Preparing a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony poses one of the great challenges in all of music. For this production, the Santa Barbara Symphony recruited not one but three of the community’s choruses—the Santa Barbara Choral Society, the Westmont College Choir, and Quire of Voyces—and four vocal soloists: Susanna Phillips (soprano), Elise Quagliata (mezzo-soprano), Bryan Griffin (tenor), and Jason Grant (baritone).
The massive score occupied the great composer for years, and the work of piecing together all the many threads of this one-of-a-kind musical statement parallels the heroic effort it took to write it. Maestro Nir Kabaretti chose to approach it obliquely, beginning with a beautiful rendition of The Consecration of the House Overture, Op. 124 from 1822 in order to stretch the orchestra and to set the tone for what was to come. The effect was just what was intended, a celebratory moment that cleansed the palate in anticipation of a rich musical feast.
Once the overture was done, row upon row of risers behind the musicians began to fill with formally clad singers carrying sheet music. The massed chorus onstage would eventually be supplemented by a pair of smaller groups perched in the right and left boxes located just under the Granada’s balcony. In addition to lending an extra-dramatic element to this program, which was broadcast live on KDB 93.7 FM, the singers in the boxes added another, stereophonic dimension to the already dazzling complexity of the symphony’s finale.
While the first movement of the Ninth sneaks up on the listener, offering only small hints of what is in store, the second is Beethoven at his most commanding, with two remarkably disparate themes brought into a series of dramatic encounters, each seeming to up the tension of the last. After that taste of the potential exuberance and daring of the piece, the music calms down a bit, but without losing any of its profundity. The orchestra negotiated the early all-instrumental sections of the symphony skillfully, building toward the tumultuous finale, which is almost a separate work in its own right.
It’s hard to imagine what could prevent someone from having a powerful response to the finale. It’s a whirlwind of religious fervor and musicality, but it’s devoted to a secular ideal—the dream of peace for all mankind. Baritone Grant made a particularly memorable entrance, but it was the massed force of all those voices and instruments working together that left the most lasting impression. Bravo to maestro Kabaretti and his collaborators for bringing this one-of-a-kind musical experience to our city at the outset of their season.