Whatever it is that makes one of the most iconic pieces in the symphonic repertoire sound exciting, conductor Matthew Halls produced with the help of the Toronto Symphony, Mendelssohn Choir and soloists at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday night.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was premiered in Vienna in 1824, with the by-then-deaf composer sort-of leading the performance. The work has been an inspiration to other composers, choristers, orchestra players, vocal soloists and conductors ever since.
It has been analysed, dissected, commented on and recorded by the greatest musical minds.
So what did British conductor Matthew Halls, making his Toronto début, do to bring Wednesday’s audience noisily to its feet after the final chords? How did he make the music sound so alive and vibrant?
The simple answer is he knew exactly where to take the long and winding road to the final Ode to Joy, of how to shape and layer the pile-up of Beethoven’s musical motifs that lead us to the outbreak of voices in the fourth movement.
It’s a question of pacing, of knowing how long to hold off on the biggest crescendos and on when to keep the orchestra whisper-quiet.
Halls also had a great time bringing out inner voices in Beethoven’s orchestration, creating sonic textures in the process.
At other times, the excitement came from sheer volume, as the conductor pushed members of the orchestra as well as the choir to give it their all.
Halls had learned the piece, as well as the two shorter works that opened the evening, by heart, and was clearly in control of every detail and knew how to inspire every musician to do their best.
The orchestra was tight, as was the Mendelssohn Choir, arrayed on stage rather than in the choir loft. The four soloists were an excellent match as well as an excuse to celebrate three great Canadian voices — soprano Erin Wall, mezzo Allyson McHardy and tenor Joseph Kaiser — alongside impressive Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang.
This was a beautiful, moving and memorable performance of a masterpiece that was nicely introduced by Beethoven’s short-but-dramatic Coriolan Overture, in a high-definition reading, and the sweet Serenade for String Orchestra by Edward Elgar, a prelude for the careful, lyrical shaping of the slow movement in Beethoven’s Ninth that was to come.
Evenings at the symphony don’t get more satisfying than this, making it well worth trying to catch one of the repeat performances on Friday or Saturday. Details here.