The latest salvo in the orchestra wars of 2012 was fired Saturday at the University of Minnesota's Ted Mann Concert Hall, where the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, locked out by management since Oct. 1, presented the first of a pair of self-produced concerts. Met with cheers, the program, which began with Bach, was crowned by a deeply considered, intensely committed realization of Beethoven's utopian Ninth Symphony, led by former music director Edo de Waart (who, like his colleagues, donated his services).
Sold out for weeks, the concerts sought to comfort orchestra-starved listeners and to rally support for the musicians in stalled contract talks by drawing on the Ninth's unique moral capital.
No other piece of music is so often harnessed to such causes. The Ninth, culminating in a setting of Friedrich Schiller's brotherhood-extolling "Ode to Joy," has a long and checkered history of social usage and abusage. It's been seen as both a "profound humanitarian statement" and a "bedtime story for adults"; it has celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall and been co-opted by the Third Reich. Its first movement has been heard as a rape; its last supplied the anthem of the European Union.
Such freight would sink a lesser work. But the Ninth, oddities notwithstanding, is a sturdy vessel. And in de Waart it finds an exemplary exponent, one who can integrate the volcanic energy of the opening Allegro, the skittishness of the Scherzo, the meditative depth of the Adagio and the message-laden heroics of the finale. At 71, the Dutchman seems to have outgrown his ego, and now conducts with a passionate selflessness that let Beethoven speak unimpeded. The orchestra followed him with the imaginative fidelity that is its signature.
Though it might have been larger, the 86-voice Ode to Joy Chorus, recruited for the occasion, sang with lusty accuracy and palpable conviction. Their cries of "Freude" sounded authentically joyful; the sopranos' repeated high A's, shrieked in many a performance, were easy on the ear. The vocal soloists -- Ellie Dehn, Adriana Zabala, Thomas Cooley, Philip Zawisza -- made one wish that Beethoven had given them more to do.
Prefacing Beethoven was Bach's Concerto for Two Violins, played by incumbent concertmaster Erin Keefe and her illustrious predecessor, Jorja Fleezanis (hired by de Waart in 1989). The evening offered nothing more sublime than the weave of their lines in Bach's Largo, ecstatic yet serene.
Saturday's concert was not about music for music's sake. This was music-making charged with communicative purpose -- a lesson in the connective power of sound. We need more of it, in good times no less than in troubled ones.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.