U of C Symphony Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s 9th

By Ian Halim

The University of Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Overture to Coriolan in Mandel Hall on Friday and Saturday. The University Chorus and Motet Choir will join them for the finale section of the Symphony’s fourth movement.

“There is an excitement at the rehearsals with this piece that you just don’t find at regular rehearsals,” violinist Marc DeMoss said. “It’s just the nature of the piece, being so great at it is, that you can’t play it and not feel passionate about it; you can’t play it and not enjoy it.”

The orchestra has been rehearsing the symphony all quarter except for a few weeks during which they prepared for their April concert. Until this week, the Motet Choir and the University Chorus had been rehearsing separately under the directorship of Randi Von Ellefson.

“It sounded surprisingly good the first time we got together,” violinist John Holland said.

Performing the symphony’s famous fourth movement has been a logistical, as well as an artisitic, challenge. The chorus is too small to balance properly with the orchestra, so singers will use microphones during the performance. Orchestra director Barbara Schubert said that the lack of space on stage and the absence of a good acoustical shell for the chorus pose difficulties. It is also more difficult to conduct a chorus when they are behind a large orchestra than when they are directly in front of the conductor. Professionals are filling in for the four especially demanding solo vocal parts.

“It requires an instrumental approach to the voice,” Schubert said of the piece.

These troubles have only compounded the formidable task of mastering a work so difficult the vocalists who first performed it reputedly begged Beethoven to make change the parts, going on to simply omit the notes they could not sing.

“There are some passages in this that are formidably difficult even for a professional orchestra that has performed it many times,” Schubert said.

Schubert says that the public’s familiarity with Beethoven’s Ninth ups the standards that the orchestra will be held to when performing it. Schubert has conducted the piece before, but this will be the first time the work has been performed on campus in 14 years.

“It’s an awesome responsibility to take it on every time,” she said.

Schubert has supplemented her own study of the symphony and its score with recent analysis and recordings of the piece. The orchestra’s performance is based on a new critical edition by John DelMare.

“She is very good at articulating how she wants it to sound,” DeMoss said of his conductor.

Schubert likened good orchestral performance to effective oration. “It’s like a speaker talking in monotone versus a speaker who is really enthusiastic, and able to draw the listener in to share the sort of enthusiasm that the speaker is projecting,” Schubert said.

According to violinist John Holland, the biggest challenge the violin section faces is in the third movement. “It’s the most lyrical and you have to string together these big phrases,” Holland said. “You have to balance technical expression with lyrical beauty.” Holland said the movement is almost a solo for the violin section, and that this would make any mistakes obvious.

“If we play it at or above the level we’ve been practicing at, I think it will sound pretty surprising for the size school that we have,” Holland said.

Beethoven took the words that University Chorus Motet Choir will be singing Friday from the German poet Schiller’s An die Freude, or “To Joy.” Beethoven did not include sections of the poem that referred to alcohol consumption, but left in the parts about brotherhood. According to Schubert, the Ninth Symphony was not well received by all, and some thought the choral section in the fourth movement a mistake. Others were in awe. Beethoven’s Ninth may have been part of the reason that Brahms delayed so long before writing his first symphony.

“To a certain extent all 19th century composers lived under the spectre of Beethoven,” Schubert said.

The Coriolan overture is an earlier work, first performed in 1807, while the Ninth was not written until 1823. Schubert said that it has the overture has the same strength and energy as the first movement, but expects its quiet ending will prepare the audience for the beginning of the Ninth. The Coriolan overture owes its name to a Roman general, but some speculate that Beethoven more wrote the piece as a self-portrait, according to Schubert.