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Keeping Aloft the Spirit of Beethoven

Pasadena and Riverside orchestras rise to the challenges of Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony.

May 11, 1999|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and his Missa Solemnis are two of the most extraordinary works in all of music. This is Beethoven around 1820, near the end of his life--deaf, jaundiced, encumbered by a corset (to soothe a violent stomach). This is a foul-tempered Beethoven who, though remote from the world and disdainful of vulgar humanity, nonetheless embraced humankind in grander music than had ever before been written. With superhuman effort, he called for universal brotherhood and demonstrated the fervor of spiritual transcendence.

These works can never be commonplace. Each lasts over an hour and is a major undertaking for any musical institution, an event for any audience. And if successfully performed, they can leave an audience exalted. Certainly the 19th century's conception of Romantic music was born with these epic symphonic masterpieces. Beethoven at his greatest seems to electrically charge the atmosphere.

And that charge seemed to jump onto the jet stream last weekend, blowing the spirit of the solemn mass and symphony eastward. Saturday night the Pasadena Symphony performed the Missa Solemnis at the Civic Auditorium; Sunday afternoon the Riverside County Philharmonic faced the challenge of the Ninth Symphony in its Municipal Auditorium.

The performances were in capable hands. Jorge Mester, who has been music director of the Pasadena Symphony since 1984, is a superb manager of both large forces and large-scale works. Patrick Flynn, who has been in Riverside for a decade, has a sure sense of dramatic timing. And both orchestras have long and distinguished histories. Pasadena has had its orchestra for 71 years; Riverside founded its 40 years ago with the help of Jack Benny and Harpo Marx. Yet part of the excitement was observing how Beethoven pushed both organizations to their limits.

The Pasadena Symphony's virtues are well known. Its members are among the best of the Southland freelancers, and every season Mester exercises them with at least one monster work. Here, as if taking for granted sound orchestral playing, Mester emphasized the heroic symphonic scope of the mass. Tempos tended toward the brisk. The sublimely lyrical violin solo in the Benedictus, the moment when this heaven-storming score finally enters the gates, was played with cool assurance by concertmaster Peter McHugh.

The orchestra remained unflappable but not the Pacific Chorale. Fast tempos in the most exacting fugal passages had the sopranos especially grasping for pitches. The solo vocal

quartet of the soaring soprano Christine Goerke, mezzo-soprano Kimball Wheeler, tenor Robert MacNeil (a last-minute replacement) and the booming bass Paul Plishka had, along with some dramatically forceful solos, their wild ensemble moments as well. Still, it was this extraordinary effect of singers called upon to sing next-to-impossible music, balanced by this rock of an orchestra, that gave the performance its true fire.

The Riverside Symphony had the opposite virtues. The orchestra members seemed young and sounded relatively inexperienced. The chorus (the Riverside Master Chorale and Windsong Southland Chorale) and four Southland opera singers (soprano Shana Blake Hill, contralto Katja Nicolai, tenor Jonathan Mack and bass Louis Lebherz) were spirited and sound. Singing, though, is far less central to the Ninth Symphony, and a performance ultimately stands or falls on the orchestra.

Yet the real obstacle to overcome here was crude amplification. At times the concertmaster was so strongly miked, he sounded like a soloist in a weird new Beethoven violin concerto. When string intonation faltered or horns turned sour, the effect was like microtonal electronic music. The highs, especially of flute and piccolo, could be so piercing that I was tempted to escape.

I was glad I didn't. The thundering amplified timpani and powerfully energetic cellos and basses that open the Finale proved genuinely exciting. And so did Summers' vivid conception of the score and the sheer enthusiasm of the performers. This was a Ninth much better fast than slow--its mysterious opening and the Adagio were trouble. But the fervid, theatrically alive Finale was so winning one began to forget the loudspeakers.

The piano soloist was a young Lithuanian student at USC, Rudolfas Budginas, who offered a nice touch of soulfulness.

Although Beethoven performances have been plentiful this season, more are to come next with a full symphony cycle at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

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