It is a melody that almost everyone knows, whether they have sung one of the hymns adapted from it, or chuckled at its ironic use in movies such as “Die Hard” and “A Clockwork Orange.”
It’s most commonly known as the “Ode to Joy,” as this somewhat simple melody forms the backbone of final movement of the Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 by Ludwig van Beethoven, which incorporates the text of Friedrich Schiller’s poem of the same name.
But it is because of that familiarity, along with the fact that it is most often heard out of the context Beethoven intended, that people don’t appreciate it for what it is.
That is the view of conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann, who will lead the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra in the Symphony No. 9, in a special concert titled “A Celebration of Community,” to be presented May 14 at ONEOK Field.
Joining Zimmermann and the Tulsa Symphony will be four stars of the opera world as the vocal soloists: soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer, baritone Ryan Speedo Green, and tenor Lawrence Brownlee.
Stephanie Blythe had been scheduled to perform, but had to withdraw from the concert. Tamara Mumford, who has performed in with the Metropolitan Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Glyndebourne Opera Festival, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Dallas Symphony and others, will be the mezzo-soprano soloist.
“Beethoven is one of those rare artists who truly addressed the idea of man’s inhumanity to man,” Zimmermann said. “He had something important to say, and he spoke it from the heart. Only Shostakovich equals Beethoven in this quality, which is probably why they are my two favorite composers.”
As for the true meaning of the “Ode to Joy,” Zimmermann said that Schiller’s poem is a call to universal brotherhood, and Beethoven’s melody was written to be an anthem for the world — its relative simplicity a contrast to much of the musical fury and chaos that surrounds it.
“That is why there is no better piece of music that could be performed today than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” Zimmermann said. “Because it shows how mankind has not taken Schiller’s message to heart. You just have to look at the events of January 6 to realize that.”
Zimmermann was aware of Tulsa’s commemoration of the 1921 Race Massacre centennial this month, but did not know that the Tulsa Symphony’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth would be taking place in the area that had been at the center of the violence and destruction.
He paused for a moment, then said, “I have a feeling it is going to be a very emotional night for the orchestra and myself.”
This will be the third time the Tulsa Symphony has performed to a live audience at the home of the Tulsa Drillers baseball team. The orchestra was the first major symphony orchestra in the country to perform to a live audience since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it presented an all-Beethoven concert featuring pianist Yefim Bronfman in September.
A second concert, in October, had to be cancelled because of inclement weather, but not until the orchestra, determined to play something for those who had braved the cold rain, performed the Overture to Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio.”
“We are proud to bring the people of Tulsa together to help celebrate this moment when the struggles of the past year begin to fade,” Keith C. Elder, executive director of the Tulsa Symphony, said. “We will mark this time by performing one of the most renowned pieces of orchestral music, which takes on special significance to our community, state, country and the world.”
The Ninth Symphony was written at a time when Beethoven was experimenting with musical forms, and using music to explore and express the most profound emotions. Many of the works he composed during the final years of his life are considered among the greatest works of their kind, from the “Missa Solemnis” to the “Diabelli Variations” to his final five string quartets.
It was also written in a world of relative silence, as Beethoven, whose hearing had degenerated throughout his life, was close to completely deaf when he composed the Ninth Symphony.
One anecdote about its premiere performance is that Beethoven stood in front of the orchestra and conducted the piece as best he could — although the actual conductor for the concert had told the players to ignore the composer’s gestures and gyrations.
When the Ninth Symphony concluded, Beethoven was still “conducting” the music. Finally, one of the vocal soloists turned Beethoven to face the audience, to witness the ovation his music received.
“The genius of Beethoven is that, no matter how often you perform or listen to his music, you learn something new,” Zimmermann said. “The more I conduct this work, I think the more I feel the anger that was within him. Not only as a man of his world, and his anger at the inhumanity he saw around him, but also at the physical disability he had, the loss of hearing. It is one thing to appreciate how he set Schiller’s ‘Ode’ so beautifully. It’s another appreciate the agony and torture he went through in his later life, to not be able to hear the music he was writing.”
This concert will also be the first time that Zimmermann has been on stage since the start of the pandemic. He tested positive for COVID-19, and ended up spending more than three months in hospital, followed by a month of rehab.
“It was not fun, to be sure,” he said. “But I was fortunate that I was able to recover. Far too many people have died from this disease.”
As for returning to the podium after more than a year and a half absence, Zimmermann said, “I’m hoping that it will be like riding a bicycle — that once you start, it all comes back to you. As long as the first beat is down, and the last beat is up, I think I’ll be all right.”
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