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Beethoven's lasting N-n-i-i-i-n-n-t-h-h

November 27, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

VIENNA — Beethoven, seated on his enormous pedestal in Beethovenplatz, broods.

Graffiti decorates his rear. A dog, on Saturday morning, desecrates holy ground. Loudspeakers from an ice-skating rink across the street attack his bronze ears with cheesy pop music.

His monumental Ninth Symphony, the "Ode to Joy," a call to universal brotherhood, an imagining of the cosmos and its deep-seated divine goodness, is being performed in the venerable Wiener Konzerthaus, also across the street.

But it is not being given in the grand hall with its massive marble pillars, and not in either of the imposing concert house's two chamber halls -- the Mozart-Saal or the Schubert-Saal. This Ninth doesn't even rate the modern underground space for new music carved out five years ago.

Rather, the symphony is being presented in a downstairs lounge, attached to a makeshift bar. The bar, littered with the previous night's dirty glasses and ashtrays, smells of stale beer and cigarettes. The performance, by minor Hungarian forces, is nothing special. Worse still, no one has come. Bar and lounge are completely deserted. I'm the only one there.

And yet, this is Beethoven more epic than any ever imagined. As I walk in, the Andante is in progress, and it engulfs me in what feels like the pure, concentrated essence of Beethoven. It is weirdly strange yet eerily familiar at the same time. It is powerfully visceral yet utterly ethereal. It is unbelievably beautiful.

Most important of all, it is very, very, very, very, very, very slow. Every note is literally 20 times longer than Leonard Bernstein's lavishly snail-paced live recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, made a few blocks away in the famed Musikverein.

This is the Vienna premiere of "9 Beet Stretch," by Leif Inge, a 36-year-old Norwegian composer who has taken a recording of the symphony and slowed it down so it lasts 24 hours. Thanks to digital technology, pitch and timbre are not affected. But a listener's perception most surely is.

If your first instinct is to dismiss an outrageously elongated Ninth as a cheap conceptual trick, don't. It is a masterpiece of a masterpiece, and maybe the closest we can ever come to experiencing what the deaf Beethoven heard, or experienced, in his head.

"9 Beet Stretch" is not brand new. It had its premiere in an ironworks in Madison, Wis., of all places, two years ago, and it has since been presented in small alternative spaces, galleries and churches in Oslo, San Francisco, Atlanta and Austin, Texas. In Bergen, Norway, it was given in an 11th century cathedral; in Shanghai, a business center.

But in Vienna, "9 Beet Stretch" comes home. Dead center in the city's center is the Sacher Hotel, famous for its torte and popular with well-dressed Viennese and the tourist hordes. A mere seven-minute stroll from the Konzerthaus, the cafe was once the site of the Karntnertortheater, where the Ninth had its premiere May 7, 1824. Since then, the symphony has surely been played more often in Vienna than anywhere else, and Vienna has most certainly witnessed more great performances of it than anywhere else.

Saturday's (or to be precise the Friday and Saturday performance, since it began at 10 Friday night) was the grand finale of the four-week Wien Modern, the city's elaborate annual new-music festival. So if there wasn't more buzz about the "9 Beet Stretch," new-music burnout was likely the case, along with the competition of events in the city, including Peter Sellars' extensive New Crowned Hope Festival. What with everything else Vienna has to offer, who has 24 hours to spare?

That, however, is precisely the point of a daylong Ninth, which effects an outright metabolic shift in the process of listening. It operates, in other words, like a drug. Because every quarter note takes forever, one's sense of time and music is altered. A chord will swell so gradually that it becomes a tremendous event. Fortissimo does not mean loud in "9 Beet Stretch," it means a roar.

Beautiful mind game

I heard only a fraction of the piece. For the first two hours Friday night in the lounge, where a couple of dozen people sat on stools or spread out on mats on the floor, coming and going to the bar, the feeling was that of a revving up. I don't think I ever got past the introduction of the first movement, but I couldn't tell. At no point did I not recognize this as Beethoven's Ninth, but I never knew where I was either, which is one of the ways this work plays with the mind.

Saturday morning, I remained bathed in the radiant sunshine of A major for most of an hour. Late Saturday afternoon, I spent some time with the incomparably thrilling blast of the chorus in the finale.

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