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Beethoven's Ninth, Beth Henley's 'Heart': journeys from isolation

A violinist was playing for loose change on the sidewalk in front of the Shubert Theatre last Saturday night. He had performed the night before at Symphony Hall, when the mostly amateur Boston Philharmonic came to repeat its triumphant Beethoven's Ninth Symphony of last season. On Monday night, he would be playing the Ninth with the Boston Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Now, he stood before his open violin case, cadging small change from first-nighters at ''Crimes of the Heart.''

Something about seeing him there, a musician trying to scrape up extra money, stayed with me all through the play and, indeed, throughout the weekend.

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There was a connection between this violinist, the meaning of Beth Henley's play, and Beethoven's moving Ninth. And conductor Benjamin Zander's illuminating vision of the symphony made the connection all the more evident.

The performance of the Ninth last year (which this violinist also played in) had rocked Symphony Hall.

This past Friday night, it shook the foundations.

Zander's uncompromising adherence to Beethoven's metronome markings, as well as the deep searching of the score, brought out a view of the Ninth that was humanly mighty and transcendentally beautiful.

The tense melancholy of the first movement gave way to the self-propulsion of the second. (I would probably pay full price just to hear that gorgeous scherzo again.) The third simply sang, while the fourth was capacious, stirring, and irresistible.

Throughout the work, there were suddenly opened views on the connectedness of Beethoven's thinking from one movement to the next, supporting Zander's argument that the symphony is really in one basic tempo. But, aside from tempo considerations, the performance had grown considerably in intelligence and muscle. There were new revelations about the structure and meaning of the piece.

Beethoven's almost earthy portrayal of struggle and triumph stood out in stark relief.

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Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning kitchen comedy set in small-town Mississippi also offers something earthy and triumphant - albeit on a much less monumental scale - even if this particular roadshow hasn't traveled well, over time or distance.

There are problems of casting: Actors are playing to type instead of in character much of the time. Moments that were golden on Broadway turn a trifle brass-green in Boston. But the production's problems are not insuperable. And the play itself wins out over them.

''Crimes of the Heart'' is all heart, a tragi-comic play about frailty and family and what we mean to each other. It works to its conclusion through the lives of three sisters who come together in a hurricane of personal disaster. The play is about how their childhood and family were shattered and how they have ever since lived marginal lives, touched with luminous humanity, on the edges of small-town society.

By the end, they find some kind of exulting joy in one another, in helping absolve each other of heart crimes, in redeeming themselves from their mother's long-ago suicide.

It is a journey from isolation to family.

And it's not all that different from what happened the night before in Symphony Hall. Because the Ninth starts as alienation and despair and ends in community and hope. Everything that happens in the piece moves to one end: this testimony of men under God, joined in brotherhood. Beethoven's vision, which he could not attain in daily life, he achieved in his artistic life.

Benjamin Zander's inspired realization that the march in the fourth movement is just that, a march - a rollicking, human parade - brings all this into focus. It makes the work end far more hopefully, as a hymn of triumph for the common, struggling mortal.

It says, ''You can reach for heaven, no matter who you are.''

One of the musicians performing the Ninth on that stage works during the week cleaning houses. She says that, when her customers mistreat her, she endures it in silence. She thinks to herself:

''To you, I'm just a cleaning woman. But what you don't know is that I have played in Carnegie Hall."

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