Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony isn’t actually the biggest or longest symphony ever written. It is, however, the greatest monument of the symphonic repertoire, the one that Beethoven spent over 20 years preparing himself to write. This is the work with which the Peninsula Symphony chose to end its current concert season. I heard the performance at Flint Center in Cupertino last Saturday.
Music director Mitchell Sardou Klein led a big, grand, rather old-fashioned performance with as much of an epic quality as his musicians could bring to it. The suspenseful first movement and abrupt scherzo were dramatic and thundering. The Adagio was so slow and expansive that it felt like the largest part of the symphony. And the choral finale, the “Ode to Joy,” was broad and stately, with long pauses to gather itself every time the music changes gears, which it does frequently.
The musicians of this nonprofessional orchestra put everything they had into this symphony. The performance was on a high level, far better than in Alexander Glazunov’s Violin Concerto also on the program. The timpani thundered, and the horns and brass blared out prominently in a way that reminded me of the San Francisco Symphony in Seiji Ozawa’s day, except that the Peninsula players made fewer flubs. Highest honors go to the cellos and basses for the long recitative that introduces the “Ode to Joy.” This was both on point and full of character.
The concert had a real winner in the magnificently strong baritone Eugene Brancoveanu to sing the Ode’s big solo part. Soprano Shawnette Sulker had a particularly strong voice as well. Alto Sharmay Musacchio and tenor Kevin Gino also fit in suitably.
The soloists at least had the advantage of standing in front. Hidden in the back of Flint’s vast stage were the chorus members of the Masterworks Chorale. They could be heard, and Beethoven’s eccentric writing did not strain them but, from that location, the chorus failed to dominate as much as it should have. The chorus members also suffered the indignity of not being named in the program book.
Glazunov’s Violin Concerto was there to showcase soloist Isabella Perron. Just turned 16 less than three months ago, she has a deep and mature tone on her instrument, and a sure-handed way with fingering and bowing, particularly on the double stops which Glazunov demands frequently. The fairly brief concerto is lyrical and rhapsodic. Perron gave it an unusually incisive reading. The violinist, who lives in Montreal, also sings and plays piano. She has been on stage since the age of 3. Both her technical skill and her confident interpretation of the concerto suggest a fine career ahead of her.
The concert began with a set of brass and percussion fanfares (much thundering timpani again) led by departing assistant conductor Nathaniel Berman. Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” fit appropriately with the theme of universal friendship in Friedrich Schiller’s text for the “Ode to Joy.” The dramatically stark Copland was followed by Joan Tower’s cheeky reply, “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman,” a similar though more elaborate piece. The fanfares finished up with Leo Arnaud’s classic Olympics anthem, the one everyone knows from TV broadcasts of the games, offered as a surprise addition just because it’ll be relevant again this summer.
The Peninsula Symphony has already announced next year’s season, which will begin in November with Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” Each concert will include a work by a living female composer. November’s honoree is Cal State Long Beach professor Carolyn Bremer. In the meantime, there will be a free early-evening lawn concert at Hillview Park in Los Altos Saturday, June 25.