Ode to Joy

A very busy week for me ended with a very busy Friday including a postgraduate induction event followed by our annual postgaduate conference. It was actually a very enjoyable day with some really excellent talks by research students about their ongoing projects, but by the end of the afternoon I was definitely flagging.

Fortunately I’d planned a reward at the end of this week in the form of a concert at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC National Chorus of Wales with conductor Thierry Fischer. I bought a group of tickets for myself and some colleagues from work, hoping that it would prove an uplifting experience. We weren’t disappointed.

Before the interval (of which more anon) we heard On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams. Written as a response to the events of September 11th  2001, this is an unusual composition involving orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, and pre-recorded tape. Opinions about this piece are generally pretty divided and that also proved to be the case with the half-a-dozen of us who attended last night. All thought the orchestral music was very good indeed, but some found the recorded bits intrusive and the text, which includes phrases from missing-persons posters and memorials posted around Ground Zero to be a mixture of the banal and the mawkish. I wasn’t as negative about these aspects as some seem to have been, but at the same time I didn’t feel the pre-recorded segments actually added very much and they did sometimes make it difficult to hear the subtle textures in the orchestra. And as for the text being “banal”, that seems to me to be entirely the point. It’s the everdayness of loss that makes grief so overwhelming.

Anyway, I thought it was a fascinating  piece and it’s definitely the first time I’ve seen the violin section of an orchestra come on stage with two violins each. Some passages call for altered tunings, so they swapped instruments regularly throughout the performance. The orchestra played wonderfully well, I should say, and the performance was warmly received by the audience.

Then came the interval, during which the fire alarm went off and we had to evacuate the concert hall. Fortunately it was a sultry evening – we’re in the midst of an early autumn heatwave here –  and it wasn’t at all unpleasant to get a bit of fresh air while they figured out what had caused the alarm.

When we got back in it became obvious that quite a few people had left, possibly because they thought the performance wouldn’t resume. Those that didn’t return missed an absolute treat.

I’m not even going to attempt a description of  Beethoven’s  “Choral” Symphony No. 9 in D Minor. Suffice to say that it’s one of the pinnacles of human achievement, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Beethoven was profoundly deaf when it was written. It’s a masterpiece of such dimensions that words are completely unnecessary to describe it, even if one could find words that were appropriate in the first place.  Moreover, I think it’s a piece you really have to hear live for it to really live. Our seats were almost at the front of the stalls, very near the stage and close enough for me to to be able to feel the fortissimo passages through the soles of my feet. Perhaps that’s the only way Beethoven himself ever heard this piece?

And as for last night’s performance, what can I say? The first, Allegro, movement, an entire symphony in itself, found the orchestra at the very peak of its collective prowess. Their playing was passionate and vivid, yet tightly disciplined and the orchestra seemed to be pervaded by a sense that it was an absolute privilege to be playing an undisputed masterpiece. I was so carried away that at the end of that movement an involuntary tear fell from my eye.

I’ll just add one other observation about this piece, concerning the final movement, based around Beethoven’s setting of parts of Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy to which Beethoven himself added some material.  This is so famous that I suspect it’s the only part of the symphony that many people have heard. Hearing it in the context of the entire work, however, makes it all the more dramatic and inspirational. It’s not just that you have to wait so long for the choir (who have been sitting patiently behind the orchestra for three movements) to let rip, but also that you’ve experienced so much wonderful music by the time you get there that the final is virtually guaranteed to leave you completely overwhelmed.

Sincerest thanks to Thierry Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales for an absolutely unforgettable experience. Uplifting? Not half!

P.S. The performance was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on October 3rd 2011 in Afternoon on 3  and will presumably be on iPlayer for a week after that. Do listen to it if you get the chance. Even if only a small  fraction of the atmosphere inside St David’s Hall makes its way into the airwaves then it will still be worth a listen..

3 Responses to “Ode to Joy”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    An interesting question to ask people is what they think is the greatest ever human achievement. Some people will say landing people on the Moon, the formulation of the theory of relativity, the writing of Newton’s Principia, or the painting of the Mona Lisa.

    I tend to answer that the greatest human achievement was the writing of the Choral Symphony.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    The building of the mediaeval cathedrals, a stupendous engineering and cultural (although not IMHO religious) achievement. They still look huge today in an era of skyscrapers. Imagine how they looked then.

  3. telescoper Says:

    I’d put Bach’s St Matthew Passion up there along with the Choral Symphony as works which are simply off the scale, such is their overwhelming scale and emotional impact.

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