There was a time when Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was considered to be a "festival piece," reserved for important occasions, but nowadays, it's done routinely by ensembles major and minor. Its "Ode to Joy" is the European Union anthem, Japan has canonized it, there are more recordings than anyone can get a grip upon. One wonders if the Ninth is losing its special status through overexposure.
Yet whether by design or coincidence, the latest Ninth to come our way at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday night did serve a commemorative purpose.
The date was Sept. 11, and another war in the ever-turbulent Middle East is spreading. The uplifting message of the "Ode to Joy" — that all men are brothers — has become sadly ironic given the way people are being increasingly set apart by tribal, religious and national differences in this century.
Nevertheless, a great performance of the Ninth might get you to believe in its inspirational power once again. The Bowl's Ninth wasn't one of those, but there were a few moments that could send the old chills down the spine. For someone coming to the Ninth for the first time — including some of the 10,237 in attendance — it would have made a big impression.
Juanjo Mena, the 48-year-old Basque-Spanish maestro who first appeared at the Bowl in 2011, tried to give the first movement some gravitas, and he could suggest the mystery of its opening measures. The deliberate tempo of the scherzo was helped by strong rhythmic accents that pushed it along, the slow movement unfolded gracefully, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's playing was quite good throughout.
Yet nothing really ignited until the moment in the finale when the formidable Morris Robinson rose and bellowed "O freunde, nicht diese Töne!" (O friends, not these sounds!) with his stentorian bass-baritone. True, this burst of high drama is built into the score, but it doesn't automatically come off. This time, it jolted the performance to another level.
The other singers — soprano Camilla Nylund, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, tenor Donald Litaker — combined with Robinson to make a volatile vocal quartet, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale also sounded charged up.
Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" served as a prelude to the Ninth and conjured the unforgettable memory of Bernstein conducting this music at the Bowl in 1982. But this performance had something special too. Way back in the ranks, the video camera caught the great jazz drummer Peter Erskine — who had just played in the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's polystyled "Erskine" here on Tuesday — sitting in on trap drums. No performance of the Prologue, Mambo and the "Cool" fugue that I've heard swung as hard as this one, thanks to Erskine's drive and finesse.