As the Tucson Symphony Orchestra crowd just shy of 2,000 spilled out of the Music Hall on Thursday night, small pockets of the audience hummed Beethoven's famous "Ode to Joy" chorus.

It's an infectious tune, overused in all manner of commercials and parodies, which may be one reason it inhabits your subconscious. Call it classical music's ABBA effect. Once you've witnessed Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 live with its monumental fourth-movement "Ode to Joy" chorus, you'll find yourself humming the melody and making up words because you didn't understand the German text.

The courtyard scene followed a standing ovation and shouts of bravo after the TSO's performance. It was the same response the orchestra received the last time it performed the Ninth, in March 2005, when the chorus was in its infancy.

But this time, the biggest applause was for the chorus, whose role was a mere 18 minutes of the 65-minute symphony.

The ovation was deserved; the chorus rocked the "Ode to Joy" to heights that seemed out of reach five years ago. Members showed off a maturity that puts them in the league of big-deal symphony choirs, the kind that come with accolades like "superb," "stupendous" and "monumental."

The chorus, under the direction of Bruce Chamberlain, showed off a singular voice that conveyed Beethoven's spiritual awakening and all that it held. It did not simply perform the text; it brought it to exalting life in tone and texture.

Its efforts were mirrored by the orchestra, led by conductor George Hanson. Hanson performed the piece from memory, drawing on his vast experience with the Ninth and other German masterworks.

Hanson allowed Beethoven's emotional roller coaster to unfold naturally. The first movement's angst and frustration unfurled from the graceful opening theme, which also introduced the more hopeful burst of energy and frivolity in the second movement. Hanson led an almost cinematic reading of the somber third movement that quietly introduced the climactic finale.

The performance was even more dramatic with Hanson's stage setup. This season he split the first and second strings, and rearranged the cellos and basses, which served this piece well. You could make out the crisp tone and warmth from principal cellist Xiao-Dan Zheng's fleeting solo turn midway into the first movement, and the united, yearning voices of Jeremy Reynolds' clarinet and Alexander Lipay's flute in the second. The chorus's voice floated above the orchestra and rang out mostly with refreshing clarity.

It was not entirely perfect. The brass notes fell flat early on and improved only modestly throughout the performance, and the voices of the guest vocalists sometimes got lost.

The four soloists - tenor Michael Wade Lee, bass Jeremy Milner, mezzo-soprano Melissa Parks and soprano Alison Buchanan - played a minor but impressive role in the Ninth, and a leading role in Bernstein's delightful "Make Our Garden Grow" from "Candide." The Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus backed them splendidly.

The concert also included a soloist, Stefano DiCenso, from the Boys Chorus in the opening work, Bernstein's buoyant choral piece "Chichester Psalms," which boasted standout solo turns by TSO Chorus members Erika Burkhart, Robyn Rocklein, Chris Thomas and Phil Moody.

Review

Tucson Symphony Orchestra's Beethoven's Ninth Symphony Thursday at Tucson Music Hall. The concert, featuring the TSO Chorus, Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus and guest vocalists, repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday. www.tucsonsymphony.org or 882-8585.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@azstarnet.com or 573-4642.

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