There are thousands of examples throughout history of otherwise “normal” people stepping up their game and achieving a greatness normally reserved for those who we ascribe “legendary” status to. This happens all the time in one of my other favorite interests, sports – perhaps the most famous is Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Any Golden State Warriors fan can tell you about “The Sleepy Floyd Game,” where Floyd dropped 51 on the mighty 1987 Lakers in the playoffs and set a record for points (29) in an epic 4th-quarter comeback that still stands (all against the greatest defensive wing player of his generation, Michael Cooper). The greatest comeback in NFL Playoff history was executed by Buffalo’s backup quarterback, Frank Reich. What makes someone a legend is that these moments occur with startling regularity, but anyone can be legendary in a given instance. Bob Dylan is perhaps the greatest folk songwriter that ever lived, but Don McLean wrote “American Pie.”
I bring this up because Alan Hovhaness reached that mythical stratosphere where Beethoven and Haydn and Mahler reside with Mysterious Mountain. Hovhaness’ output is mixed – he’s got some really fine pieces and he’s got some that aren’t as fine – but he submitted one of the greatest works of the 20th or any other century, a piece of absolute sublimity and eloquence, that can stand note to note with anything ever written. Mysterious Mountain displays luminous color and orchestration, a brilliant double fugue that would make Bach and Bruckner smile, masterful use of ancient modes, and a manipulation of musical and physical time unlike almost anything before or since, all in a compact 18 minutes.
Last Friday night’s performance with Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony was not quite “everything I hoped it would be,” but it certainly didn’t disappoint. I imprinted on the famous Reiner/Chicago recording of this piece, subconsciously assuming that the note Bud Herseth cracks in the second part of the double fugue was actually in the score, and the first live performance was not the same. But it perfectly illustrates why live music is so special – even if I wanted the tempi a bit different and the fugue never really got comfortable, it sounded so breathtakingly beautiful in an open hall with resonance and shitloads of wood everywhere. I spent almost the entirety of the outer movements like Jesus in John 11:35 and sat in stunned silence during the applause for the piece, which is probably the biggest tribute you could give to a work of art.
Here’s a direct quote (in multiple tweets, of course) from Twitter in the immediate aftermath of the concert:
Beethoven 9: played out. Yes, I’m going to music Hell for saying that, but there’s something missing from it that his other works have, namely ruthless execution of form and cohesion. God, I’m such a dick. Having said all of that horrible shit…it’s still an overwhelming musical moment when the entire army unleashes the full-fledged Ode to Joy.
A couple thing about this. First of all, I’m fairly certain that if you had told 2002 me that after attending a concert I would post a thought about it on a glorified message board with character limits and a fucking birdhouse logo, I’m fairly certain I would have re-read 1984, stocked up on distilled water and Spam, and begun excavation on a house consisting of nothing but underground tunnels. Secondly, upon reflection, I stand by my comments.
Some time ago I wrote about how I didn’t like Beethoven’s famous Pastoral Symphony and was met with that mixture of curiosity and pity that comes when you find someone who doesn’t like Tom Hanks or seafood. Ultimately, I found that I CAN like the 6th, but it takes a truly amazing performance to accomplish it (like the Vanska/Minnesota disc). My feelings about the 9th (I’m sorry, The 9th) aren’t quite as radical, but I find myself in the exact same position of wondering just what all the fuss is about.
Beethoven’s greatest strengths as a composer, in my opinion, are the economy with which he communicates his ideas, his superhuman mastery of form and development, and the crystal clarity of his musical vision. The 9th, at least for me, has none of these elements, at least at their fully realized Beethovenian potential. It doesn’t feel like there’s enough material to actually fill 70 minutes of human life, and I say this as someone who is a massive fan of Bruckner and Mahler and Shostakovich and other “long-winded” composers. The scherzo seems positively interminable and for me lacks the contrast of Beethoven’s other sprawling scherzo, that of the 7th. The slow movement, while formally quite interesting, isn’t actually musically interesting – it doesn’t have the gravity and emotional investment of, say, the Eroica funeral march or the lilting variations of the 5th. And even though it’s not really Beethoven’s fault that it ended up as cell phone ringtones and on commercials and shit, the Ode to Joy tune now sounds trite and almost silly. The last movement has some pretty fine writing in it (none of it for the vocal soloists), but with the exception of the Turkish band, all of the best writing is that which is only loosely affiliated with the actual theme itself.
Schubert’s “Great” 9th Symphony is another piece of similar breadth and scope, composed at approximately the same time. While lacking Beethoven’s mastery of development, Schubert holds the trump card of being able to write fucking awesome tunes – each and every movement runneth over with melody which helps to cover up the work’s formal shortcomings. Am I saying that Schubert’s 9th is better than Beethoven’s significantly more famous 9th? Yes, yes I am.
Ultimately, I found myself more interested in people’s reactions to The 9th at the concert than in the actual The 9th itself. Most of the audience seemed generally uninterested in the 50 minutes that precede the Ode, and a few of the people in my section were asleep during the third movement. But the roar of the crowd at work’s end was the single loudest ovation I’ve heard at a concert in Kansas City, much more enthusiastic than those following truly inspiring and superlative performances of Sibelius 2, Dvorak 7, or Mahler 4, to name three. I absolutely don’t begrudge anyone the joy of experiencing something that truly moves them (see the notes on the Hovhaness above). But I sure don’t understand it.