Symphony will celebrate year with the Ninth

Eckart Preu, Spokane Symphony director (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman Review)
Eckart Preu, Spokane Symphony director (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman Review)

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is not the longest in the standard orchestra repertoire, and it may not be the most difficult to perform. But the Ninth is the big symphony everybody knows.

The Spokane Symphony and Symphony Chorale will welcome the new year with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony tonight at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox.

Soloists for the performance include soprano Heather Parker, mezzo-soprano Patricia Blankenship, tenor Stephen Rumpf and baritone Charles Robert Stephens. Eckart Preu, the symphony’s music director, will conduct.

In past years, the symphony has performed a varied program of orchestral pieces as part of Spokane’s First Night celebration. This year it will undertake a work that has become a New Year’s Eve tradition with many orchestras.

Though not officially a part of the First Night celebration, the symphony is offering a special ticket price that also includes a button admitting the wearer to First Night events.

Nobody seems to know when the tradition of New Year’s Eve performance of the Ninth started.

“It’s an old tradition, at least an old Germanic tradition,” Preu says. “It may become a tradition here in Spokane. We’ll have to perform it again a couple of years before we can claim that.

“I have discovered that there are very few works that can be played every year; the ‘Nutcracker’ and Handel’s ‘Messiah’ are among them. But Beethoven’s Ninth is up there, too.”

When he was growing up in Dresden, Preu recalls, “we had the choice of watching on TV a Dresden performance led by Kurt Masur or a broadcast from Berlin conducted by (Herbert von) Karajan. Our family would switch back and forth between the two. It never got boring.”

New Year’s performances of the Ninth in Germany go back at least to the end of World War I. Oddly enough, the same is true in Japan and in many cities in other countries, too.

“The Ninth is populist and sophisticated at the same time it’s dramatic and it’s joyful, and it’s always a challenge” Preu says.

The words sung during the final movement are taken from Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy.”

“It’s the ultimate celebratory piece,” says Preu. “It lets us celebrate the end of the year with a satisfying depth, and it lets us hope that maybe in the coming year we can ‘all become brothers’ just as Schiller’s text suggests.”

Among the soloists, Parker grew up in Spokane and attended Whitworth University before beginning a operatic career after earning a master’s degree and a performer’s certificate at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

Blankenship, also an Eastman graduate, teaches voice at Eastern Washington University. Both have sung with the Spokane Symphony, Spokane Opera and other local musical organizations.

Rumpf, a member of the voice faculty at the University of Washington, is making his Spokane debut.

Stephens, who has sung with New York’s City Opera and the Oratorio Society of New York, appeared with the Spokane Symphony in its 2006 production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” He lives in Seattle.

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