Beethoven’s 9th – Beginnings and Endings



The 2014-15 choral season is drawing to a close.  It’s been an interesting one which, for me, began and will end with Beethoven’s 9th (aka the “Ode to Joy” symphony).  As the launching and landing point, “B9” has provided quite an interesting emotional arc to the season.  The initial performance was a benefit for a local animal shelter performed at a church in Chelsea.  The chorus was small, but so was the space, so we made a mighty noise and the character of the piece really rang out. Two months later we went from the sublime to the ridiculous and wickedly funny as the Collegiate Chorale brought “Not the Messiah” to New York audiences with an all-star cast (that included Eric Idle!).  From there we got serious and explored themes of persecution, anti-semitism and intolerance with our next two offerings: “The Defiant Requiem” (Verdi’s Requiem presented as a memorial to the

The Symphonic Spectacular featuring Yefim Bronfman, piano, Peter Oundjian, conductor, and the Orchestra of St. Lukeís performing in the  Venetian Theater at Caramoor in Katonah New York, on July 14 ,2013. photo by Gabe Palacio

The Symphonic Spectacular featuring Yefim Bronfman, piano, Peter Oundjian, conductor, and the Orchestra of St. Lukeís performing in the Venetian Theater at Caramoor in Katonah New York, on July 14 ,2013.
photo by Gabe Palacio

victims and survivors who performed it in the Terezin concentration camp) and Kurt Weill’s “The Road of Promise,” a restaging of his “The Eternal Road” that tells the story Jews banding together during a pogrom.  These works took us to dark places historically and emotionally, but allowed for beautiful moments of music to pierce through them.  It’s important for us to visit those moments of the human story of which we are not proud so that we remind ourselves of our capacities to commit atrocious acts.  But it’s equally important to engage with works of art that remind us that our capacities to love, forgive and create exist in equal measure.  This is what Beethoven’s 9th does, at least for me, and especially this year falling where it does at the end of a mostly dark season. How different it feels after so many rehearsals concerning death and oppression to sing the following (translated from the German):


However only the cockroaches and Carol Channing will be left to hear it…

Joy, beautiful spark of Gods,
Daughter of Elysium, 
We enter drunk with fire,
O heavenly one, Thy sanctuary!
Thy magic powers reunite
What custom has strictly divided;
All men shall become brothers
Where Thy gentle wing abides.

Furthermore, we’ll be performing it under the baton of Maestro Peter Oundjian as part of the opening night of the Caramoor Music Festival’s 70th anniversary celebration, an appropriately grand, verdant setting in Westchester County to present such lush, spirited music. In a few more weeks I’ll be able to share news of the 2015-16 season, but for now…

Traveling the Sistine Road (of Promise…)

Rehearsals have been underway for Kurt Weill and Franz Werfel’s The Road of Promise for several weeks now.  I can report that the Chorale is in fine voice and really enjoying working with this fascinating piece.  I was trying to think of how to describe it to someone recently, and it was hard to categorize.  It was originally an epic musical in the late 1930s titled The Eternal Road, the origins of which Janet Pascal has chronicled thoroughly here.  From what we’ve learned during the rehearsal process, it was quite possibly the most massive musical ever staged, with seven acres of set pieces, a 100+ person cast, and a length of nearly five hours.   This unwieldiness meant that revivals weren’t likely, so the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music commissioned a shortened version, which is The Road of Promise.

11078082_813690508720931_5446364770332979057_nAs a choral singer, you don’t get the full effect of a piece until you perform it with the orchestra and soloists, and there’s not a recording of this work yet (although there we’ll be: we’re making it!), but here’s what I can tell you.  While it is shorter in terms of time, it doesn’t seem to have lost much in terms of sound.  Weill’s sonic palate was rich and bright in this score, and his phrases are painted in broad strokes.  It’s luscious, even when we only have a piano to sing with; I can only imagine what the orchestra is going to sound like.

The story recounts a number of tales from the Old Testament as a Jewish community huddles fearfully in its synagogue during a pogrom.  Werfel’s lyrics, therefore, have the chorus perform one moment as God’s voice on the wind as he tells Abraham to spare his son, Isaac, and another moment as a choir of trumpeting angels.  Meanwhile, on the ground, you’ll hear us raucously rejoice as we worship the golden calf, pout grumpily as Joseph’s brothers who wish to kill him, and so forth.  It’s gorgeous music that relays profound subject matter, but it’s also quite a lot of fun to listen to.

So as I thought about how to describe it — lush sonic color, Old Testament themes — it occurred to me: this is the musical version of the Sistine Chapel, and I’m not just saying that to be cutesy.  Most operas and oratorios that deal with the same biblical subject matter hone in on a single story to explore in depth, but this work brings as many tales to life as it can in order to tell a much bigger story, which is exactly what the Sistine Chapel does.

So there you go.  I don’t know if anyone has ever described a musical work as ‘Sistine,’ but that’s what The Road of Promise is:

Huge. Breathtaking. Demanding. Gorgeous.


(AND tickets are still available!  May 6th and 7th at Carnegie Hall!)

The Road of Promise – I

Road of Promise Graphic 400pxNow that the Defiant Requiem is successfully behind us (as you can read here in the New York Times review), it’s time to look ahead to the Road of Promise (May 6 & 7 at Carnegie Hall).  I’m going to have much more to write about it as we immerse ourselves in the work during rehearsals in the coming weeks, but for now I give you this intro video: