Can music ultimately do anything to cure the ills of humanity and the evils we inflict on one another?
No work in classical music raises that question quite so acutely as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the main item in Saturday evening’s Minnesota Orchestra program.
Three movements containing a combustible mix of turmoil, agitation and conflicted introspection eventually give way to a finale where joy explodes, and human voices sing a hymn of optimism to the future.
How convincing does that grand conclusion sound in the riven atmosphere of 21st-century America?
On musical terms alone, Saturday evening’s performance of the Ninth was a considerable triumph.
Conceived as part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s “Music for Mandela” series celebrating the 100th birthday of the great South African statesman, it had power and eloquence in plenty and was played with singular commitment.
Cellos and double basses fizzed with articulate energy in the crucial recitative passages of the finale. In the hyperactive second movement woodwind clucked and chirruped tirelessly, while the slow movement’s counter-melody was movingly voiced by the second violin section.
Conductor Osmo Vänskä’s Beethoven — taut, propulsive, cuttingly dramatic — is a known quantity from his many Orchestra Hall performances and his Minnesota Orchestra recordings.
On Saturday evening, though, special ingredients were added. A quartet of solo singers from South Africa featured in the finale, adding a unique fervor and authenticity to Friedrich Schiller’s words about human solidarity and freedom.
The Minnesota Chorale had also been augmented with singers from The Better Together Choir and 29:11, a vocal ensemble from Cape Town.
They blended seamlessly together in a highly charged account of the famous “Ode to Joy,” which ends the symphony.
In the search for textual clarity words were occasionally over-accented in a mannered staccato fashion, with syllables forcibly separated. But overall the chorus’s energy was mighty, and some gloriously stirring sounds swept through the auditorium.
The concert opened with “Harmonia Ubuntu,” a new work by South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen specially written for the Minnesota Orchestra’s forthcoming tour of South Africa.
“Ubuntu” is a Nguni Bantu term implying that the integrity and dignity of one human is inextricably linked to that of others. It was a key concept to Nelson Mandela, and a selection of his sayings provided the text for Ndodana-Breen’s 12-minute setting.
Mandela’s eloquence was offset by a bubblingly eventful score that effectively referenced African rhythms and melodies, and peppered the orchestral textures with a Wasembe rattle and a djembe, two African percussion instruments. Soprano Goitsemang Lehobye was the fervent soloist.
Compared to Beethoven’s towering Ninth Symphony, “Harmonia Ubuntu” is a relatively modest, unassuming composition, based on virtually incontestable concepts of simple human decency.
By comparison the Ninth, for all its heaving, convulsing and wrestling with destiny, seemed to tread a more dogged, effortful path toward eventual release and revelation.
Must it necessarily be that way? Ndodana-Breen’s short, stimulating work suggested that the path to peace — personal peace, anyway — may not always need to be a titanically protracted process.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.