Beethoven rolls on!

Beethoven was the proud offering rolled out by the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra Saturday night, March 7, namely his legendary Ninth Symphony, featuring soloists and the Mississippi State University Chorus. But first came two 21st-century musical appetizers, introduced by TSO music director Steven Byess.

The American composer Joseph Schwantner’s “Chasing Light” opened the program, commissioned by the TSO and other U.S. orchestras under a “Made in America” grant from the Ford Foundation. Next came the world premiere of Polish composer Bartek Chajdecki’s ethereal “Hymn,” a choral tribute to Pope John Paul II.

During his remarks, Byess thanked Civic Auditorium officials Bob Monroe and Brad Hilliard for devising an innovative way to seat MSU Chorus members onstage when not singing.

One of the joys of describing this evening’s crowning glory, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 for Orchestra and Chorus, is that you can use wildly extravagant words like ” titanic,” “incredible,” and “legendary” without fear of editorial moderation. Musically, the magnificent Ninth DEFINES titanic (“of enormous strength or scope; huge, colossal”) and for almost two centuries has attracted incredible legends.

Why did Sony-Phillips set the compact disk standard at exactly 74 minutes? One charming legend has it that Mrs. Akio Morita, wife of Sony’s president, insisted her hubby choose this length to avoid switching disks during her very favorite music, the 74-minute Symphony No. 9.

Another well-substantiated tale is that Beethoven was totally deaf when he conducted the Ninth’s 1824 world premiere in Vienna. Still hearing its finale in his head, he totally won the hearts of his audience when a singer finally spun him around to accept their wild – but unheard – ovations. This tribute to his music’s joyous message of brotherhood so profoundly touched Beethoven that he later went to bed with his clothes on!

Since 1824, the noble Ninth has come to embody humanity’s highest aspirations to live in dignity and peace. Its splendid choral conclusion has long been familiar as the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” while in modern times Leonard Bernstein conducted an overpoweringly historic performance (named “Ode to Freedom”) to celebrate Berlin’s Fall of the Wall.

So it was in a grand tradition indeed that soloists Rebecca Wascoe, Nancy Maria Balach, Greg, Wascoe, and Iwao Asakura joined the orchestra and chorus after intermission to revive Beethoven’s glorious vision one more time.

Singing this musical masterpiece with full symphony orchestra is a cherished experience never to be forgotten. Bruce Lesley’s MSU Chorus gave a nicely nuanced performance, obviously inspired by respect for Beethoven’s music and many rehearsals. All four soloists caught No. 9’s cheerfully profound spirit as well, including Iwao Asakura in the dramatic baritone intro, “O Freunde.”

And when a skillful conductor and seriously turned-on performers get No. 9 really rolling, it becomes an unstoppable force of nature, like an advancing thunderstorm. Beethoven believed his Ninth Symphony (written after the bloody cataclysm that devastated Europe under Napoleon) could actually inspire nations to live in peace, based on the limitless promise of human potential.

Though today these sentiments seem sadly tarnished by too many wars and cynical brushes with human nature, as Beethoven’s notes rolled merrily down through history into our ears last Saturday night, some of us may have believed – maybe even as long as a few hundred measures – that this peaceable greeting from a departed genius might one day touch every human heart.

To paraphrase Chuck Berry, “Roll on, Beethoven: we sho’ need that good news today!”

Robert Bruce Smith/Special to the Daily Journal