Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 "Choral" is one of those works everyone has heard, at least in part, whether they know it or not.
If you've ever hummed the tune Ode to Joy — in your church hymnal, it may be Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee — you have the basic theme.
And portions are scattered everywhere. Most recently, MSNBC personality Keith Olbermann co-opted a bit of the second movement as the theme for his show Countdown.
People who really know the piece tend to characterize it in lofty terms.
"This is one of the great works of man, one of the great achievements of civilization," says University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra director John Nardolillo, who will conduct the orchestra in the Ninth on Friday night. "For us to get to play it, for many of these students, it's the first time, and that's an incredible discovery. It's really extraordinary."
Like any great work, the appeal is multifaceted for students, from the intricacies of Beethoven's score to the sheer mood of the piece.
"It's the Ode to Joy," says John-Morgan Bush, 22, a senior from Madisonville who plays French horn. "It really is a message of joy and fulfillment or inner fulfillment. When we play it, and we come to the main theme in the fourth movement, it really is a culmination and inner resolution. You can't play that melody and be sad."
Now, playing it can be a whole other matter.
"I grossly underestimated my part," says trumpeter Julian Kaplan, 21, a senior from Charlotte, N.C.
Bush agrees. "We play an incredible amount of time, and when you listen to it, it doesn't seem like that much, but when you sit down to play it, it's very taxing physically."
Part of that is the length. While most symphonies run about 45 minutes or less, Beethoven's Ninth clocks in at more than an hour. In fact, that length plays a role in audio recording history: Compact discs were developed to hold 74 minutes of music — to be able to contain the Ninth in its entirety.
That is one of many pieces of lore about the symphony, including that Beethoven wrote it when he was completely deaf.
It also broke new ground as the first symphony to utilize a chorus. The UK Symphony performance will feature the UK choirs.
That puts a lot of bodies on stage, and student musicians say they feel the thrill of being part of such a massive undertaking.
"When you're sitting in the orchestra, and you hear one of the woodwinds come out, you realize they have a counter-melody with you, and you have a counter-melody with them. Those are the sort of things that just listening to a recording, you think how beautiful it is," says cellist Geoffrey Hershberger, 26, a doctoral student from Long Beach, Calif. "But playing it is like being in the middle of the score. It's an awe-inspiring experience."
Hershberger is one of several students who have played the piece before, though they all say there are new discoveries to make every time.
Violist Lauren Nelson, 25, a graduate student from Wilton, N.H., played in the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of the Ninth last April but says this time around, with a longer rehearsal schedule, she's had time to appreciate the piece.
"It's really neat to play it in the springtime," Nelson says. "Everything is new and fresh in springtime, and even though this was written a long time ago, there still is a freshness to it that comes through."