Conductor Tatsuya Shimono led the 2018-19 season finale of Symphony Silicon Valley on Saturday, June 1, at the California Theatre. The program featured choral music by Dvorak and Beethoven, featuring guest soloists and the gifted Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale, whose Music Director is Elena Sharkova. Besides the rarely performed 1891Te Deum of Antonin Dvorak, the powerful draw came in the form of Beethoven’s mighty 1824 Ninth Symphony, the “Choral.” Among the pedestals of Western Music, this last symphony of Beethoven casts a perpetual spell over performers and auditors alike, compelling us to examine the very foundations of the musical art.
Having been invited to New York City in 1891 by Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, an American philanthropist and music aficionado, to be the director of the recently established National Conservatory of Music, Dvorak accepted the commission to compose a cantata celebrating the 400thanniversary of Columbus Day. The text for the work –- a poem entitled The American Flag — however, failed to arrive in time for Dvorak to set it. However, he had already set the traditional Latin hymn Te Deum Laudamus, a celebration of God that no less contains those pantheistic elements — bird calls and rustic, Czech folk tunes — that simultaneously embrace earthly pleasures in life which deserve praise.
Soprano Amanda Kingston and bass Jeremy Galyon collaborated in this festive undertaking, adding the same colors that Brahms had utilized for his A German Requiem. The opening chorus alone projected a colossal, joyful noise unto the Lord, with blazing tympani, triangle, cymbals, and bass drum, all involved in a sustained G Major chord. Bass Galyon then proclaimed, Thou art the King of Glory, intensifying bucolic pageantry of the woodwind and string figures. With the soprano aria, . . .our trust is in thee,/ O Lord, in thee have I trusted,the plea assumed a Verdian character, as dramatic as it remained lyric. Kingston and Galyon then formed a dazzling duet in tandem with the Chorus to exalt The Holy Spirit in one monumental crescendo for the galvanic Allelujasthat form a most compelling coda.
The revolutionary character of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in D Minor has long been recognized, and we know Beethoven pondered the setting of Schiller’s words over a long gestation period that had begun as early as 1790. The Masonic sentiments of brotherhood had played a role in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio and had manifested themselves in the “practice piece” for the Ninth, the C Minor Fantasia for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80. Typical of Beethoven’s sense of dramatic progressive harmony, the music will eventually move from the opening movement’s bleak, uncertain limbo to D Minor and then glorify Mankind in words set in D Major at the last movement’s coda. The first three movements seem to address each constituent of music for its dramatic tensions: harmony, rhythm, and melody. But even after having achieved a miraculous coup in the third movement’s double-theme and variations, Beethoven feels the inadequacy of “pure” tones to convey his synoptic vision of joy. So, he interrupts the flow of his five-toned melody – intoned in gradual crescendo after a recitative sequence which has reviewed and rejected each of the previous movements’ main themes — with the bass soloist, who demands “more pleasing and joyful sounds” of the human voice.
The last movement subsequently becomes a symphony in miniature, opening with a frenzied fanfare and ponderous slow review of former themes; then a scherzo in the form of a janissary march with tenor and chorus; a powerful fugal section; then a slow movement opening with Seid umschlungen, Millionen,whose “kiss for all the world” involves some tortured harmonies and intervals; and finally, a volatile prestoafter a closing ensemble by the vocal quartet – now including Talin Nalbadian, mezzo-soprano and Mason Gates, tenor – that emphasizes the incredible gesture, emotional and intellectual, to embrace all of tormented, flawed Humanity.
The entire presentation of this massive work, conducted by Maestro Shimono, revealed a past master of large ensemble well versed in the Beethoven style. The performance was fluent, briskly paced, articulate, and eminently dramatic. If “transcendental” luminosity were lacking a la Klemperer and Furtwaengler, the pace and clarity had much of the spirit of Szell and Toscanini, and even moments of divine fire. We could well bask in the singular contributions of tympani, flutes, brass, and wind choirs, along with the ever-expressive high-string sections and basses, that make for a most convincing reading of the premier, audacious symphonic composition in our literature.