How it's done

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  October 10, 2007

When you were listening to the hyper-polished BSO just two nights earlier, it can take your ears a while to adjust to imperfection. The opening tremolo seemed to bobble, attacks and entrances were tentative, the playing wasn’t crisp, and in the slow movement a horn solo went walkabout. But confidence grew as the evening went on, and from the moment the orchestra reached the coiled outburst of the opening movement’s first theme, it was clear that this Ninth would be like soldiers charging rather than a boy throwing a temper tantrum. Strings were not privileged over the rest of the orchestra, and McPhee accorded the music its natural dance pulse rather than conducting with the usual aggressive one-to-the-bar beat. That opening movement had the ragged intensity of an all-men-shall-be-brothers village band, and the volume, when it rose, was generous rather than assaultive. There was even a hint of hysteria at the end.

The scherzo was limpid even by first-class orchestra standards; the horns in their neurotic honking could have been geese warning of danger. McPhee took a common-sense approach to Beethoven’s controversial tempo markings: here the trio flowed a little faster than the main section, and in the slow movement the second theme flowed a little faster than the first. Even as the slow movement dissolves into martial fanfares, as if Napoleon had risen from St. Helena, McPhee maintained the 12/8 waltz lilt: you could hear intimations of Berlioz.

The finale was so superbly paragraphed — and this movement is all about paragraphs — that it made Beethoven seem easy. Strong and conversational without forcing, bass Robert Honeysucker was a big part of that; so was tenor Ray Bauwens, jaunty and yet heroic in his “Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen” (“Joyful, like a hero to victory”). Soprano Janna Baty and mezzo Jan Wilson joined them in the quartet (which didn’t quite blend, but no matter); Holly Krafka’s New World Chorale, just eight years old, provided a full-throated vocal foundation. McPhee had built up so much momentum that the usual (and usually unearned) sprint to the finish seemed in prospect; instead we got an orderly, triumphant procession. It’s not too early to mark your calendar for the Longwood’s next date, December 1, when, again with the New World Chorale, it’ll perform a welcome rarity, Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass.
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