Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 is a universalist call for the social and spiritual liberation of the masses. But the Ninth, with its "Ode to Joy," can — and must — also speak to the elite among us, as it did Friday night in a performance for President Trump, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and the other world leaders meeting at Group of 20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany.
Yep, there they all were, seated front and center, at Hamburg's spectacular new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, for a performance webcast over German television and conducted by a familiar Californian, former Los Angeles Opera music director Kent Nagano. Now music director of the Hamburg State Opera and its orchestra, Nagano led his local forces in a riveting, inspiring performance that was an idealistic blend of elegance, grandeur, warmth, commitment and passion.
As the cameras panned over the orchestra, soloists and chorus, each and every musician (even the terrific timpanist with a goatee that extended down to his white tie) gave the impression of attempting to personally bring light, reason, substance, even love, into the life of world leaders capable of making the world better or blowing it to smithereens.
In his very fine 2011 recording of the Ninth with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, which Nagano also heads, the conductor wrote in the booklet notes that Beethoven gave "emphatic expression in this work to the conception of humanity and the notion of a progressive development of humankind toward a free and authentically better society." That is pretty much what the protesters in Hamburg were demanding of the G-20 crew in a threatening fashion that likely only further hardened already hard hearts.
So how did a Beethovenian approach do? That's not easy to say, but the leaders had no choice but to listen with their mouths (mostly) shut for more than an hour, and it was fascinating to watch them on camera.
Trump, no surprise, got the most television time from the German crew, probably as much as Nagano. Trump was seated in what was rightfully, you'd think, Merkel's spot as host. On one side of him was his wife, Melania. On the other was new president of France, Emmanuel Macron, who happens to be an accomplished classical pianist.
Trump is not known for concert going, but he, unlike several other leaders, looked delighted to be there and, initially anyway, demonstrated a lively interest in everything around him. The first lady seemed to be explaining the symphony to him during the movement breaks. They both looked quite pleased.
Far more mysterious were the G-20's two notable culture vultures, Russian President Putin and German Chancellor Merkel. No leaders anywhere put the arts, and particularly classical music, front and center to the degree than they do. Merkel, who had requested the "Ode to Joy," sat seemingly joylessly behind and to the side of the Trumps. Maybe she wished a German had been conducting. German audiences often don't reveal their emotions until it's applause time, when they suddenly come to life. Even so, the cameras did catch Merkel breaking into a small smile in the last movement for the suavely irresistible Wagnerian tenor Klaus Florian Vogt.
For his part, Putin maybe would have looked happier if one of his favorite Russian conductors had been on the podium. Instead, he took in the "Ode to Joy" grimmest of them all.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May has shown herself no friend of the arts, and she was in character, her upper lip stiff, and giving the airs of wanting to be anywhere but where she was. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared to listen with proper reverence; Beethoven's Ninth is venerated in Japan, played nonstop over the Christmas and New Year's holidays throughout the country. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi twiddled his fingers. (The knowledgeable way of listening to traditional ragas in India is to beat rhythmic cycles with your hands.)
The world's two young leaders were a surprising study in contrasts. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed the least attentive of anyone on camera. He had his hand on his wife's knee and could be seen talking to her during the performance, despite her apparent attempts to shut him up. Then again, he may be annoyed that Nagano just announced that he will leave his post as music director of the Montreal Symphony when his contract expires in 2020.
The few instances we saw Macron, he was leaning forward, utterly absorbed, far and away the best listener of the bunch. When the performance ended in a blaze of glory, he turned to Trump and clearly said something enthusiastic. Hardly needing more clue than that, Trump was the first proudly on his feet for an entirely appropriate standing ovation, one that brought a convincing smile to Merkel's face. Only Putin remained a sourpuss.
What of Beethoven actually got through to the mighty, and how much any of it will stick, we can never know. If Beethoven's Ninth could stop the killing, World War II would not have happened. Nagano acknowledges just that in the notes to his recording of the symphony. He calls that idea the symphony's "fate," while suggesting that in the larger historical picture, the Ninth has just as often "managed successfully to resist this sort of exploitation and abuse."
The world has had enough historic Ninths that it takes a lot to make another one matter as much. This one offered a moment of spiritual oneness, and with luck that will be enough to create an ambiance of goodwill that will linger. Moreover, thanks to Nagano's memorable performance setting exactly the right tone, and an unpredictable U.S. president also setting a relatively appropriate tone, the moment became an unexpected cultural triumph for the United States.
So, here are new tests for Beethoven's Ninth. Could it possibly have had the power to change Trump's mind about eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, which would mean fewer performances of Beethoven for the masses? Might this exceptional occasion further remind U.S. orchestras and opera companies, who show little interest in Nagano these days, just how important he has become?
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More of Beethoven’s Ninth
The Los Angeles Philharmonic will perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, preceded by Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "Lincoln Portrait"
Who: L.A. Phil with Gustavo Dudamel conducting, Vin Scully narrating "Lincoln Portrait," plus singers Amanda Majeski, J'Nai Bridges, Issachah Savage, Ryan Speedo Green and the Los Angeles Master Chorale
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and July 18
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., L.A.
Information: (323) 850-2000, www.hollywoodbowl.com