“What’s the big deal?” my phantom skeptic asked. “You’d think nobody ever played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony before.”
Bingo. That’s just how it felt. Maestro Timothy Muffitt and the orchestra have stripped the varnish from plenty of old warhorses in their time, but the Ninth, with its “Ode to Joy” finale, was a unique logistical and cultural challenge.
Fresh? It smelled like the wood had just been cut. In fact, timpani man Andrew Spencer seemed to be hewing it before our eyes.
Making the first movement strange again, as it must have sounded in 1824, Muffitt and the orchestra rolled out raw slabs of sound, inchoate and faceless, then carved them into human shape with shocking force and unexpected delicacy.
And so it went, through the massive tunnel excavation of the first movement, the bustling, chugging construction work of the second and the restful idyll of the slow movement, all the way to the promised land — a Utopian choral finale that went far beyond a reassuring group hug. The “Ode to Joy” was meant to give all seven billion human beings on Earth a simultaneous orgasm.
Maybe someday we won’t need to buy tickets.
Three massive MSU choirs joined to give sublime voice to the climactic choral movement. Drawing, perhaps, on the cyclotron across the street for reserve energy, they sent relentless waves of high and loud notes into the ether with admirable control and horizon-spanning power.
But Beethoven’s Ninth doesn’t stand or fall on big gestures.
Despite an exhausting salvo of Olympian brass declamations, serpentine writhing in the string section, ominous brow-furrowing in the basses and bludgeoning lightning from Spencer, hundreds of tiny details could be heard threading vividly through the ever-shifting panorama. There was bassoonist Michael Kroth curling like a purple streamer in a sonic wind tunnel. More than once, oboist Jan Eberle danced delicately on the thunderheads.
It was a special thrill when the music grew hushed and Spencer hit the skins softly, like a Viking putting a fine finish on a child’s doll with his broad axe.
It’s no mean feat to freshen up music this famous. Over the years, the Ninth has been appropriated, repurposed and kidnapped by artists and ideologues of every stripe.
It has been embraced by Communists and Catholics, German nationalists and French republicans, American liberals and conservatives. (“Beethoven’s Ninth,” a 1999 study by Esteban Buch, follows the bouncing football in fascinating detail.)
The Ninth is so powerful — and malleable — that prisoners in Nazi concentration camps played it for consolation and Hitler celebrated his birthdays with it. Stanley Kubrick ushered in the Ninth’s ironic phase, spray-painting it with punk cruelty in “A Clockwork Orange.” Leonard Bernstein conducted a famous post-ironic performance near the newly shattered Berlin Wall, replacing the word “joy” with “freedom.”
Can music so prone to appropriation by everybody and his Führer mean anything at all anymore?
Muffitt’s approach was to leave all of that baggage in the cargo hold and party like it’s 1824 — a simple yet powerful solution.
The maestro has long been out of the closet as a proponent of Beethoven’s underappreciated teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn. That makes him ideally suited to show how Beethoven disrupted Haydn’s orderly dance movements and classical decorum with a new, raw, bursting-at-the-seams experience. And yet, despite the music’s drastic extremes, you could still feel the inner dance moves, the candle-lit minuets and gavottes of the world Beethoven inherited.
Never mind Kubrick, the Nazis, the Berlin Wall and all that. Friday’s performance was firmly rooted in the horse manure, splinters, dripping wax and noble parchments and proclamations of the early 19th century.
Far from post-ironic, Friday’s Ninth was pre-ironic. It takes a lot of work to strip the distracting layers, but Beethoven’s Ninth still matters. It even gave a jaded November 2016 audience license to yearn for peace, brotherhood and joy, straight up and without shame.
In the midst of the finale’s choral tumult, the whole shebang stopped for a silly, drunken procession, with dings from the triangle and oom-pahs from the cellos. The precision of Friday’s performance only added to the fun. That’s where Beethoven pulled the sublime nimbus from the “Ode to Joy” anthem and revealed it as a simple drinking ditty. No wonder everybody wants a piece of the Ninth.
Humor wasn’t Beethoven’s strongest suit — nor is it Muffitt’s — but that moment stood out among many Friday night, like the wine spill or tuxedo rip at a wedding you end up remembering more fondly than the most earnest exchange of vows.