Joy comes in many forms and has been represented in music in many ways. Joy was definitely the overriding theme of the annual William H. Scheide “Birthday Benefit” concert held last Saturday night to a full house attendance at Richardson Auditorium. What was special about this concert was its celebration of Mr. Scheide’s 100th birthday (his actual birthday was January 6). Born on the edge of World War I, Mr. Scheide has seen a century of tumultuous events, larger-than-life personalities, and great music. William and Judith Scheide brought together honorees of past Scheide birthday concerts, as well as many old friends, to celebrate Mr. Scheide’s music, philanthropy, and humanitarianism.
This year’s “Ode to Joy” concert benefitted Westminster Choir College, honoring the Choir College’s model of “how to work together in harmony for the service of others.” Featured in performance was Westminster’s renowned Symphonic Choir, which clearly enjoyed its role in the celebrations. One of the vocal soloists for the keynote piece, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, also had a past connection with Westminster.
Conductor Mark Laycock began the festive evening in a first half dedicated to Mr. Scheide’s former academic life, with J.S. Bach’s setting of Philipp Nicolai’s 1598 hymn which became Cantata BWV 140, “Wachet auf.” The Westminster Symphonic Choir, accompanied by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, set the tone for the evening with the words “Gloria to you be sung with human and angelic voices.” As Mr. Scheide’s scholarly and performing reputation has been rooted in Bach, this was an appropriate way to open the concert. The Symphonic Choir, prepared by Joe Miller, presented a serene yet majestic sound, with the soprano section singing with an appropriately light Baroque timbre. Mr. Laycock maintained a broad tempo throughout the short selection, building the orchestra and chorus to a fortissimo in the closing lines of the chorale setting.
Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture seems to characterize academic youth, especially in its closing “Gaudeamus Igitur,” a popular student song in its day. The work’s emphasis on “rejoicing while we are young” was demonstrated in the brisk tempo with which the Vienna Chamber Orchestra began the piece. The strings of the orchestra presented a smooth and unified sound, accompanied by rippling clarinets and very clean horns. The brass sections throughout the concert were as well blended as an a cappella chorus. With Brahms’ compositional roots in Vienna, this music would be in the Vienna Chamber Orchestra’s blood, and the graceful melodic lines and playful winds showed that this overture is much more than a silly drinking song at the end.
Mr. Scheide’s own compositional skills were honored by a premiere public performance of a work he composed while a student at Princeton. Pianists Marian Nazarian and Andrew Sun performed Mr. Scheide’s 1936 Prelude, clearly inspired by the orchestral concerti of Bach, with high-spirited humor and clean counterpoint. Ms. Nazarian has long been a Scheide collaborator, bringing expertise to the keyboard in other birthday performances, and Mr. Sun proved why he is an up-and-comer to watch.
Forces came together in a variety of ways for the Beethoven Symphony No. 9, a work which holds a strong historical place in Westminster’s history and surely fits well into the Vienna Chamber Orchestra’s repertory. The orchestra began the open fifths of the first movement with sharp attacks, punctuated by well-timed timpani, in a tempo that was not too fast. Mr. Laycock kept things moving steadily along, with lyrical wind parts, allowing the orchestra to reach full volume until the recapitulation of the movement.
Mr. Laycock and the orchestra began the second movement Molto Vivace in a brisk tempo, with entrances lightly handled by the players. The wind section’s rhythmic lines were especially clean, as were the melodic lines played by the horns. Mr. Laycock created numerous small builds in the music, enabling the tricky wind entrances of the third movement to seem that much more serene.
In the third movement, the players kept the long lines smooth, with particularly rich second violin and viola sectional playing. Sections of the movement sounded quite hymn-like in tranquility as the orchestra overall played with a very lean sound. The players presented the familiar “Ode to Joy” theme of the fourth movement with very little vibrato, enabling all parts, especially during the presentation by the strings, to be heard.
The Westminster Choir and Vienna Chamber Orchestra were joined by four vocal soloists with strong operatic backgrounds, which were a necessity, even with only 18 minutes or so of music in the movement. Bass-baritone Mark Doss was dramatic and forceful, and well answered by the men of the chorus. Mr. Doss was a good vocal partner for tenor William Burden, who handled the quick pace of the “Turkish march” section well. Mezzo-soprano Leah Wool and soprano Ah Young Hong rounded out the quartet, handling the demanding quartets at the end of this challenging symphony well. An equal star of this movement is the chorus, providing a solid sound in the thematic sections, while being somewhat haunting and ethereal on the text “Do you bow down before Him, you millions?” Mr. Laycock (who conducted the entire program from memory) led the orchestra and chorus through the transitions well, wisely allowing at times to let the music play itself.
As Judith Scheide noted in her introductory remarks to the concert, Mr. Scheide begins each day with music. She also shared with understandable pride a letter received from President Barack Obama congratulating Mr. Scheide on reaching his 100th birthday and commending his “unique and important contributions to American culture and society.” For those unable to attend this past weekend’s celebratory concert, it was taped for later broadcast on PBS, and it is only 342 days until William Scheide turns 101.