Jed Gaylin and Bay Atlantic Symphony will celebrate milestones with Beethoven’s Ninth

by COURTNEY SMITH
Jed Gaylin interview

JED GAYLIN

Sometimes Mother Nature just isn’t on your side. The last time Bay Atlantic Symphony programmed Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the concert fell on the eve of Hurricane Sandy. Music director Jed Gaylin was on the podium.

“We did the Saturday night performance in Cumberland, inland a bit,” Gaylin says. “We hit the final chord, we took the bows and then everyone raced for the hills because the hurricane came through. We had to cancel the Sunday performance at Stockton and then we got funding from them to redo that performance in April 2013.”

Gaylin’s passion for the masterwork has been simmering for a decade and it’s about to boil over into two weekend performances — May 6 at Rowan College of South Jersey’s Cumberland Campus in Vineland, and May 7 at the Stockton Performing Arts Center in Galloway — featuring the Bay Atlantic Symphony, the Greater South Jersey Chorus and a vocal quartet.

The concerts will mark the grand finale of Bay Atlantic’s 40th anniversary season and Gaylin’s 25th as music director. “I have loved so much working with this incredible collection of musicians that we’ve assembled over the years,” says Gaylin, a great communicator in the style of George Szell and Leonard Bernstein.

Gaylin’s approach to programming unites symphonic canon repertoire with lesser known contemporary works by underrepresented voices. This will be on full display with the concert opener, William Grant Still’s “Phantom Chapel.”

An African American composer who studied under Edgard Varèse, Still wrote the work for piano and orchestra in 1940. Gaylin chose an arrangement by Shelley Hanson, orchestrated for a chamber ensemble with no soloists and a short runtime under five minutes.

“What I love about the piece, as with most William Grant Still, is the pace and structure of it feels perfect for the materials,” says Gaylin. “He always writes with a very rich tonal depth. And it’s beautifully orchestrated. The piece is gorgeous, haunting and bitonal, but in a way I think our audiences will find very mystical.”

The Greater South Jersey Chorus will perform with the Bay Atlantic Symphony, May 6-7.

Not much is written about the title source. Gaylin dug around and, to the best of his knowledge, it references a 1873 work by American author John Townsend Trowbridge. “The poem itself is very 19th century and very naturalistic,” says Gaylin. “It’s a long poem, very Wordsworthian, and, to me, therefore nothing like what the piece sounds like.”

The work bridges the program’s narrative arc — which culminates with the Beethoven catharsis — by introducing themes of mysticism and otherworldliness.

“It’s always hard to choose something before the Beethoven Ninth,” Gaylin says. “I’ve heard it done where you have a full-length classical concerto, and no matter how wonderful that performance is, you know … then comes the Ninth! I wanted something that also — despite being from a completely different era than Beethoven and essentially with a very different sound palette — nonetheless, in its essence, speaks to that incredible opening of the Ninth. I think it’s great to be able to show this affinity between an African American composer in the first half of the 20th century writing to a similar sense of awe. For me, it sets up the very aggrandizing cosmic sounds of the first movement of the Beethoven work.”

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor is one of the greatest works in the mainstream repertory of Western music. The canonical, four-movement choral symphony is the German composer’s final and only vocal symphony. Its famous choral finale, adapted from the 18th-century “An die Freude” (“Ode to Joy”) poem by Friedrich Schiller, carries messages of unity, togetherness and community that speak to Bay Atlantic’s legacy.

“I’m a big fan of all the arts,” Gaylin says. “My wife is a poet and essayist, and I love going to museums and theater. Yet in terms of what’s in Western art, I don’t know any other work — and I’m including Shakespeare and Thomas Mann and Dostoevsky and whoever else you want to think about — I don’t know of another composer … whose project is so all-encompassing for what human potential is.”

It has taken on significance of immortality, transcendence and spirituality since its 1824 premiere in Vienna. Definitive recordings by revered maestros in their twilight years are studied like scripture. German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler led it over 100 times in his career, including his final meditative performance three months before his death in 1954.

Interpretations run the gamut from sweet, lyrical and layered to crystalline, thundering and volatile.

JED GAYLIN

This is the seventh time Gaylin will perform the work in his conducting career. When pressed on his interpretative style, he shares an anecdote about the late Romanian pianist Radu Lupu: En route to the stage one evening to play one of his calling cards, Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat major, Lupu said to an assistant, “I used to think I knew how this piece went.”

“Of course he knows how the piece goes,” Gaylin says with a laugh. “But for him, what it means is that each nuance as it opens up slightly, for him, has vast ramifications about that sort of philosophic or sound universe architecture. So it becomes increasingly harder — the more in depth one encounters, in a piece like the Ninth — to sum it up in a sentence or two, either the piece itself or one’s approach to it.

“For me, what I’m interested in is to find an architecture that is convincing, where at the end of each movement, you feel like it’s all come together as one breath or expression, but that it also honors and privileges each moment’s textures and sound universe. And that’s very hard to do in this symphony.”

The work needs unique musical, emotional and philosophic attention from its conductor, to bring out the rich, magisterial contrasts of Beethoven’s dynamics, mood, tempos and character.

“The first movement needs to have a kind of unrelenting sense of indifference to the human condition,” he says. “There’s a hint of the ‘Ode to Joy’ here and there, but it’s just the kernel of it. There’s very little compassion, very little anger and very little love. It’s a cold yet fierce movement — fierce without being malicious — nor is it kind. It’s amoral and cosmic.

“The second movement — quite to the contrary, I think — alternates between a somewhat macabre fugal scherzo that is dark, and that does address issues of the human condition and, I think, immortality. And the trio — which gets us into D major in the key of the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme ¯ opens up the possibility of this not being the final word.”

He finds the Adagio the most elusive of the movements.

“I don’t know if there’s anything harder to conduct than the third movement,” he says. “It’s so sublime and the tempo is so specific at any given moment. So to me, letting the piece breathe but still having a really taut dramatic arc is a fantastic tension that I’ve sort of put myself through the paces on. On the one hand, it’s challenging, but on the other hand, if you really listen to the piece and what it calls on you to do, then it tells you what it wants from you.”

The Presto comes on like wildfire. Nothing can stop it. Gaylin knows what he’s up against and he embraces it eagerly: He’ll take the third and fourth movements attacca, meaning no pause between them to make the opening chord of the fourth movement indelible.

“Ninety percent of the philosophic argument of this symphony has happened over the span of 40 or 50 minutes without a word being said, and then the words confirm! Beethoven does it wordlessly at first and starts bringing out the ‘Ode to Joy.’ It comes into its full form in the low strings and gradually adds up to full orchestra until we hear that shrieking chord of anxiety: Like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream,’ that existential cry of anguish. The third time it comes, it’s an incredible 13th chord, an unbelievable harmony of D minor with a C sharp diminished seven chord stacked on top of it. It’s outrageous!”

Beethoven proposes a declaration of universal brotherhood through Schiller’s Freude theme, then expands on it until the meaning reflects the intricate nature of interconnectedness. Gaylin points out that Beethoven alluded to transcendental awareness with the inclusion of a Turkish March.

“Beethoven takes Schiller’s poem and really ups the ante by how he sets it in ways that had never been done before in music and that remain unsurpassed,” he says. “And that includes the Turks, who were at war and sieging Vienna for 200 years, and even, what, 20 years before Beethoven even wrote this piece? So we have a Turkish March where Beethoven says, ‘Run, brothers, to your destiny,’ and so he’s saying, ‘Even our enemy has to go ahead and make strife, and we’ll sort it all out.’

“This piece therefore is so vital and speaks exactly to our moment where we are now. The percussion only makes its first appearance during the march and comes back at the very end to show that all humanity is one. And if this doesn’t speak to how we can overcome the discord not just in America but in the world today, then I don’t know what does.

“Can you think of a piece that speaks more to the moment than the Ninth?”

Soprano Lori Hultgren.

Solos will be sung by soprano Lori Hultgren, mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever, tenor Min Jin and bass-baritone Joseph Parrish. And about 100 singers from the Greater South Jersey Chorus will max out the stage. Bay Atlantic first collaborated with the mixed voice ensemble in 2019 for Giacomo Puccini’s “Messa di Gloria.”

“We said immediately after our first rehearsal, ‘Let’s keep this going,’ ” Gaylin recalls. “This group comes from far and wide. They come in and do a tremendous job. Their music director, Chris Thomas, is an amazing musician and a great colleague, and he’s really built them up over the years. We’ve been talking through interpretation and questioning about where they’re going to breathe, and the notes and all those kinds of things. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Bay Atlantic Symphony was founded in Bridgeton in 1983 and operates out of Atlantic City. “Our history is in Bridgeton,” Gaylin says. “We still have a very important presence in Cumberland County and a very dedicated following there.”

Its size varies from a chamber ensemble of 10 to 15 musicians up to a full orchestra of 50 to 55. The Ninth weighs in on the larger end of the scale and will use around 50. Musicians generally come from the Greater Delaware Valley region with some from South Jersey.

Gaylin shaped the orchestra’s temperature and tonality over the last 25 years, and strives for flexibility.

“People have described my music-making as sort of European in terms of sound concepts, something of a burnished sound,” he says. “But at the same time, that doesn’t fly when you’re doing Copland and American contemporary music, as is often the case. Leonard Bernstein talked about this: That we, like all American orchestras, are expected to play a wide variety of music, from Stravinsky to John Adams to Vivaldi, to Brahms and Beethoven. So depending on what we’re doing, we’re looking for a very different sound that will bring out the essence of that music.”

Gaylin looks to the Ninth to shed light on the interconnected nature of his role with Bay Atlantic and to reflect on its commitments in its milestone year.

“I believe the role of music director starts with being a conductor, and that role is communication, which is never one-way. So whatever I do, I want every person onstage to feel they have the opportunity to be their fullest artist. Similarly, I believe for the audience, and by extension our communities that we serve, that performing the Ninth is so much a touchstone for us because it’s about embracing the totality of humanity, in community, and communication has the same root.

“My communication happens on the podium but also off the podium with our communities in really trying to have music as essential to life. One thing people say is that the arts improve the quality of life, and I disagree with that statement because I think that they are life. The arts aren’t some adjunct little thing that make life nice. The arts are the most vital thing.

“My role is to bring musicians together and to hopefully present scores that speak to us, classics that have been with us that we’re revisiting, like the Ninth, to new pieces and American pieces, and pieces by underrepresented voices we haven’t heard. In a country like America, what makes us so great is the constant re-energizing of society with different people’s voices, customs, traditions and music. And by continuing to do it, we’re following in that great humanistic tradition.”

For more on the Bay Atlantic Symphony and its upcoming concerts, visit bayatlanticsymphony.org.

For more on Gaylin, visit jedgaylin.com.

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