The timeless message of brotherhood seems to be relevant in the atmosphere of the current happenings around the world. It’s a message that we should probably hear all the time. The call for joy and fellowship among men was a resounding one from the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Herbert Blomstedt, who this turns 90 this year.

Herbert Blomstedt © Martin UK Lengemann
Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin UK Lengemann

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is well known, especially the final movement. I feared that perhaps the ‘over-played’ element of a piece might affect the performance last night and whether it was that or something else, the SF Symphony failed to deliver the monumental greatness of this piece as it perhaps deserved. The SFS Chorus, on the other hand, gave a fantastic show that would rival many.

The first movement Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso opened with a tempo that was perhaps on the faster side. I felt that there were issues with their rests not being crisp and slightly wobbly phrase entries. This meant that the opening statements weren’t the stately proclamation that they could have been and this may have been resolved if they'd taken the tempo down just a few notches. There were suitable dynamic contrasts throughout which kept it interesting. About halfway through, they seemed to have found their groove and altogether the orchestra was more in sync with each other and with Blomstedt.

The second movement Molto vivace­ began more convincingly. The falling octaves and the pounding of the timpani packed a lot of punch which was nicely contrasted by the delicate string spiccatos. When the Trio section commenced, that lack of stability was there again but was resolved after a few measures. The movement ended strongly and dramatically, and by that time, I was ready for the relief that the third movement would bring.

Unfortunately, the ­Adagio molto e cantabile missed the mark. Blomstedt seemed to like having things at a faster pace, but this resulted in a loss of magic that this movement can bring. There was a good balance of sound, but I couldn’t help feel that things were rushed. For example, there were horn passages that were barely audible and the musical lace that would have run through the first violins felt more like a technical exercise.

The final movement fared a lot better. The cello recitatives interjected by the orchestra provided drama in the beginning of this movement which was then ended by the coming of the familiar “Ode to Joy” motif. I was then reminded of the simple beauty that is in the melody that Beethoven wrote. It wasn’t about the layered homophony or fanciful rhythm but a modest tune that starts quietly in the deep tones of the cello and is then shared with other members of the orchestra, developing into the glorious choral finale. As it reached the climax before the voices started, the brass carried this motif beautifully, as if to shout out the message to everybody.

When bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams began, I was impressed by the power of projection that he had. His voice had a sweet depth in it with sharp German diction. The real highlight for me was just how impressive the SFS Chorus was. They were able to produce a great range of dynamics in unity, and when forte was asked of them, it was a forte that was worthy of the romantic period. They enunciated the text with superb clarity and altogether their voices had a great unified fluidity in moving through the text. Soprano Kiera Duffy and mezzo-soprano Sara Couden both did well to overcome the volume of the chorus, though there were moments where they were ever so slightly swamped. Tenor Nicholas Phan did wonderfully in his upper registers but would be inaudible in the endings of his phrases in his solo. All in all, this was a rendition that could’ve been so much more but thanks to the chorus, it did have some redeeming points. 

**111