So far as I could tell, the woman sitting next to me at the Ann Arbor Symphony’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth trembled, smiled, cried, and finally simply levitated out of her seat. I couldn’t really stare at her because it would have been rude, and, being a critic, I was paid to pay attention to the music and not the audience. Besides, I had tears in my eyes and couldn’t focus that far.
Although I might quibble about this or that interpretive detail, I think the woman sitting next to me got the point. How else could one react to a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, the greatest piece of music ever written? Beethoven said that the opening movement reminded us of our despair, and the AASO was terrifying in its merciless malevolence. Beethoven said that the Scherzo was a joke, and the symphony’s relentless rhythmic tattoo was hilarious. Beethoven thought that the sublime Adagio was a dream of ideal earthly beauty, and the orchestra’s lush woodwinds and luminous strings were Venus rising from the sea. And Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” demands that all people “will be brothers” and that “beyond the starry firmament a loving father must surely dwell,” and the Ann Arbor Symphony’s performance did indeed raise us beyond the starry firmament to the fields of Elysium.
It wasn’t perfect. For me, conductor Arie Lipsky’s tempos were a bit too fast in the opening movement, a bit too quick in the Adagio, and a bit too frenzied in the later pages of the finale. At Lipsky’s tempo, the wonderful University Choral Union could not quite articulate the choral fugue after Beethoven’s vision of heaven, and the splendid soloists’ rapturous cadenza was too brief to seduce the audience. But these are quibbles. Under Lipsky the AASO sounds better than ever: the accuracy and warmth of the strings is amazing, the color and clarity of the woodwinds astounding, the precision and power of the brass and percussion astonishing, and the unity of the whole breathtaking. Whatever faults I might find in details of Lipsky’s interpretation, I could not complain about the overall quality of the performance.
Arie Lipsky leads the Ann Arbor Symphony in its popular annual Mozart Birthday Bash at the Michigan Theater on Saturday, January 18.