This week is very special for Patrick Downing of Davenport, an avid pianist and singer who works as director of development for the Figge Art Museum.

Thursday, Sept. 29 is his 10th wedding anniversary (with wife Kristena), and he once again is singing bass in a big choir with the Quad City Symphony Orchestra this weekend, in one of the most famous pieces in classical music history — Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (“Choral”).

The Quad City Symphony and Chorus performed the Verdi Requiem in the first weekend of March 2020, just before COVID shutdowns.

It’s the first time a massive choir has joined the QCSO in over two and a half years, since the Verdi Requiem in early March 2020, right before COVID shut down the world. Downing sang in that, as well as other choral masterworks since 2010 — Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” the Mozart Requiem, Britten’s War Requiem, Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and the Beethoven Ninth in 2015, in the QCSO’s 100th season.

Conductor Mark Russell Smith will lead the QC Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony this weekend.

“I think the Beethoven 9th just might be the greatest finale in the history of music,” Downing said this week of the last 19 minutes of the towering masterwork, featuring four vocal soloists and 130-strong QC choir, prepared by Jon Hurty, Augustana’s director of choral activities.

“Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote this and he knew in his mind how this would sound,” Downing marveled of setting the immortal, idealistic Friedrich Schiller text, “Ode to Joy,” sung in German.

“It’s so well-known by so many cultures, countries around the world,” the singer said. The Ninth’s call for brotherhood and unity is needed today more than ever, Downing said.

“With the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, so much divisiveness in our own country, 2022 seems like a coincidental year for us to do this,” he said. “No matter what people’s background, people’s beliefs, music is the universal language. If you can’t agree on anything else, you can agree on how beautiful this music is.”

Patrick Downing of Davenport and his wife Kristena celebrate their 10th anniversary on Thursday, Sept. 29.

The Beethoven Ninth has a special place in Downing’s heart since he first heard it while in high school in southeast Iowa. At his wedding in 2012 at Davenport’s First Presbyterian, the music director chose the hymn with the familiar “Ode to Joy” melody (“Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee”) to be part of the service.

Then in the April 2015 QCSO performance of the symphony, Downing said his wife Kristena in the audience first felt their first child kick (she was then three and a half months pregnant) during the final movement. That son, Isaac, is almost 7 now.

Originally planned to kick off 2020-21

In pre-COVID times, the QCSO originally scheduled the Beethoven 9 to start its 2021-21 Masterworks season, coinciding with the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1770 birth. That October 2020 concert instead featured a much smaller ensemble playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1.

That November it rescheduled the previously planned Violin Concerto (from December), showcasing the concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, and newly substituted Beethoven’s groundbreaking Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) in December 2020. Each featured ensembles of fewer than 45 players.

Downing was in the massive choir that sang the Verdi Requiem in 2020 with the QCSO.

Downing said the 130 singers (including the Augustana College Choir, Augustana Oratorio Society and Choral Artists) have a newfound appreciation of performing en masse with the QCSO.

“There aren’t many orchestral pieces that are more uplifting and inspirational than Beethoven’s 9th,” he said. “Everyone is just overjoyed to finally sing together again. We trust each other, so if anyone feels sick, we take care of ourselves.”

They began rehearsing in early August, many singers still wearing masks, said QCSO conductor and music director Mark Russell Smith.

“Having so much humanity on stage and having singing is obviously a whole different component,” he said Tuesday. “For a conductor, it’s great to have connection with singers and to have the stage full.”

The choir sits on stage the first three movements, and with the soloists only sing the last 19 minutes of the hour-plus masterwork.

“They have the best seats in the house, you know,” Smith said. “Participating in the 4th movement, it really does make for a unique energy. And I think a unique connection. Watching the amazing players of the Quad City Symphony and just seeing the symphony unfold and then adding their culminating voices to that in the 4th movement. That’s the reason why I think the psychology of the piece works so well. And why it’s always why every performance is a very special thing.”

‘The perfect musical expression’

Beethoven was completely deaf at the time he wrote the groundbreaking Ninth, which premiered in 1824 (he died in 1827).

“It’s attempting the perfect musical expression,” Smith said, noting the composer’s titanic struggle in the symphony, reflecting his personal life.

An overhead shot of the QCSO and choir performing the Verdi Requiem in March 2020.

“It was certainly groundbreaking, the idea of a symphony having singers,” he said. “What was groundbreaking is the thought of taking instrumental music to the very highest level. The instrumental music is on the highest level, but then you add the have the human voice to that. And then the inspirational words and it just takes on a higher level of meaning.”

Beethoven was in his own world, and that allowed him to come up with this revolutionary piece, stretching the boundaries of classical music and the symphonic form, Smith said.

“The things he dreamed up, the things that he heard in his mind didn’t have to be related to the world and it freed him up to try things to be experimental, to push the envelope,” he said.

“Beethoven 9 is hard to sing. It’s hard to do the things that he is expecting instrumentalists to do and vocalists to do,” Smith said. “And no one has written music like that for voices. That is one of the manifestations of him living in his own world, in his mind, because he was shut off from the world.”

The composer was “less concerned about making it comfortable for the violinist or comfortable for the singers,” the QC conductor said. “So it’s on us to come up with ways to make his dreams a reality and that’s the philosophy that the composer’s adopted.”

The Quad City Symphony Orchestra is led by music director and conductor Mark Russell Smith.

The timing today for the ideals of uniting humanity in an “Ode to Joy” also couldn’t be more perfect.

“All mankind become brothers and sisters, you know, everybody becomes one…Absolutely, it continues to be an aspiration,” Smith said, citing today’s bitter political polarization across the country.

“We humans are not perfect and so I don’t know when there is a performance of the 9th Symphony where we have a perfect time,” he said. “We’re always aspirational and kind of for different reasons and boy, if there’s ever a time where men and women should become brothers and sisters, this is the time.”

A new introductory “Ode”

The Saturday and Sunday concerts will start with the QCSO and singers in Jonathan Bailey Holland’s choral-orchestral “Ode” (2018), an 18-minute work commenting on the 70-minute Beethoven 9 with influences of rap, hip-hop and minimalism.

Composer Jonathan Bailey Holland

The synthesis of disparate influences is an animating process behind “Ode,” which was commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony to be featured alongside that warhorse of warhorses, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, according to QCSO program notes.

Though the “Ode to Joy” melody is the most obvious path into the Ninth, Holland sought more subtle ways to engage Beethoven’s work, focusing “on certain moments of the Ninth Symphony that resonate with me personally, while also dialoguing with various moments within Beethoven’s work, some of which are fleeting or surprising, and yet hold deeper meaning than might appear on the surface,” QC composer Jacob Bancks wrote.

Of course, two centuries and vastly different cultural experiences separate Beethoven and Holland, and one stark difference between their approaches is use of the chorus. Ever a devoted disciple of the German Enlightenment, “Beethoven set Schiller’s utopian text with clarity, bold intensity, and optimism,” the program says.

Holland, a composer operating in a more pluralistic and less idealistic cultural environment, instead employs text in a more abstracted manner, eschewing words for colorful yet unintelligible syllables. This technique, pioneered by Ravel early in the 20th century and later taken to extremes by modernists like Luciano Berio and György Ligeti, “has an eerie, uncanny effect, blurring the distinction between voices and instruments,” Bancks said.

Mark Russell Smith began his QCSO leadership in October 2008, when that season also began with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

This is similar to the synthesis which Holland uses when blending disparate musical styles. “The end result of all this blurring is a surprisingly clear, highly individual style of music, both familiar and surprisingly new,” he said.

The program notes for the Ninth say that with this symphony, Beethoven “left a treasury of inspiration for innumerable composers after him.”

It “became the mystical goal of all my strange thoughts and desires about music,” wrote composer Richard Wagner. “This, I thought, must surely contain the secret of all secrets.”

Mr. Holland’s opus

Composer Jonathan Bailey Holland (b. 1974) began studying composition while a student at the Interlochen Arts Academy, where he earned a school-wide award for his first composition. Upon graduation from Interlochen, he continued composition studies with Ned Rorem at the Curtis Institute of Music, where he earned his bachelor’s degree.

Holland received a Ph.D. in music from Harvard University in 2000. He is now the Jack G. Buncher Head of the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon University, after serving as Chair of Composition, Contemporary Music, and Core Studies at Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

.Holland’s works have been performed and commissioned by many organizations, both nationally and internationally. Highlights include five works commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, including “Ode,”  which premiered during the 2018-19 season when Holland served as composer-in-residence.

He was asked to base the piece off the Ninth, Smith said, noting snippets of Beethoven appear in “Ode,” which includes a wordless chorus.

“Through it all is the real mood and gestures of Beethoven 9, but through a 21st-century lens,” Smith said. “So it’s cool.”

The QCSO (seen here in late 2020) will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1 at the Adler Theatre and Sunday, Oct. 2 at Centennial Hall.

“At the Quad City Symphony, we perform all sorts of music from, all over. But when we do a masterwork, I mean, it’s great,” he said of the Ninth. “Of course, it speaks to the soul and all those things. But for some people, it may be the very first time you hear it and what’s the context of this in 2022?”

The new Holland piece provides that context, Smith said. “It’s one artist’s kind of reaction to this incredible work of art. So yeah, it’s very interesting and very cool.”

Downing said the voices do humming and “oohs and aahs” and it’s an homage to the Ninth. “The audience will be able to tell where Holland got inspiration from Beethoven. We’re excited to do it.”

The concerts — Saturday at 7:30 p.m. p.m. at Davenport’s Adler Theatre and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Rock Island’s Centennial Hall — will be performed without intermission, and no break between the two works.

Concertgoers have the option of seeing the QCSO program online. The link to the Live Stream and your personal access code will be included in your ticket purchase confirmation email. The digital concert will be a livestream on Oct. 1, 2022, at 7:30, and will be available for viewing through Jan. 7, 2023.

Please allow 12 hours for video processing after the conclusion of the live-streamed event before attempting to access the recording. If you have questions, contact Caitlin Bishop at cbishop@qcso.org or 563-424-7734

For tickets and more information, click HERE.