Friday, July 18, 2008

First Concert in Cornerstone

Belated ruminations on the June 16 opening concert at Colorado College’s Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center...

Barber’s Knoxville Summer of 1915: Soprano Tony Arnold filled in admirably on short notice for an indisposed Measha Brueggesman. The student orchestra sounded radiant, and conductor Scott Yoo’s pacing was perfect. I don’t expect ever to hear a more moving performance of this exquisitely nostalgic score.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9: I had some trepidation going in. I’d heard Yoo conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 a few years back, and it was everything I dislike about modern Beethoven conducting, with all suppleness, tenderness and expressive weight sacrificed to speed and nervous energy. (It was exciting!) But there were only echoes of this approach in the 9th Symphony, mostly in the first movement, during which the relentless forward momentum became tiresome. Otherwise, Yoo’s interpretation was brilliant, and in the adagio, revelatory.

Beethoven was the first composer to make extensive use of the metronome – a device for giving exact tempos in beats per minute in contrast to the old generalized tempos of allegro, andante, etc. But many of his markings are controversial – and none more so than his marking for this movement. At quarter-note equals sixty beats a minute, it’s quite brisk for a piece marked adagio molto y cantabile, and he curiously gives the same metronome mark a page later when the tempo designation of andante moderato suggests something considerably faster. The most probable explanation is that Beethoven wanted the pulse to be a half-note in the opening section, but a quarter-note in the andante.

But the second-most probable explanation is that Beethoven muffed the initial metronome mark. And so, until a couple of decades ago, conductors routinely ignored it. For instance, the legendary 1942 broadcast with Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic has an opening tempo of a little less than half what Beethoven specified – about 58 beats per eighth-note - and lasts a tad over 20 minutes.

The problem with Beethoven’s metronome mark generally arises about two-thirds of the way through the movement, where the music returns to B-flat and the time signature changes to 12/8. At the faster tempo, the first violin part - first in 16th-notes and then in 16th-note triplets – tends to sound unnervingly etude-like. Yoo solved the problem by putting in practice an idea suggested by musicologist Richard Taruskin years ago (though Yoo is smart enough to have thought of it on his own): He had the violins play pianissimo, underneath the hymn-like theme in the woodwinds. Instead of an etude, the violin line became a joyful commentary.

Yoo didn’t convince me that the faster tempo is better. With music this beautiful, I’d prefer to prolong the experience, at least when musicians can sustain the line like Furtwangler and the BPO could. But unlike other performances I’ve heard at this tempo, this one worked, and worked marvelously.

Unlike the first and third movements, Yoo’s approach to the second and fourth movements was more traditional – or rather, the traditional tempos of these movements differ little from Beethoven’s metronome markings. The weakest movement was the famous finale. Yoo’s architectural grasp deserted him midway through, and the movement became sectional – a series of scenes rather than an integrated whole.

But all in all it was an amazing experience to hear how well this epic symphony worked with the Colorado College Summer Music Festival's pared-down forces. The Colorado Vocal Arts Ensemble performed the difficult chorus part near-perfectly, and mezzo soprano Shannon McGee and bass Ashraf Sewailam led the strong quartet of vocal soloists. The student performers, nearly all of whom were playing their first Beethoven 9th, held nothing back, with especially stellar work from the woodwind players.

The tunable hall sounded great, though I’ll have to hear some other performances before commenting.


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