Monday, March 26, 2018

The Ninth

Hands hovering by his sides, the conductor made tiny flicks with his baton. The second violins played their notes with him in time, bowing quickly and quietly across their strings. Their minor chord had the same texture as leaves rustling in a breeze. I raised my violin to my shoulder and placed my first note, a quick E followed by an A. It was quiet, almost imperceptible. After a short pause, I placed two more notes, listening to the rhythm of the seconds on my left while watching the concertmaster to my right. Two more notes, then two more, then a roll of the timpani, a crescendo, and the whole orchestra broke out with a fortissimo melody. We were off!

This weekend, my orchestra performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It was an incredible experience. The Ninth is an iconic work and a huge undertaking - a real once-in-a-lifetime experience to perform - which we used to commemorate the orchestra's tenth anniversary. If Beethoven had merely written his last symphony for orchestra (strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, as most symphonies are), it would have still been a large, complex work. But the composer went one step further. The last movement, the famous "Ode to Joy," calls for a full orchestra, plus a choir and four vocal soloists. It takes a half hour to perform and fills the hall with sound. It is a wonderful piece of music.

Orchestra, choir, and soloists performing the final movement.
Photo by Carl Kaiser.
The Ninth Symphony is also steeped in legend. Prior to composing it, Beethoven had become a bit of a recluse, living alone in Vienna and slowly losing his hearing. The best theory is that he suffered from lead poisoning, but by the time he set out to write his last symphony, Beethoven was completely deaf. As the story goes, he conducted the symphony's premier in Vienna but did not hear the cheers of the audience until someone turned him around to face the crowd.

From the first violin section, I had a front-row seat to the solo soprano as she sang. I heard the oboes and clarinets over my left shoulder and the cellos across the room. I sawed away at my violin, watching notes fly past me on the page. As we reached the finale, I used more momentum than muscle to keep my bow moving back and forth and keep up with the blitz-like pace. I reached my highest note - an A far up in the stratosphere of my instrument - and kept moving, then landed solidly on three D Major chords. The conductor's arm flew up in the air as he marked the last beat, and the sound rang out in the hall.

I am deeply grateful that I live in a town with such a high-quality community orchestra, and I relish the chance to perform the Ninth. It was wonderful.

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