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In a Single Night, Beethoven's Ninth Soars--and Falls Flat

October 14, 2000

John Henken is absolutely right that the pairing of Schoenberg's agonizing "A Survivor From Warsaw" with Beethoven's soaring Ninth Symphony was an uncompromisingly dramatic concert ("Inspired Programming Lights Up Philharmonic Opener," Oct. 9).

It was also a wrenching emotional experience. I heard the concert on Sunday, the afternoon of Yom Kippur eve, thinking about the violence and killing taking place in Israel.

In the Schoenberg, there was an overwhelming shock and horror of the Jewish victims exterminated; it was accentuated as they went to their deaths singing their fundamental affirmation of faith, Shema Yisroel: Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. The emotional shock when the piece ended hung palpably suspended in the brief quiet before the brooding and parturient opening of the Beethoven Ninth.

All during the introduction, as the noble spirit of mankind rises from chaos, through the development and into the climactic affirmation of the brotherhood of man, I couldn't stop thinking that these Nazi murderers loved the music of Beethoven. They may well have gone to a performance of this symphony after killing their daily quota.

So, even as the final chorus exults in the declamation of the brotherhood of man and the benevolence of the Father, we are forced to confront the eternal truth that the noblest aspirations of mankind are continually marred by the baseness and evil of mankind's actions. Beethoven holds out hope for the ultimate triumph of the noble aspiration.

That evening I went to Yom Kippur services. The first sentence in the prayer book began "Children of man who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, bound in misery and chains of iron" and ended with an affirmation of faith and hope: "He will bring them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and will sunder their bonds." That one sentence summed up the entire concert for me.




Beethoven's Ninth Symphony--as well as all music of such heart, poetry and depth--remains irrevocably beyond the grasp of L.A. Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. The man should stick entirely to the serial and other clinical 20th century fare that he champions--or retire and take a job printing circuit boards.

Henken wrote that "Salonen's Ninth has become a thoroughly considered, personally shaped marvel of nuance." Thoroughly considered? Try "picking over the score for inconsequential details that might be elevated to bizarre importance." Personally shaped? Try "quirky and eccentric, fraught with unauthorized dynamic changes done only for the sake of being different." Marvel of nuance? Try "focus on the leaves, since you can't see the forest."

I never thought it possible that Beethoven's Ninth could be rendered no more impactful than Muzak, but Salonen did it. Can you imagine the most sublimely poignant symphonic music ever written by Beethoven--the third movement--turned into a kind of agitated, insipid dance? Salonen could.

Perhaps Henken inadvertently made the most salient point when he referred to the work as "Salonen's Ninth." The conductor took such strange liberties with the music that it's probably better that he just lay claim to it altogether, so as not to do Beethoven any furtherinjustice.


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