Thanks to Mahler, Sapping Joy From Beethoven's Ninth

Under Leonard Slatkin, the NSO played not Beethoven's original Symphony No. 9 but a version embellished by Mahler.
Under Leonard Slatkin, the NSO played not Beethoven's original Symphony No. 9 but a version embellished by Mahler. (By Carol Pratt -- Kennedy Center)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007

Somebody should sit Leonard Slatkin down and explain to him, firmly but not without compassion, that Ludwig van Beethoven actually knew what he was doing when he composed his Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, and that the work he created needs no enhancement from Gustav Mahler or any of the other musicians who followed in his shadow.

Last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Slatkin led the National Symphony Orchestra in the Ninth and -- incredibly -- for the third time in seven years, he chose to play not Beethoven's original but a version that included much of the aural graffiti that Mahler scrawled all over the score 100 years ago, adding winds, brass and percussion, making funny little cuts in the Scherzo, and generally taking glorious music and making it sound bloated, blatant and vulgar.

This was Beethoven on steroids, and it was not especially well played, either. The best movement was probably the finale, which featured jubilant singing from the Choral Arts Society of Washington and a booming, fluent and altogether first-class reading of the bass part from Morris Robinson. The other soloists -- mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, tenor Richard Croft and soprano Measha Brueggergosman -- provided strong support, although the enthusiastic Brueggergosman occasionally drowned out her colleagues.

The opening movement was harsh and crudely stentorian; the Scherzo, forced and joyless. The great Adagio probably had the least Mahler in it and came off the better for it -- nobody can make the central melody less than sublime. We may hope that Slatkin never catches wind of a Saint-Sa┬┐ns transcription of Bach's "Saint Matthew Passion" for 10 pianos or a Leroy Anderson rendition of a Mozart symphony, for Slatkin would be sure to bring it to Washington, to beguile us with its perceived "novelty."

The program began with the world premiere of "Sacred Heart: Explosion," a work by the young American composer Jefferson Friedman that was commissioned by the NSO. Friedman took his inspiration from the life of an eccentric Chicagoan named Henry Darger, whom the composer refers to as an "orphan, janitor, recluse, devout Christian." Darger left a 15,000-page epic novel and some gigantic scroll illustrations of selected scenes from the book when he died in 1973.

Friedman is a student of John Corigliano and already an eloquent composer when he settles down and expands on one of the many ideas that pass through his head. Some of the slow music for winds was downright lustrous and I suspect will stand up to repeated hearings. Still, on a first encounter, much of "Sacred Heart: Explosion" seemed diffuse and self-consciously eclectic. It is built in layers, every dissonance alleviated by the balm of some quick consonance, as though Friedman were trying not to lose his audience by straying too far from expectations.

Still, if "Sacred Heart: Explosion" ultimately comes off as pastiche, it is at least pastiche with truly eloquent moments. I want to hear more from Friedman, and soon. The performance was committed and colorful.

The program will be repeated this afternoon at 1:30 and tomorrow night at 8. Who knows? This may be your last chance to hear Beethoven-Mahler for quite some time, for one has to assume that the NSO's next music director will trust Beethoven -- of all people! -- enough to let him make his own case.

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