They'll be needing a new roof at London's venerable Royal Festival Hall. That's because Maestro Benjamin Zander and Britain's best classical ensembles, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Philharmonia Chorus, blew a hole in that roof with their historic, hopelessly sold out performance Saturday night of Beethoven's Ninth, closing with the Ode to Joy. The audience was so deeply enthralled that they failed to mind their British manners and actually gave warm and unexpected rounds of applause after each of the first two movements. And then they gave a seemingly unending standing ovation, quite rare for a British audience, dragging the conductor and soloists back on stage repeatedly, because they knew they had experienced a once-in-a-lifetime affair. Zander brought home the combined orchestral and choral forces, numbering over 200 instrumentalists and singers, in a record 58 minutes -- far below the stolid 65 to 82 minutes of most performances. The reason for the timing – Zander's 35 years of studying Beethoven's Ninth and his conviction that most conductors and music historians in some crucial respects completely misunderstand Beethoven's true intentions. The metronome had just been invented prior to the composition of the Ninth, and Beethoven instantly embraced it. Here was the tool allowing him to indicate his precise intentions for each moment of every composition.
And yet, conductors routinely ignore his tempi, turning the piece into a lugubrious production the composer never intended. In 10 different places, copying errors, complications, or the ego of conductors who believed they knew better than Beethoven have led to the enshrinement of what Zander believes is an entirely inaccurate pace for the piece. Last night, therefore, represented the combination of half a lifetime of research by Zander. The results thrilled the listeners. The recording he made earlier this month with the same orchestra and chorus might well become the new standard by which all other performances of Beethoven's Ninth are judged. I write these words not as a critic but as a participant. My home group is the Tanglewood Festival chorus, which sings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Maestro Zander and the powers that be in the Philharmonia Chorus afforded me the unique opportunity to sing in the performance as part of that world-class group.
From my perch in the fourth row of the choral balcony, stage left, I was able to watch the audience listening with fascination to the often-caffeinated, always Beethoven-friendly tempi Zander demanded. It was easy to see that the audience was quickly won over by Zander's approach, novel for our times but almost certainly what Beethoven himself had intended.
Remarkably, the audience of 2,900 did something Beethoven never could – they actually heard the piece whose composer never had the fortune to hear, because of his deafness. Ideally, when you attend a concert, you come away somewhat changed by the power of the beauty of the music you heard. This time, not just the audience but the music world itself will be different, and wiser, because almost 200 years after Beethoven composed the Ninth Symphony, it was surely, finally performed just as he had always intended, down to the smallest detail. For Zander, a triumph. For the audience, an opportunity to witness music history in the making. For Beethoven, vindication. For this embedded chorister, a night I'll never forget.