Westminster’s choir takes on Beethoven

By Jaclyn Beardsley

Westminster Symphonic Choir celebrated Jacques Lacombe’s première performance as the newly installed musical director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) with Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) last weekend.

Lacombe, a native-born Canadian, has directed many ensembles throughout his career, including Orchestre Symphonique do Montréal, Slovakia Philharmonic, Budapest Symphony and Orchestre Lamoureux in Paris, to name a few.

The fourth movement of this poignant symphony is nothing new to Symphonic Choir, which performs under the direction of Dr. Joe Miller. Just last year, juniors, seniors and first-year graduate students sang the work with Sir Roger Norrington and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall. This year, with Lacombe, the tempos may have been a bit quicker, but the themes of unity and brotherhood were still communicated to the audiences.

This symphony was first performed in Vienna in 1824 and was conducted by Ludwig van Beethoven himself. Having gone completely deaf, Beethoven was unaware that the orchestra had begun to follow one another and was still conducting after the orchestra had finished playing. It is said that one of the soloists had to turn him around at the end of the symphony to “hear” the applause.

The lyrics to the last movement of this symphony are from a poem by Friedrich Schiller titled “An die Freude.” It translates to “Of Joy,” or more widely known, “Ode to Joy.” “Freude” was substituted by “Freiheit,” meaning “freedom,” in 1989 during a performance conducted by Leonard Bernstein. This concert was to commemorate and celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. During this past weekend’s performances, although the original text of “Freude” was used, NJPAC made an innovative choice to keep the theme of freedom fully intact. Speeches given by John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. were woven between movements, read by actor Avery Brooks.

Paired effortlessly with the Beethoven piece was “Canticle of Freedom” by Aaron Copland. Although only a mere 13 minutes in length, comparable to Beethoven’s 74 minutes, Copland manages to incorporate his patriotic and Americana essence with themes of free will and sovereignty. It was written to give hope to people who sought individual liberty and was Copland’s personal anarchy against the McCarthy administration in 1954. Similar to the Beethoven piece, the choral entrance is reserved for the end of the work. Copland wanted the choir to “make a big noise,” and both literally and figuratively it did just that.

Despite the fact that it is limited to two-part harmony, the impact of the text is direct enough to stand on its own. The simplicity was structured to mimic the natural flow of the poem by John Barbour. What better way to start the program than by capturing the spirit of true American patriotism? Both works display love of country, humanity and independence. In this performance, with the added narration in the symphony, the themes of freedom and liberty were strewn together more beautifully than ever.

The Westminster Symphonic Choir has engagements planned in the upcoming year with Dresden Staatskapelle (Johannes Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem) on Sunday, Oct. 31, 2010, at Lincoln Center, NYC and Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010, at Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, and Westminster Festival Orchestra (Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana) on Saturday, April 9, 2011, in Princeton.

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