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Masterworks

2018-2019 Season / Masterworks / Beethoven’s Ninth
All performances at 7:30pm at Crouse-Hinds Concert Theater
beethoven's-ninth

LAWRENCE LOH | conductor

SYMPHORIA YOUNG ARTISTS ORCHESTRA
SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY ORATORIO SOCIETY
SYRACUSE CHORALE

 

PROGRAM:
SHOSTAKOVICH: Festive Overture with Symphoria Young Artists Orchestra
ROUSTOM: Ramal (New York premiere)
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9, Op. 125, D minor (Choral)

We close the Masterworks Series with our most spectacular concert of the season, featuring Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony. One of the most enduring icons of Western culture, the Ninth also one of the most multi-faceted; and on this concert, we precede it with two more recent works that echo different aspects of its character. Shostakovich’s Festive Overture—performed as a side-by-side with the Symphoria Young Artists Orchestra—shares the Ninth’s celebratory outlook; Kareem Roustom’s rhythmically ingenious Ramal, receiving its New York premiere, shares its internationalist spirit as well as its deep connection to poetry.

Together, the three works make an evening you won’t soon forget.

PRE-CONCERT EVENT

The Bond, Schoeneck & King Pre-Concert Talk will be held in the Banner Room on the lower level of the Civic Center, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Beethoven’s Ninth
05.18.19

7:30pm | Crouse-Hinds Concert Theater

Liszt called it “stupendous,” the musical equivalent of the Great Pyramid. Brahms was intimidated by the impossibility of living up to it. Wagner chose to perform it when the cornerstone was laid at his opera house in Bayreuth—and Wilhelm Furtwängler chose it to purge that opera house of its Nazi associations when it was reopened after the Second World War. Leonard Bernstein, conducting an international orchestra of players from Germany, France, Russia, England, and the United States, chose it to celebrate the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. The main theme of its finale has become the National Anthem of Europe. Whatever else you can say about the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), it has, over the past hundred and fifty years or so, taken on incalculable cultural weight. As conductor Larry Loh points out, of all the symphonies ever composed, this is the one that casts the “biggest shadow” on later composers. And even today, for aspiring young conductors, “conducting the Beethoven Ninth—that’s your goal.”

It was not always thus. Beethoven had already cracked open the classical symphonic tradition when he composed his Third, the “Eroica,” in 1804. Twenty years later, in the Ninth, the now-deaf composer was more audacious still, more “revolutionary” as Larry puts it, causing one early critic to complain that the finale “takes place entirely in the unhappy dwelling places of those who have fallen from heaven.” What caused the consternation? The Ninth was, by a long shot, the longest symphony with the largest orchestra (not to mention vocal soloists and chorus) written up to that time. But the Ninth was a challenge less because of its sheer scale than because of what Larry calls its frequent “twists and turns” and because of its radical musical substance. The first movement, for instance, opens starkly, apparently from the mists, with open fifths that leave us in a state of ambiguity; in the rhythmically ferocious second, as Wagner puts it, “we are carried off in a dizzying and confusing whirl.” After a vast, serene slow movement (where, Larry points out, the conductor has to find just the right tempo so that “the passages with the sextuplets have a feeling of continuous motion”), we move into the choral finale. This begins with a blaring discord, after which the orchestra introduces, and firmly rejects, the music from the earlier movements before moving on, with the singers, to a vast setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” This exultation of international unity combines soaring lyricism, vigorous dance, rigorous counterpoint (there is a huge double fugue), and beer hall good spirits in a way that seems to break apart the very idea of symphonic writing. To add to all of this, in the orchestral and vocal writing, Beethoven was pushing the limits of what players could do. To give just one example: since, as timpanist Jeff Grubbs points out, Beethoven was “implementing innovations in orchestral timpani performance,” audiences at the time would never have heard a part as demanding as this one.

Over the years, the symphony has become less threatening to listeners, but it hasn’t lost its power. The drive of the second movement still has its dynamism; and even with familiarity, the finale is as uplifting as ever. Indeed, for all the flashy opportunities for challenging solo timpani work in the Scherzo, Jeff’s favorite moment to play comes in the finale, when he enters with the trumpets after the main theme has been announced by the strings: “Beethoven is here celebrating the best, most affirmative place to be emotionally within the realm of human existence.” No wonder that, even nearly two centuries later, any performance of the Ninth is more than just a “performance”—it’s an occasion. And it raises the question—what can you perform with it? Sometimes, it’s simply played on its own. Sometimes, it’s coupled with Beethoven’s First (to give an image of how far he came as a symphonist) or with his Fantasy for piano, chorus, and orchestra, which served as a rough draft for the Ninth. Tonight, we take a different tack, drawing on the symphony’s celebratory spirit, its internationalism, and its incorporation of poetry.

We open the concert with the Festive Overture by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Originally composed in 1947 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, it wasn’t performed until 1954. Unlike other Shostakovich works that were kept under wraps for their musical or ideological transgressions, however, this piece is musically straight-forward and apparently apolitical. Inspired in part by Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila Overture, it opens with a stately fanfare that seems to announce a work of some gravity. In fact, though, the fanfare is a modified version of the opening of a whimsical piece from his Children’s Notebook called “Birthday,” and in the Overture, it leads to a jolt of irrepressible forward energy that is more likely to remind you of the Keystone Kops than the Kremlin. The piece has become one of Shostakovich’s most popular, but it’s usually heard without the optional extra brass parts he throws in. Tonight, with the assistance of the Symphoria Youth Orchestra, you’ll have a rare chance to hear it in its full glory.

Energy of a different sort is heard in Ramal, composed in 2014 by the Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom (b. 1971), and receiving its New York premiere tonight. Ramal fits well with the Beethoven Ninth in two ways. First, there is its humanist spirit. Dedicated to the memory of Palestinian literary scholar, public intellectual, and music critic Edward Said, it was commissioned by Daniel Barenboim for his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a group that gives Arab, Palestinian, and Israeli musicians a chance to work together as equals, to see each other outside the “prism of war” that might otherwise dominate their interactions. Ramal is not explicitly programmatic, but, says the composer, “its emotional drive and changing meters reflect the unsettled state of the world, specifically the devastating current situation in Syria.”

Those “changing meters” point to a second connection to Beethoven. Like the Ninth, it’s got a poetic inspiration—in this case, poetic rhythm rather than poetic text. “Ramal,” Roustom tells us, “is the name of one of sixteen pre-Islamic Arabic poetic meters used in classical Arabic poetry,” which, translated into musical terms, becomes a shifting metrical structure of 7 beats, 8 beats, 5 beats, and 8 beats. This pattern serves as the scaffolding of the piece—although Ramal is characterized by color as much as by rhythm, and you’re as likely to be enraptured by its contemplative beauty as you are to be caught up in its rhythmic force.

Peter J. Rabinowitz

Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org

Artist Information:

Laurel Semerdjian

Laurel Semerdjian, an American mezzo-soprano of Armenian descent, has recently been hailed as "a dramatic and musical tour de force" (Pittsburgh Tribune) for her portrayal of Asakir in Pittsburgh Opera's production of Mohammed Fairouz's Sumeida's Song. Her voice has been praised for its "guttural low notes" (Pittsburgh Post Gazette) and "appealing weight, intensity and flexibility".

During the 2017–2018 season, Ms. Semerdjian looks ahead to returning to both Sarasota Opera, as Flora in La traviata, and Syracuse Opera, as Suzuki in Madama Butterfly. She makes company debuts with St. Petersburg Opera (Florida) as Dritte Dame in Die Zauberflöte, with Pittsburgh's Resonance Works as Ježibaba in Rusalka, and with Washington Concert Opera as a guest soloist in their Opera's Greatest Heroines gala concert. She will also perform both Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and Haydn's Mass in Time of War with Washington DC's Cathedral Choral Society at the Washington National Cathedral. In the 2018–2019 season, Ms. Semerdjian looks forward to rejoining Pittsburgh Opera as Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, rejoining Tacoma Opera for her debut in the title role of The Rape of Lucretia, and performing with Syracuse's Symphoria as mezzo soloist in Haydn's Mass in Time of War and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

Ms. Semerdjian made several significant role debuts throughout the 2016–2017 season. In her return to Bellevue City Opera she performed her first Dorabella in Così fan tutte, and in October 2016 she made her Syracuse Opera debut as Tisbe in La Cenerentola. In early 2017, Ms. Semerdjian returned to Sarasota Opera for her initial performances of the role of Suzuki in Madama Butterfly. She also made her Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra debut with her first performances of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

Ms. Semerdjian has recently fulfilled two seasons as a Resident Artist with Pittsburgh Opera (2014–2016). Her responsibilities included performances of the roles of Mother Goose in The Rake’s Progress, Meg in Little Women, Gertrude Stein in Ricky Ian Gordon's opera 27, Fenena in Nabucco, Emilia in Otello, Eduige in Rodelinda, Asakir in Sumeida's Song, and covering the title role of Carmen. In the summer of 2015 she performed the role of Cherubino in Bellevue City Opera's inaugural production of Le nozze di Figaro, and in the summer of 2014 she performed the role of Mercédès in Carmen as a Vocal Fellow at Music Academy of the West, under the guidance of legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne. As an Apprentice Artist with Sarasota Opera, she covered the role of Inez in the company's winter 2014 production of Il trovatore.

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