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Symphony review: DSSO finishes season with a big, bold Beethoven's 9th

The proper etiquette when attending the performance of a symphony is to refrain from applauding until the conclusion of the entire piece. But that rule proved impossible for many in attendance at the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra's final concert of the season to follow, because conductor Dirk Meyer unleashed a breathtakingly dynamic opening movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony at the DECC Symphony Hall on an unforgettable Saturday night.

The first half of Masterworks 7 Rebels & Innovators was the Minnesota premier of Dan Visconti's "Beatbox" for string quintet and orchestra, a work commissioned by a three-orchestra consortium that included the DSSO. The piece was written specifically for guest artists Sybarite5, who are attempting to do for chamber music what Pentatonix has done for a cappella (5 is the new 4 this century).

Comprised of violinists Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, Angela Pickett on viola, Laura Metcalf on cello, and Louis Levitt on double bass, the quintet made the most of their week in Duluth, performing at various local schools. They also closed Matinee Musicale's concert season with a performance Tuesday night that notably included Visconti's "Black Bend" and Shawn Conley's "Yann's Flight," which was inspired by nocturnal hang gliding.

This concert featured a pair of Radiohead songs, "Weird Fishes" -- which also served as their encore piece at Saturday night's concert -- and an achingly beautiful version of "No Surprises" the group arranged themselves. Jessica Meyer's "Getting Home (I Must Be)" highlighted Pickett's viola, and there also were works by Mozart and Dave Brubeck, along with some Argentinean tangos by Piazzolla ("Milonga Del Angel" and "Muerte Del Angel"), and a couple of Armenian folk songs. Their encore piece, Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker," had Whitney throwing down the gauntlet to Jimmy Page with her take on his incendiary guitar solo.

Meyer strategically prefaced the performance of "Beatbox" with a mini-lesson in music appreciation, hinting at the "unusual playing techniques" that would be on display, and having Metcalf provide insights into the piece. After describing the piece as a contrast of  "organized grooves" and "total chaos," with constantly changing meters and time signatures, Sybarite5 played a couple of excerpts where Visconti musically recreates the sounds of a DJ scratching a record and a cassette player in reverse. Letting the audience in on what they would be hearing was a smart move given that "Beatbox" represents a 21st century conception of classical music that comes across as almost alien to the ear in contrast to the traditional repertoire.

Visconti is interested in both harmonics and rhythm more than melody. It took a while for the groove to emerge in full form from the horns in the first movement of "Beatbox," then it dissipated until it came back following a swirling crescendo by the strings and cellos. I was most taken by the second movement, which began with rather eerie stratospheric chimes before developing a gorgeous, gossamer theme played by the woodwinds and pizzicato strings than was obliterated in a cacophonic crescendo.

The final movement was the one where the orchestra had the most opportunity to rock out with one of the grooves. I am not sure that most of the concert goers knew what to make of Visconti's composition, but there was no denying the virtuosity of the visiting musicians.

The signature aspect of "Beatbox" was the concerted effort to find every conceivable way of generating sound from a string instrument. At one point Whitney and Pickett actually were playing their instruments with spoons (I had a fascinating little discussion when them at intermission regarding their criteria for selection of those spoons). At various times Metcalf was strumming her cello like a guitar, slapping the side rhythmically, and sliding her bow below the bridge and just about the tailpiece. The DSSO string section was in on the fun as well, having the opportunity to flip their instruments over and rap on the back of them with an intricate pattern.

Somewhere Vivaldi is turning to Monteverdi or whoever it was that invented pizzicato and saying, "See what you started?"

All of that was but a prelude to the performance of Beethoven's "Choral" Symphony. Out of the pianissimo opening of the first movement, Meyer made his mark by having the main theme explode from the stage to fill the auditorium. It was not just the volume, but the crispness that drove home the power of the music. This was a big and bold presentation of a monumental work, with the conductor's passions on full display from start to finish, underscoring exactly why Meyer was brought in two years ago as the DSSO's music director.

Another key element of this opening salvo was the heightened emphasis Meyer placed on Fred Morgan's tympani, reminiscent of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in March 1942, but without the warp-speed rubato I find disconcerting. I thought the heightened percussion worked exceedingly well in the opening movement, although I found it a bit excessive in the second.

For me this performance represented a seismic shift in my thinking about this work. Previously the second movement scherzo was the one I listened to most often after the fourth, but as soon as I got home it was this opening movement I replayed over and over again.

It might be hard for a contemporary audience to consider Beethoven as a "Rebel & Innovator," since he is the definitive classical composer for millions of music lovers, but there are clear signs of that in his masterwork. Criticized for failing to follow the conventions of form, Beethoven counted in this second movement by writing the scherzo in triple time, but having the tempo make it sound like it was in quadruple time.

The third movement is really a sonic sorbet. It offers a lovely horn solo, and threatens a couple of times to build into something big and grand, but Beethoven backs off because he is saving everything for the biggest of all big finishes.

Meyer's decision this season to switch the viols and cellos on stage paid dividends when the "Ode to Joy" theme first appears in the cellos and basses and was the other definitive example of his approach with this symphony, the music rich, deep and strong from the first note. Then finally we were at the dramatic moment when the DSSO Chorus rises up and bass-baritone Seth Keaton disdains the tumultuous storm of music and urges his friends to strike up more pleasing and joyful sounds.

The theme spreads first to the viols and then the violins, foreshadowing the parallel progression followed by the soloists: tenor Florian Richter, mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert, and soprano Sarah Lawrence. Beethoven is a far cry from the likes of Bellini when it comes for writing for the human voice, but I think everybody singing in German becomes a critical part of the equation here. The singing is operatic because it is not about the words, it is about the emotions, and with the "Ode to Joy" they hit the audience like a tidal wave.

Looking over the roster for the DSSO chorus I was struck by both the relatively sparse number of tenors and how chorus master Richard Robbins has dealt with that shortfall. But rather amazingly there was never a point in the performance where that became a problem. However there were, perhaps not surprisingly, moments when the soloists were overwhelmed by the orchestra.

The final minute and a half is utterly transcendent. The descending strings after the final "Tochter aus Elysium" always thrills me to the core, as does the point at measure 930 when the violins go into those long slashing strokes that for some unfathomable reason I cannot begin to articulate I find the most visually arresting sight I have ever seen in watching an orchestra play.

It was grand, it was glorious, the applause began a beat after the final note and the entire audience was on its feet before Meyer had even turned around to acknowledge the tribute.

Parting Thoughts: It would be nigh impossible for me not to have been thrilled with the DSSO's 2014-15 season, since it included the three classical works that I have listened to the most during my life: Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "Messiah" and the final movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. The only pieces of music I have listened to more than that trio would have to be "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles, which is "classic" rock, and Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused," where Jimmy Page plays lead guitar with a violin bow and thereby gives me a classical connection as well.

This season was truly an embarrassment of riches when it came to guest artists and collaborative efforts. In the first camp we had John Novacek's "Rhapsody in Blue," Suren Bagratuni last month with the Dvořák cello concerto, and Joyce Yang playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21. In the latter the DSSO paired with NASA for Holst's "The Planets," Bentleyville for holiday tunes, Runway Manhattan for this year's Fashion Week, the Minnesota Ballet for "Scheherazade" and Lyric Opera of the North for a triumphant "Carmen."

For musical recommendations beyond repeated listening of the 9th Symphony, which was still pounding through my brain the morning after the concert, my suggestion would be to spend time listening to Beethoven's 7th Symphony, which I think on balance is  his second-best one. I was fortunate to hear it played by the Duluth East Symphony Orchestra when my youngest daughter was a second violinist. Circumstances forced the concert to be performed at Miller Hill Mall, which did not offer anything near acceptable acoustic conditions, but afforded me the singular opportunity to watch from behind the orchestra and for once to have the same perspective as the players.

If you are in a cinematic frame of mind after listening to the 9th Symphony, "Immortal Beloved" will seem the obvious choice, but 2007's "Copying Beethoven" offering something decidedly different with the conceit of the deaf composer conducting his symphony while being coached by a young woman hidden in the wings. It might be historical fiction from a narrative standpoint, but Ed Harris as the egocentric genius is totally worth a look. You can also set the stage for next season's opening concert by screening "The Competition."  Why?  The Prokofiev!

From the other half of the program, "Black Bend" from Dan Visconti's  "Lonesome Roads" album is probably the most striking of his compositions because who really expects a string quintet to really wail while playing the blues? Sybarite5 has a live performance of the piece on their "Disturb the Silence" album, so whichever album you check out first, the song serves as a bridge to the other one. Radiohead fans will go directly to Sybarite5's "Everything In Its Right Place" album.

Finally, the DSSO chorus is looking to expand for the upcoming season, which includes a full "Messiah" and has "Carmina Burana" as the symphony's grand finale this time next year. Plus, you have to think that sooner or later they are going to get around to doing this Beethoven thing again, which is not going to happen soon enough to suit me.