In December 1989, Leonard Bernstein led an international orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” on the ruins of the Berlin Wall, which had just been demolished. The La Jolla Symphony & Chorus (LJS&C) marks the 25th anniversary of that historic concert with a performance of Beethoven’s grandest symphony — one of the best-known works in classical music — in the second concert of its 60th anniversary season, “The Nature of Things,” Dec. 12, 13 and 14 in Mandeville Auditorium at UC San Diego.
However, the concert will open with a different declaration of freedom: William Grant Still’s “Afro-American Symphony,” written in 1930, and the first significant symphony by an African-American composer. Nearly a century later, it remains a compelling piece of music. LJS&C music director Steven Schick will conduct orchestra, chorus and soloists Natalie Mann (soprano), Peabody Southwell (mezzo-soprano), Enrique Toral (tenor), and Ron Banks (bass) in three performances.
Its premiere in October 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic, made it the first symphony by an African-American composer to be performed by a major American orchestra. The symphony’s success did not end there. Performances of the new work quickly followed by orchestras across the country, and in Europe, by the Berlin Philharmonic.
Still’s symphony is a European form, but he based themes on the blues and other forms of popular African-American music — spirituals, jazz and ragtime. A tenor banjo is included in the orchestra, its twang an important part of the jazzy, ragtime feel of this music.
Still gave each of the four movements of the work a subtitle that suggests its emotional content and a specific aspect of the African-American experience: Longing, Sorrow, Humor, and Aspiration.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was completed in 1824, only three years before his death. The unprecedented grandeur of the music, the first use of voices in a ymphony, and in particular the setting of Schiller’s “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy), have made it one of the great statements of romantic faith in humankind. By the time Beethoven completed the work, he was almost totally deaf.
He shared the stage with conductor Michael Umlauf for the premiere in Vienna; Beethoven provided the tempos for each section, turning the pages of his score and beating time for an orchestra he could not hear. He received five standing ovations at the conclusion of the performance.
■ IF YOU GO: LJS&C music director Steven Schick will give a pre-concert lecture one hour prior to each concert. Concert times are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $18-$36 at lajollasymphony.com or (858) 534-4637. Parking is free on Saturday and Sunday; a parking fee is required on Friday.