Orchestra concludes season with Beethoven’s soaring ‘Symphony No. 9’

Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra will conclude the season with Beethoven. | Photo by O’Neil Arnold

The Louisville Orchestra winds up its 2018-19 season Friday and Saturday, May 10-11, with one of the grandest wind-up musical numbers of all time, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9,” in D Minor.

In concerts Friday morning and Saturday night, Music Director Teddy Abrams leads the orchestra, plus a quartet of vocal soloists and the largest chorus Abrams has yet assembled on stage for the “Ode to Joy” topper of the composer’s career.

It’s a big piece, with big themes and distinctive musical parts. Each of the first three movements shines brightly in its own way, leading to a climactic finale in which the chorus stands and sings for the first time — ringing out an “Ode to Joy” that always seems to lift the house in a moment of shared exhilaration.

Also on the program, singer Morgan James performs the premiere of Abrams’ new work “Song of the River.”

It’s been an excellent season for the Louisville Orchestra, musically and popularly, and full houses of fans are expected for the wind-up concerts.

Through the movements — in the composer’s order

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1820, by by Joseph Karl Stieler

The first movement of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s ninth symphony is typical Beethoven — and that’s a good thing. It’s those haunting Beethoven chords, foreshadowing a bigger story to come. The composer knew how to do it.

Some musicians laugh that Old Ludwig often had trouble getting enough final notes in to bring a thing to conclusion. But he never had difficulty getting started. Bringing the audience into the thing. Stating broad themes. Asking profound questions.

And when enough storm clouds are gathered in the first movement of this symphony, the composer calls on the timpani to roll the thunder forward.

What’s next?

The news.

Or what many will recall as the musical theme of NBC News’ “Huntley-Brinkley Report.”

And if the news journalists Chet Huntley and David Brinkley are a little before your time — the evening network news team was contemporary with CBS’ Walter Cronkite from 1956-70 — you’ll get the idea anyhow, from the high electric zing in the strings to the timpani’s opening bum, pa-dum, it just sounds like the news is coming on.

Newsmen Chet Huntley and David Brinkley air the NBC Nightly News at a presidential convention of the 1960s. The musical theme for their news telecast was the third movement of Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.” | WikiCommons

The second movement’s spirited tempo was certainly a surprise for the 1824 opening night audience in Vienna.

Generally, a symphony’s second movement is the slow one, the poignant one. Maybe even quietly melancholic. Concert goers lean back in their seats to take a breath from the startling statements of the first movement. A chance now to relax, wander off in a day dream …

But Beethoven inverts the order from the usual and has us zinging along in a fast action “Scherzo.” Not to take the thing to places the composer had no notion of going.

Television, radio, the internet, big-city daily newspapers — none of that was around in 1824. But the telegraph wasn’t far off in the future, with the eventual wire service reports arriving urgently from distant locales. At least that’s the way this scribe would imagine Beethoven picking up on the tempo of his fast-changing times in the 19th century.

Now ‘Adagio’

THEN the slow movement. And maybe the reason for detailing all this in an advance is to note the remarkable individuality of each of the four movements of “Symphony No. 9.”

Over the years, writers keep coming back to one word to describe the “Adagio” third movement: That it is “sublime.”

That’s not a word that’s typed too often on this keyboard. We’d be more inclined to call it gently beautiful … including a passage with a lone French horn singing along with woodwinds. Maybe a bird call in a forest. Listeners will have their own idea. We imagine the horn player does.

An ‘Ode to Joy’

Finally, the finale, as the chorus and vocal soloists rise to crown the symphony.

The chorus is prepared by Kent Hatteburg, and anchored with his acclaimed University of Louisville Collegiate Chorale. Soloists include Hayley Lipke, Liz Culpepper, Spencer Lawrence Boyd and Sonjin Kim.

Music historians say Beethoven had been thinking of adding a chorale element to a symphony for several years before he finally got around to it in the “Ninth.” He’s mostly an instrumental composer, with just one opera, “Fidelio,” that took him more than decade to work out.

Probably, the vocal and instrumental clicked together for Beethoven with his admiration of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” which provide the symphony’s inspiring lyrics.

It’s a big sing to the glories of joy and life. When all people become brothers.

Through the fourth movement, themes from the first three are recalled, then carried upward. The moment of shared exhilaration.

Ray and mirth of rapture blended
Goddess to thy shrine we come.

Plus, a neat little piccolo solo … that just comes up amid everything!

In 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of the “Ninth Symphony” in Berlin to celebrate the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. The title was changed slightly to “Ode to Freedom.” But the sentiment remains in every performance, in Schiller’s German, or English translation: O ye millions I embrace you.

What will she wear?

Morgan James | Courtesy

The New York songstress Morgan James, who appeared with the Louisville Orchestra last September in a salute to Leonard Bernstein, brings a colorful voice back to Whitney Hall for the debut of Abrams’ “Song of the River.” Abrams says the music is inspired by a book created by photographer Michele Oka Doner, who will be on hand for the concerts.

Abrams says the music is about a river’s flow of life, its creative and destructive cycle.

While we think of James as a most alluring singer, with a special spice of city sophistication, she also can wear some clothes.

In the September show, James changed gowns at least four times (by our count) to reflect different Bernstein stylings. The audience got a kick out of it, as she went from a formal gown for a concerto to a sexy red dress for “West Side Story.”

Word comes that James this weekend will wear a gown especially designed for this concert.

Friday’s Coffee Concert is at 11 a.m. in Whitney Hall, preceded by a Concert Talk at 10 a.m. with WUOL-FM’s Daniel Gilliam and guest Jon Gustely, the principal horn player of the Louisville Orchestra. Saturday’s performance is at 8 p.m., with the Concert Talk beginning at 6:45. Tickets start at $20.