You'd think by now we'd know how Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 should sound. After all, if scientists are homing in on subparticles, surely musicologists, conductors and theorists would have figured this out in the nearly 200 years since the "Choral" Symphony premiered in Vienna.
But that is the beauty -- the joy -- of a performing art like classical music: There is no right way to play it. Interpretation is key, and that goes for how a musician plays a work and how a listener hears it. It's an endlessly fascinating subject that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and its music director Manfred Honeck brought to the fore Friday night at Heinz Hall.
Last time we heard Mr. Honeck lead this work in 2010, his tempos were shockingly fast. This time, he made his case in an innovative and practically unheard of way. Prior to the performance he talked from the stage to explain that he takes a brisk tempo because it reflects Beethoven's own metronome markings. He put a finer point on it by having the orchestra play excerpts with these tempos and the slower speed that conductors tended to use in the 20th century. I am not going to quibble that Beethoven was completely deaf when he jotted those markings down, or that they were measured by a newly invented mechanical contraption (the metronome) in a world that had no agreed-upon central time.
No, my slight qualm is that Mr. Honeck then demonstrated that he takes "acoustic liberties" in the work by using an off-stage percussion corps in the finale's military march. I love the drama of this move, but you can't have it both ways -- Beethoven didn't mark that down in the score. But I appreciated the peek into the creative process, which should be an eye-opener to any who think conducting is just waving hands around.
In any case, just as I did in 2010, I thought the fast (or original) tempos wonderfully enlivened the first three movements but hindered the finale, with its famous "Ode to Joy." There's no question the middle movements gain much with faster tempos, bringing a dance-like quality to the music and pushing the emphasis to the huge finale, all delivered with the uncommon vitality of the PSO. But ultimately, if Mr. Honeck can change a phrase, he can change a tempo, and Mendelssohn Choir and soloists could hardly handle the speed. Plus, to my ears, it robbed the work of some of its mystery, especially the last half of the finale in which Beethoven takes the music above the "canopy of stars" with floating, exquisite singing.
But having said that, I still enjoyed it, partly because I knew what to expect and partly because Mr. Honeck had let me in on why he did so. Oh, and because Beethoven's genius can thrive in all sorts of readings. It's the joy of interpretation.
The evening opened with a light and delightful premiere of a work by Christopher Theofanidis dedicated to PSO chairman Richard P. Simmons. "The Gift" is a setting of a folk tale about a character named Wali Dad, whose own generosity comes back to bite him in a funny way. Tenor Anthony Griffey sang the essentially declamatory part of Wali Dad, while the chorus served as a narrator of sorts. It was filled with the sort of tasteful and witty humor that you rarely hear in classical music anymore, aligned with lush and colorful sonorities.
The program repeats at 8 tonight and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750.