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Music review: Fruhbeck's Beethoven Ninth at the Hollywood Bowl

August 19, 2011 |  3:00 pm

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducts Beethoven's Ninth
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos returned to the Hollywood Bowl Thursday night. The imposing crowd of nearly 12,000 was double the size of that for the Spanish conductor’s Tuesday night concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic of music by Manuel da Falla and Berlioz. It could be that word got out about what a fine concert Tuesday’s was. But the real draw was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

The Ninth is a symphony of rebirth. It serves well for occasions of hellos and goodbyes. Two years ago, Gustavo Dudamel chose it for his free concert at the Bowl, turning his first appearance as the L.A. Philharmonic music director into a civic event. Later this month, Lorin Maazel will close the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood season with the Ninth. On Sept. 7, Kent Nagano will inaugurate a long-awaited new concert hall in Montreal with this 70-minute choral symphony. Ninths on Dec. 31 have become a traditional Japanese way to meet the new year.

No special occasion marked a midsummer Thursday in Hollywood. But we find ourselves ever fretting about our uncertain world, and spiritual renewal, the kind for which Beethoven had an incomparable gift, is more need than luxury. The Ninth is, at the Bowl, a communion (at least for those willing to part for an hour with their smart phones).

The symphony begins in the void and builds into a celebrated call for brotherhood. If the performance is at all worthy, it leaves you with a palpable sense of promise. Frühbeck’s performance, which included four soaring young vocal soloists and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, was most worthy.

Jeremy Denk First, though, there was Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy as an opener. It seems an obvious way to begin. Like the Ninth it requires a chorus and vocal soloists (six, instead of four) and it even presages the Ninth’s famous “Ode to Joy” tune. Like the Ninth there is a text (though a more cornball one) calling forth a vision of peace and love and joy and bliss and the springtime sun.

But unlike the Ninth, this is not the representation of the evolution of the spirit. Instead the score was tossed off by Beethoven as a kind of merry taming of chaos. At the premiere in 1808 -– a famous concert that also included the premieres of Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies and his Piano Concerto No. 4  -- Beethoven sat at his pianoforte and improvised an introduction to the Choral Fantasy. He also composed a piano part that turns this Fantasy into a kind of 17-minute piano concerto with chorus.

Few pianists dare attempt such an improvisation now -– the standard score opens with what is essentially one of Beethoven’s improvisations -- and that is what Jeremy Denk played with tremendous verve and contagious brilliance on Thursday. Frühbeck conducted at a crisp clip. Excitement was in the air.

Frühbeck played the Ninth relatively straight. He may not have attempted to create a mystical or monumental atmosphere at the beginning or finesse inner details, but he maintained order and momentum, the first priority at the Bowl. And he splendidly captured that spiritual sense of evolution from Beethovenian building blocks.

The opening movement had a stern strength, an order to listeners of intent. The Scherzo was tight, tense, vivacious. If the symphony was the world in microcosm, as Mahler suggested, this was the adolescent life force. The Adagio displayed a radiant glow, Frühbeck ever sweetening and deepening lyrical melodies on their return.

In the Finale, Frühbeck seemed, as we watched him on the video screen, to become increasingly possessed. He has a genial manner, but big drama suits him and so, apparently, does a large body of singers.

Bass baritone Iain Paterson’s clear diction and forceful expression set the vocal tone. Soprano Leah Crocetto, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano and tenor Brandon Jovanovich were the other soloists. The Master Chorale is a collective old hand at this symphony, and its fervor was something in which Frühbeck gloried.

Frühbeck is known mainly for his colorful, insightful, illuminating conducting of French and Spanish music. But he has Beethoven’s number as well. This was a colorful, insightful Ninth, but one illumined by logic and set aloft through a tremendous spirit.

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-- Mark Swed

Photo: Top, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Hollywood Bowl; middle, pianist Jeremy Denk. Credits: Lawrence K. Ho.

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