In order to raise money for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, a benefit concert entitled “USA-Japan Goodwill Mission Concert” was held at Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall on the evening of December 26, 2013. Raising money for a good cause is always a welcome activity, and I commend the organizers for this. It is thus with reluctance that I take issue with the chosen program. It seemed that there were two concerts slapped together to be one, without any thought as to the appropriateness of having Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, the Choral, paired with a motley assortment of popular songs.
I am not a music snob. I love the popular music of the 1980s and can probably identify within a few seconds any song from that era that received airplay. I love music of all genres and eras. I also love the 9th Symphony of Beethoven. As one who does, I find the idea of “Meet the Flintstones“ on the same program as the Beethoven to be bizarre in the extreme. The clashing of Schiller’s “Götterfunken!” with Hanna-Barbera’s “Wilmaaaaaa!” is still filling my ears with horror, as the ghost of Kafka smiles with a knowing nod. “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” To have any work follow this monument of the Western music canon shows a lack of respect to the sheer magnitude of this masterpiece, but to follow it with show tunes, popular music performed in a style strongly akin to a Glee episode, and Barbershop with slapstick, was the musical equivalent of Marcel Duchamp’s treatment of La Gioconda in his L.H.O.O.Q. I would have been perfectly content with either half standing alone, but NEVER paired together.
My programming objection in no way is meant to disparage the performers in the second half, as they were all very entertaining and gave energetic, crowd-pleasing and wholly committed performances. The No Borders Youth Chorus, an all-male a cappella chorus with young men from the United States, Canada, and China, led by Joe Cerutti, was delightful, and the barbershop quartet, Lunch Break, was hilarious in their set. It was just a shame that the net effect of each mismatched half was to nullify the value of the other through the pairing.
The program did not list the movements of the Beethoven, nor include the text of the Ode to Joy. If there was an assumption of familiarity as a reason for the omission, it proved to be completely unfounded. Applause between the movements and ear-shattering yelling from the audience from the start of the Alla Marcia section in the finale (for a good ten seconds), were proof enough of not only a lack of familiarity with the work, but a lack of familiarity with how to behave at a classical concert. Enthusiasm is good, but yelling loudly is never appropriate. To his credit, conductor Hideaki Hirai endured these interruptions with grace and did not allow them to distract him or the orchestra.
The New York Festival Orchestra, consisting of players from throughout the United States, was specially formed for this concert. Usually one expects some roughness from groups of this nature, and while there were a few instances of this, the playing overall was polished and the ensemble remarkably unified, as if they had been together for a long period of time. From the tremolos that open the work, to the timpani bursts in the Scherzo, the sublime Adagio in the third movement, to the Prestissimo of the final bars of the epic last movement, it was a highly satisfying performance.
The Beethoven Memorial Chorus was made up of singers from Japan and the United States, all with extensive experience performing the 9th Symphony. This experience showed in their rock-solid performance. Bass-Baritone soloist Katsuji Miura projected with a powerful voice that easily filled the hall with its bold resonance. Soprano Naomi Satake’s voice soared with passion, while Tenor Paul Williamson and Alto Francesca Lunghi enriched the textures with their considerable talents.
Maestro Hirai was especially impressive. Conducting from memory, he demonstrated his deep knowledge of the score with unflagging energy and intense concentration. He was dynamic, confident, and completely engaged for the entire 75 minutes. It was especially interesting to me that he “sang” along with the chorus with evident joy on his face. It was among the best of the live performances I have heard of this work and justly deserving of the standing ovation it was accorded. Bravo to all!