Monday, February 27, 2012

Student and Teacher

Student and Teacher
By Tom Wachunas

“I cannot write them otherwise. When I think of God, my heart is so full of joy that the notes gush forth as from a fountain. Since God has given me a joyful heart, He will forgive me for having served Him joyfully.” - Franz Joseph Haydn –

When Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann speaks, audiences listen. Then they laugh. Not at him, per se, and not so much at what he is saying as at how he says it. At the February 26 concert by The Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), I imagined once again that, in a parallel universe, Zimmermann (gifted as he is with a wicked sense of humor) would be a successful standup comic. He’s just that affable and clever.

The theme of the concert was “Student and Teacher,” and the program consisted of Beethoven’s Symphony No.1 in C Major, followed by a Haydn (Beethoven’s teacher) work composed in the same year (1799), Mass No. 12 in B-flat Major (“Theresienmesse”). In his inimitably endearing fashion, Zimmermann introduced the Beethoven work by commenting on the composer’s own sense of musical humor. He cited the “wrong key” beginning of the first movement, the “deceiving” Menuetto third movement – too swift in tempo to be a minuet and in essence a full-fledged scherzo - and the sly beginning of the finale, with its slow sequence of start-stop chord fragments. Zimmermann proposed the scenario of a German couple’s flummoxed reaction to the 1800 Vienna premiere of this mischievous departure from expected symphonic form. “Frau Elizabeth,” he exclaimed in authentic German accent, “we are no longer in Dusseldorf!” Then he asked the audience, as waves of laughter still rippled through the packed house, to hear this seminal work with fresh ears.

Thus encouraged to listen intently for these formal elements - not only by Zimmermann’s observations about the work, but also by the pre-concert talk (a regular feature at CSO concerts presented by guest speakers) - we as audience in effect became a collective student body of sorts. On this occasion, one might call it an expansion of the evening’s “Student and Teacher” theme. We learn to become more engaged with the music on both a sensory and cognitive level. It’s just one of many aspects that make any evening with the CSO so wholly entertaining.

So here then, Zimmermann continued ‘speaking,’ but now to the business at hand with fluid, authoritative baton. Fast, playful, and tight, the wind instruments sparkled, the strings were fully luscious, and in flawless aural balance, the pulsing timpani soared. This was an exhilarating performance that did indeed generate a thoroughly refreshed appreciation of how a 30 year-old Beethoven had not only mastered all the musical prowess Haydn had to impart, but was on the cusp of surpassing it.

For the second work on the program, I recalled the delightful pre-concert presentation by Dr. Britt Cooper, director of the Walsh University Chamber Singers, wherein he made special note of the happy spirit that resides in Franz Joseph Haydn’s masses, including the one performed on this occasion. It is a spirit generously, even gloriously demonstrated here as the orchestra was joined by the Walsh singers, along with the accomplished Canton Symphony Chorus, and the University of Mount Union Concert Choir – a total of 120 voices.

Filling out the choral element were four truly remarkable soloists: Tessa Grindle-de Graaf (soprano), Sandra Ross (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Krumreig (tenor), and Brian Keith Johnson (baritone). Their beautiful, impeccably blended tonalities and lavish harmonies – alternately solemn and joyous, but never somber - along with the very impressive, ethereal clarity and precision of the large choir, combined to deliver an inspiring, efficacious reflection of Haydn’s own words about his grand masses: “…When I think of God, my heart is so full of joy that the notes gush forth as from a fountain…”

Photo: Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann, Music Director and conductor of the Canton Symphony Orchestra