An all-in-one festival of the Beethoven Nine is one of music’s can’t-lose propositions. The size is right: five concerts of leisurely length, with room here and there for an overture or two. The music, needless to say, is also right: “the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man.” wrote E. M. Forster.
Beethoven is “of all composers,” a wise critic once wrote, “the one who most insistently tells us that we cannot do without him.” The sublime efficiency of the hype machine – now well into its second century – further guarantees sellout crowds. They mustered last week at Orange County 3000-seat barn of a Performing Arts Center for the sublime Nine in the first-ever California visit by John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, brought in for an exclusive American stint by the Orange County Philharmonic Society. The parlay of Beethoven the genius and Beethoven the public-relations icon – however variable the performances themselves — made for an irresistible force.
Gardiner himself, now 56, is an important part of that parlay; so is his mostly-youthful orchestra founded in 1990,  with its recorded legacy (including the Nine) well-received and voluminous. Part of that generation of Brits whose work purports to reconstruct the music of past masters as the masters themselves had heard it – strings of gut rather than steel, woodwinds actually made of wood, valveless horns and trumpets that invoke the twin gods of music and plumbing – Gardiner has been more successful than some colleagues in folding the sounds of his historically-informed orchestra into a more modern need for the bone-rattling and the whizbang. It cannot be mere coincidence that the hottest tickets around town last week afforded admission to battlefields: the expanse of the “Star Wars” landscape or the no-less-fantastic realm as an intruding C-sharp in the “Eroica” marks the invention of modern music for all time.
It was the struggle-‘n’-strife in this music that brought out the best in Gardiner’s week of performances: the brutal upheaval in the “Eroica’s” first movement that hurtles into vastly “wrong” keys; the blaze in the brass that bursts upon the spook-ridden scherzo in the Fifth; the manic rhythmic obsessions throughout the Seventh. The relatively small size of the orchestra (60 or so) and the silken clarity of old or quasi-old fiddles, beautifully broke apart the music’s complexity; rare indeed, the listener who found nothing new in Gardiner’s splendidly thought-out readings.
There were other moments not so fine. Whatever Beethoven’s own (and often challenged) tempo indications, it is neither possible nor worth the effort to breed certain expectations out of an audience: the chilling outcry of grief in the “Eroica’s” Funeral March, the celestial soft harmonies in the slow movement of the Ninth. These moments, and others of quieter, more mystery-laden lyricism in the Fourth and Sixth, brought out lesser insights on Gardiner’s part – and a surprisingly high quotient of instrumental bloops in the winds and brass as well.
At the end, the Ninth drew a standing, stomping, cheering 15-minute ovation. The miracle of Beethoven – one of them, at any rate – is the variety of sheer narrative momentum in each of the symphonies, each different, each leading to terminal exhilaration. Hearing the Nine as a unit – in a single sitting, you might say —  produces another kind of momentum, from the Haydnesque trickery of the first two symphonies to the Ninth’s ultimate triumph – marvelously voiced, by the way, by Gardiner’s own small Monteverdi Choir.  Great music never loses its power to surprise, to reveal something you never noticed before. The week of supremely familiar Beethoven became an exercise in constant surprise. – Alan Rich

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