Sunday at the Phil, Bernstein 100 and Beethoven’s 9th

By Truman C. Wang

The year-long celebration of Bernstein’s 100th birthday continued last Sunday, April 22, with a brilliant pairing of  Chichester Psalms with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.  Bernstein’s work is a bold liturgical work for the common men, while Beethoven’s Ninth is a quasi-religious paean of universal brotherhood.  Together, they formed a musical bond that started with “Awake, harp and lyre, I will sing and make music with all my soul” (Bernstein), and ended in “Let’s strike up more pleasing and joyful sounds” (Ode to Joy). 

The percussions featured prominently in both works, forming an unlikely dynamic duo with the harps in the Bernstein and providing unexpected comic relief in the Scherzo of the Ninth.  The LA Master Chorale sang the opening line of the Psalms “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord” in an animalistic outburst that would be repeated in the riotous final chorus of the “Ode to Joy”.  Now, imagine the same intensity multiplied to the nth degree in the famous December 25, 1986 Berlin Wall concert with Lenny himself conducting Beethoven’s Ninth.  The pairing of Bernstein and Beethoven becomes not only natural but inevitable.

Gustavo Dudamel’s conducting in the Psalms was explosively dynamic when need be and sweetly eloquent in the choral hymns and solo numbers.  While I would have preferred a boy alto, countertenor John Holiday produced some amazingly ethereal tones that, upon first hearing, were indistinguishable from a mezzo-soprano!   Dudamel’s reading of the Beethoven Ninth can best be described, for lack of a better term, as metronomical.  The first movement ended with a rigid woodwinds coda that failed to blossom.  The Adagio molto e cantabile also suffered from a severe case of incantabilitis.  The Scherzo, however, was superb in its dynamic execution of the musical jokes (kudos for Joseph Pereira on the drums and Marion Kuszyk on the oboe).  The “Ode to Joy” finale featured a rather pedestrian Turkish march, a “Seid umschlugen, Millonen” that failed to soar ‘above the canopy of stars’, and a final outburst of ‘Freude’ that sounded chaotic rather than cathartic.  The quartet of soloists were mostly above reproach, with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano a standout for her warm and expressive singing.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.