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Classical View: Allentown Symphony celebrates humanity with “Beethoven’s Ninth”

“The overall theme of this program is about humanity and everyone getting along,” says Diane Wittry, Allentown Symphony Orchestra Music Director and Conductor.

The Allentown Symphony Orchestra presents “Beethoven’s Ninth,” 7:30 p.m. April 13 and 2 p.m. April 14, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown.

“The first half of the concert features African-American composers and connotes a feeling of inclusivity,” says Wittry.

The program opens with the “Fanfare on Amazing Grace” by composer Adolphus Hailstork (1941-). This 21st century work, originally composed for solo organ, presents melodic fragments of “Amazing Grace” occurring in waves effortlessly woven into a grandiose fanfare setting.

The music of Florence Price (1888-1953) follows with the “Andante Cantabile for String Orchestra,” a heartfelt reflective and beautifully expressive movement from her “Quartet No. 2 in A Minor.”

The concert’s first-half closes with a commissioned work, “Overture for the 21st Century: Joy of the Soul” by composer Joe Jaxson.

Jaxson received a Bachelor of Music in Composition from James Madison University in 2022 and is enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin Graduate School.

Recent premieres of his work include selections for saxophone quartet and percussion, percussion quartet, chamber orchestra, baritone voice and piano and solo cello.

“I am elated to be joining Diane Wittry and the Allentown Symphony as they premiere my first commissioned orchestral work for their season finale,” says Jaxson.

“Music Director Wittry asked me to compose an ‘upbeat and lively’ piece that referenced my ‘Fanfare for the 21st Century,’ written for brass and percussion,” says Jaxson. “This new overture taps into feelings of exhilaration, resilience, whimsicality and meaning.”

Says Wittry “Jaxson’s growth as a composer is amazing and his ‘Overture’ is a deep reflection of the soul. His work bridges communities together the same way my music bridges stories together.”

After intermission, the program continues with Diane Wittry’s composition, “Ode to Joy Fanfare.”

“Originally composed for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, there are lots of intricacies occurring which supplement the main melody,” says Wittry.

“The best way to describe this work is Beethoven’s 9th in a blender, a collage of Beethoven’s ideas culminating in a joyful ending,” Wittry says.

In addition to the on-stage orchestra, the work is supplemented off-stage with trumpet, French horn and chimes and an ensemble from the El Sistema Lehigh Valley Fellowship of the String Ensemble.

“I wanted us to remember the beauty of brotherhood for all mankind as seen through the eyes of a child,” says Wittry.

The concert closes with “Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 ‘Choral’” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). The majestic finale includes the popular “Ode to Joy” with lyrics based upon German poet Friedrich Schiller’s haunting poem “An die Freude” (“Ode to Joy”).

Vocalists for the finale include the Allentown Symphony Chorus directed by Chorus Master Eduardo Azzati and soloists Meredith Hoffmann-Thomson, soprano; Margaret Mezzacappa, mezzo-soprano; Matthew Swensen, tenor, and Enrico Lagasca, bass-baritone.

American soprano Hoffmann-Thomson is a regular soloist with the Salzburger Landestheater during the past three seasons. Her opera lead roles include “Aida,” “Tosca” and “Ariadne” and soloist performances in “The Rake’s Progress,” Verdi’s “Requiem” and Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder. She received a Bachelor in Music from McGill University and a Master in voice performance from the Mozarteum, Salzburg, Austria.

American mezzo-soprano Mezzacappa studied at the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music and was a resident artist at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, performing in Verdi’s “Falstaff,” Handel’s “Semele,” Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” and Ward’s “The Crucible.” She made her Carnegie Hall debut in 2012 in Britten’s “Spring Symphony” and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

At age 24, German-born tenor Swensen made his European debut with the Bayerische Rundfunk Orchestra and his operatic debut as Tamino at Opera Frankfurt in Germany. Additional performances have taken him to Maggio Musicale Fiortino, Carnegie Hall, State Opera of Prague, Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Rheingau Festival. Swensen is a graduate of the Juilliard School.

Filipino-American bass-baritone Lagasca’s career comprises 16 oratorios, 17 new-music works, seven opera roles and 13 song cycles and collections. Heard on four Grammy Award-nominated recordings, Lagasca is a solo and ensemble singer whose performances include Haydn’s “Mass,” Handel’s “Messiah,” Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and Tyshawn Sorey’s “Monochromatic Light (afterlight)” and the New York Philharmonic premiere of Julia Wolfe’s multi-media “unEarth.” He studied at the University of the Philippines and is a graduate of New York’s Mannes College of Music.

“Given that 2024 is the 200th anniversary of the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it is very striking that people still respond organically to this piece,” says Wittry. “There is nothing more joyous than bringing people together through music.”

“Beethoven’s Ninth,” 7:30 p.m. April 13; 2 p.m. April 14, Miller Symphony Hall, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown. Free tickets for those age 21 and under. Tickets: box office; 610-432-6715; https://www.millersymphonyhall.org

“Classical View” is a column about classical music concerts, conductors and performers. To request coverage, email: Paul Willistein, Focus editor, pwillistein@tnon-line.com

Joe Jaxson
Meredith Hoffmann-Thomson
Margaret Mezzacappa
Matthew Swensen
Enrico Lagasca