Benjamin Zander is feeling the unmistakable ”fate and terror” of performance, right now. He shouldn’t be. He and the assembled musicians have been through this before and come out all right. And for these last 12 weeks they have brought their reading of Beethoven’s Ninth from dissonant muddle to formed unison.
But it is three or four rehearsals before performance; and, here in the fourth movement, the whole enterprise is creaking, groaning, and straining like a clipper ship trying to come about in a storm.
Conductor Zander and the almost entirely amateur Boston Philharmonic are taking on a symphony that is considered one of the most difficult in all of Western music, one in which the playing is most exposed and the problems of interpretation are transparently cruel.
Since the musicians in this orchestra include engineers, housewives, an astronomer, a social worker, and a sprinkling of professionals (Zander is a professional), the undertaking seems somewhat foolhardy. Civic symphonies do play the Ninth; but doing it the way that Zander and the Philharmonic do – with an uncompromising effort to get the exact and powerful conception of the composer – makes the enterprise that much more precarious.
Last year the Boston Philharmonic gave a performance of Mahler’s ”Resurrection” Symphony that stunned a Symphony Hall audience with the audacity of its vision and the intensity of its musicmaking. And the orchestra took it to Carnegie Hall, where at least one New York critic complained about the quality of playing.
That misses the point. What the Boston Philharmonic has to offer – and it offers something unique – is a kind of musicmaking that is individualistic, informed, and visionary. The Boston Philharmonic seldom sounds pretty or beautiful. But there is something more important than ”pretty” going on here.
”Listen to those old recordings of Toscanini and Furtwangler,” one musical observer advises. ”There are all kinds of mistakes and examples of bad playing. But it is very powerful, individualistic musicmaking.”
The Boston Philharmonic puts on performances that, at their best, tear down overvarnished traditions and replace them with rough-hewn originals.
”Something exciting is happening (with this orchestra) that hardly happens anywhere,” says one Boston musicologist. And another adds that the Boston Philharmonic performances have been ”among the most memorable musical experiences I can remember.”
The orchestra pushes through the fourth movement, deliberately. After 12 weeks of rehearsal – an unheard-of figure in most symphonic musicmaking – they are still making mistakes; but, even worse, they are struggling under the weight of this section. It is not moving of its own accord; rather, it is being pushed like a great stone.
Then, quite suddenly and inexplicably, something happens. The music comes together with a deep force, like an ocean swell coming up out of unseen depths; and music and musicians are propelled along with the intensity and beauty of it. We move deliriously to the end of the piece, and Beethoven’s driving, powerful conclusion comes rising upon us in a rush of unified, startling sound, building and building until it comes resolutely crashing to a thundering finish.
After months of study and effort, after long nights of wrestling with the great and small questions locked in the score of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, after a dozen weeks’ rehearsal in school auditorium and conservatory hall, the Boston Philharmonic’s monumental undertaking is rushing toward completion.
A conductor prominent on the Boston musical scene once told me that, after a particularly well-received performance of Bach’s B-Minor Mass, he went back to his dressing room and wept bitterly, because he felt he had failed.
Most of the musicians and audience members on hand that night might have agreed with his solutions to the music’s prodigious technical problems; but only the conductor knew how far short he had fallen from his personal vision of the piece.
The great composers have left a legacy of struggle and anguish to any conductor who cares enough to tackle the musical-emotional-spiritual challenges they have lived with themselves. It is possible to do a passable performance of a great composition without really dealing with these problems. But no truly great performance can emerge without months, and sometimes years, spent worrying over the small and great questions pertaining to the piece.
Benjamin Zander has spent almost the last four months wrestling with these problems. In his large hillside home in the Boston suburb of Watertown are the scattered evidences of this struggle: dozens of recordings – listened to and discarded for reasons of tempo inconsistencies or overromanticism – the score itself, books and monographs.
But, mostly, there is Zander himself, sitting at the piano, pounding out the knottiest passages, muttering things about the tempo in the fourth movement march and elsewhere.
”There are questions that have never been answered,” he says distractedly, ”problems that have never been solved.” Among these are the places in which the Italian language descriptives, such as Presto and Allegro, are plainly in conflict with the numerical metronome markings, which call for a specific number of beats per minute.
Looming mountainlike above such problems is the stature of the piece itself. What makes Beethoven’s Ninth such an awesome undertaking is not only the thorny technical problems; it is also the certain knowledge of how great the work can be.
Done right, as it almost never is, the Ninth is perhaps the most original, threatening, uplifting, work of self-portraiture ever conceived by a composer. Knowing this, as most musicians must, how can anyone undertake the thing lightly? Somewhere along the line, if a conductor is doing his work, he must wake up in the middle of the night and realize that he is face to face with the issues that tormented and exulted Ludwig van Beethoven himself.
”Of course I’m worried,” Zander admits. ”Of course I wake up in the middle of the night.” But he thinks he has found the answer to almost all the questions he has been asking himself about the music.
When, after months of searching, he finally came up with a solution for playing the march in the fourth movement, he was ecstatic. I met him that night on Commonwealth Avenue, and he played a march in a similar tempo on his tape recorder, marching happily up and down the street to show how the tempo fitted in march time.
He says that the character of the piece emerges when you solve such problems of tempo, phrasing, rhythm, intonation, and a dozen other considerations. But over and above these issues lie unspoken and perhaps unanswerable questions: Can you play the piece in such a way that new truth emerges? Can you make it into what Beethoven intended it to be? Do you have the personal and moral force to make the performance happen?
They are questions that have to be approached with awe, because the Ninth is a work of such incomparable and transcendent creativity. The piece changed the definition of the word ”symphony” for good. Mahler and Bruckner lived most of their musical lives in constant relation to it.
By the time he wrote the Ninth, Beethoven – deaf and emotionally spent from years of personal and financial struggle – presented a strange paradox as a composer: He had mastered and rewrought the classical forms left by Haydn and Mozart, and thus had achieved a kind of sublime peace with his art; but he had also endured years of anguish over his relationship with an adopted nephew, Karl , and was still resolving within himself feelings of loss, loneliness, bitterness, and despair.
In this tangle of moods, he entered a new creative period in his life, which was to beget a revolutionary style of symphonic music.
”The emergence of the new style was to be a slow and trying process,” writes Maynard Solomon in a recent probing biography of the composer. ”Beethoven would have to forge his way slowly, almost blindly, one masterpiece at a time, into the world of the last period . . . while it was taking place, the process was one of considerable anguish.” It was, Solomon adds, ”one of the turning points of musical history.”
History doesn’t turn easily. And with the Ninth, we have an example of the composer hammering all the wrenching demands of history into his most major work and leaving them there to be discovered by those who care to follow in his footsteps.
The Ninth and some of its symphonic predecessors take on vast moral and ethical dimensions with what Solomon calls ”the incorporation into musical form of death, destructiveness, anxiety, and aggression, as terrors to be transcended within the work of art itself.” He adds that it is ”this intrusion of hostile energy, raising the possibility of loss, that . . . also make(s) affirmation worthwhile.”
The first movement, with its stormy confluence of down-sweeping gestures and up-rushing currents, ends in chaos and despair. The second propels us through the most self-energizing stream of purposeful music into a different order of things entirely, one not without its share of manic frenzy. The third is a keening and sublime meditation on the absence of conflict and the presence of affection. And the fourth emerges as a hymn to the joy of human brotherhood under God.
Anyone who seriously undertakes this work – anyone who spends the lonely nights and afternoons searching for his own vision of what Beethoven was saying – ultimately takes upon himself the struggle and triumph of this strange and wonderful man who marched around the streets of Vienna in a floor-length dirty green coat with a stubby pencil, occasionally barking out passages of music, and scribbling them down in a sketchbook.
Sunday night, March 6, Symphony Hall. The Boston Philharmonic is on stage. The hall is crammed with concertgoers. At the box office, they are turning away 500 ticket seekers: The performance is sold out.
Suddenly, silence falls among the tuning instruments. There is a hush in the auditorium as the house lights darken. And Benjamin Zander strides out to the podium.
This is the first time Zander and the Boston Philharmonic have taken the Ninth all the way through from beginning to end. The first time they had done it before a sold-out audience in an electrified Symphony Hall. And the first time they hear the thunderous response of 2,625 concertgoers who simply pour out their appreciation – in a standing, stamping, cheering ovation – for a performance the likes of which they seldom hear anyplace.
It is a night to remember.
For a reporter sitting on stage, in the midst of the orchestra throughout the performance, sandwiched between the bass trombonist and a violist, there is the emotional-aural maelstrom that surrounds a musician onstage. There are new revelations about the unexpected poignancy of the Trio in the second movement, the deliciousness of the fourth movement march at this tempo, and a dozen other unexpected pleasures.
And there is the remarkable aspect of conductor Benjamin Zander — focused, intent, so completely a part of the struggle and triumph of the mighty Ninth.
I find myself thinking of James Agee’s remarkable words about another of Beethoven’s works in ”Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”:
”Get a radio or phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony . . . But I don’t mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then, get down on the floor and jam your ear as close to the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible and not moving . . .
Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous . . . and nothing can equal the [destruction] it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence of dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.”
Short of following James Agee’s rather radical advice, I know of no way to duplicate the experience of sitting on the Symphony Hall stage with the Boston Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s Ninth. What you hear is not polite of legal; but it is frequently pretty and beautiful.
What you are not prepared for is the incredible detail of the thing: tiny rivulets of sound; little fragments of melody; isolated pieces of rhythm. The point is that Beethoven built this mighty structure out of the most minutely fashioned moments that are happening simultaneously at any give time throughout the orchestra.
As a concertgoer, you miss the fact that, during one of those thunderously stormy passages, the violas are playing a tender phrase that is the very thing that adds luster and humanity to the storm.
For me, the key throughout the whole journey – from the first early rehearsals in a dimly lit school auditorium – was Benjamin Zander’s total faith in Beethoven and his creation.
This faith stood Zander in good stead as he led the orchestra through a performance of the Ninth that was not only visionary and individualistic, but polished and subtle as well. The musicians played with an intensity, fervor, and skill that was unmatched in my concertgoing experience. And the power of communication in the performance was evident from the way the audience leaped to its feet in jubilant, occasionally tearful, appreciation. The response was so overwhelming, in fact, that plans are underway to take the performance to Carnegie Hall in October, and repeating it in Boston that month.
That night, as he stood at the podium conducting an orchestra of volunteers – an astronomer, a social worker, a storyteller-clown, a chemistry professor who travels up from New York just to play with him – before an audience that contained the cream of Boston’s considerable collection of musical minds, it was the music itself that seemed to bear Benjamin Zander along.
You could see it in his face. He had found his way to the heart of the Ninth. And the nice thing was:
We were all there with him.