Monday night's Oregon Symphony concert ended a monumental (yet unplanned) festival that somehow combined the feel of wake, party, and pilgrimage for folks who packed themselves into back-to-back-to-back sold out halls. Beethoven's universally venerated Ninth Symphony dominated the program, but the 3-day homestand was also marked by Grammy hopes and Jimmy memories: James DePreist, the band's previous music director, died Friday morning. The charismatic maestro occupied the podium for 23 years, ushering Portland's orchestra onto the world stage while simultaneously charming everyone within city limits. Scattered flowers, memorial guest books, and spoken tributes made the love from players and patrons palpable, and the scheduled Hindemith overture was respectfully replaced with Gustav Mahler's beloved Adagietto - a gorgeous meditation on strings and harp - to open the evening's program.
After this supremely bittersweet slow movement, the stage was set for an early work by Benjamin Britten scored for full orchestra, choir, and solo tenor. Ballad of Heroes is a rarely performed work from 1939, written at the time by an up-and-coming English composer about to set sail for America with his soon-to-be lifelong lover. It would take several more years before Britten snags that first smash hit, but his heroic ballad more than hints at the beguiling mix of unexpected melody and brilliant instrumentation for which the composer would become internationally known. So well known, in fact, that the world's classical community is celebrating Britten's centenary throughout 2013, devising programs and staging festivals in his honor. Even before one note of the Ninth had sounded, memories of two musical titans flooded this listener's thoughts, and I found my heart in a place of joyful gratitude for all that Jimmy and Ben had left for all of us left behind.
Like the Shrine of Lourdes, the Kaaba of Mecca, or the Standing Stones of Orkney, the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven calls out to believers the world over: "Come!" And come they did. Well over 8,000 souls made their way to SW Broadway and Main to witness the Ninth's power firsthand - as performed under the sublime direction of a surprisingly scoreless Maestro Carlos Kalmar. [sigh] Written a full decade after #8, the Symphony No. 9 is astoundingly different music right from its first primal measures, much closer to Mahler than to Mozart in its size, scope, and song. And while much of the limelight (deservedly) shines upon its glorious climax, the 3 purely orchestral movements that precede it are as infinitely demanding of the musician as they are infinitely rewarding to the listener. After surviving the terribly Sturmy weather of the opening chapter, one is plunged directly into the second movement's wicked turbulence - a crazed waltz through some dark German forest, briefly punctuated by a comforting woodwind chamber concert. Beethoven's third movement? Dear. God. Pure acoustic tenderness, accentuated by tiny moments of triumph and terror that only underline the composer's unforeseen compassion and warmth. [sigh] With 40 minutes of music already behind us, we were brought to the choral finale's transcendent threshold - an epic closing movement that seems to encapsulate and proclaim all that is good and noble in Art.
From the thickest string of the bass to the upper registers of sopranos everywhere, these are towering tones capable of breaking down walls and uniting neighbors. Perhaps most miraculous of all, the Götterfunken of Beethoven's Ninth reminds everyone who has ears to hear, that even in the midst of rampant poverty, political corruption, and a long history of massacres at home and abroad, human beings are equally capable of peaceful creation. A decent reminder, indeed.