Last weekend's Arkansas Symphony concerts, featuring Beethoven's monumental Ninth Symphony, was extraordinary in that the mandatory "other work" on the program was Schoenberg's "A Survivor from Warsaw," with actor George Takei narrating and the River City Men's Chorus singing the Jewish Shema Israel. It's more common to pair a Mozart divertimento or maybe even Beethoven's First along with "the Ninth."
I was left unsatisfied at the end of the evening, although the larger-than-normal audience gave the assembled forces a rousing ovation, and leaving the music hall, I heard nothing but accolades from attendees in earshot.
The Schoenberg, written in 1947 after the composer had heard reports from survivors of what had happened in the Warsaw Ghetto, was typically atonal. Given the subject matter, the dissonance seemed more than appropriate. "A Survivor from Warsaw," however, is not one of Schoenberg's better works.
Narrating a piece for symphony orchestra always presents a huge challenge. The speaker can either be overwhelmed by the sound rising behind him, or in challenging the decibel level of the orchestra, he can become overly oratorical. The symphony tried to overcome the first problem by miking Takei. Putting his voice on the hall's loudspeaker system made his narration excessively dramatic, although his interpretation of the text was more than acceptable. The chorus was not miked, and so sounded weak in comparison.
Normally, after the "other work" is concluded, the stage is reset, the choral forces for next piece are assembled, and the symphony is performed without interruption. Music director Philip Mann, however, asked that the audience not applaud after the Schoenberg, and proceeded immediately to the first two movements of the Beethoven. He then fled the stage for an agonizing nine minutes, while the stage was reset and the four hundred members of the chorus trooped on. Then Mann reappeared with the four soloists, prompting the audience to a disconcerting round of applause, before the third movement began. Now, I realize that in Beethoven's day movements of symphonies were sometimes separated, even by other works, but that is not the 21st century way.
Mann's rendition of the Beethoven was individualistic. At 64 minutes of music, it lacked the drive of many modern performances, but it offered interesting balances between the sections of the orchestra as well as nuances not found in most readings of the score. There was a special drama in the interplay between the singing strings and the somber winds in the first movement, and the adagio third movement was beautifully played, with special praise due the violas. The section of the fourth movement recalling the sounds of a German street band was delightful, but with not so much Umpapa as I would have liked. The second movement was somewhat ponderous and the sections punctuated by the tympani jarring.
Of course, it is the fourth movement where Beethoven broke with all tradition, and that is what audiences sit for 40 minutes with bated breath to hear. The four soloists, Katherine Whyte, Christin-Marie Hill, Eric Barry and Robert Aaron Taylor, were all up to the task. Although the two women have lesser roles than the men, they had the stronger voices. The chorus was composed of collegiate choral groups that sang remarkably well, responding with exceptional unity to Mann's baton.
When four hundred voices are singing in an unfamiliar language, you can hardly expect to hear the words clearly. Even so, especially in the section where the male voices begin "Brueder, uber'm Sterenzelt," the German could be clearly distinguished.
Despite one slight intonation problem in the woodwinds in the first movement, the orchestra again showed that it is one of Arkansas's priceless assets. It deserves to have a full house every time it plays, even when this critic is left "unsatisfied."