On 21 July, the stage of Whangarei’s Capitaine Bougainville Theatre will be creaking under the combined weight of around 130 talented people, all hell-bent on giving an unforgettable performance of Beethoven’s mighty Ninth Symphony.
It was a happy coincidence that the Auckland Youth Orchestra invited the Auckland Youth Choir to take part because, according to AYC chairman Warwick Harvey, “After a successful Mozart Requiem in 2011, our conductor Rostislava Pankova-Karadjov was keen to develop further opportunities to perform with an orchestra. However,” he admitted, "the Beethoven ideally requires a larger choral force than the AYC.”
Rather than simply cadged reinforcements from other Auckland choirs, AYC decided to invite singers local to each venue. This way, not only are the numbers boosted, but also there's the added bonus of actively involving local communities.
AYC plucked their collaborators out of the hat of the NZCF listings. Opera North “won the draw” for the Whangarei performance. As Joan Kennaway said, “The invitation came right out of the blue. It’s a nerve-tingling opportunity.” Since early May, Joan has been rehearsing her ad hoc chorus of around 25 singers twice weekly. “They are all very keen! This is, for most of them, their first opportunity to tackle such a major piece. For the younger ones it’s also their very first German work. We are lucky that tenor Tony Clemmow, who happens to be a German language scholar, is acting as language coach.”
So, what’s all the fuss about? Well, just about every man-jack and his sister knows the “Ode to Joy”, which has graced venues ranging from concert halls to sports stadia and beyond, and has been adopted as the anthem of the European Union (a pity, then, that more of them don’t hearken to its import!). I’d guess that rather fewer know that it comes from the finale of this symphony, that fewer still will have heard it in its original form, even as an extract on a “greatest hits” album, and far fewer can claim to “know” the whole work.
The symphony is undeniably influential, but it always was, and remains, controversial. It is at one extreme dismissed as an abject failure, at the other acclaimed as the greatest music ever written. Of course, many love it, but even then not always unequivocally – Dominy Clements, in a recent MusicWeb International CD review, described it as, “...an alchemic artistic wonder, somehow created from a long string of musical banalities.”
But what some perceive as “flaws” are in fact mostly cracks in the crust of convention, sundered by the force of Beethoven’s creative originality. The “Choral” is like a stick of rock – one with the word “genius” running right through it. As the diffuse, disembodied opening coalesces into the imperious opening theme, so the music tightens its grip on the listener’s attention.
The commanding first movement, music with a seething sonic maelstrom at its heart, evolves with organic inevitability; the second, skipping with fugal vivacity, startlingly punctuated by rude tympani, is a model of neoclassical poise; the third a sequence of serene yet mobile variations on two unutterably lovely themes.
The huge finale starts with a vivid drama, of the composer searching for the best way to express what he wants to say, a drama whose dénouement elevates the “Ode to Joy” theme from the instrumental into an exalted vocal domain. Yet, the real wonder isn’t the tune itself, but the mesmerising cavalcade of variations, both choral and orchestral, wrought on it in the course of the concluding twenty minutes.
If you haven’t already, the best way to make up your own mind is to experience it in the flesh. Considering the superb job that Antun Poljanich and the AYO made of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony last year, I fully expect that, together with AYC, ON Chorus, and the four soloists, we can fully expect them to play another, even bigger blinder this year.