MSO: Beethoven Symphony No. 9 @ Hamer Hall

Good things come to those who wait! I got tickets for this Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert all the way back in October last year, and experiencing Beethoven’s epic final symphony live was truly worth the wait.

In my post-lockdown musical fever of 2021, when everything finally started to open up and I was eager to satisfy the pent-up thirst for live music, Beethoven’s Ninth, which I’ve never heard in a concert before, was my pick for the classical side of things. I have a very nerdy confession to make: I will always associate Ode to Joy, the final movement of the symphony and one of the best-known melodies on the planet, with the very first Sid Meier’s Civilization video game, where it plays over the final score reveal. Those old childhood memories are impossible to overwrite!

In the first half of the program, we had the pleasure of enjoying Violin Concerto No. 1 by Chinese composer Zhao Jiping, who as I found out later is best known for his film scores. Trying to absorb completely unfamiliar classical pieces can be a hit-and-miss experience at times, but this gorgeous, romantic piece was lovely to listen to from start to finish. I can never settle an internal dispute on whether I would pick piano or violin as my favourite classical instrument, but in the moment, the elegant and emotive playing from the violin soloist made me side with the latter.

After a short interval, the audience and the orchestra were back in their seats for the mighty Ninth. I’m a bit embarrassed to say this, but for some reason I had a complete mind blank and forgot all about the symphony’s choral finish and the tune that can be heard in everything from advertising to video games to ringtones. Or perhaps on the contrary, the mind blank actually made for a nice surprise; I practically gasped when the melody made its low-key entrance via a cello and I knew that it was all going to build up to the finale that puts all other symphony finales to shame.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is a pretty glorious sight onstage all on its own, but the evening became even grander when the MSO Chorus joined the orchestra from the balconies, and four vocal soloists (two sopranos, tenor and bass) graced the stage. The ladies looked absolutely divine in their gorgeous long evening dresses that brought a dash of past centuries to the occasion.

While the softer slower third movement of the Ninth did make my mind wander a bit, I still appreciated it for the sheer contrast with the explosive, ecstatic conclusion that’s not called Ode to Joy for no good reason. It really felt like no one onstage was holding anything back for the thrilling finale that made us leave the venue on a total high.

P.S. I also can’t listen to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor without thinking back to Paratrooper, the ancient computer game I played for hours and hours when I was a kid in the 80s.

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