Tacoma’s Pantages Theater was filled last Saturday night with joyous sounds from both stage and audience – appropriate enough, since the program for the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra’s season finale included Beethoven’s 9th symphony with its beloved “Ode to Joy” final movement. But while the evening featured some very fine playing from the orchestra, masterful control from director Harvey Felder and delightful singing from all four soloists, the Tacoma Symphony Chorus was unfortunately hampered by something you don’t really want to hear in this colossal masterpiece – bad audio amplification.
The basic problem all classical music groups encounter in the Pantages is lousy acoustics. The architecturally splendid hall was in fact built for vaudeville and film, not orchestras, and anyone trying to make a lovely instrumental sound in there is hit by a wall of deadness, cutting off reverberation and making the most golden tones sound harsh. The fact that the orchestra sounded so good playing this dramatically bursting music shows just how well they played. The soloists, front and center, had no projection issues but didn’t quite ring they way they would have in a friendlier venue, like the Rialto. The chorus, however, fared badly: Stuck at the back of the stage on low bleachers, their otherwise-well-toned sound was evidently deemed insufficient, and so they were amplified. There’s nothing wrong with subtle amplification in classical music – it’s done in other large, unfriendly acoustics. But this wasn’t subtle. Instead of a louder chorus the audience just heard that telltale hiss and fluff on the edges of the sound that reminds you of a 1940s LP recording. Without a better large venue, groups like the TSO must use the Pantages for big shows – but it needs a better solution, like mounting the choir on high risers, placing them further front on each side, or just getting a better sound engineer.
That said, the musicianship on Saturday was, for the most part, excellent. After opening with two short appetizers – Nkeiru Okoye’s driving, jazzy “Voices Shouting Out,” which had a tight, focused energy; and Strauss’ “Voices of Spring” waltz, rather prosaically played – Felder gave a 20-minute talk/demo before launching into the mammoth symphony which had changed musical history.
The first movement unfolded dramatically from hushed, open-fifth beginning to crashing thunder, featuring a warm, resonant bass section, excellent timpani playing and a serene flute solo, though not nearly enough urgency or menace in the string lines. The goblin-skipping second movement was given a fast and furious tempo by Felder, who kept everyone firmly together but missed those deliciously suspenseful silences between theme restarts. More brass in the fortes would have helped the drama. The peaceful love-fest of the third movement featured tender woodwind with sparkling solos and warmly reassuring second violins in their second theme.
Finally, the epic fourth movement, where the choir sings Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” text and the four vocal soloists have their moment – and apart from the microphone hiss, this was a glorious wave of sound. A solid recitative from cellos and basses was followed by the spellbindingly quiet theme; baritone Barry Johnson declaimed with magisterial control and legato; soprano Amber Sudduth Bone and mezzo Kathryn Weld were beautifully matched in shimmering golden tone; tenor Stephen Rumph delivered his usual clear and powerful tenor with great joy. And while the chorus could have used a more legato sound and better diction, they had good tone and deserved a better placement.
As the 6/8 canter and 4/4 march rolled rapidly on to the triumphant, spine-tingling end the orchestra pulled out all stops, controlled easily through all tempo changes by a hard-working Felder, and filling the Pantages – despite its acoustic – with a joyful noise, echoed by an equally-joyful audience.
The Tacoma Symphony opens its 2012/13 season on October 20. 253-272-7264, tacomasymphony.org