BSO’s Ninth Symphony not perfect, but it still stirs the blood

May 27, 2012

It’s been less than three years since the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Strathmore, but here it was again, on Saturday evening. In 2009, the orchestra’s frequent guest conductor, Gunter Herbig, led a restrained but highly cultured reading, with a particularly outstanding contribution from the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. Under the baton of Peter Oundjian, Saturday’s performance was more vigorous, if less nuanced.

The program, which paired the Ninth with Anton Bruckner’s “Te Deum,” again showcased the remarkable Baltimore chorus, led by Tom Hall. Rather than sitting together by section, singers of different voice types are placed randomly throughout the chorus. While this presents real challenges to a conductor, who needs to communicate with particular sections at key moments, it makes each singer feel more individually responsible for delivering his or her part accurately. It also improves blend. The voices rang out with resplendent confidence, and the sopranos had no apparent difficulty reaching the cruel and challenging high B’s in the piece. The chorus’s performance was the best part of the concert.

Oundjian is a world-class musician and, of course, the BSO knows the piece well, but the orchestra was a little strait-laced. There was an unfortunate wrong note in the brass at the opening of the finale, and in loud spots the texture became generally opaque. Kudos to the woodwinds, though, for alert, colorful playing in the scherzo.

Of the vocal soloists, soprano Joyce El-Khoury was the most centered and reliable. Bass Morris Robinson had clarion power but a slightly metallic color. Tenor Nicholas Phan, a last minute fill-in, seemed to be working the hardest but did not project a steady musical line. All that said, the thunderous power of this unique masterpiece never fails to stir the blood, and the ovation was loud, long and well deserved.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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