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Joyous Church
By Shawn Stone

Albany Symphony Orchestra
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Oct. 19

Call it a fortunate accident. Not to knock the Palace Theatre, but there was something exciting about the Albany Symphony Orchestra having to move its annual gala to Albany’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The Palace is a terrific place to see rock concerts. With the ASO, however, it’s definitely a second choice to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. With the Palace undergoing extensive interior renovations, Bishop Howard Hubbard came to the rescue. Thus, by chance—or divine providence—one of the year’s more unique concert events came into being.

The only piece on the program was Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony, more formally titled the Choral Symphony. It’s considered, by more critics and music lovers than are worth listing, the greatest musical work. Conductor David Alan Miller and the ASO emphasized the beautiful swells of melody in the first movement, capturing Beethoven’s sense of the music bubbling up from the earth itself. The second movement began with a bang and kept up the thunder; the third, with its atmospheric washes of strings punctuated by the horns, set the stage for the finale.

The sound was rich and warm, and though certainly not as loud as the ASO would have been in the Palace, the result was very pleasing and well-balanced, at least from my pew at the back. And the ambient sounds from the neighborhood (sirens) were not a significant distraction.

It’s the Choral Symphony, but the choral part doesn’t kick in until the last movement. So the folks from Albany Pro Musica—all 99 of them, according to the lovely parchment program—didn’t take their places behind the orchestra until the third movement was over. While it wouldn’t make sense to keep this legion of singers sitting there all night, their arrival was a slight break in the mood. No matter. The music began, and the ultimate theme of the piece, the “Ode to Joy,” worked its way from the lower voices of the orchestra up through the brass to the singers—the effect was nothing if not ecstatic, even though the audience knew this was just the beginning. After the marchlike section, which Miller kept light and purposeful, the wonderful featured singers (Jonita Lattimore, soprano; Lucille Beer, mezzo-soprano; Jonathan Welch, tenor; Robert Honeysucker, bass) took over, followed by the rich force of the chorus and the thunder of the orchestra.

The setting had its effect: It was hard to listen to an ecstatic celebration of man, nature and God without contemplating the cathedral’s monumental, if dour, interior. There was a tension between the joyous music and the solemn setting. However, while the excerpts Beethoven chose from Friedrich Schiller’s poem aren’t really Christian-specific, the outsized intent of the words and music fit the soaring scale of the architecture.

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