Five years ago, conductor and former Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Barry Ross arranged what he thought would be a one-time-only all-Beethoven concert during the holidays to raise funds for the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony. Friday night he'll conduct his fifth BeethovenFest concert, the most ambitious yet, featuring Beethoven's ultimate work, the Symphony No. 9.
As before, the musicians are a mix of professional and skilled amateurs, including Kalamazoo Junior Symphony alumni, but this year there are four singer soloists and a sizeable chorus in addition.
"I really wanted to do something very special," says Ross. "This is the 75th anniversary of the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony, the third longest-performing youth orchestra in America. They were founded, amazingly, during the Depression in 1938, and so we’re kicking off their 75th anniversary and their fund drive with a really important performance of a great masterpiece, Beethoven’s pinnacle work, the 9th symphony."
Cara Lieurance: Did you have any misgivings?
Barry Ross: "Every single day! It’s a major undertaking written by the revolutionary Beethoven. He did something revolutionary by inserting a chorus into a symphony. That was unheard-of and startling. And then he added four very dramatic soloists. And so we have a chorus that will be approximately 100 singers, we have some great soloists, and we have a wonderful symphony orchestra, all coming together to welcome the new year, to celebrate the holiday with this amazing work, and to raise funds for a great cause, the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony."
The choral part of the piece is familiar to most, but the 75 percent of the work that comes before it is just as important.
"I’ve changed my conception of that 75 percent and what it means, and how it relates to the fourth movement with the chorus and soloists," says Ross. "The opening movement, the first movement, begins with a hushed, repetitive set of notes in the strings, a chord, very quiet, and this little sparkle of an idea. And I used to think it meant that something bad was going to happen, because it’s in the minor."
Ross continues," I think Beethoven now, I think he meant something very dramatic is happening. And the drama is the spark of an idea, and the idea is that we could, perhaps we could, love one another. Perhaps peace is possible. Perhaps we could not be so consumed by our conflicts and our differences. Perhaps we could appreciate what nature brings us, and what we have to share, instead of what divides us."
Conductor Barry Ross leads a performance of Beethoven's 9th Friday night at 7:30 at Calvary Bible Church on Drake Road in Kalamazoo. Featured soloists are contralto Meredith Arwady, soprano Alice Pierce, tenor John Pierce, and bass Carl Ratner.