Is it possible to have a Beethoven Festival without the Ninth Symphony? Apparently the Utah Symphony doesn't think so.
Three years ago that mighty opus was clearly the piece de resistance in a weekend pairing of that composer's works. Likewise Saturday at Symphony Hall, where it climaxed four days and six concerts' worth. (Encore performances of the Seventh Symphony and Violin Concerto were to be presented Sunday at Snowbird.)And climax is the word, given music director Joseph Silverstein's powerhouse view of the piece. In short, this Ninth still packs a wallop, from the dark stirrings of the opening movement, here dramatically resolute, to the concluding "Ode to Joy," which under his direction was rammed home triumphantly.
Others may have found greater spirituality in this music, particularly the Adagio, whose hymn-like grandeur might have been arrived at more expansively. But the strength and resiliency of the whole were undeniable, whether in the controlled thunder of the scherzo, its trio taken rapidly, or the firm articulation of the finale's main theme, unflinchingly given out by the low strings.
In this they were seconded by the Utah Symphony Chorus, which moved through the remainder of the movement with clarity and conviction. Especially the men, the force of whose singing lent extra punch even to the grand reprise following the fugue, which here rang out heroically.
Nor did the vocal quartet disappoint. Again, bass Peter Van De Graaff's intoning of Schiller's words was a joy to hear, lyrically resonant and free from strain. But no less welcome were Michael Best's trumpet-like tenor in the Turkish march, Kimberly McCullough's bright, girlish soprano and Laura Garff's warm, affecting mezzo. And, remarkably, each retained these individual qualities even in the otherwise well-balanced ensembles.
They did not eclipse the orchestra, however, which has sounded its best from the very first concert, bigger and more polished than I can ever remember. Nor were there any signs of fatigue in its playing Saturday, from the beautifully accented woodwind solos of the scherzo (with an especially well-deserved bow for horn Don Peterson) to the enthusiastic clangor of the finale.
Indeed, I am tempted to call it the best Ninth Silverstein has given us, as I was tempted to call Friday's the best of his Sevenths. Because the fact is he, too, has had a pretty good week for himself, on baton and bow. Witness not only the power of his Ninth but the brio of the curtain-raiser Saturday, an exuberant "Prometheus" Overture. And, before that, a thoroughly winning C major String Quintet, as part of the 6:15 "prelude concert."
Here, with associate concertmaster Gerald Elias, violists Scott Lewis and Jeffrey Wagner and cellist John Eckstein, Silverstein's violin was very much to the fore, to some extent a function of the work. But the animation and point of his playing were always relevant, and expertly supported.
Less successful was the opening trio for two oboes and English horn, the Variations on Mozart's "La ci darem la mano," which suggested that duet might have been set in a barnyard. But that does not diminish the success of the festival as a whole. Presaging perhaps a week of that master's music next summer?