KVT ends Christmas on the perfect note
Couldn’t resist booking three tickets to the VNSO playing Beethoven’s 9th on one of the two days after Christmas.
Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, ‘The Choral’, in East Berlin on Christmas day of that year, it has seemed appropriate to me that somewhere around about that time of the year its time to listen to it again. The message of hope and joy in the last movement, when the massed choir joins with the voices of a soprano, a mezzo, a tenor and a baritone to sing out the words to a Freidrich Schiller poem, can be spine tingling…..which is really what the feeling of Christmas is all about– a spine tingling message of hope for the future of the planet and mankind (usually diminished by the tympani of ripping wrapping paper, syrupy melodies about jinglies, snow and red noses; and fat turkeys trumpeting blasts of fatty juice in hot ovens). And for anyone whose Christmas was too much the latter and wants to lather in the former, here’s a clip of that famous 1989 performance
Not that the 9th is a Christmassy icon at all. In fact, to paraphrase the words of conductor Daniel Barenboim before he conducted the symphony at the 2012 London Proms, it’s a non religious work about the human condition.
But as it was Christmas I decided that tickets to the Opera House for the 9th were the perfect gift. Two of us were 9th fans from way back. Me thanks to a visionary high school music teacher and to the movie ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The other thanks to an exceptionally spine tingling performance in the Opera House by the VNSO, led by Honna with a German chorus imported especially for Hanoi’s 1000th birthday celebrations by Goethe and the German Embassy.
The third was only familiar, like a lot of people, with the 9th due to various commercial and film theme exposures to the music of the last movement. We decided it was time to expand her horizons to a live, full blown and, hopefully, blown away experience….and she certainly was!
The VNSO has had a huge year playing various Beethoven symphonies in Hanoi, Italy and Japan so we assumed that conductor Ong Honna would have the players at their Beethovenic peak and apart from a couple of brassy notes, they were well on their way to the apex.. and as it was Christmas, any minor sins in the symphonic department were easily forgiven.
They started to tingle the spine from the first bit of the first movement when, as Barenboim says, it begins without a beginning. It starts out of nowhere with a great sense of expectation. A bare chord. A trembling, shimmering in the strings leads us into Barenboim’s interpretation of suffering, chaos and disorder.
The second movement has a new edge not evident in the previous one and Barenboim reads it as wild and savage and the tympani keeps on making sure that your stomach muscles are tight enough to take any unsuspected blows that are thrown your way as you are occasionally lulled into false security by flirtatious woodwinds.
The VNSO provided adequate proof through their playing of the beautiful third movement that it is one of the deepest expressions that music is capable of. Never ending melody that you think could go on forever. If ever music can give an inkling of the feeling of eternity then this is it.
Then it’s all holding of breath as you wait for the choral movement to take control of the air. After a fanfare that promises that tunes from the previous three movements may be reprieved, the bank of double basses interjects with a deep ‘Hey all you! Hold on a minute!’ But the other instruments continue to hint that they’d like to get back to their favorite tunes so the basses and cellos keep on interrupting in their low key way until they pressure a silence out of which they softly begin the melody of the Ode To Joy which swells and grows into the hymn that just about everyone can hum along to (especially if your country is a member of the European Union)
Then, as you sit expectantly on the edge of your seat the baritone intones O Freunde (oh friends) you know that you’re in for one of those musical rides that warms and thrills you all over, through and through and by the end of it all as you clap your hands off Beethoven’s pronouncement as he faced profound deafness that ‘I will seize Fate by the throat. It will not wholly conquer me! Oh, how beautiful it is to live-and live a thousand times over!’ fits it like a comfortable glove.
Our soloists were from all over the neighborhood. Local soprano, Ha Pham Thang Long, really held her own with the mellow mezzo of South Korean, Soo Yun Chung, Taiwanese tenor, Claude Lin, and the deep and lovely sounds made by Chinese bass, Zhong Hao.
A group from the Ashkaga City Philharmonic Choir in Japan, and some top local voices augmented and swelled the youthful voices from the local National University of Art Education, the Choir of the Vietnam National Opera and Ballet, and the expats from the local Freude Choir.
Only once did the female voices thin a bit but the euphoria in the air excused all that.
Conductor Honna and his players, plus his choir master and singers, have to thoroughly, warmly congratulated for a playing of the Ninth that encapsulated what the Season should really be all about…..hope, peace, friendship, benevolence and sharing.
Barenboim said that the solution to the message in the last movement is to found within yourself and if you want to take the challenge and can download this loud and clear, here’s his interpretation
When Beethoven stood on stage to assist the conductor in the premiere performance of the ninth in 1824 the applause at the end was deafening but Beethoven, deaf as a post, had to be physically turned around so that he could see the audience cheering and bravo-ing.
|Kiem Van Tim is a keen observer of life in general and the Hanoi cultural scene in particular and offers some of these observations to the Grapevine. KVT insists that these observations and opinion pieces are not critical reviews. Please see our Comment Guidelines / Moderation Policy and add your thoughts in the comment field below.|