Review: Modesto symphony soars with Beethoven's Ninth

The Modesto Symphony closed its season this weekend with a stunning performance of two of the great works for chorus and orchestra, the Poulenc Gloria and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which concludes with the famous “Ode to Joy.”

Nearly 200 singers from the Modesto Symphony Chorus as well as the Concert Chorale and Chamber Singers from California State University, Stanislaus, combined on stage to deliver these masterpieces with power and passion. Before the concert began, conductor David Lockington took a moment to acknowledge the recent passing of Bob Danziger, the symphony’s second bassoon player, and a music faculty member at CSU Stanislaus. He dedicated the performance to Bob’s memory, a fitting gesture given the affirming messages of this music that reflect Bob’s own love of life which served him so well.

Poulenc’s version of the Gloria, a text from part of the Catholic Mass, captures both the spirit of energetic praise as well as intimate feelings of reverence and supplication. The choir and orchestra attacked the first, second, and fourth movements with vitality, bringing a sense of delight particularly to the playful rhythms of the Laudamus Te as well as the Domine Fili Unigenite. Soprano Esther Heideman created a total change of mood with her beatific interpretation of the Domine Deus, which was by turns ethereal and soaring.

Later in the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, as well as the final movement Ms. Heideman negotiated angular lines and high register with a degree of assurance that allowed us to revel in the beautiful chemistry of the text, the music, and the lovely, open quality of her vocal color. With the exception of a few exposed unison passages at the beginning of the Qui Sedes, the choir was at all times on target in pitch, diction, and tone quality. For its part, the orchestra alternately accompanied and rose to the fore effectively and sensitively throughout the performance.

After the relatively short first half, Beethoven’s monumental “Choral” Symphony occupied the remainder of the evening. Lasting more than one hour, the work is a tour de force which features the orchestra for approximately 50 minutes before the famous choral part begins in the final movement.

Despite being less well-known to many, the first three movements consist of music just as majestic and optimistic in its own way as the fourth movement. The orchestra recounted these movements with commanding precision, buoyancy, and tenderness as required by their various characters. I was particularly impressed by the musicians’ ability to capture the necessary mix of earnest intensity in the scherzo, which was nicely set off by the good-humor in the trio. Likewise, I was touched by the loving expressiveness of the slow movement particularly evident in the violins.

To be sure, when baritone Kevin Deas announced the beginning of the final segment with with the words “O Freunde” in a rich, commanding tone, an expectant awareness seemed to fill the hall. That expectation was rewarded by magnificent choral and solo and quartet singing for the 20 minutes or so that could not have been a more joyful way to sum up the concert season.

Special thanks and congratulations is due to Daniel Afonso, conductor of both the symphony chorus and the university choirs, and to the choir members themselves for their commitment to preparing such a difficult work so well. Likewise, we owe David Lockington our thanks for his artistic leadership which has brought this organization’s music making to such a rewarding level for our community.

Stephen Thomas is a professor of music at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock.