Review: Two Years Later, a Beethoven Cycle Reaches Its Finale

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The Philadelphia Orchestra’s cycle of Beethoven symphonies was supposed to come to Carnegie Hall in spring 2020. It should go without saying: It didn’t.

But that series of concerts belongs to the lucky class of canceled performances that have found their way back to the stage. The journey, however, has been a mirror of our continued pandemic uncertainty. Although the cycle started last fall when the Fifth Symphony opened Carnegie’s season, it was delayed once again in January when the Omicron variant pushed off Beethoven’s Ninth — and its full-choir “Ode to Joy.”

So only on Monday did the cycle reach its conclusion, with the Philadelphians’ music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, at the podium for the First Symphony and the mighty Ninth, alongside a world premiere inspired by it, Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Pachamama Meets an Ode.”

In New York, Nézet-Séguin has taken on something like the role of resident conductor, even to the point of exhaustion; the performance on Monday came exactly a week before he leads a new production of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” at the Metropolitan Opera, where he is also the music director.

And because the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Beethoven concerts were an addition to its others planned at Carnegie this season, it has become the hall’s de facto house band. The ensemble was just there two weeks ago, with departures from the standard repertory (and Beethoven) that Zachary Woolfe applauded in The New York Times, while wagering that “nothing the Philadelphians do at Carnegie this season will be more impressive.”

At the very least, there won’t be much competition from Monday’s appearance. Beethoven’s extremes — the consummate Classicism of the First, and the controlled excess of the Ninth — were absorbing but imperfect in this reading. But it was nevertheless a moving program, in large part because of Frank’s premiere.

At their best, Beethoven cycles that fold in new commissions offer a conversation between past and present. Frank’s is quite literally a dialogue, however imagined, with the composer she calls “Great Man.” And who better to contend with Beethoven? As a composer with hearing loss, Frank has written about perceiving him as a kindred spirit. The world-spanning background that inspires her practice — as the American daughter of a father with Lithuanian-Jewish heritage and a Peruvian mother of Chinese and Indigenous descent — provides a nuanced perspective, and check, on the brother-embracing aspirations of the “Ode to Joy.”

Her new work is a fantastical encounter between Beethoven and a contemporaneous Cusco School painter, tracing the climate crisis of today to the exploitation of natural resources and the global expansion of European powers in Beethoven’s time. In the piece’s 10 minutes, the text, written by Frank, invokes colonialism, animal extinction and images like a river “on oily fire.”

Using the same orchestration as Beethoven’s Ninth, minus its four vocal soloists, “Pachamama” is big, and deploys the emotive force of the “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem. Distinct textures do break the waves of sound: chromatic chattering in the strings, and dissonant humming in the choir — a nod, Frank notes, to Indigenous South American vocal music. The words are set straightforwardly, transformed only in the end to elongate the questions “What of odes?” and “What of joy?” Then a horn lingers indefinitely, a looming punctuation mark and a subtle bridge to the first bar of the Beethoven.

The two symphonies here demonstrated the Great Man’s enormous transformation in the 24 years between their premieres, but also how much of his late style was gestating in his youth.

His First is transparently indebted to Mozart and Haydn, until it isn’t. That moment, the Menuetto, is where Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation found its footing. Before, the strings — too many of them — were still mired in the introduction’s flowing phrases. But their articulation came sharply into focus with the Menuetto, a kind of artistic coming-of-age, with flashes of the Beethoven to come.

Nézet-Séguin is a gifted Mozart conductor, and his treatment of the finale — witty and nimble — could have been the overture to one of that composer’s operas. It was dampened only by the inflated orchestra; Beethoven can benefit from fewer instruments, for balance, clarity and, above all, energy.

Outsize scale was more problematic in the Ninth. Nézet-Séguin took a long view of the work, beginning in mysterious quiet, as if descending into the symphony from a great height, and building toward relentless grandeur in the “Ode to Joy” finale. But 25 minutes is a long time to sustain a climax, and the effect wore off long before the ending came.

The orchestra was at its best in the second movement, in which the strings maintained a fleet lightness that allowed for pronounced contrasts and, crucially, made room for the winds and brasses, drowned out elsewhere. Later, the players were sensitive accompanists to the vocal soloists, though the bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green needed no help commanding the stage with his booming entrance.

Green pulled back to mix, beautifully, with his fellow soloists. His voice was a surprising complement to the more slender brightness of the tenor Matthew Polenzani, and together, they wove rich textures with the soprano Angel Blue and the mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb. The Philadelphia Symphonic Choir was more difficult to follow. If you listened closely, you could make out an “alle Menschen” here and there, but the group’s sound was for the most part cloudy, as if coming from backstage, blending into the orchestra when it should have been heard above it.

Even the best performance of this symphony, though, would have been haunted by the Frank, which rendered Beethoven’s ecstatic finale a tad delusional, and his naïve optimism difficult to stomach — a reminder of how this work’s universal message has been dangerously put to universal use, and of its Enlightenment hopes yet to be realized, nearly 200 years later. In the fermata rest of the Ninth’s final bar, Frank’s horn still resonated in the mind, still asking: What of odes? What of joy?

Philadelphia Orchestra

Performed on Monday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan, and returning there on April 8 and 21; carnegiehall.org.

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