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What will Ludwig say........?

by Dato' Danny Goon

As the crow flies, Vienna lies 9,106 km north-west of George Town. There is a 6 hour time difference in summer. The cultural nuances could not be more varied, give or take the growing delicatessens and pastry outlets currently crowding George Town. And the weather is hot and humid over here. Come to think of it, a sickly Ludwig van Beethoven would do well to rest and recuperate up Penang Hill!

Beethoven's Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op. 125, was the last of the great man's symphonic contributions, written between 1822 and 1824 before his passing in 1827, aged a young 56.

The Penang Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) had bravely launched its Beethoven Cycle on 27 March 2014 with his Symphony No 1 under the baton of Prof Chan Tze Law of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore. Between 28 September 2014 and 10 June 2018, PPO staged Beethoven's Symphony Nos 5, 3, 7, 4, 6, and 2 under various conductors including Prof Chan, Ciaran McAuley and our Resident Conductor, Ng Choong Yen. Following the hiatus caused by the Covid pandemic, we staged No 5 again on 17 September 2023 under Choong Yen.

Symphony No 9 presented a new challenge, it being a choral symphony. It is also the most epic of his symphonies, both in terms of length and performing forces. With his masterstroke of the revolutionary introduction of vocal soloists and chorus in the finale, it expanded the symphonic expression, presenting the famous setting for Friedrich Schiller's uplifting poem, An Die Freude (Ode to Joy), in the fourth movement, conveying a sense of triumph and joy as it climaxes. This theme to universal brotherhood of mankind caused the European Union to adopt it as the Anthem of Europe.

Would PPO have tackled No 9 if we had not in the few years before, made the decision to form our Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Philharmonic Chorus? That is worth pondering. Kudos then to our 2 Choir Directors, Tan Jin Yin and Mak Chi Hoe, without whose dedication and application, PPO's performance of Symphony No 9 would not have been possible. Plus, it took the audacity of Tan Sri Fumihiko Konishi of the Texchem Group to suggest that PPO performs Symphony No 9 Choral at the 50th Anniversary Celebration Dinner of the Group in January 2024. Having featured at Texchem's 40th Anniversary's A Journey of Musical Splendour in December 2013, PPO welcomed the opportunity to partner Texchem yet again, and rose to the occasion, performing to a packed corporate guestlist at the E&O Hotel Ballroom.

Having had a tilt at No 9, PPO's own set piece fell into place on Sunday, 7 April, 2024, at the Heah Joo Hall, St Xavier's Institution, George Town. It was almost exactly 200 years after Beethoven's Symphony No 9 Choral had its Premier at the Karntnertor Theatre, Vienna, on 7 May 1824, to great acclaim. That Premier was the composer's first onstage appearance in 12 years. Ludwig B stood alongside Conductor, Michael Umlauf, throughout beating time. Because of his deafness, he was reportedly not aware of the applause which followed until Conductor Umlauf turned him around to witness it. Composer Carl Czeny, one of Beethoven's best-known students, was present and wrote that "...the Symphony breathes such a fresh, lively indeed youthful spirit much power, innovation and beauty to ever come from the head of this original man, although he sometimes led the old wigs to shake their heads..."

Maestro Choong Yen walked up to the podium and with a tilt of his baton, launched into the first movement of Symphony No 9 at 3pm sharp. The 57 orchestra members paid rapt attention to the Conductor as the first three movements led the audience to the lull, when our Choristers, 84 strong, marched up on stage and lined the risers to await their que. Which was when the 4 soloists, Soprano Tan Jin Yin, Mezzo Soprano Lim Yee Fen, Tenor Wong Jun Wen and Bass/ Baritone Mak Chi Hoe took their places onstage. It was 3.52pm, and what followed was 28 minutes of Ode to Joy, bringing Czeny's aforementioned "....youthful spirit, power, innovation and beauty that led the old wigs to shake their heads....", into sharp local focus.

There was a hastily prepared encore to satisfy the crowd, 420 strong, who were by then on their feet, cheering lustily.

If the ghost of Ludwig Beethoven was hovering above it all, in the Heah Joo Seang Hall, what will he say?

Danny Goon

Xaverian 1958-1970.

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