The Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra ended its season Friday night with an ambitious concert juxtaposing understated modern works with perhaps the greatest symphony of them all, Beethoven's Ninth. Under the baton of music director Scott Terrell, the orchestra worked hard to deliver Beethoven's colossal masterpiece to an appreciative soldout audience in the Singletary Center for the Arts' Concert Hall.
Written in the 1820s, "Beethoven 9," as it is sometimes called, was a watershed in the history of music, adding soloists and chorus for the first time into the purely instrumental texture of the symphony. It is a watershed for most orchestras and conductors as well — a true rite of passage.
This performance marked Terrell's debut with the work, and he acquitted himself decently. The orchestra did well to keep pace with his tempos, which tended toward Beethoven's own notoriously fast indications, but came across more as rhythmically careful than propulsive.
Similarly, throughout all the busy interchange of melodic motives and cross-rhythms, it was frequently unclear which instruments were meant to be prominent and which were meant to be accompaniment. This made for an exciting melee at times, but left the general impression of limited dynamic contrasts. Still, Terrell persevered through this work, which is about triumphant struggle in the first place. It would be interesting to hear him revisit the Ninth in the future, having weathered his maiden voyage.
The chorus, composed of members from the Lexington Singers, the Lexington Chamber Chorale and the Kentucky Bach Choir, sang capably, sounding fresher and more tuneful than many ensembles in this vocally treacherous work.
The soloists also gave fine efforts, especially baritone David Williams in the stentorian declamation that introduces the singing into the last movement, with its famous "Ode to Joy" passage. Mezzo soprano Allegra DeVita put forth more sound than is usually heard in the quartet mix. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan often floated notes and phrases that needed to soar, so her voice got a little lost. Tenor Brenton Ryan has an appealing sound but a slender voice, so he could hardly be heard in a part that requires a ringing, heroic tone.
As an opening-act contrast to the familiar aggression of the Beethoven, Terrell chose an atmospheric contemporary piece, Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov. This material seemed a better fit for Zetlan's talents, offering her opportunity for interesting vocal colors, although again, her voice needed more breath power to carry to the back of the big hall efficiently. The orchestra responded warmly to Golijov's gorgeous orchestration, with especially beautiful solo violin passages rendered by concertmaster Daniel Mason, and remarkably virtuosic clarinet playing by Michael Acord and Mark Kleine.
The small opening piece on the program, André Caplet's orchestral transcription of Debussy's beloved piano piece Clair de Lune, was not effective. In the same way that many orchestral works don't sound as good when played on a piano, this piece doesn't suit symphonic treatment. This was reflected in Terrell's straightforward, almost perfunctory leadership of the composition that serves most intermediate piano students as an exercise in ethereal rubato, tempo fluctuation within musical phrases. Perhaps that is why this rendition was littered with so many timing and ensemble problems.
After the musical morsel of the Debussy, the concert was interrupted for a financial plea from a member of the Philharmonic's board. Why was this not done before the program began? It was literally disconcerting. Similarly, when the orchestra paused to tune between the second and third movements of the Beethoven, not only did the tuning disrupt the dramatic flow of the work, the players actually worsened their intonation for the remainder of the concert.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musician, theater artist and lecturer at the University of Kentucky.