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Critic's Notebook: Billy Bragg does Beethoven

August 30, 2009 |  1:43 pm

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We ask a great deal of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony these days. Last month at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Asia America Symphony performed it with nearly 400 choristers singing the last movement’s German text of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” 

Two weeks ago at London’s Proms, the eight-member Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, accompanied by a thousand ukes in the audience, heroically strummed through bits of the Ninth. A tour of YouTube offers the “Ode to Joy” sweetly hammered on a dulcimer, eerily squealed on wine glasses and apocalyptically screeched on wailing heavy metal guitars, along with the inevitable Ninth kitsch. Norwegian composer Leif Inge has digitally extended a recording of the Ninth into a 24-hour mind blower.   

Billy Bragg, the British protest singer-songwriter and guitarist who has crossed boundaries between punk and folk, is another surprise Beethovenian. Saturday night at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, he was the headliner of a mixed-genre Ninth-orama.

The brainchild of Kerry Candaele -- who is making a documentary, “Following the Ninth” – the program was also a benefit for CLUE LA (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice), a mixed denominational Los Angeles group that promotes workers’ rights. Various performers, be they African or Appalachian, gave the Ninth a spin. At evening’s end, David Benoit conducted the Asia America Youth Orchestra, the Billy Bragg 9 Chorus and four uncredited vocal soloists in the Finale of Beethoven’s last symphony with the U.S. premiere of Bragg’s cheerful new English text.

Bragg blithely explained to the audience how these lyrics, which gave occasion to an anti-monarchist rocker’s unlikely meeting with the queen, came about. A performance of Beethoven’s symphony had been planned as part of the opening events of the restored Royal Festival Hall at London’s Southbank Centre two years ago, and a chorus of cute schoolchildren was intended to lend the festivities an irresistible touch.

But the kids gagged over Schiller’s grandiloquent language (they weren’t the first; even the 18th century poet didn’t think all that highly of his effort). Bragg was asked to supply a common touch. The queen approved, and Bragg has written movingly about their handshake.

Though a songwriter whose lyrics have been influenced by such poets as Vladimir Mayakovsky and William Blake, Bragg tries nothing sophisticated with language here. He remains in the spirit of Schiller’s embrace of universal brotherhood, while removing “the daughter of Elysium,” the worm who can feel contentment standing before God and the like.

“Furnish every heart with joy and / Banish hatred for good” is a typical, singable Bragg line, which he proved by leading a Pete Seeger-like singalong before the orchestra came on stage. The “Ode to Joy,” Bragg also explained, was one of his standards when he was a young busker.

That the tune is readily accessible to just about any musician was evident throughout the long evening. Folk singer Ernest Troost gave it a soft, folksy, bluesy touch. Roots singer Susie Glaze had a new song by her lead guitarist Rob Carlson inspired by Beethoven about musical inspiration that was redeemed by Rodger Phillips picking out “The Ode to Joy” on a bluegrass banjo.

Kp756mnc Gnenemon Soro knocked out the tune with a foursquare beat on an African marimba (the balafon) while his colleagues in the Dafra Drum Ensemble wove a rhythmic tapestry of percussive accompaniment, to which they added mellow vocalizing and sprightly whistling.

Dwight Trible’s version felt as though the veteran jazz singer – who was accompanied by flute, piano, bass and drums – were giving wrenching birth to the tune. He is an ecstatic, physical singer, and his set (each of these artists in the first half was allowed three numbers) was easily the evening’s standout.

After intermission Justin Bischof, played a 10-minute Lisztian improvisation on the Ninth on the piano. While he filled a lot of space with empty embellishment, he was the only one to include anything from the symphony’s first three movements.  He also came up with a virtuosic “Ode to Joy” fugue.

As this benefit clearly demonstrated, the "Ode to Joy" readily accepts new accents and populist chutzpah. If honorable community organizers find it useful as their theme song, let it ring out. I can’t imagine Beethoven not approving.

The next “Joy” ride will be a populist biggie.  As you must surely know by now, Gustavo Dudamel has selected the symphony for the finale of a free concert at the Hollywood Bowl Oct. 3 in celebration of his becoming music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

-- Mark Swed

Related story:

Billy Bragg sings an 'Ode to Joy'


Photos: Top, Billy Bragg at the Broad Stage Saturday night leads a singalong to Beethoven's Ninth. Middle, jazz singer Dwight Trible. Credit: Ann Johansson / For The Times 

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