Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, considered one of the supreme achievements in the history of music, became a worldwide message of peace when, on Christmas Day in 1989, an international group of musicians performed the work in Germany honoring the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“Leonard Bernstein transformed a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony today into an appeal for brotherhood as West and East Berliners mingled freely for the first Christmas in 28 years,” wrote The New York Times.
“I am experiencing a historical moment, incomparable with others in my long, long life,” Bernstein said during the performance televised live by satellite to 20 countries.
The Ninth has been performed much longer to celebrate the New Year, annually in Vienna and in Japan, where thousands across the country join in performances. The work has become an annual Vermont community rite as well.
For the ninth year, Vermont instrumentalists and singers will come together Dec. 29 and Jan. 1 when the Green Mountain Mahler Festival presents Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, called “Choral,” with soloists, chorus and orchestra, conducted by Daniel Bruce. Vocal soloists are soprano Jessica Della Pepa, mezzo-soprano Linda Radtke, tenor Kevin Ginter and bass Erik Kroncke; the chorus is directed by Kroncke.
Performances are at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 29, at Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in Stowe, and 3 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 1, at Elley-Long Music Center in Colchester. Proceeds from the Jan. 1 concert will benefit Voices Against Violence/Laurie’s House and Steps to End Domestic Violence.
Beethoven’s 1824 Ninth Symphony, his last, rivals the Fifth in public familiarity, and is the first by any composer to use singers. In the fourth and final movement, words from Friedrich Schiller’s poem, “Ode to Joy,” with text added by the composer, are sung by soloists and chorus with the orchestra. Its melody has become justly famous.
“It seems to be a unifying piece,” Bruce, who is conducting, said by phone. “It’s one people relate to who are not necessarily a classical music audience. Everyone knows the theme.”
Bruce, who grew up in Northfield and has music degrees from Hartt School of Music and Northwestern University, is a veteran conductor and concert and jazz pianist. A resident of East Montpelier, he is currently director of music at Peoples Academy in Morrisville and music director of the Burlington Civic Symphony.
The Green Mountain Mahler Festival was founded in 2002 by Daniel Weiss, an avocational bassist, and physician and scientist at the University of Vermont, to provide an opportunity for area musicians to experience the large-scale works not generally accessible to smaller local orchestras, and to bring this music to the public. A regular conductor with the festival, Bruce will be conducting the Ninth for the ninth time.
“I feel like I’m just now scratching the surface of the music that’s there,” Bruce said. “I’m understanding the nuances better than when I first started. And I think that’s a level of understanding I don’t think I would be able to reach without multiple performances.
“A work like this you can spend a life studying, but there’s something that transcends that study when you perform it,” he said. “And after having performed it eight times so far, and having studied it for 10 years, I’m still discovering new things about the music.”
Most of the players in the orchestra and the singers in the chorus have participated in previous Mahler Festival performances of the work, some for all nine.
“Every single note is important,” Bruce said. “And then you see how they’re grouped across the orchestra, the way the passages are connected, the way a little two-note motif is repeated throughout the orchestra. There’s a purpose for everything in his music.
“I will never feel we’ve mastered this piece,” Bruce said. “There will always be something new to discover.”
The mix of professional and passionate avocational players, even a few who play only a few times a year, continues to be successful.
“There are some leaders across the group in every section; they draw everybody along with them,” Bruce said. “They also have very high expectations because we’ve performed it so many times. I think our expectations of ourselves rise every time we perform it. So when somebody new comes up, they get swept up in that.”
Beethoven’s Ninth has now become a Vermont tradition.
“Many people plan their entire holiday season around it,” Bruce said. “This makes the concept of a new year more meaningful having this great music.”