Odes to Joy and Oy: From the 9th to 9/11, Beethoven Meets Adams in the Wild West

Photo credit: Michael Hyatt.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Opus 125”, aka the “Ode to Joy” or “Choral”, has long been my favorite piece of music. But oddly enough, your itinerant critic had never actually heard it performed live in his entire life - that is, not until fate corralled me and I attended Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s season finale on April 8. But after I heard Ludwig van’s final symphony performed live way down yonder at Tucson Music Hall, would I feel the same way about the fabled “Ninth”?


Before the TSO performed Beethoven’s immortal masterwork, which had premiered in 1824 at Vienna, the Arizona orchestra opened the matinee with another thought-provoking, powerful work by a different musical giant. If Ludwig van’s piece de resistance is a homage to happiness, John Adams’ elegiac “On the Transmigration of Souls” is a paean to pity, tragedy and grief. One of the 20th and 21st centuries’ greatest classical composers, the 1947-born Adams is one of contemporary classical music’s top composers - and no stranger to controversy, often creating operas and other works about touchy topical topics.


In 1987 Adams and librettist Alice Goodman co-created Nixon in China, about Tricky Dick’s journey to Mao’s Middle Kingdom. With a libretto by stellar Peter Sellars, the 2005 opera Doctor Atomic is about nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. 1991’s The Death of Klinghoffer dramatizes the liquidation of a wheelchair-bound American Jewish passenger aboard the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985 by Palestinian hijackers.


In “On the Transmigration of Souls” the composer turns to another conflict that has pitted Americans against Middle Easterners and what is arguably the intrepid Adams’ most sensitive subject to date. Commissioned shortly after 9/11 and premiering at Manhattan’s august Avery Fisher Hall one year after that catastrophe, “Transmigration” seeks to impart a sense of reverence in the beholder. Using an orchestra (here, TSO), chorus (TSO chorus), children’s chorus (Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, directed by Dr. Julian Ackerley) and pre-recorded sound, Adams brilliantly deploys the modern classical idiom to express what Marlon Brando called “the horror, the horror, the horror” in 1979’s Apocalypse Now to convey the apocalyptic terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. In doing so, Adams gives aural form to not only that tragic strike but to what he was an eye-witness - or, perhaps, “ear-witness” to - six months after bin Laden’s Gotterdammerung, when first responders gave the composer a guided tour of that hell known as Ground Zero.


If Beethoven’s final symphony is the “Ode to Joy”, Adams’ “Transmigration” could be called the “Ode to Oy!” A number of members of the sold out crowd were caught off guard by TSO’s performance of Adams’ dissonant requiem for the thousands butchered on Sept. 11th, 2001 and expressed dismay that such a somber piece was paired with Ludwig van’s exuberant apotheosis. Although conductor José Luiz Gomez gave pre-show talks before the proverbial curtain not all 2,200, ticket buyers attended the lecture preceding the 2:00 p.m. show time. Considering the sensitivity of the subject matter, and how different it is from the Beethoven symphony most had paid to come and hear, TSO should consider briefing audiences before the conductor waves his baton about what listeners are about to listen to (they certainly had no problem soliciting funding and discussing various TSO-related programs from the stage prior to striking up the band).


However, to be fair, when the New York Philharmonic premiered “Transmigration” on Sept. 19, 2002, it was likewise on a bill with Ludwig van’s “Ninth.” And for what it’s worth, this reviewer thought the 25 minute-long musical meditation was sonorously solemn and Solomonic. If Beethoven pushed musicality further along by making the human voice part of the symphonic format, Adams, too, is exploring new sonic frontiers, breaking the sound barrier, blazing new tonal trails for 21st century audiences.


After an intermission TSO launched Beethoven’s majestic masterpiece. The first movement opens with a stringed instrument played pianissimo that, as the music develops, sounds a bit as if it is kicking off the orchestra’s tuning up. But by the end of the fourth and final movement, with the “Choral’s” idealistic call to universal brotherhood, the initial string tremolos seemed to me to be playing a plaintive convocation of the tribes - the “tribes” being, in this case the human race.


Under the youthful Gomez’s baton the music inexorably, expertly flowed and flowered, heading towards that magical moment when, as the fourth movement neared, instant “Presto”, soprano Ellie Dehn, contralto Sara Couden, tenor Sean Panikkar and bass-baritone Davone Tines took the stage. And backed by the TSO Chorus, directed by Bruce Chamberlain, the soloists proceeded to take Tucson like Grant took Richmond - albeit much more melodiously. Together, harmoniously, they sang out in German the 1785 poem by Friedrich Schiller which Beethoven had adapted for his symphony. Fortunately, the “Ode to Joy’s” stanzas-cum-lyrics were translated and projected overhead as supertitles, so non-German speakers could follow the bouncing Beethoven. And what glorious words they be, expressing the heartfelt sentiments of the European Enlightenment, the ideals of the 18th-19th century German philosophers Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel:


“Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Within thy sanctuary.

“Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers,
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.”

In a quarter century, those other German philosophers, Marx and Engels, would re-interpret these ideals as: “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains and a world to win.” But that, as they say, is another story.

Be that as it may, the sheer beauty and force (in the best sense) of the “Ode” expresses the phenomenology of the spirit, a rousing cry to and affirmation of what Reverend King would later dub “the beloved community.” Beethoven’s rendition of Schiller’s text is music’s supreme example of the unity of form and content, with a lilting melody perfectly giving shape to words that express a sublime vision of the pursuit of happiness and global unity - the oneness of humanity.

Listening to the soloists, the chorus and the orchestra, one couldn’t help but feel uplifted by Ludwig van’s clarion call, which has lost none of its luster almost 200 years after it first shook the rafters of Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor. The “Choral’s” meaning is a rebuke of the militarization of the border being called for by the White House. And for any estranged, deranged person - such as Trump - who fails to be moved by the words and music, as the “Ode” itself puts it:

“Join our song of praise;
But those who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.”

Special shout out to TSO’s percussionists who rhythmically, rousingly pounded the sharkskins and the woodwinds player who likewise put his heart, soul and great talent into his exalted exhalations, becoming one with the music.

A personal highlight for me was to be able to enjoy this joyful music with my mother and my longtime brother-in-law Bob. He had three brothers, whereas I had none, so Bob is the closest thing I ever had to a brother. How lovely to share this celebration of brotherhood with Bob. I’ve always wanted to do something nice for him, and I finally was able to.

This L.A.-based reviewer was especially pleased by the overall quality of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and of the spacious Tucson Music Hall, which has fine acoustics and is about two thirds the size of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where Placido Domingo presides over LA Opera. Like Gustavo Dudamel, who conducts the LA Philharmonic across the street from the Dorothy Chandler at Disney Concert Hall, Gomez is young and from Venezuela. Presumably they both benefited from the 21st century socialism of El Commandante Hugo Chavez’s government, which invested heavily in the arts, especially for educating children. In any case, the next time an Angeleno ambles over the border to Arizona, he/she should include a visit to that musical “grand canyon” located in Downtown Tucson to be regaled by classical, rock, etc., performances at the splendid Tucson Music Hall. For info about upcoming shows see:

Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Beethoven’s “Ninth” only served to confirm my lifelong admiration for Ludwig van’s symphony and conviction that it is the single greatest piece of music ever conjured up by human beings. I was not let down - indeed, quite the contrary. If anything, I cherish the “Ode to Joy” more than ever. Bravo!

The third edition of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book", co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell, drops this April.