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SSO to open season with Beethoven Ninth Symphony

Thursday, October 18, 2012
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Conductor Charles Schneider rehearses with the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra at Niskayuna High School on Tuesday. Their first concert of the season is on Sunday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Conductor Charles Schneider rehearses with the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra at Niskayuna High School on Tuesday. Their first concert of the season is on Sunday.

— The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra is opening its 79th season on Sunday with a bang. Music director Charles Schneider has programmed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with an expected 140-voice chorus drawn from the University at Albany’s Chorale, the Albany Pro Musica, the Octavo Singers and four soloists.

“It’s a monumental piece,” Schneider said. “It’s like a marathon — it’s long and very hard.”

The orchestra hasn’t performed the symphony in at least 10 years, he said, but he’ll get to conduct it the night before with the Catskill Symphony Orchestra and work with the same soloists. They are soprano Barbara Paterson, mezzo-soprano Carolyn Weber, tenor Jon-Fredric West and bass Eric Johnson. All the soloists and most of the chorus members have worked with him at one time or another, he said.

Paterson, who has family in the Utica area but now lives and works in Australia, is only 28 and “unbelievably gifted.”

Schenectady Symphony Orchestra

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

HOW MUCH: $12, $8. Subscriptions: $45, $30. Free for children 7 and under

MORE INFO: 372-2500, www.schenectadysymphony.org

“She has a large voice and is a stunning performer,” Schneider said.

Weber and West have had big careers in either this country or Europe but got tired of the music scene and decided to become teachers, Schneider said. Both are on the staff at Syracuse University. Johnson, however, is considered one of the two top Heldentenors in the world and is a Wagner specialist.

“James Levine [Metropolitan Opera music director] called him the best Siegfried he’d ever conducted,” Schneider said. “He has a reputation a mile long. But he and his wife moved to the Utica area to be closer to their daughter. Now he picks his jobs, and does some teaching at Hamilton College and coaching at Glimmerglass Opera. I use him often.”

Challenge for all

Performing this particular Beethoven symphony is a huge challenge for everyone, he said. He’s leaving the vocal issues to the directors of each chorus. They will have to deal with such issues as meshing each section for balance, getting them to breathe independently, the diction of the German, and making the entrances and cutoffs in a timely fashion. The chorus sings only in the fourth movement but must sing for 18 minutes. Schneider will cue them when to stand up.

But for the orchestra, especially the woodwinds and strings, the four movements are a tour-de-force, he said. Rhythms are tricky and sometimes unpredictable; all parts are transparently necessary even down to a second clarinet part that welcomes in the second movement; correct pitch is essential as the instrumental ranges Beethoven wrote in are huge.

Conductors don’t have it easy either. In the first movement, Schneider must balance melodic continuity against the supporting harmonic players. This is done by insisting that the bow weight of the strings playing harmony be constant and that dynamic levels are in control. When Beethoven wrote the symphony in the 1820s, instruments were not as developed as now and could not play as loudly. So adjustments must be made, Schneider said. He must also take care to keep the overall arch of the music flowing to maintain smooth transitions.

In the second movement, which is more than 800 bars long, the time values of the opening notes in the repetitive motifs must be constant and he must watch that the ritards, or slowing down sections, are paced. The slow third movement is the hardest to hold together, Schneider said.

“Musically and phrase-wise, it must have elegance and balance throughout. There must be a flow,” he said. “I must keep the right tempo. It can’t be too fast or too slow. There are tricky subdivisions with different tempo markings. But the second theme is the most glorious of any theme written.”

Schneider hopes to attack the fourth movement as quickly after ending the third as possible.

“The third and fourth movement end and begin in B-flat, but he added an A to the chord in the fourth movement, which causes a clash,” he said. “It’s also neat the way he repeats sections of each of the previous movements, as if he’s trying to find a theme.”

Listeners will hear a fragment of each of the movements, but each is rejected until the bass soloist stands to begin Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” Moments later the chorus stands.

Creative period

Beethoven began writing the symphony in 1823 during a period of great creativity that had begun the year before. Despite his growing medical issues, he finished two piano sonatas and the “Diabelli Variations,” and for orchestra his Missa Solemnis and the “Consecration of the House.” There were also a few less momentous projects including several chamber works and the Bagatelles for piano, and he began jotting down ideas for his string quartet in E-flat, Op. 127, the first of what would become five string quartets that would accompany him until his death in 1827.

Beethoven had apparently intended on putting the Schiller poem to music as early as the late 1780s (the poem “An die Freude” was published in 1786) and prior to his arrival in Vienna. He is said to have told Carl Czerny, a former pupil and composer, that Schiller was a difficult poet to set because no composer could surpass his poetry. But Beethoven used only half of the poem’s 18 sections and re-arranged those to fit his own vision.

The work was premiered May 7, 1824 on a program that included his “Consecration of the House” Overture, and parts of the Missa Solemnis. It wasn’t until 1826, however, that Beethoven dedicated the symphony to King Friedrich Wilhelm III, the King of Prussia.

Remaining concerts

This opening concert sets the theme for the SSO’s season: “The Joy of Music.” The other concerts are:

• Jan. 20 in an all-Mozart program with principal clarinetist Tom Gerbino performing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto

• March 10 will mostly spotlight the string section in a serenade concert with a program of Mozart, Holst, Purcell/Britten and the original 13-instrument version of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”

• On April 21, two former SSO student competition winners will be featured: trumpeter Anthony Bellino, who won second place in the 2009 Stefan Scholarship Competition and is a junior at Northwestern University, will perform Arutunian’s Trumpet Concerto; and pianist Ryan Reilly, who won the 2007 Louise DeFeo Parillo Piano Competition and is studying at the Juilliard School, will perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with a revised orchestration by local pianist/composer Joseph Fennimore.

“Tchaikovsky wrote a feeble orchestration, which is why the piece is never played,” Schneider said. “In the 1980s, Joe re-orchestrated it but I never saw it until 1990. It was a great improvement from Tchaikovsky but there never was a point that it fit in the season’s programming until now.”

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”) will also be performed.

“What better piece to play in the spring?” Schneider said. “It’s a good balance with the fireworks of the concertos.”

 
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