The closing Masterworks concerts of the Quad City Symphony's centennial season included a commission meant as a prelude leading, without pause, into Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. I was skeptical. The Choral symphony - one of the greatest compositions in music - was a logical conclusion for a season-long celebration of 100 years, but attaching contemporary music to it raised two questions: What could the new music possibly add, and would it diminish Beethoven's towering work?
Yet James Stephenson's A-ccord worked on several levels April 11 at the Adler Theatre. It successfully connected Beethoven to 21st Century musical thinking. More importantly, it neatly summarized the rigor and thoughtfulness of Music Director and Conductor Mark Russell Smith's highly symbolic program - which presented a unified message bridging time, style, and language, and ceded the spotlight to guest vocalists as the Quad City Symphony closed its milestone season.
A-ccord brought all that together, featuring both voices and instruments, placing an English translation of Friedrich Schiller's "Ode" (a component, in German, of the Ninth Symphony) alongside words from Quad Cities poet Dick Stahl, and treating Beethoven's source material in a contemporary way, with an innovative use of a single melodic line with rhythmic and orchestral variations.
The music began with a slow, unison chant-like tune in the choirs and orchestra. Suddenly, it burst into a fast tempo with changes in rhythm, orchestration, and vocalizations that took on the characteristics of a musical roller-coaster ride. The voices pulsated words that, similar to the musical content, seemed to suggest recognizable bits of music, perhaps Beethoven's Ninth; the somewhat vague allusions, to these ears, sounded like echoes of concerts throughout the 100-year history of the orchestra.
Stephenson's musical line was separated into motives and segments, and rhythmically varied. In one moment, the line was wildly spiraling throughout the orchestra from the unison string section into the woodwinds and down through the brass; then, in combinations of instruments (augmented by keyboard percussion), it created new timbre and musical characterizations. Despite fascinating changes in instrumental colors, the actual content was always monophony - one connected melody. And then the musical coaster glided back into its chant-like starting point and seamlessly, without stopping, morphed into the mysterious beginning of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
Smith called A-ccord "a brilliant solution to merging a contemporary feel with Beethoven." And I agree: Stephenson's piece had the conceptual, musical, and compositional legs to effectively segue into the Ninth and reinforce the tenets of Smith's program.
In the Beethoven symphony, the Quad City Symphony shined brightest in the heartfelt lyricism of the last two movements.
Throughout the third movement, difficult musical calisthenics, including changes of tempo, meter, and particularly the shapes of changing phrases, sounded effortless - relaxed, carefree, and radiantly beautiful. In this masterful musical pas de deux, the elegantly shaped melodic variations and answering obbligati glided smoothly between the strings and woodwinds. The melodic sequences in the violas and cellos were tenderly played, each a little more intense than the last, pushing through to a climactic point before passing the tune on to the second violins.
The insight in the orchestra's playing was not simply that each variation was articulately together, but that the differences in character were made distinct through contrasts in dynamic pressure and tonal nuance. For example, the ascending, thickly intensifying melodic sequences in the second violins and violas were combined with sweet, breath-like descending counter-melodies in the first violins.
The fourth-horn solo (performed by the principal player, a custom with many orchestras) was uniformly supple, demonstrating great flexibility in both range and tone control.
In the fourth movement, Smith led the cellos and basses through a robust instrumental "recitative," punching cadence points with the rest of the orchestra and foreshadowing the melodic material that appears later in the voices.
The vocal proclamation by guest bass-baritone Dean Elzinga at the beginning of the vocal section was appropriately startling and, when joined by the men of the chorus, launched a sturdy opening verse of Schiller's text of enthusiastic optimism for the brotherhood-of-man theme.
Subsequent entrances by the guest soloists - soprano Karen Slack, mezzo-soprano Eleni Matos, and tenor Vale Rideout - completed the quartet with musical vigor.
The Quad City Choral Arts and Handel Oratorio Society choirs prepared by Jon Hurdy were exceptional in their German diction, resulting in an electrifying and discrete statement of the "Ode" theme even when the orchestra was playing full-out. At the climatic point - "Embrace each other, you millions! This kiss is for the whole world!" - the male choir members sang powerfully through a difficult high range.
But most impressive was the double fugue that conveyed two messages and musical themes simultaneously. It was Hurdy's vivid vocal conception, the careful preparation of the choirs, and Smith's management of the complex orchestration that rendered the fugal material clearly discernible.
Opening the concert, Hurdy conducted both choirs in a performance of Arnold Schoenberg's setting of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's poem "Friede auf Erden" ("Peace on Earth"). "Friede" is an unaccompanied vocal piece that teeters on the cusp of atonality and whose message calls for an end to violence with an appeal for the youth to become leaders toward a peaceful future.
Moving from linear melodic counterpoint to more complex intervallic leaps, the choir showed not only control of the complex harmonies but a dynamic expanding and contracting of phrases typical of Romantic music.
At times, head tones in the sopranos overpowered their middle register, but the imitating thirds in the altos and sopranos ("On how many a holy night") were rich in both their blend and rhythmic counterpoint, creating a wonderfully exotic timbre. This musical color was re-created later between the sopranos and tenors with the "Peace" tone painting. And, at the climatic points of "Flaming swords for the righteous" and "Trumpets shall sound," the basses and tenors created a striking contrast of dynamics that led confidently to the final D-major chord with both choirs.
Symbolism ran through the evening. Closing this celebratory Masterworks season, Smith constructed an elegant program that made a strong case for the continued vitality of the Quad City Symphony - spotlighting collaborators, tying new music to one of the apexes of the canon, and forcefully articulating the selections' positive message of peace. There was also the pivotal role of the human voice in all three pieces. Complementary texts in English and German. Hurdy conducting his a cappella choirs with the orchestra quietly listening. Schoenberg's appeal to youth. Stephenson's decision to use only a unison melody that represented a "harmony" among mankind. And, finally, using Beethoven's masterpiece as a fitting exclamation point to the symphony's centennial.
The Quad City Symphony will close its season with a special concert featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma on Thursday, May 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the Adler Theatre. For more information, visit QCSymphony.com.
Frederick Morden is a retired orchestra-music director, conductor, composer, arranger, educator, and writer who has served on the executive board of the Conductors Guild. He can be reached at email@example.com.