of the same lines and a decided lack of the effervescence that lurks intriguingly on every page.
Harmonic implications were also left for another day. The absolutely magical moment where—as if in a dream—the pulse shifts to one-to-the-bar while, simultaneously, the delectable tonality of B-flat Major slips into the mix, sailed by unnoticed.
The haunting “Allegretto” had much to admire as the duple-driven sombre tone shifted back and forth into triplets of hope. Astonishingly, the countersubject’s grace notes were played both ahead and on the beat by the violas and cellos, ruining the effect, only to have that blemish beautifully corrected by flute, oboe and bassoon at their turn. The closing measures completed the full circle with great distinction.
The “Scherzo” had plenty of zip and zest while the “Trios” drew various opinions on the delicate hairpin dynamic indication; the second horn was appropriately present in the thematic pedal, needing only a bit more clip on the cross-rhythm to move into gold-medal range. Maddeningly, vagaries on too many fronts as to the precise length of the half-note, quarter note snippets robbed the music of its surety and sparkle.
The red-hot speed of the Finale was too much for any chance of meaningful interplay amongst the inner voices but ignited the crowd into delighted applause. The French horns were the biggest beneficiaries of the lack of repeats but couldn’t quite hold on to the final double bar.
To begin the proceedings, the third performance of Chase the Sun was the most accomplished thus far (it’s a set piece for the four finalists in the music director search). Adding the poetry of the original version via Surtitles brought oboist Christie Goodwin’s glorious tone into the sunlight even as the first violins ethereally warmed the freshly threshed fields.
Flautist Douglas Miller provided a master class in phrasing, tone production and change-of-register artistry (notably jumping an octave—would that the violins go to school on the technique of supporting the bottom and letting the top emerge both in their replies and especially in the second movement of the symphony) as he brought Suite Antique to glorious life. The pleasant music cries out for a celluloid treatment, even as its homage to Albinoni’s Adagio (“Aria”) looks lovingly back to the future.
Miller time happily continued with a performance of Ian Clarke’s The Great Train Race for solo flute. This performance was on track right out of the station, featuring an engaging “Whistle Waltzer” and circular-breath-fuelled trills that amazed one and all. Merci mille fois!
Handel’s D Major Water Music Suite never managed to lift off. Many of the additional embellishments were too busy by half for their surroundings and a major rethink of imploring the trumpets and horns to begin their trills above might well have smoothed the way. JWR