The Beethoven Code

Santa Barbara Symphony, conducted by Gisèle Ben-Dor, with Elissa Johnson, soprano; Catherine Stolz, mezzo-soprano; Jonathan Mack, tenor; Nmon Ford, baritone, and the Santa Barbara Choral Society (Jo Anne Wasserman, music director), with Nathaniel Hodson and Michael Sikich, boy sopranos. At the Arlington Theatre, Sunday, May 7.

Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter

However troubled Gisèle Ben-Dor’s relations are with the Santa Barbara Symphony board, she has retained a solid hold on the affections of South Coast music lovers, who turned out in force to bid her farewell. The concert sold out, which made a strong statement, if only of solidarity.

There were two works on this final program: Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Opus 125.

Ben-Dor’s reading of the Psalms compares quite favorably with the composer’s. The chorus was celestial, the boy sopranos angelic, and the music profound. This is, along with the Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” Bernstein’s most successful “serious” music, and incidentally, his most Jewish. (I omit the overreaching and talkative Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish.”) Can it be that Bernstein was America’s most important native Jewish composer? Ben-Dor’s Chichester Psalms certainly leads me to think so.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is, of course, one of the most well-known and well-loved compositions in music history, having touched millions and millions of people who might have had no other contact with classical music. Even though it was not Gisèle’s first choice for her swan song, it was an entirely appropriate piece to leave ringing in our ears as she sails out of our lives. There is plenty of power and excitement in her interpretation, but there is also — for those who listen hard — a subtle and precise sorting out of themes, and an all-but-godlike vision of the whole work as a massive yet intricate construction of sound. And the message of the work is clear, even in code. To the reactionary governments who took over after the fall of Napoleon, the word “Liberty” (freiheit) was anathema. So Schiller substituted the word “Joy” (freude). Beethoven understood completely, and so has every listener with a soul ever since.

Auf Wiedersehen, Gisèle.

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