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New York

People in the music business have been badmouthing the New York Philharmonic. And why? Because the orchestra played all nine Beethoven symphonies at special concerts at the start of its new season.
That, I’ve been told, is "unimaginative programming." It’s a cynical ploy to sell tickets, by turning the Philharmonic into the classical equivalent of a top-40 radio station. The public, however, either disagreed, or responded to the ploy, since the concerts sold out. And I side with the public. I went to the series largely out of curiosity --   "Everyone’s so negative," I kept thinking, "so I wonder what the concerts will really be like"  -- but I ended up enthralled.
It’s a privilege, for one thing, to hear all nine Beethoven symphonies, close together, and live. If classical music means anything, these works are at its core; if they don’t shift something deep inside you, then something went wrong. The first two symphonies have a lightweight reputation, but in fact they’re remarkably tough and lively, and seem light only when you compare them to what came afterward -- to the third symphony (the "Eroica"), let’s say, where Beethoven reaches heights of both logic and feeling that music had never known before. In the "Eroica," even the connections of one phrase to another are astonishing, the way one idea, refusing to tie itself neatly into a bow, mutates instead into its successor. For the first time in history -- just in time for the industrial revolution  -- struggle and progress entered the heartbeat of music.

In the fifth symphony, the struggle is overt. Beethoven can’t just end the piece; he fights to find a conclusion, exploding from darkness into blazing sunlight. And in the sixth he does the same thing, though it’s easy to minimize his effort, since the work, nicknamed the "Pastoral," tells a peaceful story, about a day in the countryside. But when a storm precedes the finale, it has a metaphorical meaning as well as a literal one, and Beethoven’s joy when the sun reappears is deep enough to tell us that there’s more at stake than the weather.
In the ninth symphony, the struggle gets volcanic. Beethoven shows us how hard it is to end the work; before he can finish, he tears his work apart, quoting themes from the first three movements. All of them were powerful when we first heard them, but now, with rough gestures of musical dismissal, he sweeps them all away.
By this time the instruments of the orchestra aren’t enough for him; he needs to bring in voices, representing all humankind, leaping into a joy, which (if we read the Schiller poem Beethoven uses for his text) was always there for us to find. At the conclusion, he throws away all restraint, turning into a blatant holy fool, howling with happiness and freedom as his last symphony ends.

Of course, not much of this would come through in bad performances. So here I have to honor Kurt Masur, the Philharmonic’s music director, who came in for special abuse ("stodgy" might have been the mildest criticism I heard) from my doubting friends in the business. In panel discussions at the start of the series, he said two things that, I have to admit, are red flags for anyone who’s been around the classical music world long enough to grow cynical. He said he thinks the symphonies have such moral force that they need to be heard, and that no matter how often he conducts them, they’re always new.
These phrases, especially the second, are suspect because they’re what everyone says. How else do you justify playing the same music over and over? But, to judge from his performances, Mr. Masur meant every word. Let's not forget that he spent most of his life in the former East Germany, where he was a notable voice for liberty, and where -- since telling the truth in words was forbidden -- truthful music could have a force we (in what used to be called the free world) can barely imagine.
The first concert, I’ll admit, was a waste. The first symphony sounded slack, and before it, a bad programming mistake, came the four overtures Beethoven wrote for his opera "Fidelio." Detached from the opera these either have no audible connection, or (in the case of the "Leonora No. 2" and "Leonora No. 3") are such close clones that you wonder why you're hearing them together. A better choice would have been early Beethoven chamber music, from the time of the first symphony, or symphonies by earlier composers like Haydn, which would have showed us why, in his time, Beethoven sounded so surprising.

With the second symphony, though, things greatly improved. Mr. Masur has conducted these works repeatedly (the seventh symphony alone, according to a note in the program, 111 times while he was music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra), and his experience is one of his greatest strengths. That was especially true in the "Eroica," where he knew exactly where each phrase stood, and exactly where it was going. He took the seventh symphony, apart from the slow movement, in a thrilling rush, and found a completely new, larger sound for the ninth, which he made stand out from the others as a grander, more profound and more public statement.
His commitment showed most of all in some of the slow movements, especially in the second (where he shaped the music with detached but perceptible affection), the third and the seventh symphonies. His comparative strength in slow movements might partly be the result of some draw-hacks in his conducting -- his beat, for instance, can get rigid when the music gets fast, stiffening the rhythm, and threatening to slow the tempo. (Which made his power in the seventh symphony, where most of the music is fast and rhythmic, even more impressive.) Nor does he have much range once the music gets loud. He never conducted a true fortissimo, and he underplayed many of the dynamic contrasts that, properly underlined, make this music burst all conventional bounds and grow truly wild.
The orchestra, too, has its weaknesses. The Philharmonic’s advertising last year stressed the musicians’ virtuosity, and that’s accurate. But some of the principal players -- the woman with short, dark hair, for instance, who played first flute for seven of the nine symphonies -- stood out too much, as if their virtuosity meant too much to them. The entire horn section, extraordinary inst instrumentalists sometimes engaged in blatant self-promotion, at their worst conveying just one message: "Yo! Listen to us!"
The first violins are weak; they sounded crude and prosaic in the slow movement of the ninth, in great contrast to the violas, whose purity was a high musical achievement. Incredibly, the back stands of the first violins sometimes dragged behind the rest (especially in the sweeping upwaid scale at bars 210 to 212 in the slow movement of the seventh.) The basses are the strongest section -- noble, precise and always true to the music’s inner meaning.
But these problems couldn’t completely stand in Beethoven’s way. Though I’m left with just one question. Why didn’t the Philharmonic promote the cycle more? The obvious answer, of course, is that they didn’t have to; the tickets sold quickly. But they missed a great opportunity. With a little energy and imagination, they might have made all New York talk about Beethoven, which would have been good for them, for us, for classical music -- and might even have given the city a brief, striking moment of spiritual renewal.

Wall Street Journal, October 15, 1998