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Symphony aims to restore emotion to Beethoven's 9th

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: There are those icons in any art form that are so pervasive, so utterly recognizable that any bastardization of the original is recognizable.

Warhol’s soup can, Ishmael’s greeting in “Moby Dick,” Hepburn’s Holly Golightly with a cigarette and, of course, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” These masterpieces have been spliced, diced and made into everything from greeting cards to cheap wall art to elevator music.

St. Louis Symphony Director David Robertson has had enough. He says he wants to put the emotion back into what is arguably Ludwig Von Beethoven’s greatest work.

All this season, and frankly in almost every concert Robertson conceives, his goal is to do more than present the beauty and majesty of classical music in grand fashion. He has made Powell Symphony Hall the local bastion of thoughtful contemplation: A place to experience music, its frailties and its scope. And when a person leaves, he or she carries the experience to savor and consider later.

This weekend may hit that mark more than any other.

The finale of the St. Louis Symphony’s 2012-13 season will present Beethoven’s “9th Symphony, Ode to Joy” as its dramatic and poignant finish. To get us there, Robertson, the symphony, the St. Louis Symphony Chorus and soloists, including soprano Susanna Phillips, will begin with Anton Bruckner’s Motet: “Christus factus est” and Act III of Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck.”

Robertson acknowledges that the final piece is the draw, but he wants to make it more than a live performance of a major work.

“Yes, it fills the hall, and many people love the piece,” he said. “It has a lot of importance, and it has been expressed and interpreted in so many different ways for so many different people. I wanted to say: Here we are in the 21st century, and this symphony has been around for almost 200 years — so what does it mean to us?”

Robertson’s question relates to the individual listener and to society as a whole. A symphony of this stature obviously has staying power, but with what meaning? Robertson asks.

Moreover, this conductor takes seriously his responsibility as a steward of classical music, and he seems determined to restore Beethoven’s 9th to its full grandeur by reaching people with it.

Vocal innovation

For those who are unfamiliar with the origins of “Ode to Joy,” it was the first symphony in which a composer of note included vocals. Four singers perform the final movement using portions of 18th century German poet Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy. This weekend’s performances will feature Phillips, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, tenor Joseph Kaiser and baritone Corey McKern, as well as the symphony chorus.

Beethoven “chose parts of the Schiller — not by any means the whole poem -- and what you have is a question about brotherhood that is not just a simple one,” Robertson said.

“The tense is not future, nor present. It is not as easy as ‘all men will be brothers,’ or ‘all men are brothers’,” he continued, quoting the poem.

Rather, he said, “It suggests that ‘all men will become brothers, but only in the event that … .” It suggests, Robertson said, there is a choice between good and evil. The idea that all may go to the proverbial fountain of joy to drink and to live, all, save those who have not made connections and will go wanting and weeping.

Clearly, this is the thinking person’s season finale. Robertson has chosen the music thematically to bring us to the climax of Beethoven, to give it its proper due and offer the opportunity to experience all of the emotion that a work of art, or in this case a single symphony concert, can distill from the listener.

Robertson draws upon the themes of brotherhood and connection. Raising a musical mirror of sorts to beg the question of what happens to society when connection is lost? Have we come so anesthetized that we cannot feel, even as we watch the Boston marathon bombings unfold or witness the unimaginable angst of the Sandy Hook parents?

Emotional crescendo

Beginning with Bruckner’s motet, Robertson allows his audience to wade into the music gradually. Note by note the audience will begin to experience the work, feel the tension as it builds and leads to an emotional crescendo, then ebbing away to its end.

“Bruckner’s motets and the harmonies are so aching and so full of empathy,” Robertson said.

He follows Bruckner with Berg’s first opera, which is based on German playwright Georg Büchner’s intensely devastating “Wozzeck,” a work the playwright never completed.

The Austrian composer’s offering, which explores the treatment of the poor and disenfranchised, is just as brutal and stark as its inspiration piece and its third act is particularly dramatic, said Phillips, who sings the part of Maria.

“It is very dramatic moment for Maria reading the Bible with her son near,” she said. The performance demands a sort of “speak singing” that offers a raw and realistic edge to the performance, she said.

Void of costume and direct context, "Wozzeck" is made even more powerful by its placement in this concert than performing the entire opera or only the Beethoven. It is in the bookending of the Berg, that Phillips said Robertson has shown his brilliance.

“This is my own humble opinion, but to me it is a different way of considering the music,” she said. “It makes the works of the upmost importance.”

Ultimately, the entire performance begs the question: Are we our brothers’ keepers? What do we owe other human beings? These are the sorts of questions Robertson relishes.

In fact, in this concert Robertson and this extensive collection of musical artists are challenging us to step out of our consumer-driven comfort zones. Musically, Robertson and the musicians are offering a wake-up call, an evening to listen and an opportunity to live. Really live: through our senses and our minds.

Robertson says that reducing Beethoven’s most powerful, most haunting, most relevant piece of music to a ringtone not only diminishes this important work of artistry, it speaks to the larger complacency so pervasive in our consumer culture.

The performances are learning experiences that can transcend society and transform audiences, at least that is what Robertson hopes as he takes up his baton and urges us to take out the earbuds, turn off the computers, lay down virtual weapons and stop living our sanitized, individualized iPod-like existences and live.

After all, isn't that what art is at its best?

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