I went to hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s first program of 2015 at Strathmore for one reason: I so much enjoyed hearing Nicholas McGegan conduct “Messiah” with the National Symphony Orchestra in December that I was eager to hear Saturday night whether, and how, he might similarly reanimate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
The Beethoven was a much harder challenge. McGegan is an early-music specialist; “Messiah,” to him, is mother’s milk. Beethoven’s Ninth is on a different scale, and it’s usually presented as a towering and massive orchestral work with the concept of “masterpiece” erected forbiddingly around it. Seldom is it slimmed down — certainly not to the degree that McGegan attempted: staccato brass kisses in place of usually stentorian notes, and long, limpid phrases in lieu of bombast.
It was a more ambitious venture, and it didn’t always work, particularly in the early movements, but the payoff in the fourth and final movement was so spectacular that in the end, my hopes were rewarded.
The evening’s programming was an example of the kind of thoughtful, detail-oriented and unusual vision that McGegan exemplifies. The Ninth is such a monumental piece that it’s hard to know what to pair it with. The BSO had the bright idea of offering some less-known Beethoven, plus a Haydn piece, that both showed unfamiliar sides of the composers and gave the chorus a little more to do. There’s a delightful audacity in prefacing the weighty Ninth with one of Beethoven’s slenderer works, the overture to “King Stephen,” which is built around an ingratiating little tune that sounds like a classical music box.
All that worked better on paper, though, than in the realization, because the works weren’t all that great — and neither, in one case, was the performance. The overture was followed by “The Storm,” which Haydn wrote in tacit response to a London critic who said he hadn’t yet shown his prowess as a composer for voices. Composers often love writing storm scenes, and Haydn had fun with this one, but it dragged a bit in McGegan’s muted reading.
And something simply didn’t work in the performance of Beethoven’s “Opferlied,” for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra. Mary Phillips, though a fine singer, was hard to hear; the brass and winds plodded as though someone were literally counting out the beats; and despite the committed singing of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, the whole thing never sounded as if it had come together.
By the time the Ninth began, then, my confidence in McGegan was somewhat shaken. Entrances throughout the evening were messy, and his batonless beat seemed not altogether clear to the players. And the lighter, leaner Ninth on which he and the players embarked didn’t, at first, convince me. I’m not sure it convinced all the players, either — certainly not the brass, who seemed to struggle.
Sometimes the lightness was welcome; but I didn’t feel that McGegan, having stripped away some of the piece’s familiar rhetoric, always offered something equally compelling with which to replace it. The scherzo, for instance, opened with elasticity and bounce, but grew, to my ear, repetitive because it was unvaried — although I was intrigued, in the third movement, to perceive a Mozartean quality in the long, melodic lines and punctuating chords that I don’t always hear.
The fourth movement opened with what sounded like a brief blast of chaos. But then it found its feet and gradually, compellingly, delivered on all the earlier hints with promise, from the entrance of the famous theme in the low strings, which sounded like something entirely new.
McGegan is also, clearly, a gifted conductor of singers. The chorus shone for him throughout; and the four soloists, perhaps for the first time in my experience, all looked as though they were really feeling “Freude,” joy, as they prepared to sing, responding to some facial cue from the podium that was concealed from the audience.
He was supported, especially, by Andrew Foster-Williams, who opened the bass-baritone line not like a pompous oratorio singer, but like a character in an opera — speaking to the audience, drawing us in, making the words mean something. Foster-Williams was the anchor of a decent quartet of singers: the tenor Thomas Cooley making a big and only slightly strained sound, Phillips holding her own, and the soprano Katie Van Kooten soaring prettily over the top.
By conducting the whole piece on a slightly smaller scale, McGegan left room for this vocal conclusion to have the kind of effect it was meant to, thundering out of the heavens, imposing without shouting. The only shouts came from the audience members, who jumped to their feet in wild applause as soon as the piece was over.
Nicholas McGegan returns to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in February to conduct a program of music by three Bachs.