Denton — On April 29, the University of North Texas Grand Chorus and Symphony Orchestra played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in the Winspear Performance Hall in Murchison Performing Arts Center. The program opened with Ralph Vaughn-Williams rarely heard Five Mystical Songs.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is classical music’s Mount Everest, a huge challenge that all musicians must summit (as the mountain climbers say) at some time or the other if they are to be worthy of the title. It has also transcends being a piece of music into something that our civilization uses as a marker of events, great and small.
For example, Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of the symphony, played by an internationally assembled orchestra, in 1989 at the Brandenburg Gates to celebrate the falling of the Berlin Wall. It is a tradition in Japan to play the symphony at the turning of the New Year and there are dozens of performances around the country every December (much like The Nutcracker ballet in America and Europe). The “Ode to Joy” that ends the piece appears in most church hymnals and is among the most recognizable themes in all of music.
Thus, it was the obvious choice for North Texas University in Denton to use for the final concert of the spring semester. It was also appropriate to mark a bigger milestone: the retirement of their much-heralded professor of choral music, Jerry McCoy, on the occasion of his retirement. The chorus honored him with a first class performance.
The soloists were all on the UNT voice faculty: soprano Carol Wilson, soprano Molly Fillmore, tenor William Joyner and bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck. Baritone Jeffrey Snider sang the solo part of the Vaughn-Williams. David Itkin, conductor of the UNT Symphony Orchestra, was on the podium.
The Vaughn-Williams is a series of five pieces for chorus and baritone soloist based on sacred texts by George Herbert (1593-1633), a Welsh born English poet and Anglican priest. Ever the practical composer seeking performances, Vaughn-Williams produced several versions of the work so that it could be played with a variety of forces form a mixed choir to an all-male one and with the accompaniment scaled from piano to full orchestra.
Baritone and faculty member Jeffrey Snider gave a remarkable performance as the soloist. He has a magnificent baritone voice that is perfectly suited for the big Verdi and Puccini roles but with the flexibility to sing a wide range of repertoire. He brought all of this to bear in the different movements, singing with a stentorian sound in some parts but pulling back to a more lyric sound as the piece demanded.
The most extraordinary performer of the evening, however, was David Itkin, conductor of the UNT Symphony Orchestra.
He was fully in control of the orchestra and the music as well as his podium technique for every moment. More importantly, he was sensitive to the musical architecture, especially in the massive Beethoven symphony. His tempi were well chosen and fit together without any noticeable seam. Itkin struck a reasonable balance in the symphony, following the spirit and intent of Beethoven’s indications.
(There is quite a hubbub about Beethoven’s markings, with some musicologists of the opinion that Beethoven’s metronome was not properly calibrated.)
Itkin’s concept of the symphony was on an appropriately grand scale, yet no detail escaped his attention. His beat pattern was clear and concise, without a single extraneous motion, yet his motions were highly communicative, individualistic, and inspiring. He rarely mirrored, using his left hand almost exclusively for expression.
University orchestras these days play on a very high level. Even orchestras at arts magnet high schools, such as the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy, rival may professional groups. The orchestra at Southern Methodist University in Dallas delivers a superior performance, as does the one at UNT. These fine orchestras are developing the next generation of orchestral musicians, filling the professional vacancy pipeline, and each year the graduating players are noticeably better and better.
Thus, much was expected before the concert started, but the overall quality was still a surprise. The UNT orchestra and chorus turned in an extraordinarily excellent and highly professional performance of both the Beethoven and the Vaughn-Williams. Overall, this was a grand night of celebration with some exceptional music making.