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Such Sweet Thunder 

click to enlarge The Hudson Valley Philharmonic performs Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on April 18 at the Ulster Performing Arts Center
  • The Hudson Valley Philharmonic performs Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on April 18 at the Ulster Performing Arts Center

It begins as a gentle murmur, so low you think, “Is the orchestra still tuning up?” Gradually it rises to the first symphonic chorus in history:

Seid umschlungen, Millionen! / Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!

[“Be embraced, millions! / This kiss for the whole world!”]

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor will be performed on Saturday, April 18 by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic at the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) in Kingston. Randall Craig Fleischer will conduct and deliver a pre-concert talk.

The “Ode to Joy” is a kind of supersong, and in fact has been rearranged by Herbert von Karajan into what is now called the “Anthem of Europe.” “There are references to democracy in the text of the Ninth Symphony; it was very much a Masonic, anti-theocracy, anti-fascist statement,” Fleischer explains. In other words, Ludwig van Beethoven was the Bob Dylan of the 19th century.

“I think the parallels between Beethoven and Dylan actually are many,” observes Fleischer. “When Bob Dylan was transitioning from folk, from being a pure folkie, to a rock ’n’ roll artist—talk about expanding a musical genre! But of course he was taking all the socially relevant, biting lyrics that he was writing as a folkie, into rock ’n’ roll, and instead of a-wop-bop-a-loo-and-a-wop-bam-boom, all of a sudden, these are rock ’n’ roll songs that are criticizing the very heart and soul of our society. Same with Beethoven.”

Just as Dylan’s lyrics are propelled by thunderous amplifiers, Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” (revised by Beethoven himself) is powered by massive instrumentation.

It’s difficult to imagine the monumental effect the Ninth Symphony had when it premiered on May 7, 1824, at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna. For one thing, concert halls were smaller then, only holding about 900 people, and their acoustics were much sharper. Perhaps Beethoven composed such a soaring work because he was completely deaf at the time.

A chorus is a democracy, and the one at UPAC will be 150 voices strong, combining an array of local choral groups, including the Bachfest Choir, the Camerata Chorale, Kairos, the Vassar College Choir and the Ulster Choral Society. The singers will range from teenagers to octogenarians.

“When you’re in a big choral group, you don’t have to sing loud, because it’s an ensemble,” remarks Kevin Seekamp, president of the Ulster Choral Society. “It’s being part of a larger organism. It’s like being on an aircraft carrier, or a submarine.” Four vocal soloists will serve as a kind of solo quartet, and the Hudson Valley Philharmonic will swell to 60 members for this concert, which celebrates the organization’s 50th anniversary.
Joseph Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante, a concerto for four instruments (violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon) will also be performed. Haydn was Beethoven’s teacher, so alert listeners will be able to compare the master and the disciple. This event is in memory of Norm Rafalowsky, one of the three men who saved UPAC in the 1970s. He passed away in February.

Fleischer’s preconcert lectures are lively and impassioned. He himself is a composer, which invigorates his knowledge of orchestral music. Fleischer’s multimedia symphonic piece “Echoes” was performed at the Smithsonian Institute last November.

The Hudson Valley Philharmonic will perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at UPAC Kingston, on April 18 at 8pm. (845) 473-2072;

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