Choral Performance a Real Ode to Joy

One of the special joys of reviewing is going to a performance, expecting one thing and becoming privy to something unexpectedly new and exciting.

That first happened to me in 1953, when I attended a performance by the newly-formed Chicago Civic Opera and was stunned by a young performer imported from Italy for the lead in the opera "Norma," whose name happened to be Maria Callas.

It happened again last Monday night, when I went to the San Mateo Performing Arts Center to review the Peninsula's Baroque Choral Guild's supporting of the California Symphony in Ludwig van Beethoven's monumental "Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125." This is better know as the "Choral Symphony," with its famous "Ode to Joy," in the last movement.

But, what I will remember best from this concert is "Songs from the Discovery" for Chorus and Orchestra, by a huge talent, Kevin Beavers, the "Young American Composer-in-Residence" with the California Symphony.

Remember that name, the music world will be hearing much from this modest 33-year-old.

He based the two movements on poems by the 1996 Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, called "Acrobat" and "Discovery."

From the opening measures, I could tell this was going to be a unique experience. It is the best of the new modern works I've heard in years. Beavers has successfully woven American vernacular music, from folk through jazz to rock, into traditional Western musical forms and come up with a synthesis that is trail blazing.  

With a doctorate from the University of Michigan, he is a creative master of rich and complex orchestrations that most composers would need many more years to develop. His harmonic structures are a feast for the ears, his special effects distinctly original and his variations in dynamics hold the audience waiting for "What's next?"

In addition to the choral support, the two vocal soloists, tenor Kevin Gibbs in "The Acrobat," and baritone Anton Belov in "Discovery" were outstanding.

What is next for Beavers? It is his Symphony No. 1, which will be premiered by the California Symphony next year. I'll be there.

The twenty-five-year-old Baroque Choral Guild, currently under the direction of Sanford Dole, is another one of those outstanding choruses on the Peninsula. I would say we have the most fine choruses per square mile than any other place in the country. I cannot imagine that its support in Beaver's work and in the Beethoven Ninth could be done better by anyone, anywhere.

Under the direction of founder Barry Jekowsky, the seventeen-year-old California Symphony is based in Walnut Creek. This was its first foray out of Contra Costa County and it is looking forward to doing it again. 

Although, its opening work, Mozart's "Overture to the Magic Flute," struck me as rather uninspired and listless, it redeemed itself in the Beavers work and in the Beethoven Ninth, in which Jekowsky coaxed his performers to mount breathtaking heights. 

Again, Gibbs and Belov were joined by mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse and soprano Courtenay Budd for those soaring leads into the immortal choral final movement, "Ode to Joy."

Which pretty much sums it all up. It was a joy.

By Keith Kreitman
Thursday, May 20, 2004
The Argus

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