Presenting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the "Ode to Joy," as a call to brotherhood has started to become a year-end rite. In Tokyo, performances abound in the waning days of December. Vienna, where the symphony was premiered in 1822, can usually be counted on for noble Ninths before the waltzing begins.
It was a bit early in the month, perhaps, but Saturday night Southern California joined the tradition when the Pasadena Symphony and the San Diego Symphony both tackled the Ninth. At the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, the audience for the former was so large the lobby became an impassable wall of people during intermission.
Jorge Mester, now in his 23rd season as the Pasadena Symphony's music director, didn't trouble himself with finding a philosophical counterweight to Beethoven's expression of hope for the future of humanity. At the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for instance, Esa-Pekka Salonen has paired the symphony with Holocaust-themed music by Schoenberg or Ligeti, with the Ninth becoming a path from despair to hope.
Mester, instead, was musicological. He began with Beethoven's First Symphony, for a demonstration of how far the composer traveled musically in a quarter of a century, from a classically proportioned, witty, Haydnesque model to a vast vision of the symphonic form as the expression of the deepest needs of mankind.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Beethoven symphony: A review in Monday's Calendar section about the Pasadena Symphony's performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony said that the work premiered in 1822. Its first performance was in 1824.
The demonstration was a success but a strange one. The First, in Pasadena, promised little. A chamber-sized orchestra went through the motions in a slick performance that delighted not in surprise but in familiarity and as little fuss as possible.
Mester approached the Ninth with similarly breathless tempos and barreled through four big movements in just over an hour. He allowed no time for sentimentality. His orchestra was, again, not particularly large, but he made it sound even thinner than it needed to.
The attention was on rhythm and transparent textures, and the result had some remarkable aspects. Essentially, Mester produced a clockwork Ninth, but one that in its finest, most exhilarating moments was just as magnificent as the big, brawny, heaven-storming Ninths normally encountered.
It was just that Mester's view of the cosmos was purely scientific. His Beethoven universe is one where all the planets move in perfect, remarkable, interlocking orbits, where everything works.
Each movement seemed propelled by a single pulse, almost as though the symphony were a proto-Minimalist masterpiece. Where other conductors like to interpret the tremulous violins and cellos and the falling thematic figures of the opening as representing a mysterious void, Mester set the clock ticking. You got on the train and there was no getting off, let alone stopping.
Which is not to say the train didn't lurch. Beethoven loved to thwart expectations, to syncopate, to suddenly switch rhythms. Mester let him but still kept the cars on the track. In the Scherzo, which was a thrill a minute, the train became a roller coaster. In the last movement, it became a spaceship.
The Pasadena Symphony is a perfectly capable orchestra, and it was often a virtuosic one in this demanding performance. But in an interpretation that was meant to be a model of transparency, every blurred detail was a problem. That made much of the Andante an ongoing problem. Clearly, an extra rehearsal for the later variations would have made a world of difference.
In the last movement, Mester also pushed his vocal soloists beyond their limits. The tenor, Randall Bills, coped impressively (the other singers were Angela Meade, Tracy Van Fleet and Jinyoung Jang). Occidental College supplied the chorus, which was full-bodied and fine until the sopranos had to hold a sustained A. Still, the symphony ended, as it must, in animated exultation.
All might not be right with the world as 2007 concludes, but Mester's Beethoven corrective proved to make sense. His was a Ninth for a divisive world. We agree on too little to enjoy universal brotherhood. But this Beethoven was a reminder that concentrating on the physical wonders of our surroundings -- and understanding their fragility -- is our best hope for unity.