Setting the Bar High with Beethoven’s 9th

Harvey Felder directs students from the UConn Concert Choir and UConn Festival Chorus, as well as singers from Farmington and E.O. Smith High Schools, as they rehearse Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the Music Building on Nov. 18, 2013. (Ariel Dowski/UConn Photo)

Harvey Felder directs students from the UConn Concert Choir and UConn Festival Chorus, as well as singers from Farmington and E.O. Smith High Schools, as they rehearse Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the Music Building on Nov. 18. (Ariel Dowski ’14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

When Harvey Felder, director of orchestral studies, and Jamie Spillane ’87 MM, director of choral studies, arrived simultaneously to join the School of Fine Arts faculty last year, they began to discuss collaborating on programs that periodically would bring the UConn orchestras and choral groups together.

The orchestras and vocal ensembles had not performed together in Storrs in recent years, in part because of the complexity of preparing choral groups and orchestras that generally perform works written specifically for either vocal or instrumental presentations. There are many compositions for voice and instruments, usually for smaller groupings, but there are fewer major symphonic works in the classical repertoire for full orchestras and large choruses.

An ambitious goal

The two associate professors of music decided to set the bar high for their first collaboration with a program centered on an epic work, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which will combine not only the UConn Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir, but the UConn Festival Chorus – a mixed choir comprised of UConn faculty, staff, and students, and members of the Greater Storrs Community – as well as the Chamber Singers from both Edwin O. Smith and Farmington High Schools. Featured soloists will include two faculty members, soprano Constance Rock ’05 DMA and alto Meredith Ziegler ’02 (SFA), ’04 MM; bass Anthony Leathem, a doctoral candidate; and tenor Albert Lee ’98 (SFA), who is director of the Nevada Chamber Opera at the University of Nevada-Reno. The performance will take place on Thursday, Dec. 5, at 8 p.m. in the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts.

Students from the UConn Concert Choir and UConn Festival Chorus, as well as singers from Farmington and E.O. Smith High Schools, rehearse Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the Music Building on Nov. 18, 2013. (Ariel Dowski/UConn Photo)

Students from the UConn Concert Choir and UConn Festival Chorus, as well as singers from Farmington and E.O. Smith High Schools, rehearse Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the Music Building on Nov. 18, 2013. (Ariel Dowski/UConn Photo)

In addition to being the final major work by Beethoven, “Symphony No. 9” was the first symphonic composition to include a choral movement, according to Glenn Stanley, professor of music history in UConn’s Department of Music who has published extensively in American, British, and German journals and books with special emphasis on Beethoven and 19th-century choral music.

“Not everyone thought that was such a good idea,” Stanley says of the critical response to “Symphony No. 9” when it was first presented. “Some critics felt it was a mistake because it corrupted the aesthetics of the genre. The idea was that a symphony was a piece of pure instrumental music that didn’t need words. It’s been much debated, and [Beethoven] never set forth why he did it.”

Mastering the music

The symphony is an hour in duration, with about 20 minutes of choir participation, presenting challenges for Felder and Spillane during the preparation and rehearsal of the work. For several weeks leading up to the performance, Spillane worked independently with the choral groups, including travel to Farmington High School, to rehearse the vocalists and track their progress. There are 180 singers in the combined choral groups.

“We create a master score with all the markings – the same breath marks, dynamics of loud and soft sections, and pronunciation – so each group is practicing the same things,” he says. “What’s fascinating is that sometimes the adults learn things quicker in the Festival Chorus though they’re not all music majors, and some have vast experience. Sometimes the college kids, who are predominantly music majors, are picking up things quickly. When you put those two [factors] together, you build on the strength of the four choirs.

Students from the UConn Concert Choir and UConn Festival Chorus, as well as singers from Farmington and E.O. Smith High Schools, rehearse Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the Music Building on Nov. 18, 2013. (Ariel Dowski/UConn Photo)

Students from the UConn Concert Choir and UConn Festival Chorus, as well as singers from Farmington and E.O. Smith High Schools, rehearse Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the Music Building on Nov. 18, 2013. (Ariel Dowski/UConn Photo)

The best known vocal section of the work is “Ode to Joy,” the 1785 poem by Friedrich Schiller that is part of the symphony’s final movement, combining soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Spillane says the range and rhythm of the choral elements are challenging.

“The music is hard,” Spillane says. “You have to learn the language of Beethoven when you are first learning it. You think: That doesn’t work. What was he thinking? The pitches, rhythms, and counterpoints, they just seem odd. After you work on them for a while they go together. They’re smaller pieces of a puzzle and at first you can’t conceptualize the whole. Once it comes together, it’s better than any puzzle you’ve ever done.”

Felder says he has a disciplined and systematic approach to mastering a score that he will conduct, a method he teaches to his students in Orchestral Studies. He goes through a work as many as a dozen times, with each study aimed at uncovering different information – such as instrumentation, harmonic analysis, and melodic analysis — that will help him master the work before presenting it to musicians.

“By the time I’m done, I know the piece very well and am ready to rehearse,” Felder says. “Depending on the piece, if it’s a Haydn symphony for example, I can do those 12 trips in a couple of hours. If it’s a monumental piece, like a Mahler or the Beethoven symphony, it may take two or three months to get through those steps and feel really comfortable with it.”

Artistic interpretation

Felder encourages his student musicians to listen to different recordings of a piece such as Beethoven’s 9th, so they can become familiar with a work they may not know very well. As part of their studies, UConn music students have access to the Naxos Music Library, which contains nearly 90,000 compact disc-length recordings of the classical repertoire.

He may also listen to recordings after his initial study of a piece, but avoids doing so before he has a thorough understanding of what the composer has written.

“There is a real danger of making ill-informed performance decisions if one listens to someone else’s interpretation without truly knowing what the composer wrote,” Felder says. “The gray areas are not written down, and this is where an artist needs to offer an interpretation. There is an Italian word stringendo, which means go faster. It doesn’t say how much faster; that’s an interpretive thing I will have to decide. Do I want to run, trot, or walk quickly? If I listen to a recording I may hear that the conductor runs, or in another version he walks fast, but still a stroll. Without my initial study of the piece, I could think one of these interpretations may be what the composer wrote rather than a choice made by a particular conductor.”

Jamie Spillane directs students from the UConn Concert Choir and UConn Festival Chorus, as well as singers from Farmington and E.O. Smith High Schools, as they rehearse Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the Music Building on Nov. 18, 2013. (Ariel Dowski/UConn Photo)

Jamie Spillane directs students from the UConn Concert Choir and UConn Festival Chorus, as well as singers from Farmington and E.O. Smith High Schools, as they rehearse Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the Music Building on Nov. 18, 2013. (Ariel Dowski/UConn Photo)

In mid-November, when the two UConn choral groups and orchestra were brought together for the first time in a large rehearsal room in the Music Building, Felder and Spillane stopped and started sections of “Symphony No. 9” and the two other program works – Schubert’s “Magnificat” and “Antiphon” by Vaughn Williams – to provide guidance for their musicians.

“If we can come to this moment and present that in that sort of controlled, serious way, it’s a wonderful dramatic moment in the piece,” Felder told the vocalists, after they had completed a section of the Beethoven work he had corrected for timing. “But if it rushes and feels urgent or out of control, it loses that impact.”

The two professors say they look forward to collaborating in the future on other works that incorporate choral and orchestral ensembles, such as Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” Gabriel Fauré’s “Requiem in D Minor,” or the Holocaust remembrance by Stephen Paulus, “To Be Certain of the Dawn.”

“We’re going to try to do something every year, some major work,” Spillane says. “There is so much great music for large chorus and orchestra, and it’s an experience both our chorus and audience should have.”

For more information, go to the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts website.

Listen to Felder rehearsing ‘Ode to Joy‘ from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
Listen to Jamie Spillane conducting Schubert’s ‘Magnificat‘ in rehearsal.