3 December 2007

Singing in the solo quartet of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a strange experience. It is probably one of the shortest and peculiarly demanding in the repertoire. After days of light rehearsals and hanging out in hotels, waiting through an hour or two of other repertoire and the first three movements of the Symphony, one is suddenly called upon to sing a few minutes of furiously fast and exposed high phrases. One would think it could not be a seriously difficult task, looking at the music — but there, in the heat of the moment, even the most seasoned artists lose their nerve and cool — stumble, crack, choke, or simply run out of steam. And even after a good performance you’re left in the adrenalin rush of unused energy and preparation…

This weekend I had the great fortune, not only to join a really good orchestra and chorus, a wonderful conductor (Andreas Delfs), and three splendid colleagues for this beautiful piece of music — but also an audience that was as prepared for the out-of-this-world inspiration and excitement of this music as any could be.

It was a truly beautiful program. In the first half they did the Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein, showing off the remarkable talents of a young child-soloist, Mikaela Scheider. Her singing was not only accomplished and intelligent, but absolutely calm, warm, and pure — in it’s youthfulness for sure, but also because of her gentle and sweet person. This is a really fun, poignant, and contagious piece of inspirational music — One that perfectly sets up the more serious Beethoven. It’s amazing to me how great the Ninth Symphony is. Not just because of it’s familiar theme and beautiful message, because that could easily be delivered in a more simple form — But because of the enormous depth from which he delivers this message of hope and joy. Once one arrives at the familiar theme of the last movement, and audience members start bopping their heads and smiles spread throughout the auditorium, a journey has already taken place. There is not a thread of gullible or naïve positivism in this music. It really springs forth from a deep appreciation of the choice to be alive and joyful. The choice that can only be made by people who appreciate the alternatives.


I think this program moved me especially because I have recently been so aware of how fragile the experience of joy is. Not because there is not much to be joyful about — there is! But, because mature joy is earned — not by experiencing difficulty, but that the joy one experiences is equal and in direct proportion to one’s appreciation of the possibility of choosing “not joy”. Deep joy is the function of knowing what is in contrast to it. And then, the adult choice to throw oneself wildly into the expression of joy that both singing, playing and listening to this symphony is, becomes an absolutely stirring and moving experience.

Times 4500 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in Milwaukee.