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Stanford Report, May 10, 2000

J. Karla Lemon to lead symphony, chorus in Beethoven's Ninth next week

When the Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989, Leonard Bernstein assembled an international orchestra and chorus to proclaim the new era via satellite. For Christmas Eve performances from East Berlin and West Berlin, the maestro chose -- what else? -- Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

"The hugeness, the idealism, the thrill of massed forces proclaiming the glory of the human spirit to a war-weary international audience -- those were very much Beethoven's own reaction to the times he lived in," J. Karla Lemon, director of orchestras, wrote to members of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in April when they began to rehearse the demanding work.

J. Karla Lemon, director of orchestras, will conduct the Stanford symphony when it performs Beethoven’s Ninth on May 18 and 19. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

On a recent evening in Dinkelspiel Auditorium, with two weeks to go before performances in Memorial Church on May 18 and 19, Lemon brought the symphony home to a group of high-school students who were sitting in on the SSO rehearsal. At a time when many kids are downloading favorite songs from the Internet at home, she made a compelling case for listening to live music in a concert hall.

"Sure, it can be irritating to sit next to someone who's coughing or rustling candy wrappers, but you're all in a room together, sharing in the energy that flows from the stage to the audience and back again," the associate professor of music told the 59 string players from Sprague High School in Salem, Ore.

"When you're in a concert hall, you're also enjoying one another's company and finding out how important it is to be with people," Lemon added. "And that enjoyment -- that brotherhood -- is really what Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is all about."

Lemon will conduct the SSO, Stanford Symphonic Chorus and Stanford University Singers in Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 18, and Friday, May 19. Joining the university musicians are four internationally known soloists: soprano Twyla Robinson, tenor Todd Geer, bass Curtis Streetman and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane, a senior lecturer in voice at Stanford.

Tickets are $15 for general admission and $8 for students, and may be purchased at the Stanford Ticket Office, (650) 725-2787. or at the door.

Beethoven composed the symphony between 1817 and 1823, when secret police, informers, spies and bureaucrats hostile to art and freedom ranged through Vienna. The work had its debut performance on May 7, 1824, at the Kärntnertor Theater, under the direction of Michael Umlauf. Beethoven, who was totally deaf by that time, sat with the orchestra, trying to keep pace with the score, but had to be gently turned around by the contralto soloist when the symphony ended, to acknowledge the audience's ovation.

For years Beethoven had wanted to put to music "Ode to Joy," a poem by Friedrich Schiller, who sympathized with the French Revolution and who is said to have originally composed his work as an "Ode to Freedom." Lemon notes that the first two movements of the Ninth portray a "terrifying depiction of the human condition," while the texture of the third offers repose and solace, with tender, reaching melodies. The questions that are asked in the musical themes of the first three movements are answered by human voices in the finale, which begins in turmoil and then introduces the familiar melody with a whisper.

"With a hush we turn from the brotherhood of man to the fatherhood of God," Lemon says about one reprise. "Trombones and male voices intone like a Gregorian celebrant, and the chorus answers in celestial Handelian polyphony. This is the most 'purely' choral passage in the movement. Building on antique model harmony, it culminates with ethereal voices climbing toward a starry canopy."

Beethoven laid on one surprise after another in his composition and Lemon says the student musicians will be exposed to "a world of profound emotion and thought."

"It takes immense concentration to execute the dotted rhythm that is repeated more than 1,000 times in the second movement," she adds. "So they're learning to develop stamina, both physical and mental, as they play nonstop for one hour and 15 minutes."

At the May 4 rehearsal, Lemon occasionally waded in among the first violins, drawing out a more expressive, sustained sound. She called for more staccato from the horns -- "the articulation still isn't crisp enough" -- and more resonance from the bass and cello players.

"We need an absolutely metronomic sense of tempo here," she said about the last presto of the fourth movement, where the violins enter. "It has to be cleaner, more precise, so it sounds like one tiny clock ticking."

Lemon assured the players they knew the music technically, but needed to relax and find their way emotionally.

"You have the notes, but you're working too hard," she said. "Now you need to back off and find the right energy. There needs to be more heart, more joy when you come in."

In rehearsal rooms in Braun Music Building, Stephen Sano, associate professor of music and director of choral studies, has been rehearsing -- separately -- the 50 mostly undergraduate students of the University Singers and the 180 faculty, staff, graduate students and community members of the Stanford Symphonic Chorus.

"Musically the notes are easy to learn, but vocally it's extremely taxing," Sano says about the fourth movement, the only choral part Beethoven wrote for a symphony.

In addition to the challenge of memorizing the text, Sano adds the singers will have to adjust to a new conductor when Lemon steps onto the podium.

"It's Karla's show," he says. "She and I sit down ahead of time and go over tempi and phrasing, but it's still like whiplash, facing a new conductor.

"I mean, I'm 5 feet 3 inches, and Karla is close to 6 feet, with a tremendous wingspan -- so our physique when we conduct is totally different. But learning different styles and seeing what various conductors bring to the process is one of the most exciting things about a performance like this."

Lemon is dedicating the performance of the orchestra on opening night to Helen Bing, wife of trustee Peter Bing and a longtime friend and supporter of the Music Department. The concert is being underwritten, in part, by alumnus Dr. A. Jess Shenson.

For Lemon, the joy that was a cardinal tenet of Enlightenment thought transcends Beethoven's challenging vocal writing.

"The sopranos and basses are scored at the top of their ranges and the effort expended by the chorus is gargantuan," she says. "Audience members will probably intuit this monumental feat and derive a vicarious thrill from hearing a mass of singers deliver a successful but intensely physical performance. It's sort of like watching gladiators in the forum, except that everyone makes it out alive!" SR