The tradition of attending performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony around New Year’s in Japan – where it is known simply as daiku – has a counterpart in Seattle. That the score’s epic journey spans such a spectrum of human experience yet culminates in a message of overwhelming affirmation makes the Ninth ideally suited for the Janus duty of casting a retrospective glance over the highs and lows of the year drawing to a close while ringing in the one just beginning with hope-filled anticipation. 

David Danzmayr and the Seattle Symphony
© Jorge Gustavo Elias

But the Seattle Symphony had to postpone that tradition for several years, so anticipation was especially keen for the return of Beethoven’s choral symphony to Benaroya Hall. The young Austrian conductor David Danzmayr, now in his second season as the Portland-based Oregon Symphony’s music director, took on the daunting assignment — daunting not just because of the expectations aroused by Beethoven’s music, along with its technical challenges, but because the packed concert hall seemed filled with a sizable portion of newcomers. I wondered how many were experiencing this music played live for the first time.

Although this wasn’t Danzmayr’s first time guest-conducting the Seattle Symphony, the communication between podium and players felt disconnected over stretches of the first movement. The result was a frustrating mix of promising insight – moments of lyrical relief allowed to blossom – and bland bluster in the apocalyptic passages. Details passed over made for a blurry soundscape overall, lacking the sense of dreadful purpose that should electrify the listener. 

This was the first of four performances, and the execution likely improved after opening-night jitters. The Scherzo came off much more satisfactorily. Danzmayr explored an intriguing balance between the playful and the primordial. If his account didn’t quite unleash the spine-tingling juggernaut that Beethoven’s obsessive rhythmic mottos can set in motion, Danzmayr’s preference throughout was for accelerated tempos: the entire performance clocked in at just over an hour.

The speed factor was especially noticeable in the third movement, where the Adagio and Andante sections unfolded at virtually the same fleetly flowing pace, almost merging together. Danzmayr drew particularly sensitive playing here, coaxing inner voices into relief – not so much an otherworldly vision as an oasis of alluring, Schubertian charm. Here and throughout, the Seattle Symphony woodwinds stood out with felicitous, graceful phrasing. 

The introductory instrumental section of the finale was grippingly dramatic. As the first human voice to be heard, baritone Hadleigh Adams turned the musical tide with rafter-shaking force. His fellow vocal soloists – soprano Laura Strickling, mezzo Mary Phillips, and tenor Nicholas Phan – each contributed a distinctive personality, even with the quartet was positioned between the chorus and orchestra rather than at the front of the stage. Special kudos are in order for Phan’s soaring solo in the dizzyingly accelerated march variation. With a smaller than usual contingent, the Seattle Symphony Chorale was underpowered, particularly in the lower voices, but sang with passion. Danzmayr's breakneck speeds distorted the finale’s proportions somewhat, but the final rush of excited joy did exert its irresistible effect.

It’s always interesting to see what is selected to fill out a program dominated by the Ninth. Vieille prière bouddhique by Lili Boulanger proved to be an inspired choice for a preface. She was only 24 when she completed it in 1917, not long before her untimely death (her more famous sister Nadia would outlive her by six decades). Yet into this brief choral-orchestral piece Boulanger distils the patient wisdom of the compassionate Buddhist prayer she sets using an archaic-sounding chant. Vieille prière bouddhique also contains solo parts for flute and tenor; these were given beguiling performances by Jeffrey Barker and Nicholas Phan.