Brockton’s Beethoven gamble succeeds

The Patriot Ledger

by Erik Sherman

It’s rare that a community orchestra takes on the more difficult works in the classical repertoire, let alone a monumental piece such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – and for good reason. The Ninth is long and demanding of players, not only artistically but physically. It is also very well-known and sets high expectations in the audience.

The Brockton Symphony Orchestra’s decision to perform the Ninth for the final concerts of the orchestra’s 50th season, with the aid of Boston’s Chorus Pro Musica in the final movement, was a bold gamble that largely worked.

The program, heard Sunday afternoon, began with Golden Fanfare, a piece commissioned from local composer Dr. Beth Denisch. This short piece was quite interesting, creating contradictory reactions from a structured use of discord through repetition and partial resolution into more pleasing harmonics.

According to the program, the intent was to show the difficult times seen by the city as well as recent accomplishments and the spirit of struggle throughout it all. Musically, the composer achieved her goal, especially in the musing canon at the end, in which the melody is passed from one section of the orchestra to the next.

For Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Choral,” conductor Jonathan Cohler looked back to the composer’s original tempo markings, a practice that is rarer than it might seem. Most conductors approach the piece more slowly and ponderously, risking a bombastic feel. Cohler’s decision to join the growing cadre of conductors – including the late Georg Solti and Cohler’s mentor, Benjamin Zander – who take Beethoven’s score at face value, was wise.

The first movement fairly flew along. Cohler’s approach more readily connected the opening notes to the thundering melodies that eventually follow. Even the third movement’s adagio was fast, compared to many other interpretations. The result was the orchestral equivalent of singing, an appropriate introduction to the final section of the symphony.

In the last movement, the orchestra came together most strongly, driving through even the most blazing passages with abandon, and the Chorus Pro Musica sang with enjoyably clean annunciation and crisp attacks.

Cohler found a strong set of soloists in soprano Ellen Chickering, mezzo-soprano Gale Fuller, tenor Mark Nemeskal and baritone James Kleyla. The latter made a strong entrance with the recitative, “O Freunde,” which acts as a bridge between the thunderous orchestral railings and the rousing “Ode to Joy.”

Nemeskal’s tenor proved to be remarkably rich, with an almost Wagnerian quality. The “Ode to Joy” does not offer the same attention to the female voices, but even in parts, Fuller’s warm, lush mezzo and Chickering’s powerful and ringing soprano carried well.

Where the gamble did not pay off completely was early  on in the  Beethoven, where some orchestral takes marred the effect. There were some tuning problems in the violins, which also seemed to be greatly challenged in the fastest passages.

There was a disruptive break between the second and third movements to allow the chorus and soloists to come onstage, rather than having them sit through the entire piece, as is more common.

A problem outside the orchestra’s control is the space. The first two movements sounded very flat, which I at first wrongly attributed to Cohler’s interpretation. But as the piece moved on and the sound of the entire chorus was swallowed up by the cave-like Brockton High School auditorium, it was obvious that the lack of dynamic range was not the fault of the players.

Luckily, there will be a chance to hear the concert in a much better space. The orchestra will perform the same program at 8 p.m. April 18 in Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory in Boston.