Rising Composer Gains Forum With Beethoven’s Ninth

Griffith Observatory, overlooking Los Angeles, served as inspiration for Caroline Shaw’s ‘The Observatory,’ which was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. (Photo: Matthew Field, via Wiki)
By Richard S. Ginell

HOLLYWOOD – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony used to be a festival piece, unfurled mostly on special occasions. Everyone has their list of them; mine would include the epochal Wilhelm Fürtwangler performance that reopened the Bayreuth Festival after World War II in 1951, Leonard Bernstein celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the inaugural concerts of Carlo Maria Giulini (1978) and Gustavo Dudamel (2009) as Los Angeles Philharmonic music directors, and a few others.

But the time has come when the Beethoven Ninth is now just another part of everyday concert life, no longer an Event. Its popularity guarantees that it will show up frequently at populist palaces like the Hollywood Bowl, and the ever-escalating technical level of classical music performers and orchestras makes it easier than ever to prepare.

Rather new to orchestral writing, Shaw shows flair for it. (K. Moreno)

It has come to the point where the Beethoven Ninth – despite what the advertising said – was not the main newsmaker at the Bowl on Aug. 27. Rather, it was the world premiere of an LA Phil-commissioned work approximately one-fourth the length of the Ninth, The Observatory, by the ever-busy, ever-more-interesting, 37-year-old Caroline Shaw.

With big, pounding chords that eventually seem to fray dissonantly on the edges as an opening, Shaw evokes not so much Beethoven as the opening tread of Brahms’ First Symphony – you can catch a whiff of the fourth movement later on – in her nearly-16-minute composition. But before long, the piece ceases to be an homage to a meat-and-potatoes European past and picks up a thread of good old American minimalism in a riff for strings. Gradually, the music sheds its weight and the orchestra starts to sparkle with the help of a piano. The violins go into a crazy pattern, and J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 makes a fleeting cameo appearance. You wonder where this free-wandering piece is going, but things resolve themselves – sort of – at the 15-minute mark, when the big chords return, imposing some sense of symmetry between the beginning and end of the piece.

Xian Zhang conducted the LA Phil at Hollywood Bowl. (IMG Artists)

What does this all have to do with an observatory? In her sweetly rambling program note (midway through, Shaw writes, “If you’ve gotten this far in the program note, you’re probably wondering if I’ll actually talk about the music you will hear in The Observatory. Okay.”), Shaw says that she visited the Griffith Observatory high above Los Angeles during the genesis of the piece. Exactly how the observatory relates to the piece is not explained in the essay, but from the evidence of press interviews, it seems she saw the city below as a series of moving parts that relate to orchestrating for a large symphony orchestra.

Xian Zhang, music director of the New Jersey Symphony, led the LA Phil, a premium vehicle that any composer of new music would kill for these days. And even though Shaw’s experience of writing for orchestras is limited, in this piece and in Watermark – first done in Seattle on Jan. 31 – she does it with a flair and thoughtfulness that makes me look forward to her next orchestral piece.

Now, are you wondering about how the Beethoven Ninth went? Okay. While Zhang didn’t set any speed records à la John Eliot Gardiner or Arturo Toscanini, her tempos were predominantly fast. In the Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso first movement, non troppo was replaced by con brio. The scherzo hurtled along with good rhythm, shorn of its repeats; the third movement jogged swiftly along at a pace that made spiritual contemplation difficult.

Soprano Liv Redpath soared luminously in the Ninth. (BD Portraits)

But the choral finale, where Zhang relaxed the pace enough so that the “Ode To Joy” tune in the low strings emerged gracefully, proved to be the strongest part of the performance. The vocal quartet (Liv Redpath, soprano; Jennifer Johnson Caro, mezzo-soprano; Toby Spence, tenor; Michael Sumuel, bass-baritone) fared best when Redpath was soaring luminously over the others and Sumuel was conveying authority, a little shakily at first, in the “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” admonition. The Los Angeles Master Chorale was on its usual high-level game. Some nasty aircraft in the skies overhead alertly disrupted the quieter sections of the symphony, ignoring the Bowl’s warning searchlights (more of that has been going on this summer than in recent quieter years, for some reason).

Anyone who was coming to the Ninth for the first time should have been able to get some sense of the power and fervor behind this once-radical symphony. And you can be sure that there will be hordes of other Ninth performances all over the globe in 2020 during the Beethoven 250th birthday year.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.