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Oratorio Society of Virginia helps Beethoven masterwork mark the big 2-0-0

To bring its 56th season to a close, the Oratorio Society of Virginia has revived a 2020 program that had to be canceled when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. This time, the music is all by Ludwig van Beethoven, and the occasion is the 200th anniversary of one of the works.

Michael Slon, music director of the Oratorio Society of Virginia and director of choral music at the University of Virginia, told The Daily Progress that Beethoven’s "Symphony No. 9," which turned 200 years old this past Tuesday, "is one of the most extraordinary works of art to be created by a human being." Through the years, the Ninth Symphony, and especially its moving fourth movement for chorus and orchestra, became "a cultural touchstone," beloved by many and imbued with special significance to reflect the times in which listeners live.

Audience members can hear the program at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in Cabell Hall Auditorium in UVa’s Old Cabell Hall. The singers and instrumentalists also presented the all-Beethoven program Friday evening in Grisham Hall at St. Anne’s-Belfield School.

"We have 90 singers in the Oratorio Society chorus, full orchestra and soloists," Slon said. Musical guests include soprano Christina Pier Cronin, tenor Jamison Lee Walker, bass Weston Hurt and pianist Peter Henderson.

Beethoven’s "Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125," was performed for the first time on May 7, 1824, in Vienna. It remains one of the most frequently performed symphonies in the world, and in 2001, Beethoven’s handwritten score became the first to be added to the Memory of the World Programme Heritage List established by the United Nations.

An instrumental arrangement of the choral movement serves as the anthem of Europe.

During Christmas season of 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted a famous version to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the division of Germany, in which the singers substituted the word "Freiheit (freedom)" for the original "Freude" (joy)."

Performing the work is a celebration, but no picnic. Slon and his singers started learning and rehearsing the famous choral symphony back in the fall, setting it aside briefly to focus on the program for their March concert before getting back to work.

"It really demands a lot of the instrumentalists and the singers," Slon said, adding that when some of the musicians performing in the world premiere asked Beethoven to allow a few adjustments to the music, the composer said no.

Beethoven did, however, make an addition to the text, which came from poet Friedrich Schiller’s "An die Freude (Ode to Joy)." Before launching into Schiller’s verses, the bass or baritone soloist inserts a line written by Beethoven himself: "Oh, friends, not these sounds! Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful sounds."

The wistful introduction can remind the audience how bittersweet Beethoven’s achievement turned out to be.

"He wrote this piece when he was basically completely deaf," Slon said. "That is testament to the triumph of a human spirit."


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