Beethoven's Ninth by the AASO
Scaling the peaks of Western art
I've heard the Ann Arbor Symphony play Beethoven's Ninth Symphony twice, and both times I was blown away.
The first was in September 1988, under music director Carl St. Clair, and it was truly hair-raising. This was only a few years after the orchestra turned professional, and though paid players plus a talented and ambitious conductor certainly helped, it was only in the finale that they got on top of the piece. But in that finale--a setting for soloists, chorus, and orchestra of Schiller's "Ode to Joy"--St. Clair and the orchestra took flight, and joy resounded in the Michigan Theater for the space of about half an hour.
The second was in September 2002, under the current music director, Arie Lipsky, and it was truly thrilling. Lipsky took the job after the departure of the talented and ambitious but demanding Sam Wong, and Lipsky's dedication and musicality plus the orchestra's much improved technique created a performance that left me and those near me at the Michigan Theater reduced to tears of joy.
Will it happen again September 15 when Lipsky and the Symphony perform the Ninth in Hill Auditorium? It'll certainly sound better. Superb a venue as the Michigan Theater is for movies and concerts from blues to folk to jazz to rock, its acoustics are less well suited for classical music than Hill Auditorium, arguably one of the Midwest's best classical music halls. In previous Hill performances, the hall gave the symphony's sound a warmth, clarity, and bloom that the theater can't match. And at more than twice the size, Hill allows far more ticket sales, always a good thing for revenue.
Beyond the sound, what'll happen? Lipsky remains a very musical conductor, and his reappointment to another five years as the symphony's music director last year shows his dedication. But as his decade here has shown, Lipsky is infrequently an inspiring leader. His performances are rarely marred by ragged ensemble but only occasionally show inspired playing, and both
are necessary for the Ninth's technically difficult and emotionally demanding finale. And though Lipsky's interpretations are almost always direct and effective, they too often lack depth and passion. Most importantly, the first time Lipsky led Beethoven's Ninth here, he was new to town and had something to prove; does he still?
And how about the orchestra? Though the core is solid and the principals are generally excellent, they sounded scrawny and scrappy at the edges for awhile after the departures of Borders' and Pfizer's underwriting money. They rebuilt last season and proved it by playing tough repertoire well. But Beethoven's Ninth isn't just tough repertoire; it's one of the peaks of Western art, and it'll take more than musicality, dedication, and technique to bring it off. It'll take inspiration and joy. Do Lipsky and the symphony have it in them?
[Originally published in September, 2012.]