What work in the repertoire could get Symphony Silicon Valley to give four performances instead of its usual two or three? Why, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, of course. And as soon as Scott Bearden stood up to deliver his opening solo, "O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!" on Saturday evening, it was clear why San Jose's California Theatre was full. He sang with as much power and clarity of articulation as any baritone in the world. It was a truly thrilling moment in a generally exciting evening.
Bearden shared the stage with other good singers. Noel Espíritu Velasco has a clear deep tenor, and enough voice to be heard over the chorus in his solo. And with soprano Barbara Quintiliani and mezzo Gigi Mitchell Velasco, they made a fine quartet, voices weaving around each other. The SSV Chorale, directed by Elena Sharkova, required by Beethoven to squeak at the top of their lungs, sounded a little off balance at moments but projected their joy and enthusiasm well from the back of the stage.
But before anybody gets to sing, the Ninth is three-plus long movements of pure orchestra. And if that's a slog, nobody’s going to care by the time they get to the vocal "Ode to Joy." But SSV has a knack for rising to the challenge on particularly grand occasions, and this was one of them. Not a revelatory reinventing interpretation nor even one with particular dazzle, it was just a solid, involving performance under the cool, clear beat of guest conductor Fabio Mechetti. Tempos were generally slow, but forward motion was never lost; even the Adagio molto third movement never seemed to wander. Tight, short-breathed phrasing, never sinking into slurs, was of particular help here. Mecchetti was also especially careful with moving into and out of the sudden slackenings of tension that Beethoven puts near the end of the "Ode to Joy."
The players responded with color and vigor to this direction. Mysterious twangy rumblings from the cellos at the start of the first movement. Strong work from the violas and second violins playing together, as Beethoven often asks them to do here, a match for the strength and tone of the first violins. A wind section so perfectly together it was like an organ chorale, especially delicious in the sudden cut-off at the very end of the scherzo. The French horns had more difficulty, but not enough to disturb the general quality, and they displayed some good spots in the third and fourth movements.
For all its magnitude, Beethoven's Ninth is not quite long enough to make a full concert. So it was preceded by a fifteen-minute choral work by Brahms, his Schicksalslied or "Song of Destiny" from 1871. The poem by Friedrich Hölderlin almost jealously describes the bliss of Elysium and then contrasts this with the anguished plight of suffering humans. Brahms's music makes the contrast very pointed. There's almost something operatic in the way the calm, very characteristic harmonies of the opening section are succeeded by thundering quavers for the description of humans, slowly sinking into resignation and an orchestral coda returning, in a new key, to the calm of the opening. The Chorale singers did not enunciate the words, but contributed excellently to the overall onrush of sound.
This clear view of Brahms' word-painting cast new light on Beethoven's. The text of the "Ode to Joy," by Friedrich Schiller, deals with the same themes as Hölderlin's, but is far more cheerful. Yet Schiller's expression of unfettered joy is not quite undifferentiated. Listen to the slight hush Beethoven puts in at the end of the second verse, where Schiller writes of the person who has not achieved joy, and to the majestic slowness in the verse demanding worship of the Creator. Conveying emotion and meaning in music is always a challenge for composers, and it's interesting to pay attention to these two masters making their try at conveying the meanings of their chosen poems.