There are many ways to experience a piece of music. Hearing the Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestra perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with a mammoth chorus of amateur singers drawn from the community offered a reminder that a masterwork need not be perfectly rendered to be aesthetically satisfying.

Joel Smirnoff © Peter Schaaf
Joel Smirnoff
© Peter Schaaf

 The setting was Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra, where CIM students take the stage several times a year to show what they’ve learned. On Friday night they were joined by student singers from CIM, four professional vocalists, instrumentalists and singers from Cleveland School of the Arts, an inner-city high school, the Singer’s Club of Cleveland, a men’s choral group, and members of the Antioch Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir. That totaled about 260 people packed wall-to-wall on the stage, which looked more like a convention than a concert.

 In opening remarks, CIM President Joel Smirnoff noted the diversity of the performers and how it reflected the themes of idealism and brotherhood in Beethoven’s crowning work. “Take a good look around you tonight,” he encouraged an equally jam-packed audience. “Try to savor these moments in Severance as our community gathers together to find meaning at the end of a work day in a symphony based on life’s culture, life’s tragedy and life’s joy.”

A violinist and former member of the Juilliard String Quartet, Smirnoff still makes occasional appearances as a soloist – and conductor. He made his debut at the podium in 2000 with the San Francisco Symphony, and for this concert made a quick change of roles, ducking into the wings after his speech and then reemerging to lead a sharp, authoritative start on the symphony.

The CIM Orchestra is noted for the professional caliber of its sound and fearlessness in taking on difficult pieces, qualities that were quickly evident in this performance. The music had depth and a crisp edge, with some notable bite in the brass. The second movement rolled out like thunder, with powerful rhythmic intensity, and the third opened with wonderful silken violins, one of the trademark characteristics of the Cleveland Orchestra sound. By osmosis or design, the student players did a great job emulating it.

A smart dialogue between the horns and low strings opened the fourth movement, followed by the famous theme stated first by the cellos and bass in tones as rich and well-drawn as one would hear from a professional ensemble. As the theme blossomed and the voices joined in, the four soloists added color, though not much in the way of standout vocals. The choral groups  were almost staggering in their power, a great burst of sound exploding from the back of the stage that captured the radiant spirit and exuberance of the finale.

Were one to apply strict critical standards to the performance, there would be much to dissect. The playing was wildly uneven, particularly in the woodwinds, which veered from sounding brilliant to nearly falling apart. Big, bold sections fared better than subtleties, and Smirnoff could never get the balance quite right, with the horns sitting on top of the strings for most of the night rather than complementing them. And for all its power and energy, the giant chorus sounded like mush by the end of the performance, a tidal wave of sound without any definition.

But it would be churlish to apply professional standards to a student performance, particularly one that so richly embodied the ideas of not just a piece of music, but a seminal work of Western art. The outsized gathering of disparate races, voices and skill levels on a single stage was itself an inspirational statement. That they could all come together in an emotionally rewarding experience for both the players and audience was a measure of how far enthusiasm and noble aspirations can carry a performance.

The audience showed its amateur character as well, applauding between movements. But in this context, it hardly mattered. The concert was designed as a community celebration, and in that respect it succeeded admirably. Severance has hosted many better performances of the Ninth, but none that brought the music to life with more idealism or pure joy.