H & H's "Symphony No.9": Owed to Joyous Music

Conductor Masaaki Suzuki & Principals in "Symphony No.9"
(photo: Handel & Haydn Society)
It no doubt came as a surprise to Handel & Haydn Society audiences this past weekend to read that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony didn't even exist when H&H was founded; when the composer did write what would be his final symphonic work, H&H had already been around for almost a decade. Though it's been about fifteen seasons since it last appeared on their schedule, its return was eagerly awaited, especially given the orchestra's goal to recreate the piece as close to its original form and instrumentation as possible. This meant, among other things, that their performance of the work would entail no fewer than four French horns, and a contrabassoon of impressive proportions, portending a significant program.

First on the docket was a delightful curtain raiser, the relatively brief Symphony No.104 in D Major, better known as the “London Symphony”, written by Joseph Haydn in 1795, the year that Beethoven made his first public appearance in Vienna. A good companion piece for the Beethoven in its structure and feeling, it incorporates folk-inspired melodies, with its four movements developing from a fanfare to a shifting between major and minor (a technique for which Haydn would become famous), to a celebratory minuet passage invoking country dance to a final movement with the feel of a faster dance. Under the direction of Conductor Masaaki Suzuki, it clearly accomplished the composer's intent, as the program notes, to seize upon an idea and then developing and sustaining it so that it stays in the mind of an audience.

The same could be said for the main event of the concert, a perfect way to describe the Beethoven. Fascinated by the Friedrich Schiller poem An die Freude (“Joy”), Beethoven was driven to express in musical terms the emotions expressed in the source material. From the first of its four movements one is drawn into his music with its open intervals, followed by what can only be called tempestuous passion, then by the slower meditative section and ultimately the “Ode to Joy”, which of course included the remarkable H&H Chorus and four stellar turns by the principals, soprano Joelle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, tenor Tom Randle and bass-baritone Dashon Burton. Harvey's contribution especially stood out, given her last-minute substitution. But all were well up to the demands of the music, eliciting a thunderous justly-earned standing ovation the likes of which has rarely so rocked Symphony Hall. Suzuki was about as dynamic and expressive as one could imagine, and Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, with her typical ferocious attack, merely added to her already well-established reputation as H&H's not-so-secret weapon, perhaps the company's greatest gift to Boston.
Though of course neither was aware of the irony, these two works would prove to be the last symphonies each one was to compose; much would prove to be owed to this joyous music.

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