The themes of persistence, courage, and resilience roiled in my head as tears streamed down my face Saturday night, during the thunderous, profoundly moving finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Davenport’s Adler Theatre.

I hate to admit it, but it must have been at least three years since I had the privilege of seeing a Quad City Symphony Orchestra Masterworks in person (thanks, COVID), and if there ever was a concert to come back to, it was this past weekend.

Together with the outstanding, professional QCSO – kicking off their 108th season! – 130 singers joined in the reverent (and intermission-less) celebration of the immortal Beethoven choral symphony, as well the introductory, mesmerizing “Ode” by contemporary composer Jonathan Bailey Holland.

Jonathan Bailey Holland wrote “Ode” as a companion piece to the Beethoven 9.

“Whenever there’s a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, it’s always a special occasion,” QCSO conductor and music director Mark Russell Smith said from the podium before the start of the concert. “And we’ve been waiting for this one for a while.”

While this was the third time Smith led the QCSO and chorus in the massive Ninth, in pre-COVID times, the QCSO planned he 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.

“You can hear the intensity and struggle and then finding the great triumph in the last movement,” Smith said Oct. 1, 2022 of the 9th, which itself marks its 200th anniversary in 2024. “The incredibly optimistic nature of Beethoven after these first three movements of great beauty, but also great struggle.”

It’s one of the greatest symphonic works ever, the conductor said, noting every composer who followed Beethoven was burdened by that (“How could I possibly top this?”).

To open the program, the QCSO presented its premiere of the 2018 “Ode.” American composer Jonathan Bailey Holland was asked by the Cincinnati Symphony to write a companion work to the Ninth.

“It’s a little like asking a painter to paint a little something and we’ll hang it next to the Mona Lisa,” Smith said, noting Holland was intimidated at the beginning.

Mark Russell Smith leads the traditional opening of the “Star Spangled Banner” before the concert Oct. 1, 2022 at the Adler Theatre (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“He did what I hope all of us do – which is take a piece that’s almost 200 years old, and how is it relevant for us,” he said. “So what it means to each one of us is a very different thing. Jonathan Bailey Holland, being an African-American composer, very much loved the symphony and listened to it from when he was a young kid.”

Holland took gestures from the 9th, and created a mysterious, dramatic piece. Based on Beethoven’s Turkish march, Holland made a hip-hop march, speaking with his own voice.

“It’s a super colorful work,” Smith said of “Ode,” which was presented without break or applause, right into the Beethoven 9.

Holland uses a chorus, but wordless, very moody – and toward the end, has a male soloist sing just one word, “Freude” (which means “joy”), a hint of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to come.

It begins with a very soft, mysterious chorus, holding impossibly long notes (good thing there were 130 singers, prepared by the amazing Jon Hurty). The Holland march featured a big orchestral section, with cool drumming and rich brass.

Much of “Ode” is very static, little motion, with shimmering, nearly imperceptible voices, together with the stately strings creating an ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere.

Realizing the dream of a masterwork

The Beethoven Ninth — a 70-minute, grueling mountain of a masterpiece — was expertly scaled by all involved. What makes the piece so inspiring and impressive (in part) are personal obstacles the heroic composer had to overcome to present it to the world.

In 1815, Beethoven’s brother died, leaving his 9-year-old son in his custody. His hearing loss was so great that Beethoven was completely deaf by the time he wrote the groundbreaking Ninth, which premiered in 1824 (he died in 1827).

The Adler stage was packed with performers for the QCSO Masterworks, Oct. 1, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

As a longtime musician and composer myself, I simply can’t imagine not being able to hear music any longer. It’s so essential to my life, I have to have it in my ears every day. If I went deaf, I would have given up composing altogether. And yet, Beethoven was able to produce this mind-bogglingly beautiful, adventurous, titanic, exuberant work. He triumphed over this formidable mountaintop.

The QCSO program notes at the May 1824 premiere (which included parts of the composer’s “Missa Solemnis”), the legendary occasion has become “one of the most stirring scenes in the history of classical music, with the stone-deaf composer attempting to conduct, and blissfully unaware of the audience’s rapturous applause.”

Coming out of COVID, I also got the sense of the tremendous joy and relief from all the performers who packed the Adler stage (in the first choral work done with the QCSO since early March 2020), so how fitting they returned with the “Ode to Joy.” The resilient orchestra and singers certainly persisted, and nearly everyone on stage performed without a mask. What a hugely satisfying achievement.

The Ninth was unleashed in a thrilling, flawless format, delivered with such passion, precision and emotional weight.

Aside from the huge, heavenly finale, the second movement is my favorite — full of rhythmic, dancing vitality. Under Smith’s clear, crisp direction, the orchestra performed exactly together, with incredible timing, sensitivity, and impeccable cohesion. As a former percussionist, I love the dramatic timpani flourishes, and the whole movement alternated between its exhilarating, jaunty, rollicking nature, and more gentle, sunny, carefree sections.

The QCSO, soloists and chorus performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on Oct. 1, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Playful, darting woodwinds exchanged with furious, frenzied string playing, and it was all delightful. After a meandering, reflective third movement (I was impatient to get to the final fireworks), the QCSO brought the fire and drama in the classic final movement, but we still had to wait for those voices — led by the excellent, boisterous soloists Jacqueline Piccolino, soprano; Katherine Pracht, mezzo-soprano; Alex Boyer, tenor, and Malcolm Mackenzie, baritone.

The soloists with Augustana Oratorio Society & Choral Artists were simply stupendous, and singing these words (in German) certainly took on extra meaning at this time:

Joy, fair divine spark, daughter of Elysium, intoxicated with fire, we enter, O Heavenly One, your sacred shrine. Your magic once again unites all that Fashion had sternly divided. All men become brothers where your gentle wings abide.”

Boy, do we need joy, unity and magic now more than ever. And those lucky enough to be at the Adler that special Saturday got it, many times over. Fortunately, the performance will be available online through QCSO’s digital access HERE through Jan. 7, 2023.