Carnegie Hall offered a winning combination for this concert: Beethoven's blazing Ninth Symphony played by a foreign orchestra that's rated better than all but one American ensemble.
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is No. 6 on a list of the world's best orchestras compiled by Gramophone magazine _ a top classical music publication. Among American orchestras, only the Chicago Symphony is ahead _ but barely, at No. 5.
On Saturday, a capacity audience erupted to its feet after Beethoven's Ninth _ the "Ode to Joy" vision of unified mankind that in 1989 was played by this same German orchestra under Leonard Bernstein to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Under Mariss Jansons, a super sought-after conductor, the Grammy award winning ensemble from Munich did not allow the audience to rest. Jansons makes each note sound new, creating the kind of drama that keeps both listeners and musicians poised for, "What happens next?"
He does nothing for empty spectacle. And yet, the result was spectacular, whether in the pianissimo first sixteen measures with no secure sense of key or rhythm _ the deaf composer's journey from anguished darkness to light _ or when all 250 musicians on the stage joined forces for the ending.
At the start of the last movement, the bass calls out, "Freunde!" (meaning friends), followed by "Freude, schoener Goetterfunken (joy, fair spark of the gods) _ the ode that grows out of hushed solitude and confusion into transcendent heights of humanity. The orchestra was joined by the Westminster Symphonic Choir and a quartet of superb soloists who ended the work with ecstatic tenderness: soprano Ricarda Merbeth, mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt, tenor Michael Schade and bass Michael Volle.
The clear timpani beats rang like gunshots through Carnegie, alternating with rich trumpet calls that finally yield to pure bliss in sound. The Bavarians' violinists played with a glowing intensity rarely heard in other orchestras; there's no "dead wood" in this string section of equal energies, from first to last desk. But when precision is called for, like in the bracing second-movement fugue, the articulation was like silver filigree.
The orchestra breathes as one with its leader, performing like lovers in synch.
"When it's good, you feel like you are one with the orchestra _ like you're one organism," an exhausted but elated Jansons said later, backstage.
The 67-year-old conductor is a native of Latvia, born during World War II to a Jewish mother hiding in the city of Riga. Despite a history of heart attacks, Jansons' vitality seems unstoppable _ conducting the Ninth for more than an hour.
He became chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony in 2003. He's also chief conductor of Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which is No. 1 on British-based Gramophone's list of best orchestras released in the December issue.
Saturday was the second of three Carnegie concerts by the Bavarian Radio Symphony this weekend. Friday's program included a Mozart piano concerto featuring Emanuel Ax and a Tchaikovsky symphony.
And Saturday's started with Haydn's Symphony No. 88, its dance-inspired moments played with both easy precision and whimsy.
On Sunday, the orchestra played the U.S. premiere of "Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament," by the living Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin. He named the work after Beethoven's moving 1802 letter to his brothers _ a lament on his growing deafness written in the village of Heilingenstadt near Vienna.
In addition, Sunday's scheduled soloist for Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 was Gil Shaham, replacing Julia Fischer.
The Bavarian orchestra's Carnegie appearances signal the growing fame of a German city's radio orchestra, founded in 1949 and now including television _ comparable to Arturo Toscanini's legendary NBC Symphony, which started as the network's house orchestra.
The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, its proper German name, "is a radio orchestra that didn't travel much and was not recognized for a long time," Jansons said. "But it finally is."
As for the Gramophone rating, "you cannot measure orchestras like sports competitions, No. 1, No. 2, No. 3," he said, because artistic tastes are subjective.
Still, he's pleased. "It's recognition."
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