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Beethoven's Ninth Given New Meaning

October 01, 1986|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott, a Santa Ana free - lance writer, has sung with the Pacific Chorale since 1978

It was difficult to believe that most of us had been there many times before.

Many of us had sung Beethoven's Ninth Symphony 8, 9, 10 times before Monday night, some even more. We had sung it in concert halls and churches, in choir lofts, on stages, in amphitheaters, indoors and out. Many of us could sing it without a score. It had become, long ago, a part of our standard repertoire, a chestnut, a war horse. Performing it, tackling the vocal gymnastics, the throat-tightening range and the relentless tempos could sometimes be a chore, a job.

But Monday night was different, all of it.

On that evening, during the opening concert at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the singers of the Pacific Chorale and the Master Chorale of Orange County who made up the chorus for the Beethoven symphony felt new power in the old piece, new excitement in its performance, new meaning in its message.

It seemed to be the perfect work for the opening of a building as splendid as the Center, and many of us began to feel it early on.

We had rehearsed with the orchestra the day before, and again on the afternoon of the concert, and there had been some question as to whether the orchestra or the choir would overwhelm the other with volume in the bright, acoustically responsive hall. It didn't happen. The balance, we learned, was almost perfect. The second rehearsal, in fact, was almost perfunctory, a quick spot check. Conductor Zubin Mehta ran the final movement of the piece, smiled, said thank you, and the stage cleared. The preparation was over.

An hour later, the magic began to materialize.

Everyone seemed to feel it. The singers were uncharacteristically restless, unable to sit down for long, unable to completely relax. It was a growing anticipation, a realization doubled every minute that this was not just another performance, not just another night. It was the culmination of years of hoping, of planning, of thousands of hours of rehearsing, of building repertoires and reputations. It was an irresistible, delicious tension.

Returning to the center from early dinners, many singers were impatient to get dressed, to put on the gowns, the white tie and tails and become, at last, a part of the evening. Some wandered outside the artists' entrance at the rear of the building to watch the limousines queue. Several arrived back at the hall in time to see the crowd of first-nighters growing in the plaza area at the front of the building, and a few sneaked looks at the spectacle from around corners.

Everyone seemed to have a quick story to tell, a new discovery: how spacious and clean and complete the dressing rooms were, what a friendly guy James Whitmore is, how Leontyne Price could warm up by humming barely audible high Cs, how Zubin Mehta anticipated President Reagan's telegram ("Watch. He always says 'Nancy and I.' "), how the champagne glasses were beginning to pile up for the backstage reception, how some wag in the stage crew had hung backstage an inflatable Godzilla figure. There were the usual muffled backstage jokes and horseplay.

And then, at last, it was time.

When singers walk onstage, they never get a complete look at the audience until they turn to face the house. Monday, the sight was electric. It was a sea of black and white, punctuated in almost every other seat by the brightest of evening gowns, sequins and beads flashing, shooting little shafts of light around the hall. And the buzz from the audience was not the usual low murmur. It was high-pitched, excited.

"My God," whispered one singer, "look at that. This is incredible ."

Time seemed to quicken. One of the greatest complaints of singers performing the Beethoven Ninth has to do with having to sit silently through the first three movements, doing nothing for nearly an hour until standing to sing the final, rousing "Ode to Joy" movement. Some choristers have even been known to fall asleep. But Monday the muscular performance of Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic stoked the anticipation, fired the senses. There was a feeling, everyone said later, that we couldn't wait to stand up, smugly couldn't wait to get on with it and show the audience how Beethoven is supposed to sound.

It was not, many said later, like any Beethoven Ninth we had done before. It was larger, somehow--more grand, bigger than any or all of us. Everything for years had been pointing to this. Where before we may have simply mouthed the original, classic German, " Bruder--uberm Sternenzelt Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen ," now we remembered, as if for the first time, that we were singing "Brothers--o'er yon starry span sure there dwells a loving father." It became new and more exciting than ever. We were singing out of our minds.

It was that rarest of moments: when communication between conductor, musicians and audience is nearly absolute, when there is no doubt in the performer's mind that things are going right, that the audience is not passive, that they hear .

The ovation was perhaps the sweetest part of all. While the audience stood through several curtain calls for Mehta, the Philharmonic and the four soloists, the applause swelled to loud cheers when the chorus--all Orange County musicians--was acknowledged.

At the backstage reception, no one could stop grinning. It was the sort of complete feeling of contentment one feels when reunited with an old friend in the best of surroundings. We had known the Beethoven Ninth all along. We had lived with it for years. We had admired its power and cursed its difficulties.

But until Monday night we may never have truly loved it. The timing couldn't have been better.

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