The opening of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is like one of Zeus’s thunderbolts, and Sunday in Copley Square, a lowering sky threatened to send the Handel and Haydn’s Society’s free outdoor performance inside. But the storm held off, and the symphony, the climax of Handel and Haydn’s 200th-anniversary season, and a highlight of the city’s Summer Arts Weekend, went on as planned. The close, uncertain weather did nothing to discourage attendance: Copley Square was packed.
The performance, led by Handel and Haydn resident conductor Ian Watson, suffered from the usual outdoor drawbacks. The amplification flattened dynamic levels, skewed balances, and obliterated nuance; it also amplified the sounds of the wind whipping across the stage and the orchestra members turning the pages of their scores. And in terms of sound-system distortion, the orchestra’s period instruments were more vulnerable than their more mellow modern counterparts would have been.
Watson’s interpretation, clocking in just under an hour, was fleet but not special. It was thunderous enough to make audience members look anxiously up at the sky. Beethoven meant his work to be revolutionary; in that respect, Watson did him justice, no mean feat. The scherzo, taken at a sensible tempo that didn’t clot, was a highlight, and the andante section of the slow movement had a nice triple-time sway. What didn’t register — what hardly ever does in an amplified outdoor performance — were the quieter moments. Everything seemed to go at about the same tempo; there was no hint of humor when, after telling us that “All men shall be brothers,” Beethoven introduces a detachment of bumptious Turkish janissaries.
But the orchestra members dealt valiantly with the conditions. Bass Andrew Garland gave a hearty voice and nicely compact phrasing to “Freude, schöner Götterfunken”; tenor Stefan Reed was both lusty and jolly in his janissary solo. Rounded out by soprano Joélle Harvey and mezzo-soprano Margaret Lias, the quartet of vocal soloists blended well; the chorus sang with great energy, and it didn’t matter that the sound system blurred the words.
Those standing at the edges of Copley Square could follow the proceedings on a video screen at the back of the stage, with excellent camerawork spotlighting Watson and individual orchestra members. In their enjoyment of Beethoven’s masterpiece, the audience — which included the tourist buses stopping on St. James Avenue — embodied the brotherhood of Friedrich Schiller’s text. Reason enough for Zeus to withhold those thunderbolts.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9
Performed by the Handel and Haydn Society Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus, the Harvard Summer Chorus, and the Handel and Haydn Vocal Arts Program Choruses
At: Copley Square, Sunday
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.