1,300 area musicians, singers to present Beethoven's Ninth at Huntington Center


For fans of Ludwig van Beethoven, April 6 promises to be a joyful experience.

At 4 p.m. on that day, 1,300 musicians and singers will assemble in Toledo's Huntington Center for a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, including the thunderous 1824 choral work Ode to Joy.

It won't be the first time the Toledo Symphony Orchestra has performed the work, but it will be the first time it's been done locally on a such a large scale and in such an impressive venue. The Huntington Center's 8,000 seats are usually filled with people rocking out to Rascal Flatts, cheering on their WWE heroes or ingesting the fumes of ferocious monster trucks.

"It will be a great community event," predicts Huntington Center general manager Steve Miller, who is contemplating the challenge of becoming a classical concert hall for the first time. "We're really excited about it."

Plans call for the TSO's 90 musicians to be arrayed on risers over the same floor where Walleyes battle for the puck. Ringing the stage in the stands will be more than 1,200 volunteer singers, from early high school to late adulthood. Also on stage will be four soloists: soprano Jennifer Cresswell; mezzo Katherine Calcamuggio; tenor Shawn Mathey; and baritone Sean David Cooper.

Maestro Stefan Sanderling will wield the baton for the hour-long performance.

"It will be a triumphant moment for downtown Toledo," predicted Ashley Mirakian, director of public relations and marketing for the symphony. She and the team who have been working on this for 18 months envision the target audience of 5,000 walking out onto Jefferson Avenue and Huron Street afterward, humming Ode to Joy. "They're never going to forget that," she said. "It's a powerful message of brotherhood."

There will be memorable visuals during the performance as well, Mirakian noted. Singers will wear colorful school robes and concert outfits. The Huntington's audio visual system will provide closeups of singers and players. The LED crawl will carry some lyrics – for, maybe, a sing-along.

The project is a welcome reprise for Miller, who came to Lucas County from Grand Rapids, Mich., where he helped launch and then managed Van Andel Arena.

"Our grand opening featured the Grand Rapids Symphony playing at one end of the floor with Kristi Yamaguchi skating on the rest of it," he recalled.

Later on, Opera Grand Rapids produced an over-the-top version of Verdi's opera, Aida, complete with live animals, as well as Bizet's beloved Carmen, in Van Andel.

Early in his tenure at Huntington, Miller floated a similar idea for local arts presenters. "We're also a community building," he said.

The downtown already had the beautiful and historic Valentine Theatre, which the Toledo Opera uses for most of its productions. But it seats only 901 in its cozy hall, perfect for smaller productionsÍž too small for a chorus of 1,200 plus orchestra.

Still, the April 6 event raises some questions. Can classical music sound good outside the shell of a stage such as provided in the Peristyle, Bowling Green State University's Kobacker Hall, or Franciscan Center at Lourdes University?

The Huntington is decidedly not Carnegie Hall, where carefully engineered acoustics enhanced the orchestra's sound during its May 2011 debut, and where elegant surroundings flattered the 1,400 Toledoans who traveled to New York City for the event.

Will TSO patrons, an aging and conservative population, venture downtown, where parking is more scattershot and requires a walk? How will Huntington regulars – hockey fans, concert and eventgoers – react to a show featuring music performed without spangled costumes, over-the-top effects, or loud announcers describing the action?

The symphony and the Huntington are hoping for crossover attendance, drawing symphony regulars and, perhaps, enticing first-time classical listeners who are comfortable in the venue.

With underwriting from ProMedica, which has recently announced plans to move downtown, the TSO is betting in the six figures that it will at least break even with this event, while also breaking new ground. Two weeks out, organizers are focused more on the logistics of managing the diversity of singers who are to participate.

In terms of music and language, Ode to Joy is considered more challenging than, say, Eric Whitacre's works for mass Internet choir or many large scale choral works, especially for inexperienced singers.

Not only is Beethoven's Ninth considered by many to be the best piece of classical music ever written, Ode to Joy made it the first to incorporate voices and thus give rise to the concept of a choral symphony.

Maestro Sanderling provided the edited score, which was emailed to choral directors, along with a recorded pronunciation guide drafted by Carol Dusdieker, professor of vocal studies at Heidelberg College in Tiffin.

It fell to Masterworks Chorale, Toledo's 42-year chamber ensemble, and its new artistic director, Timothy Cloeter, to jump on board as "anchor choir." Dr. Cloeter, a BGSU choral professor, became the go to person for all the other regional conductors. He and his singers actually went to shared rehearsals with some of the younger choirs.

Of the experience working with the Toledo School for the Arts choral group, Cloeter wrote in the Masterworks newsletter: "We sang for the students and they sang for us, and then we combined the ensembles to rehearse the Finale."

Also in preparation for April 6 are the Toledo Choral Society, led by Richard Napierala II, choirs from Lourdes University, Adrian College, University of Toledo, and high school choirs from towns as far away as Pettisville, Defiance, Montpelier, and Oak Harbor.

A single rehearsal is planned for earlier on April 6. Singers and musicians will convene in Huntington for a run through under Sanderling's direction. Mirakian says the planners' to do list includes arrangements to feed and manage all the singers between rehearsal and concert.

TARTA will run shuttle service to and from the Huntington on April 6 from Maumee St. Luke's Hospital, Sylvania Centennial Terrace, Miracle Mile Shopping Center, Franklin Park Mall (shelter on Royer Road behind Old Navy and Kohl's), and the Waterville Kroger Store, 8730 Waterville-Swanton Road. Cost is $1 each way.

The TSO recommends that concertgoers use the shuttle or arrive early, as there will be a concurrent Mud Hens game at Fifth Third Field and an event at SeaGate Convention Center.

Tickets for "Ode to Joy" start at $25 at Ticketmaster 1-800-745-3000 or the Huntington box office, 500 Jefferson Avenue. Information: 419-321-5007 or Huntingtoncentertoledo.com/tickets/.