A Ninth to Remember
Monday, July 31, 2006
BALTIMORE -- Suddenly there is a new and exciting young conductor on the scene, somebody who just might alter the equation for some leading orchestras that are beginning their searches for a music director.
On the evidence of his Friday night concert of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner, barely in his thirties, would seem to have it all -- energy, ideas, personal dynamism and an urgent, welling musicianship. Throughout the evening at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, one had the sense that Gardner really had something to say about this marvelous, meandering work, and he then went ahead and said it, in a succession of logical, appreciative and beautifully wrought musical paragraphs that both kept a listener's moment-to-moment attention and led, seemingly inevitably, to an overpowering final statement.
This is not an easy symphony. As the choral conductor Robert Shaw once observed of the "Missa Solemnis," the first thing to remember about this piece is that it was written by a deaf pianist. The vocal writing is crushingly difficult; at this stage in his career, Beethoven was more interested in the sheer Platonic idea of music than anything so earthbound as how it might play out in performance (a performance that, in any event, he would not be able to hear). There are extraordinary riches in late Beethoven, but they take a good deal of work, from the performer and the listener, to make their full impact.
Wisely, Gardner made no attempt to take Symphony No. 9 any further into the cosmos than it already is. He set out to make sense of it without taming it in the process. The opening ambiguities of the first movement (at first we have no idea whether we are in a minor or major key) led to long passages of chunky counterpoint that reminded me of the big-orchestra Handel that Leopold Stokowski used to conduct. For the most part, Gardner played down the terror that is the subtext of this movement, with the result that when the final cataclysm arrived, half a minute before the close, it seemed even more shattering than usual.
The Scherzo was both taut and expansive: Gardner observed the first repeat, which added a few minutes to the movement but never detracted from its sense of Olympian playfulness. The Adagio, with its seraphic melodies that are so simple and so affecting, can seem something of a heavenly pudding unless it is played with a certain rhythmic strictness, something Gardner gently provided.
And then, after such splendors, there was still the "Ode to Joy" finale to conquer. The Baltimore Choral Arts Society placed the emphasis on "joy," singing out loudly, lustily, with all the folkish exuberance in the world. The soloists -- soprano Alexandra Deshorties, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, tenor Gordon Gietz and baritone Stephen Powell -- were vibrant and exceedingly well matched. I especially liked the heady freedom with which Powell sang his opening passage, when pure music was no longer enough and Beethoven found it necessary to bring in words, the first time such an experiment was tried in a symphony.
Gardner did a terrific job holding together the finale, the latter part of which can sound like a series of sublime afterthoughts grafted on after the symphony has already reached its natural end. Beethoven's humor is sometimes ignored or flat-out denied by his more pompous interpreters. Not by Gardner: I loved the way the solo bassoon brought matters back to earth with its unexpected, belchlike ejaculation immediately after chorus and orchestra had been out storming the heavens.
The Baltimore Symphony played with its signature blend of unanimity and tenderness, as though it were a great chamber ensemble that simply grew. According to Gardner's press biography, this was his first appearance with the Baltimore Symphony and only his second in the United States (he has spent most of his time in Great Britain). Word of mouth should ensure him a great deal of work on this side of the pond.