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,
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

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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