How it's done

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  October 10, 2007
insideLISTINGS_Longwood-Sym
FORGET BEETHOVEN AS MONUMENT: This was Beethoven as revolutionary.

I wonder whether Samuel Barber’s Night Flight — the slow movement of his discarded WW2-period Symphony No. 2 (Airborne) — has ever been programmed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Actually, I wonder whether it’s been programmed at all in Boston. Its title calls to mind Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de nuit, and so does the outline: a lone pilot (represented by the cor anglais) trying to find his way in the dark, till near the end a radio beacon sounds. Last Saturday night at Jordan Hall, Longwood Symphony Orchestra music director Jonathan McPhee explained that our journey would take us from the 20th century back to the 19th and on to infinity. The cor anglais solo was a little choppy, but the piece, like something by an American Vaughan Williams, created an intriguing void from which to approach Beethoven’s monumental symphony.

The problem with the Ninth is that it gets played like a monument. What Beethoven intended as revolutionary — quick, incisive, powerful, but also full of feeling — has become an ode to people’s idea of the classical establishment. Performances are stodgy, reverent, and impersonal; conductors hammer home every accent as if intent on sealing Beethoven and his radical ideas in their coffin. The Longwood Symphony Orchestra, whose members are mostly area medical professionals, might not be able to do this work full justice, but under McPhee — also music director of Boston Ballet — it delivered one of the most satisfying performances of this piece I’ve heard.

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