Celebrating the end of its ninth season, the Savannah Philharmonic will close out May 5 at the Savannah Civic Center with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, while saying farewell to their indelible chorusmaster.

The Philharmonic’s performance of Beethoven’s final symphony not only acts as a platform to showcase the ensemble's exceptional capabilities, being one of the longest and more complicated pieces of symphonic music, but also plays multiple aesthetic roles in this particular production.

Rise to the task

As Beethoven’s only symphony to include a chorus, it is a fitting finale for the ninth season and chorusmaster Monica Dekle, who announced she’ll be moving on after this season. The all-volunteer chorus is comprised of a number of the Philharmonic’s donor base. For their finale concert under Dekle, the chorus has memorized all the lyrics to the famed finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, in German.

“She’s been fantastic,” said Philharmonic artistic director and conductor Peter Shannon. “She’s my right-hand man, when it comes to the chorus. It was difficult to hand that chorus over to someone. I was conducting the chorus [in the beginning]. She was the first person to commit to that job.

“I am absolutely reliant on her and the orchestra is, too. When I get the chorus, I have to know that it’s going to be on par with the orchestra. That’s really tough to do. Although this is an auditioned ensemble, it’s also an amateur ensemble. On the stage with a professional orchestra is already going to be a stretch for them. But they always rise to the task. That’s because Monica prepares them so well.”

Special lineup

The night will open with a special performance of Robert Schumann’s “Konzertstuck,” which features four solo horns. Shannon pulled two of his horn players from the Jackson Symphony, where he is also the artistic director and conductor, and paired them with two of the Philharmonic’s horn players for a special presentation.

“Beethoven’s Ninth is a bit of a monster,” Shannon said. “It’s an hour and 20 minutes long. It’s double the length of some of his other symphonies. That’s why we chose the Schumman concerto. It’s got four solo horns, which is exciting to listen to.”

At the time of the Ninth’s premiere, in Vienna in 1824, Beethoven was completely deaf, causing early reception of his last symphony to be mixed. The complexity, length and the fourth movement’s utopian ideals drew skepticism early on, but has become one of his most revered works.

The ideas of brotherhood established in the chorus’ lines have been used by dictators, tyrants and allies of democracy through the ages. To this day, the symphony is one of the most widely performed pieces of music in the Western canon, and praised for its bombastic approach, which exhausted and combined many of the day's styles into a single composition.

“The length of the piece itself calls for longer concentration,” Shannon said. “Some kind of endurance both mentally and physically from members of the orchestra. The difference really is the complexity of the music to bring the message of the music across.”

Spirit of unity

Written a few years after the French and American revolutions, Beethoven was inspired by the idea of democratic rule. Borrowing mostly from Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode To Joy,” the finale sings of a unity between men — a message highly relevant in today’s polarized social climate.

“Beethoven viewed a romantic idea that the artist represented — that imagination and creativity was pushed not on equal part with reason, but above it,” Shannon said. “Imagination is everything. This utopian idea that, the romantic idea that, everybody doing good things for each other — we’re all in this together. It comes out in that fourth movement like never before.

“‘Old friends, not these sounds’ — ‘Don’t make these sounds’ are the first words,” Shannon continued. “That represents of course the horns and the woodwinds that are screaming at the beginning of the fourth movement. It’s very loud and it’s relatively dissonant. So you have this bass/baritone that stands up and sings, 'Don’t be like this. Let’s all get together and be good to each other.'

“You have to believe that to take part in this piece. You have to enter into that spirit, that you really believe that the world can be a better place. And, that was his idea, and it’s an incredible experience to listen to it live.”

As the Philharmonic heads into its 10th season, performing Beethoven’s final and Ninth Symphony draws a wonderful parallel to the symphony’s own life. Coming at the end of the Classical period, Beethoven’s music acted as a transition into the Romantic era. So too, the Philharmonic will be transitioning this coming year with an even bigger and bolder season, which includes a special production at the 2019 Savannah Music Festival.

“Who would have known what Beethoven would have written for his 10th symphony?” Shannon said. “The 10th season for us, there’s going to be some great pieces in the 10th season. Just before we go into that decade, it’s so exciting for us to finish with the Ninth Symphony. There’s really nothing that can top that.”