The flip side of anything that’s become iconic, monumental, or a true classic is that we become so familiar with it that we tend to admire it from a distance, and sometimes we forget its original purpose. In the case of Beethoven, the biggest mistake we can make as a conductor or musician is to try to respect it so much that it sounds pristine, beautiful, perfect. Beethoven wrote his symphonies to push the envelope, to break the mold, to revolutionize music. And this is why he was not only the sum of everything to come before, but also is, and will probably remain, the most influential figure of music in history.
When I was a teenager, I spent all the money I made working in churches as a singer and chorus conductor buying recordings. There was one that was especially meaningful in my development: Leonard Bernstein conducting the Ninth Symphony with members from many orchestras and choruses from around the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the “Ode to Joy” he replaced the word “joy” with “freedom.” It made such an impact on me, not only the music and the interpretation, but it made me understand right away why this piece is so special to the world. And that whenever you put it on a program, there should always be a purpose: a purpose for humanity, a message that we need to remember that we are together.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will be performed June 3–6, 2022.
Photo: Jessica Griffin