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NMSO concert review: Beethoven, ``Missa Solemnis,'' Oct. 15, 1999

The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of October 17, 1999. She's not kidding about the difficulty level! Engineers have a saying:

Fast, cheap, good---pick any two.
For this piece, I'd say: fast, loud, high---pick any three.

Some of us in the chorus were trying to remember the second most difficult piece we'd sung, after agreeing that this was definitely the hardest. We agreed that Walton's Belshazzar's Feast was probably the second hardest.

For another review, see Los Alamos ArtsAlive!


Orchestra, chorus tread daring path

What Beethoven conceived in Missa solemnis is humanly impossible to duplicate

by Joanne Sheehy Hoover

Friday evening in Popejoy Hall, the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with conductor Roger Melone as their guide went for high adventure. Treading a path that not many dare, they took on Beethoven's Missa solemnis, a great work of his late years.

The attempt, like any to conquer this Mass, was more or less successful. The chorus and soloists proved far more adept in the climb than the orchestra.

It has to be understood why Beethoven's Missa solemnis looms like a Mount Everest in the choral literature. To perform it exactly as his score demands would be the musical equivalent of not just scaling Everest but of running up it, and with no oxygen.

Essentially, it is humanly impossible to duplicate what the then totally deaf composer conceived in his inner world of sound. As the eloquent British scholar, Sir Donald Francis Tovey, put it, `There is no genuine choral possibility undeveloped by Beethoven in the Mass.'

Everything possible he imagines, and then some.

The Missa solemnis pushes the edge of the singers' range at both ends. Beethoven expects them to roam freely at the top of their capacity, singing long passages of high notes at high volume, all the while spitting out syllables with crystal clarity. Some of the low passages go so far down that their loss, like falling into an avalanche, is inevitable.

And long before the legendary jazz singer Billie Holliday thought to shape phrases like a trumpet player, Beethoven decided that singers could achieve the same rhythmic shape and force as an instrumentalist. Of course, he often wants them to do it in intricate passages at high speed.

Despite the hazards, singers go on tackling the Mass, not because it is there but for the glory of its vision and the sheer exhilaration of the attempt. Friday evening the exuberance of the NMSO chorus was unmistakable, as was their intense concentration. Solidly prepared by Melone, they faced Beethoven's challenges with unfailingly crisp diction and sharp rhythmic definition.

Not every sound was beautiful. When obliged to declaim fortissimo at the top of their range, the singers, particularly the tenors, had to sacrifice beauty, but the notes were in place and the text clear. And when Beethoven gave them a chance, as in the et vitam venturi fugal passage, the chorus gave the music's course a lovely shaping.

A strong quartet of soloists brought notable vigor and power to their parts. Luvada Harrison contributed a richly shaded soprano, Gary Martin an authoritative bass. Especially effective were Kathleen Clawson's expressive use of her velvet mezzo soprano and Karl Dent's forcefully projected tenor passages.

The orchestra began with a ragged attack and ended indifferently. Their attention in between seemed to wander. Sometimes they were engaged and at other times either lost or not focused.

An exception was concertmaster Krzysztof Zimowski's extended `Benedictus' solo, delivered with deep and delicate feeling.


Next: NMSO concert review: Bach, ``St. John Passion'', March 26, 1999
See also: New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus: schedule and reviews, 1995–2011
Previous: NMSO concert review: Shattenkirk, ``American Icons,'' Feb. 19, 2000
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John W. Shipman, john@nmt.edu
Last updated: 2005/02/10 22:39:10
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